Arsenic and Old Lace
Arsenic and Old LaceINTRODUCTION
In 1941, New Yorkers were looking for some entertainment to take their minds off of the war in Europe and the growing fear that America would be pulled into it. On January 10, Broadway gave them exactly what they were looking for in the form of a hilarious new play by Joseph Kesselring, Arsenic and Old Lace. The play became an immediate critical and popular success, running for 1,444 performances. It also became a hit in England in 1942 as theatergoers who were suffering through post-blitz London lined up for tickets. In 1944, Hollywood produced a film version staring Cary Grant that became a huge box office success.
The play, a clever combination of the farcical and the macabre, centers on two elderly sisters who are famous in their Brooklyn neighborhood for their numerous acts of charity. Unfortunately, however, their charity includes poisoning lonely old men who come to their home looking for lodging. The two women are assisted in their crimes by their mentally challenged nephew who believes he is Teddy Roosevelt and who frequently blasts a bugle and yells "charge" as he bounds up the stairs. Matters get complicated when a second nephew, a theater critic, discovers the murders and a third nephew appears after having just escaped from a mental institution. In his adroit mixture of comedy and mayhem, Kesselring satirizes the charitable impulse as he pokes fun at the conventions of the theater.
Joseph Kesselring was born on June 21, 1902, in New York City, to Henry and Frances Kesselring. From 1922 to 1924 he taught music and directed student productions at Bethel College in Newton, Kansas. He turned to acting, producing, and writing from 1925 until 1933, when his first play, Addie Appleby, Maker of Men, a domestic comedy, was produced. His second play There's Wisdom in Women, produced in 1935, gained some attention but he would not experience real success until Arsenic and Old Lace hit Broadway in 1941. Kesselring continued his playwriting career until 1963, but his later plays never earned him the same popular and critical acclaim. He continued writing dramas and short stories until his death on November 5, 1967.
Kesselring won further accolades for his screenplay of Arsenic and Old Lace, which became a commercial and critical success. The play continues to be a favorite production in amateur and community theater revivals.
Arsenic and Old Lace takes place entirely in the Brewster home in Brooklyn, New York, in 1941. As the play opens, Abby Brewster, a sweet, elderly woman is pouring tea for her nephew Teddy and Dr. Harper, a local minister. All note how peaceful the house is, far removed from the war in Europe. They discuss their nephew Mortimer, a theater critic, and his relationship with the minister's daughter Elaine.
Two neighborhood policemen, Brophy and Klein, arrive to pick up toys for the local Christmas fund. Teddy asks them what news they have brought him. After saluting him, Brophy responds, "Colonel, we have nothing to report." We later learn that Teddy thinks that he is Teddy Roosevelt, a delusion that family and friends accept. As Teddy draws an imaginary sword, yells "charge" and bounds up the stairs, the others pay no attention. The men discuss how charitable Abby and her sister Martha are. Brophy admonishes Teddy after he blows a bugle call, noting that he used to do that in the middle of the night. The officers discuss the Brewster family's history of mental illness.
Martha arrives and helps Abby gather the toys for the officers, who soon depart. Dr. Harper asks the sisters to make sure that Teddy signs admittance papers to Happy Dale Sanitarium, where he will go after their death. After the reverend leaves, Abby tells a delighted Teddy that he needs to go to Panama and dig another lock for the canal. Martha is also elated by the news, but at this point, the audience is not given the details of the situation.
Elaine arrives looking for Mortimer, who soon appears. They discuss the play they will be seeing that night and casually flirt with each other. Their talk turns more serious as they discuss getting married, and Mortimer insists that they should not wait more than a month. Elaine promises to talk it over with her father and to set a date. After warmly greeting Teddy, Mortimer informs Elaine that he has a brother Jonathan about whom the family does not like to talk.
After Elaine leaves, Mortimer tells his aunts about his marriage plans, which elates them. As he searches for a chapter of a book that he is writing, Mortimer looks in the window seat and finds a dead body. He immediately assumes that Teddy has committed the crime and so tells the aunts that they must send him to Happy Dale at once. When Mortimer gently breaks the news of the body to his aunts, they insist he should "just forget about it," and later explain that the man drank poisoned wine that Abby had given him. The aunts are quite nonchalant about the incident as Mortimer's agitation increases. They try unsuccessfully to reassure him with their explanation that they will bury the body in the cellar with the eleven others they also poisoned. All were lonely old men who came to their home looking for lodging. Taking pity on them, the aunts decided to help each of them find peace.
Elaine soon returns excited about the wedding plans, but Mortimer tells her that something has come up and she should go home and wait for him. She leaves, confused and angry at Mortimer's peculiar behavior. When an elderly man, Mr. Gibbs, rings the bell looking for lodging, the two aunts quiz him on his background and present situation. As they prepare the wine for Mr. Gibbs, Mortimer, pours himself a glass while talking on the phone to his editor. When he realizes that the wine is poisoned, he screams, which causes Mr. Gibbs to run out of the house. The sisters are crestfallen. Before Mortimer rushes out to review a play, he makes the aunts promise not to do anything until he gets back, including burying the body. They agree, but have no clue as to why Mortimer is acting so strangely.
After Mortimer leaves, Jonathan arrives with Dr. Einstein. When the aunts do not recognize their nephew, he explains that Dr. Einstein has surgically altered his face. After Jonathan proves his identity, he tells them that he has come from Chicago where he and the doctor were in business. As the two obviously agitated aunts retreat into the kitchen, Einstein asks Jonathan what they should do, noting that the police are after them for murder and that they have a dead body in the car. Jonathan admits that he killed Mr. Spenalzo because the man said he looked like Boris Karloff after Einstein's surgery.
When the aunts return, they tell Jonathan that he must leave, reminding him that he was never happy in the house. Jonathan, however, convinces them to allow the two to stay for dinner. When Jonathan discovers that his grandfather's laboratory is still upstairs, he determines that the house will provide a perfect operating room for Einstein to work on his face as well as those of other criminals who need disguises. Jonathan assures Einstein that the aunts will not be able to prevent them from staying. The act closes when the two men are startled by Teddy's bugle blast and charge up the stairs.
After dinner, the aunts renew their efforts to get Jonathan to leave, but he warns them how "disagreeable" he had been as a child and that "it wouldn't be pleasant for any of [them]" if they tried to prevent him from staying. He informs the aunts of his plans for his grandfather's laboratory, which they immediately reject. They do agree, however, to let him stay for the night. During this conversation, Einstein has gone with Teddy down into the basement to "inspect the locks in Panama." When he comes back up stairs, Einstein informs Jonathan that he has found a place to bury Mr. Spenalzo, explaining that Teddy has dug a hole in the basement.
While Jonathan and Einstein move their car to the back of the house, the aunts decide they will bury Mr. Hoskins, who is still in the window seat, as soon as the two men have gone to bed. When the house is quiet, Teddy brings the body down into the basement. Soon after, Jonathan and Einstein bring in Mr. Spenalzo's body and put it in the window seat when they hear Elaine knocking at the door. She assumes the two are robbers until Jonathan informs her of his identity. Thinking that she saw the two bring in the dead body, Jonathan forces her into the cellar. Her screams bring down the aunts, who are dressed for Mr. Hoskins's funeral.
Elaine escapes just as Mortimer arrives. Jonathan and Mortimer quarrel until the aunts insist that they all settle down for the evening. Later when Elaine demands to know what is going on in the house, Mortimer informs her that they cannot marry because insanity runs in his family. When he looks in the window seat and sees Mr. Spenalzo's body instead of Mr. Hoskins's, he talks Elaine into going home.
The aunts are quite confused about the identity of the new body in the window seat. When Mortimer realizes that the body is connected with Jonathan, he tries to blackmail his brother into leaving. Jonathan refuses to leave and threatens Mortimer with the same fate as that of Mr. Spenalzo. At that moment Officer O'Hara arrives, concerned about the lights on so late at night. Mortimer, happy to see the officer, convinces him to stay until Jonathan leaves. O'Hara is pleased to do so since this will give him the opportunity to discuss the play he has been writing.
When Jonathan discovers Mr. Hoskins's body in the cellar and threatens to tell O'Hara, Mortimer convinces the officer that he will meet him later to discuss the play. The aunts admit to Jonathan that they have twelve bodies in the basement. The news hurts Jonathan's pride as Einstein points out that the aunts have murdered the same number of men as Jonathan has. As a result, Jonathan determines that he will kill Mortimer and so tip the scale in his favor.
Later that night, as Jonathan and Einstein are burying Mr. Spenalzo with Mr. Hoskins in the cellar, Mortimer arrives with a doctor's signature on Teddy's commitment papers. He explains to the aunts that he can protect them only if he lets Teddy take the blame for the murders. They threaten to go to the police if Mortimer does not find a way to get rid of Jonathan in the morning.
Jonathan tells Einstein to get his medical instruments as he plans Mortimer's slow, painful death. After they bind and gag Mortimer, they pour two glasses of poisoned wine. Just as they are about to drink, Teddy blasts his bugle, and they drop the glasses, spilling the wine. As he is passing the house, Officer O'Hara hears the blast and comes in to complain. Einstein explains that Mortimer is tied up because he was demonstrating what happened in a play he saw that evening. O'Hara decides not to untie Mortimer so that he will be forced to listen to the officer's summary of his play.
By morning, O'Hara is coming to the end of his summary when Brophy and Klein arrive, looking for him. They announce that their lieutenant is determined to send Teddy away to Happy Dale because of all the complaints he is getting about the bugle blast in the middle of the night. Jonathan wakes up, sees the officers, and mistakenly thinks he has been caught. When Klein mentions that he looks like Boris Karloff, Jonathan goes for his throat but is knocked unconscious by Brophy. Lieutenant Rooney then arrives and recognizes Jonathan as a wanted criminal and an escapee from an insane asylum. None of the officers believe Jonathan when he insists that thirteen bodies are buried in the basement.
Soon after Mortimer tells the Lieutenant that he has Teddy's commitment papers, Elaine and Mr. Witherspoon, the superintendent of Happy Dale, arrive. Mortimer tells Elaine to "run along home" until he calls her, but she refuses to leave. Teddy agrees to go with Witherspoon, who he thinks will be his guide on an expedition to Africa. When the aunts insist that if Teddy goes to Happy Dale, they must go too, Mortimer agrees as does the lieutenant after they begin to talk about bodies in the cellar.
After the aunts' commitment papers are signed, they express concern over the validity of the signatures. They decide to tell Mortimer the truth—that he is not a Brewster. They explain that his mother was their cook and that he was born out of wedlock. Mortimer and Elaine are delighted at the news and leave for her house to get breakfast. The officers arrest Einstein and Jonathan, who is content that the aunts will not be able to best his murder record. After they depart, the aunts quiz Mr. Witherspoon about his background and learn that he has no family. The play ends with them inviting him to breakfast and to sample a glass of their elderberry wine.
Abby and her sister Martha have interchangeable personalities in the play. Neither exhibits distinct characteristics that are identifiable as separate from the other. Abby, like her sister Martha, is old-fashioned in an ironic sense. She appears to be a quite conservative elderly woman who values the conventions of the past. She attends church regularly and donates toys to the local Christian fund.
Her traditional values, however, do not extend to her treatment of the elderly men who come to their home looking for lodging. While her desire to help the men find peace is aligned with their Christian faith, her and her sister's methods reflect modern, violent sensibilities as they resort to murder to achieve their goal. Abby is the one who gives the poisoned wine to the first of their murder victims.
Jonathan is a vicious criminal with a penchant for torture. Not much background information is given on him other than the details provided by Mortimer that he was "the kind of boy who liked to cut worms in two—with his teeth." He has no consideration for his aunts as he plots to turn their home into a surgery for criminals who need to alter their appearance. When Mortimer threatens to interfere, he plans on causing a slow, painful death for his brother. His pettiness surfaces when he becomes jealous that his aunts have committed more murders than he has.
Martha is as ironically old fashioned as her sister. She exhibits kindness and compassion with the neighbors and follows social conventions of behavior. For example, when Mortimer breaks tradition and asks Elaine to meet him at the Brewster's instead of calling for her at her home, she criticizes him for his lack of chivalry. She also condemns the theater for its provocative subject matter and popular films that frighten their audiences.
Like Abby, Martha's charity is limited by the macabre nature of the murders they commit and by their own prejudices. Abby would rather ignore the devastation of the war in Europe because it is beyond their scope. When Jonathan arrives, Martha, with Abby's help, does everything in her power to get rid of him from the moment he walks in the door, insisting that he is too much trouble. The two also have no time for foreigners, refusing to let Jonathan bury one in their basement along with their "good Methodist" Mr. Hoskins.
Mortimer is teasing and flirtatious with his fiancée Elaine and exhibits genuine affection for her, his aunts, and for Teddy. As soon as he discovers the dead body in the window seat, his immediate goal is to protect his aunts. He bravely stands up to his brother Jonathan at the risk of his own safety.
His bravery, however, is tempered by his arrogance, which sometimes blinds him to what is happening around him. He insists that he is much more intelligent than the plays he must review and refuses to agree to Elaine's claim that they often have a humanizing effect on him. His pride gets him in trouble when he does not take the proper precautions with Jonathan, and as a result, he almost loses his life. He also proves himself to be quite excitable and does not handle the stressful situation in the Brewster household very rationally. All ends well less through Mortimer's actions and more through coincidence and the fact that the police cannot fathom the sweet Brewster sisters could ever have twelve bodies buried in their basement.
Teddy has lost all contact with reality, completely immersed in the delusion that he is Teddy Roosevelt. This static character is used primarily as a plot device. He covers up the aunts' murderous activities as he buries the dead bodies in the basement, which he insists contains the locks of the Panama Canal.
Like the Brewster sisters, Officers Brophy and Klein are interchangeable with no distinct personalities. They help the plot develop by providing background information on the Brewster family and rescuing Mortimer from Jonathan's clutches. Brophy also provides some foreshadowing as he notes in the beginning of the play that Teddy has been disrupting the neighbors' sleep with his midnight bugle calls.
Dr. Einstein, Jonathan's evil sidekick, is little more that a stock figure. He adds to the comedy through his alcoholic tendencies, which cause him to remake Jonathan into the image of Boris Karloff. He also stirs up the action when he chides Jonathan about the fact that the aunts have murdered exactly as many men as he has. As a result, Jonathan decides to kill Mortimer so that he will tip the balance in his favor.
Elaine exhibits a modern sensibility for a woman during this period. She is self confident, quick witted, and "surprisingly smart for a minister's daughter." She engages in witty, flirty banter with Mortimer and shows a great deal of patience with him.
Reverend Dr. Harper
Like the Brewster sisters, the Reverend Harper maintains old-fashioned values, appreciating the "gentle virtues" that have gone out of style in the twentieth century. His disapproval of the theater makes him initially wary of the union between his daughter Elaine and Mortimer.
Klein, like his partner Brophy, appreciates the sisters' charity and believes them to be among the kindest inhabitants of the neighborhood. He also serves as a plot device, especially when he suggests that Jonathan looks like Boris Karloff, which sends the latter into a murderous rage.
- Kesselring collaborated on a successful Hollywood screen version of the play, directed by Frank Capra in 1944. The film starred Cary Grant as Mortimer, with Josephine Hull and Jean Adair recreating their stage performances.
Officer O'Hara distinguishes himself from his fellow officers by the fact that he has written a play. He adds to the farcical action when he leaves Mortimer tied up all evening in order to ensure that the theater critic will listen to the entire summary of his play.
The theme of charity is satirized in the play. The Brewster sisters appear to be quite altruistic, providing help when needed for their neighbors as well as opening their door to strangers. They make soup for the sick, serve tea and cakes for the preacher and police officers, collect toys for needy children, and provide lodging for lonely old men. They must be the right kind of men though. The sisters have their own rules about how far their charity will extend.
They do not, for example, want to think about the devastation of the war in Europe, which to them has become inconvenient because it may cause them to use "that imitation flour again" as did the first world war. Also, the war involves foreigners, who are not acceptable to the sisters. They prefer "good" American Christians, more specifically Episcopalians. Methodists like Mr. Hoskins are welcomed into their homes, but only because the sisters are so "charitable." Their own nephew Jonathan is not welcomed because his behavior throughout his life has been undesirable.
Of course, the greatest problem with the sisters' charitable activities is the fact that they have murdered eleven of the lonely men who have come to their home looking for lodging. They determine that they know best what these men need, and that only through death and a good Christian service at their burial will they find the peace they deserve. The sisters, however, make the end as painless as possible as they poison the men with elderberry wine tainted with arsenic. They are pleased with the fact that one of the men actually praised the wine right before he expired.
The audience, along with Mortimer, soon learns that the sisters are as insane as the obviously deranged Teddy, who thinks that he is Teddy Roosevelt and so continually blows a bugle and charges up the staircase as if it were San Juan Hill. Because the sisters do not display such obvious outward signs, no one in the neighborhood believes Jonathan's claims that there are twelve bodies buried in the basement. Mortimer also has difficulty believing that his aunts were responsible for the body in the window seat, blaming it instead on Teddy, until the aunts admit their responsibility.
They handle the fact that they have just committed murder quite nonchalantly, with a cool remonstration to Mortimer to "forget you ever saw the gentleman." They find their actions perfectly justifiable and so go about their daily schedule. When Mortimer suggests that they did not tell the Reverend Harper about Mr. Hoskins because they felt guilty, they insist that the only reason they hid him was because it "would not be very nice" for the Reverend to view a body at tea. Abby adds, "I do think Martha and I have the right to our own little secrets."
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Some scholars suggest that Kesselring wrote the play as a thriller and then was prompted to turn it into a farce. Would the play work as a thriller? Propose a general outline of the play as a thriller and rewrite in detail a key scene that would illustrate this genre.
- Compare and contrast the Broadway hit Sweeney Todd, another play in the comic/thriller genre, with Arsenic and Old Lace.
- Research the treatment of the mentally ill in America in the 1930s and 1940s. Were there "Happy Dales" then that provided comfortable living arrangements for those like Teddy and the Brewster sisters?
- Investigate the accepted theories on biological determinism during the 1930s and 1940s. Discuss the debate over nature versus nurture during this period.
Insanity runs in the family, as evidenced by reports of Teddy's grandfather, a physician who made a fortune developing medicines that he tried out, sometimes with devastating results, on his patients. Jonathan also has the family curse, having killed twelve men and threatening to kill Mortimer by torturing him. He insists that his last murder was justified since the victim accused him of looking like Boris Karloff after Dr. Einstein had botched his reconstructive surgery. This genetic defect causes Mortimer to insist that he cannot marry Elaine until, to his immense relief, the aunts tell him that he is adopted.
Kesselring also satirizes the conventions of the theater as well as those who critique it. The art of the theater reflects life only in the most absurd situations in this play. The farcical nature of the action ironically reinforces Mortimer's claims that the theater does not reflect reality, but it certainly does provide good entertainment. This point is well proven during the absurd situation Mortimer finds himself in as he describes the plot of a play he has recently seen. He tells Jonathan and Dr. Einstein, who are trying to come up with a way to subdue Mortimer so that they can torture and kill him, exactly how the murderer captures the hero. Insisting that the characterizations reveal no imagination or any reflection of reality, Mortimer is blind to the fact that he is in the exact same situation as the play's hero and has just given his brother the perfect method to carry out his murderous intentions.
Kesselring effectively satirizes the arrogance of theater critics in his portrayal of Mortimer who insists that he is always disappointed by the uninspired plays he is forced to review. He receives his comeuppance not only by providing Jonathan with a successful method to set him up for murder, but also as he is forced to listen all night to Officer O'Hara's tedious summary of the play that he has written.
Farce and Melodrama
Kesselring departs from dramatic tradition in his combination of farce and melodrama. Elizabethan tragedy contain scenes that provided audiences with comic relief, but they were not part of the main action of the play. Joseph Wood Krutch, in his review of the play for the Nation, notes that Elizabethan tragedies rarely "confuse[d] the comic and the tragic, since the comic characters and the tragic ones were kept separate and we were supposed to stop laughing when the porter went off and Macbeth came on." He writes that plays during the first decades of the twentieth century, including some by George M. Cohan, began to mix drama and comedy, suggesting that "the audience was expected to laugh when the corpse fell out of the closet and to regard the more extreme forms of violence as comic per se."
Kesselring adopts this modern style as he integrates farce into the dramatic structure of the play, which focuses on the Brewster sisters' murder of eleven lonely old men who come to their home looking for lodging. The murders take place off stage and so when the comedic elements are introduced, they are less shocking. The absurdity of the body switching scene becomes pure farce, removing the focus from the acts of murder to the efforts to hide them. Since the audience does not have to watch the murders take place, they are more open to accepting Mortimer's comedic efforts to save his aunts. The only real suggestion of violence occurs when Jonathan threatens to torture Mortimer, but that threat deteriorates into farce when Officer O'Hara appears and forces the bound Mortimer to listen to a summary of his play.
The world experienced a decade of aggression in the 1930s that would culminate in World War II. World War II resulted from the rise of totalitarian regimes in Germany, Italy, and Japan. These militaristic regimes gained control as a result of the Great Depression experienced by most of the world in the early 1930s and from the conditions created by the peace settlements following World War I. The dictatorships established in each country encouraged expansion into neighboring countries. In Germany, Hitler strengthened the army during the 1930s. In 1936, Benito Mussolini's Italian troops took Ethiopia. From 1936 to 1939, Spain was engaged in civil war involving Francisco Franco's fascist army, aided by Germany and Italy. In March 1938, Germany annexed Austria and in March 1939 occupied Czechoslovakia. Italy took Albania in April 1939.
One week after Nazi Germany and the U.S.S.R. signed the Treaty of Nonaggression, on September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and World War II began. On September 3, 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany after a U-boat sank the British ship Athenia off the coast of Ireland. Another British ship, Courageous, was sunk on September 19. All the members of the British Commonwealth, except Ireland, soon joined Britain and France in their declaration of war. On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II.
Theater in the 1930s and 1940s
In the late nineteenth century playwrights such as Henrik Ibsen turned away from what they considered the artificiality of melodrama to a focus on the commonplace in the context of everyday contemporary life. Their work, along with much of the experimental fiction written during that period, adopts the tenets of Realism, a new literary movement that took a serious look at believable characters and their sometimes problematic interactions with society. Dramatists who embraced Realism use settings and props that reflect their characters' daily lives and realistic dialogue that replicates natural speech patterns.
Realism remained a dominant form in twentieth-century drama. In the 1930s and 1940s a group of playwrights, known as social realists, brought drama to American audiences that reflected the political and social realities of the period. Dramatists such as Lillian Hellman, Sidney Howard, Sidney Kingsley, and Clifford Odets examined political institutions such as capitalism, totalitarianism, and socialism along with social issues such as lesbianism and poverty.
Comedies, specifically drawing room comedies and vaudeville shows, also became a popular dramatic form in early decades of twentieth century. During the 1930s and 1940s, comedic theater, dedicated to escapism during the depression and war years, became as popular as drama. This genre branched out into musicals, most notably with the first of the Rodgers and Hammerstein masterpieces, Oklahoma in 1943, which helped define the musical play as a significant American art form.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1941: On December 7, Japan attacks Pearl Harbor, and the United States enters World War II.
Today: The United States is engaged in a war in Iraq that is not supported by many countries around the world.
- 1941: On December 11, four days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Germany, along with Italy, declares war on the United States.
Today: The world is threatened by Islamic fundamentalist groups that have declared a holy war against the West. These radical groups have committed terrorist acts in several countries including the United States. The most devastating act of terrorism occurs on September 11, 2001, when terrorists fly planes into the World Trade Center Towers in New York City and into the Pentagon, killing approximately 3,000 people.
- 1941: Arsenic and Old Lace begins its 1,444 performance run. Audiences herald the play's successful mixture of farce and melodrama.
Today: Films that spoof the thriller genre, like Scream, have gained significant box office success.
When Arsenic and Old Lace opened at the Fulton Theatre in New York City on January 10, 1941, it was an immediate success with the public as well as the critics. Rosamond Gilder, in her review for Theater Arts, noted its "continuous hilarity," and deemed it "the ultimate in the genre. Arsenic and Old Lace lives up to its beguiling title and succeeds in turning homicide into side-splitting farce." Brooks Atkinson insists in The New York Times that he does not exaggerate when he writes, "Joseph Kesselring has written [a play] so funny that none of us will ever forget it." He adds, "swift, dry, satirical and exciting, Arsenic and Old Lace kept the first-night audience roaring with laughter."
The production ran for 1,444 performances, and along with four touring companies, earned more than four million dollars. In London, where it ran for 1,337 performances after it opened on December 23, 1942, the play became a favorite escape from the horrors of the post-blitz for Londoners who did not flee to the countryside. Although Frank Rich of The New York Times found a 1986 revival dated, the play continues to be a favorite production for community theaters.
Perkins is a professor of American and English literature and film. In this essay, Perkins examines the satirical structure of the play.
Joseph Kesselring's play Arsenic and Old Lace is one of Broadway's most successful comedies. Brooks Atkinson, in his review of the play for The New York Times finds the play "hilarious" and praises its "compact… plot and comic situation," with its interplay of the macabre and the farcical. Yet as Atkinson notes, Kesselring "does not have to stoop to clutching hands, pistol shots or lethal screams to get his effects." What has made this play an enduring classic is the playwright's clever combination of murder, slapstick, and satire. The juxtaposition of dramatic and farcical elements underpins its finely tuned satiric structure.
The play's main satiric focus is on the "charitable" work of two of its main characters, Abby and Martha Brewster, Mortimer Brewster's elderly aunts. Atkinson describes the aunts as "two of the nicest maiden ladies who ever baked biscuits, rushed hot soup to ailing neighbors and invited the minister to tea." Kesselring takes his time establishing the aunts' altruistic activities, which will set the stage for introduction of the dramatic and comedic action to come.
The play opens with Abby praising the Reverend Harper's Sunday sermons, which to her, reflect the "friendly" spirit of Brooklyn, as she serves him homemade biscuits and jam. Noting the aunts' neighborliness, the reverend concludes that "the virtues of another day—they're all here in this house. The gentle virtues that went out with candlelight and good manners and low taxes." Soon after, officers Brophy and Klein arrive to pick up toys for the Christmas Fund. Abby brings Officer Brophy beef broth for his sick wife, informing him that her sister is not with them that afternoon since she has taken the broth to a neighbor. After explaining how the aunts cared for his wife before she died, and him after, the Reverend Harper declares to the officers, "if I know what pure kindness and absolute generosity are, it's because I've known the Brewster sisters." The officers concur, pointing out that the aunts often take in boarders free of charge and that they are very indulgent with their nephew Teddy, who, they claim, is "so happy being Teddy Roosevelt."
After the discovery of the body in the window seat, however, it soon becomes apparent that the aunts have a quite unusual definition of charity. They have decided that they know best how to help the lonely people of the world, only, of course, if they are the "right" kind—Christian and American. The satirical nature of this situation is developed through the comically macabre details of their altruism, which are hinted at in the opening scene.
Bothered by the rationing of flour during the war, Abby admits in a wonderful example of comic understatement that she has determined "that Mr. Hitler isn't a Christian." She reveals the limited nature of her altruism when she declares, "Let's not talk about the war." The Reverend Harper unknowingly provides an ironic note when he suggests "that war and violence seem far removed from these surroundings."
Officer Klein reinforces the satiric nature of the aunts' activities when he insists, while discussing the impetus for his own charitable work, "you get tired playing cards and then you start cleaning your gun and the first thing you know you've shot yourself in the foot." The aunts have a similarly dubious motive for their actions. Their charity takes the form of murder followed by a Christian burial, which ensures, they insist, that the lonely old men who come to their Brooklyn home looking for lodging will find appropriate peace.
While their neighborliness initially appears to provide evidence that they are quite sane, the aunts soon prove to be as mentally unstable as their nephew Teddy, but Teddy's eccentric behavior is harmless. The aunts exhibit a more dangerous form, as did Teddy's grandfather, who, as the officers and the reverend note, concocted medicines that he often tried out on patients, sometimes with disastrous results. This hereditary insanity at first complicates Mortimer's marriage plans until he discovers at the end of the play that he was adopted.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Hugh Wheeler's Sweeney Todd (1979) is another Broadway hit that successfully combines farce with melodrama.
- Jonathan Swift's satire "A Modest Proposal" (1729) suggests a "charitable" solution to the poverty and hunger in Ireland: babies should be bred and eaten.
- Joseph Kramm's popular play The Shrike (1952) takes a serious look at the treatment of the mentally ill in America in the 1950s.
- George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's play You Can't Take It with You (1938) earned rave reviews for its entertaining and witty view of an eccentric family.
The satiric nature of the aunts' behavior is reinforced by the appearance of Mortimer's brother Jonathan. The aunts' generous temperament does not extend to their nephew. They try unsuccessfully throughout the evening to try to get Jonathan to leave, insisting to him, "you were never happy in this house and we were never happy while you were here." Their activities ironically have the same consequences as does Jonathan's more sinister ones—twelve dead bodies. The relationship between the aunts and Jonathan is further reinforced by the fact that their dead body, Mr. Hoskins, keeps getting confused with Jonathan's, Mr. Spenalzo, in a slapstick corpse-swapping scene. The limits of their charitable nature are further highlighted by their insistence that "it's a terrible thing—burying a good Methodist with a foreigner."
Another satiric focus involves Mortimer's job as drama critic, with Kesselring poking fun at this profession as well as the theater itself. When Reverend Harper suggests his displeasure at his daughter dating a drama critic, Abby asks him not to think too harshly of Mortimer since "somebody has to do those things." Feeling himself to be much cleverer than the plays that he hates to review, Mortimer insists that the theater is much too predictable these days. However, during the eventful evening at the Brewster home, he misses several instances where the action resembles the very plays he has been reviewing. Here Kesselring creates an ironic interplay of art and life, a self-conscious reference to the farcical nature of the action. As Mortimer describes the play he will review that night, he insists that, predictably, it will open with the appearance of a dead body just as he opens the window seat and finds a real one hidden inside.
Later, he constructs his own fate as he unwittingly provides Jonathan and Einstein with an effective method to subdue him. Mortimer insists that people in plays do not act intelligently, explaining in one that he saw, a man who is "supposed to be bright" knows that he is surrounded by murderers and so "he ought to know he's in danger. He's even been warned to get out of the house." But he stays there, not having "sense enough to be scared." Mortimer's confidence in his own intelligence blinds him to the fact that he is in the exact same situation.
When Einstein asks how the murderers subdue the man, Mortimer readily provides an answer, noting that they tied him up with a curtain cord, which he declares is "a little too convenient." In an inspired moment of lunacy, Einstein and Jonathan provide their own answer to Mortimer's declaration, "when are playwrights going to use some imagination?" as they follow the details of Mortimer's outline to the letter and effectively restrain him. Mortimer, however, suffers the greatest agony as he is forced to listen to the plot of Officer O'Hara's play.
By the end of the play, all tensions are resolved as each character meets his/her appropriate fate. Mortimer is free to marry Elaine without the fear that he has inherited the Brewster family insanity, Jonathan and Einstein are on their way to incarceration, and the aunts will join Teddy at Happy Dale where they will be prevented from helping lonely old men find ultimate peace. In a clever closing twist, Kesselring suggests that the aunts will have one final chance to perform a "charitable" act by adding Mr. Witherspoon's body to the count in the basement and thereby besting Jonathan's record. Through these satiric characterizations of the eccentric Brewster clan, Kesselring pokes fun at human foibles in an entertaining mix of comedy and mayhem.
Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on Arsenic and Old Lace, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
In the following review, Atkinson calls Arsenic and Old Lace "so funny that none of us will ever forget it."
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Source: Brooks Atkinson, "Joseph Kesselring's Arsenic and Old Lace Turns Murder into Fantastic Comedy," in New York Times, January 11, 1941, p. 13.
Atkinson, Brooks, "Joseph Kesselring's Arsenic and Old Lace Turns Murder into Fantastic Comedy," in the New York Times, January 11, 1941, p. 13.
Gilder, Rosamond, Review, in Theatre Arts, March 1941, pp. 185–86.
Kesselring, Joseph, Arsenic and Old Lace, Dramatists Play Service, 1995.
Krutch, Joseph Wood, "Homicide as Fun," in the Nation, Vol. 152, No. 4, January 25, 1941, pp. 108–09.
Rich, Frank, "Arsenic and Old Lace Revival," in the New York Times, June 27, 1986, p. C3.
Blum, Daniel C., A Pictorial History of the American Theatre, 1860–1980, Outlet, 1983.
As its title suggests, this book presents representative pictures of successful productions in American theater.
Bordman, Gerald, American Theatre: A Chronicle of Comedy and Drama, 1914–1930. Oxford University Press, 1995.
This volume traces the development of these two genres in American theater, providing an insightful background for an examination of the play's roots.
Coleman, Janet, The Compass: The Improvisational Theatre That Revolutionized American Comedy, University of Chicago Press, 1991.
Coleman's study focuses on how improvisational theatrical methods influenced comedy in America.
Wilmeth, Don B., and Tice L. Miller, eds., The Cambridge Guide to American Theatre, Cambridge University Press, 1996.
This comprehensive study traces the important trends in American theater.