Leave Room For The Pooka - Revisiting "Harvey" And Rethinking The Story Of You
I’ve been obsessed with the stage play and the movie “Harvey” for years. Maybe it’s because I’ve always had a crush on James Stewart and his portrayal of Elwood is especially brilliant. Or maybe it’s because there’s something deeply meaningful and magical about this story. Something has been gnawing at me to put into my own words what “Harvey” can teach us.
So get ready to visit or revisit “Harvey” with me, and let’s see what we can learn along the way. I promise to not give away the ending.
“Harvey” opened on Broadway in November 1944 and ran for four years. Before the play came to an end, Universal Pictures had already bought the film rights and chosen a director, Henry Koster. Production on the movie “Harvey” began in April 1950 with the original Broadway stage cast members plus James Stewart in the lead. Stewart had played the lead on Broadway for a limited run in the summer of 1947. Koster wanted to keep the movie close to the stage version and worked with Chase to adapt her stage play to a screenplay.
Clever, hilarious, insightful, and inspiring, Mary Chase won the Pulitzer Prize for her play in 1945.
(Please note, the quotes I’m providing in this article are from Mary Chase’s stage play which differs only slightly from the movie, as seen in the YouTube clips embedded throughout.)
Elwood is quite the character. He’s kind, polite, funny, and expresses a genuine curiosity in getting to know people. He always seems to be taking his time and in a good mood. And it is precisely this easy-going happy air about him that makes him unusual. Let’s think this through.
If he’s never in a hurry, does he not have important things he needs to be doing? If he’s always happy, does he never have reasons to be upset? Doesn’t he have a mile-long to-do list like the rest of us? This easy-going happy guy business is awfully rare, don’t you think? Most folks hold on to gripes, regrets, or disillusionment of one sort or another with pride. After all, it’s life’s difficulties that have made us into who we are today. In a way, to live in the moment with an easy heart is like denying how hard life really is. Or maybe not.
For now, I think it’s safe to say that the common consensus for someone who is easy-going happy all the time would be that either he’s had a completely sheltered life and nothing bad has ever happened, or he’s an enlightened monk of some kind, or he’s nuts.
So, what’s up with Elwood? Well, to start things off, for Elwood every day is a beautiful day.
Did I Mention Harvey?
Harvey is Elwood’s best friend. He’s also a pooka in the form of a giant six-foot-tall white rabbit. The word pooka comes from the old Irish púca. Turns out, Mary Chase was the daughter of Irish immigrants. And while growing up in a working class neighborhood in Denver, Colorado, her four bachelor uncles raised her on Irish folktales. It’s not surprising then, that Chase had originally intended for her play to be called “The Pooka.” Pooka is just another word for a spirit creature of Irish folklore. It can be malevolent or friendly, quite chatty, and manifests itself in animal form to be seen only by those who believe.
But back to Elwood, I see that you’re leaning toward the “he’s nuts” theory. Not so fast, my friend, not so fast. Pooka sightings or experiences are not limited to Elwood in this story. Even Duane Wilson, the tough no-nonsense orderly at Chumley’s Rest, a sanitarium for mental patients, who is convinced Elwood’s gone bananas and should be locked up, well even Duane has his run-in with Harvey while reading in a dictionary:
“P-o-o-k-a. From old Celtic mythology. A fairy spirit in animal form. Always very large. The pooka appears here and there, now and then, to this one and that one at his own caprice. A wise but mischievous creature. Very fond of rum-pots and crack-pots, and how are you, Mr. Wilson.”
It Just Ain’t Normal
I agree with you that it’s not normal to walk around introducing your good friend Harvey the pooka to everybody you meet. We’ve already covered the fact that Elwood is unusual. He’s too nice, too trusting, and just too damn happy. He also doesn’t seem to be doing anything with his life. As a matter of fact, his way of drifting through life without ambition has got his family in quite a state.
His sister Veta and her daughter Myrtle Mae, along with a close friend of the family, Judge Gaffney, are determined to bring Elwood back to reality. I mean here they are having to deal with Harvey showing up everywhere that Elwood goes. And to top it off, Elwood could care less about his social standing. It’s too much. They want Elwood to be normal. They want to nix that damn rabbit. And that’s how they end up going over to Chumley’s Rest for Elwood to get treatment.
But not everybody is keen on the likes of the folks undergoing treatment at Chumley’s Rest. Like the cabbie who tells Veta how Elwood will change after receiving any kind of treatment there:
“Lady, after this, he’ll be a perfectly normal human being and you know what bastards they are!”
Reality Up For Grabs
Now for Doctor Sanderson at Chumley’s Rest, it’s clear that Elwood needs treatment:
“We all have to face reality, Dowd - sooner or later.”
Not the one least bit befuddled, Elwood’s reply is remarkable:
“Doctor, I wrestled with reality for forty years, and I am happy to state that I finally won out over it.”
Kinda makes you wonder what either of them means by “reality.” Is reality really up for grabs? Not only does Elwood seem perfectly happy not being normal, he seems to know that the latter is the source of the former. That is to say, if being normal means being what everyone else wants you to be, then maybe not being normal leads to happiness.
There’s a wonderful book that can shed some light on this whole reality business. The book is “The Fifth Agreement” by José Ruiz, who has an ingenious way of thinking about what reality means for each of us (Ruíz, pp. 48-56). The way it goes is that you imagine yourself in a huge mall with numerous movie theaters to walk in and out of as you please.
The first movie you check out is awfully familiar. It’s the story of you. There you are on the big screen, the grand star of the movie. This is your life. Everyone else is just a secondary character. They’re all there - your parents, siblings, spouse, kids, friends, co-workers, neighbors, etc. After a while of watching this dramatic re-run of your life, it all gets a bit overwhelming and you leave to see the other movies playing.
The next movie you walk into feels strange and twisted. It’s the story of your mom. It’s obvious to you that she’s the grand star and that it’s her life, and yet you have trouble believing her character. She seems to be pretending to be someone else. And of course, you’re also seeing yourself as a secondary character in her movie which only adds to your confusion. Because even though you look like that, you’re not really like that. As a matter of fact, nobody seems to be the way you know them to be. For the very first time, you are seeing how your mom perceives everyone and everything in her life. And since you know all these secondary characters yourself, it feels bizarre to get her version. It’s all a bit unsettling, so you walk out to go see another movie.
The next movie you see is the story of your spouse or partner. By this point, you’ve gotten over the first hurdle of comprehending that the grand star of the movie is not you. But it’s still hard to deal with how different all the secondary characters seem. Once again, it feels like you’re watching someone you know intimately well pretending to be someone else. Oh, and that secondary character with your face is all wrong. It kinda hurts to watch, so you leave this movie in a hurry.
The next movies you watch are the story of one of your kids, the story of your sibling, then the story of your best friend, and so on. When the desperate realization hits you that everybody’s version of you is different, not to mention completely flawed, you go back to the first movie theater, the one playing the story of you. But now you watch yourself up there on the big screen and you can’t shake the feeling that even you are pretending to be someone else. And worst of all is how you didn’t see this from the beginning.
Well, that’s just it, isn’t it? You didn’t and you won’t. You’re so used to projecting yourself the way you want to be perceived that you forget you’re acting. You can’t separate the grand star you from the authentic you anymore. And like Ruiz says, “Now you know that all the acting you did your whole life was really for nothing because nobody perceives you the way you want to be perceived.”
Pow. Boom. Crash.
No one will ever get me the way I want them to. Whether they misjudge me, underestimate me, or put me on a pedestal is beside the point. The point is they will make me fit their story, and nothing I do can change that.
Why bother worrying about pleasing or disappointing someone else? Why worry about gaining approval or validation? The only one that needs to believe in me is me. The only one I need to prove myself to is me.
Turns out reality is truly up for grabs. As Ruiz puts it, “People live in their own world, in their own movie, in their own story. They invest all their faith in that story, and that story is truth for them, but it’s a relative truth, because it’s not truth for you. Now you can see that all their opinions about you really concern the character who lives in their movie, not in yours. The one who they are judging in your name is a character they create. Whatever people think of you is really about the image they have of you, and that image isn’t you.”
Now let’s go back to Elwood over at Chumley’s Rest. There he is on the verge of being forced to face reality. A reality that’s not his, but everyone else’s about who they want Elwood to be - so to make him fit neatly into their stories, into their movies.
Well hold up, not everyone wants Elwood to get treatment. Ironically, Doctor Chumley, the head of Chumley’s Rest himself, wants to help Elwood escape and avoid “facing reality” altogether. He tries convincing Elwood that his family does not have his best interest in mind by bringing him there to be committed:
“God, man, haven’t you any righteous indignation?”
But Elwood isn’t fazed:
“Dr. Chumley, my mother used to say to me, ‘In this world, Elwood’ - she always called me Elwood - she’d say, ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh, so smart or oh, so pleasant.’ For years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.”
Happy Just Because
Elwood chooses pleasant over smart, happy over normal. One can only assume that he came to this conclusion after experiencing a normal life. But what exactly is a normal life?
Busy, busy, busy. A normal life is full of things to get done, things to get fixed, and things to get good at. Our to-do lists include everything from getting the laundry done to big goals like getting promoted or starting a family. It’s the “if only I do/get/buy _______ , then I’ll be happy” syndrome. Just fill in the blank. Our default expectation seems to be that feeling happy is the direct result of checking things off of our lists.
But is happiness an achievable thing? Not really. You can’t achieve it because you can’t hold on to it. Happiness is a fleeting state of mind. I guess that’s the bad news. But the good news is that nothing needs to happen for you to feel happy. This is worth repeating - nothing needs to happen to feel happy. Happiness cannot be earned by trying to be a responsible respectable person. There is no one that can grant you happiness for all your trying. And that’s because it’s not about trying. It’s about trusting.
You have to trust your authentic self to guide you in an intuitive way to be happy. No second guessing or measuring up to others allowed. You have to be true to who you were born to be.
Roger Housden wrote a beautiful essay called “Happiness Needs No Reason” in his book “Ten Poems To Set You Free.” His essay is about a poem called “So Much Happiness” by Naomi Shihab Nye (Housden, pp. 89-98). Housden eloquently says, “Happiness is an expression of our intrinsic nature which has no reason for anything other than the fact of its own existence.” The more we learn how to be our authentic selves, the more likely we will find ourselves immersed in feeling happy just because. Housden writes, “What is happening when you are happy, then, is you. Who you are is happiness, and when you are who you are you are naturally happy. This, surely, is what this poem is beckoning us to: to the weightless freedom at our core.”
Your authentic you is not the version of you that’s defined by your name, age, gender, race, or job. It’s not the version of you others want you to be, nor does it depend on being busy and successful.
It’s the you that loves being alive.
In Elwood’s case, his true self is someone who believes in the magic of pookas.
On Pooka Time
“Harvey says he can look at your clock and stop it and you can go away as long as you like with whomever you like and go as far as you like. And when you come back not one minute will have ticked by.”
Harvey can stop time and send you on a vacation. For Doctor Chumley that’s a much desired miracle. On his imagined miracle vacation, Doctor Chumley sees himself under the cool shade of a maple tree, drinking cold beer, and speaking to a kind stranger of all the things he’s kept locked deep inside. For two weeks straight.
Elwood’s never even asked Harvey to send him anywhere. He doesn’t want a change of scenery. He doesn’t need a break. He’s not even tired of people. Seriously, can you imagine? I get tired of people when waiting in line at the post office. After living in a big city for so many years, I pretty much feel my tolerance for people is permanently set to low. Not good.
But Elwood has a kind and generous heart. There’s room for everyone to be just as they are.
“He is willing to at any time, but so far I’ve never been able to think of any place I’d rather be. I always have a wonderful time just where I am, whomever I’m with. I’m having a fine time right now with you, Doctor.”
Elwood Has A Dream
Harvey happened into Elwood’s life like a miracle. But not because Elwood was looking for a miracle. Just the opposite is true. Elwood was happy being Elwood. And that is why he could see Harvey in the first place. That is how all wonderful new things come to us in this life. Not because we chase after them, not because we feel we are lacking without them. We find only what we already are.
There’s a dream behind Elwood’s reality, behind his story. It’s a courageous dream about being true to yourself and feeling safe in an uncertain world.
“I took a course in art this last winter. The difference between a fine oil painting and a mechanical thing like a photograph is simply this: a photograph shows only the reality; a painting shows not only the reality but the dream behind it. It’s our dreams that keep us going. That separate us from the beasts. I wouldn’t even want to live if I thought it was all just eating and sleeping and taking off my clothes.”
Happiness Is Only Here Now
If you’re with me so far, then we’ve established that a normal life is a busy one. We’ve looked at how being happy has nothing to do with trying to achieve things, and everything to do with trusting in your true self.
In a very detailed and insightful article by Benjamin P. Hardy called “The Secret to Happiness Is 10 Specific Behaviors,” he says not to wait until tomorrow for what you can do today. And what he means is not that you need to get more things done today. He means that happiness is there for you only in the present moment. Hardy writes, “The future value of time is far less than the present value. Yet, people ‘defer’ happiness to someday in the future. In so doing, they forfeit experiencing the moment and being happiness now. You must find joy in the journey, because there really isn’t a destination. Goals are means, not ends. Progress is eternal. The process is everything.”
When you’re learning to trust your true self, you are learning to love yourself. And it’s not about having to improve yourself first. There’s no waiting to love yourself until you feel you’re good enough. As scary as it may seem to be so utterly imperfect in an utterly unpredictable world, you have to feel safe and good enough as you are, right now in this very moment. Stressed out, short on time, low people tolerance, and all.
it seems to me
that if I wasn’t
so busy being busy
and so tired of being tired
and just bask
in that knowing
for a moment or two
The Story Of You
Remember that scenario where you walk into a movie theater and watch the movie about your life? And then, how you later realize that even you are acting and pretending to be someone else for the sake of getting people to regard you the way you want them to, only they can’t? Well, how about we try a new way of watching our movies.
The way to try this is to imagine yourself as a complete stranger watching the movie about the story of you for the first time. You just sit down and watch the movie for entertainment value. It’s a good story. A damn good story. You are fascinated by all the characters, and how they navigate their way through the circumstances, the challenges, the ups and downs of this story. But you’re not fooled into thinking any of it’s real. Because you’re a complete stranger, you don’t lose yourself in believing that this story is the only possible reality.
A person, any person, has limitless potential that can’t be predicted or calculated or accounted for. How can you write a story that includes all the possible choices, actions, desires, and dreams that make up the soul of a person? Not to mention interweaving all the other complicated souls into the plot of your story.
You can’t. Nobody can. That story you’re playing, that movie you live in, that which is reality for you, is actually too small to hold all of you. It’s mostly just a simplified version of who you think you should be.
We create our stories and live in our stories because they help us figure out how to move through life. We yearn for explanations to make us feel safe, for a sense of control. We use our stories to cope. But our stories don’t define us. We are so much bigger than that. What happens is that we get used to doing things in a certain way out of habit. We think we know our story by heart. But this way of thinking has us locked in a habitual pattern day in and day out. The only way to break out of this pattern is to dream the impossible.
It’s time to rethink the story of you. Only when you can see with fresh eyes all your opportunities for improvising, all your unwritten choices, then you can move forward in unpredictable ways forging new paths that go beyond what you think your story is about. Far beyond what you even thought was possible. Remember that although you cannot change what has happened to you, you can change your interpretation of what has happened. You can storyline yourself a new future.
Leave Room For The Pooka
The story of you is a work in progress. If you can see your storyline as a growing, changing, morphing, open-ended project, then you leave room for all kinds of crazy wonderful stuff to happen. You leave space for the authentic you to come out and play.
Think about how Elwood doesn’t seem to be doing anything specific with his life, apart from enjoying it. And think about how he has no qualms about his reality being different from everyone else’s. He thinks anyone can see Harvey, but most chose not to. Which is actually pretty damn funny. He’s running around introducing everyone to Harvey wondering why in the world people are so obtuse as not to see him.
Elwood’s story, the movie he lives in, has a lot of unscripted narrative. A lot of playing it by ear. He’s living in the moment with an easy heart. And by doing so, he’s not denying life’s difficulties, he’s just choosing to feel safe and happy in the present moment in spite of life’s difficulties.
In Elwood’s story, there’s room for Harvey.
Is there room for a pooka in your story?
p.s. Say Hello To Harvey
Mary Chase is said to have wanted the audience to leave the movie theater believing in Harvey. That the film audiences should actually see Harvey at the end of the film. But the studio didn’t go for that idea. Harvey had to be something everyone could relate to in their own personal way.
The effect “Harvey” had on folks reached far. And its magic lives on with those of us touched by the movie.
As a special treat, listen to James Stewart reminisce about how complete strangers would come up to him and ask him about Harvey.
“Every once in a while, I’d be walking down the street and somebody would tap me on the shoulder, and I’d turn around, and here’d be this man, maybe he, a lot of them hadn’t shaved for a couple of days, maybe hadn’t had their suit pressed for quite a while, but they look up and they say, ‘Is Harvey with you?’
Well, when this first happened I thought it was (about) making a joke or something, and then after several times, I came to see that they were serious. And so I had sort of a regular answer depending on where I was in the country. And I’d say, “No, Harvey has a cold and he decided to stay home.” And they, most of them, would say the same thing, “My name is Charlie, and the next time you see him give him my regards please.”
Skip ahead to minute 4:54 to hear just this part.
Mary Chase. Harvey, A Comedy in Three Acts. Dramatists Play Service, Inc., 1971.
Miguel Angel Ruiz, Jose Luis Ruiz. The Fifth Agreement. Amber-Allen Publishing, Inc., 2010.
Roger Housden. Ten Poems To Set You Free. Harmony Books, 2003.
Benjamin P. Hardy. The Secret to Happiness Is 10 Specific Behaviors. Thrive Global, journal.thriveglobal.com. 2017.
Marsha Sorotick. Mary Chase: The Woman Behind “Harvey.” Irish America, irishamerica.com, 2016.
Andrea Passafiume Frank Miller. Harvey. Turner Classic Movies, tcm.com.
Link to Poem
“So Much Happiness” by Naomi Shihab Nye from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, 1995.
Links to Videos on YouTube
VIDEO 1: Harvey (Jimmy Stewart) - Oh, every day is a beautiful day!
VIDEO 2: What is a Pooka?
VIDEO 3: James Stewart - Harvey (2/2)
VIDEO 4: Poor, Poor Thing - from Harvey
VIDEO 5: Harvey Portrait
VIDEO 6: Jimmy Stewart Introduces us to "Harvey" Recorded in 1990 for the Home Video Release
© 2018 Alex Mitchell