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.