Study Guide

Arsenic and Old Lace

by Joseph Kesselring

Arsenic and Old Lace Summary

Summary

Act 1
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...

(The entire section is 1868 words.)