Critical Essay on Arsenic and Old Lace
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...
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Joseph Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace Turns Murder into Fantastic Comedy
Let’s not exaggerate. At some time there may have been a funnier murder charade than Arsenic and Old Lace . . . But the supposition is purely academic. For Joseph Kesselring has written one so funny that none of us will ever forget it. . . .
It may not seem hilarious to report that thirteen men succumb to one of the blandest murder games ever played in Brooklyn. But Mr. Kesselring has a light style, an original approach to an old subject, and he manages to dispense with all the hocuspocus of the crime trade. Swift, dry, satirical and exciting, Arsenic and Old Lace kept the first-night audience roaring with laughter. Although there have been some other good plays recently, this is the freshest invention. It is full of chuckles even when the scene is gruesome by nature.
As a matter of fact, the Brewsters of Brooklyn are homicidal maniacs. But Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha are, on the surface, two of the nicest maiden ladies who ever baked biscuits, rushed hot soup to ailing neighbors and invited the minister to tea. Part of their charitable work consists in poisoning homeless old men who have no families to look after them. Their lunatic brother, who, for no apparent reason, imagines that he is Theodore Roosevelt, buries the bodies in the cellar with military and presidential flourishes.
If their brightest nephew who, of course, is a drama critic, had not discovered a body under the window seat, the murder game might have...
(The entire section is 459 words.)