As the play is not particularly American, is it possible to place Joseph Kesselring's Arsenic and Old Lace in England?I'm from the UK and I've been asked to direct it. For a fairly large cast to...

As the play is not particularly American, is it possible to place Joseph Kesselring's Arsenic and Old Lace in England?

I'm from the UK and I've been asked to direct it. For a fairly large cast to keep an American accent consistent and believable could be beyond their ability!

Expert Answers
booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I believe Kesselring's Arsenic and Old Lace, set somewhere in England—with certain aspects of the play changed—would work very well! 

First of all, the aunts Abby and Martha Brewster are spinsters, and they can be presented as elderly unmarried women—throwbacks to England's Victorian Age (as they seem to be in the play)—very proper, perhaps associated with England's Anglican Church (in terms of their religious criteria for "acceptable" boarders who are eligible to be buried in the basement). 

The story is set in Brooklyn, New York—however, it could just as easily be set in a major city—perhaps London, Liverpool, Leeds, etc. Any references to things associated with New York would need to be changed. For instance, Brooklyn is mentioned many times. In Act One, when Jonathan returns, he tells his aunts that he and Einstein don't keep "Brooklyn hours." References to "Europe" and World War II would also need to be altered because they are made from an American standpoint (with regard to the war).


If only Europe were on another planet!

In Act Two, Mortimer explains to Elaine (his fiancée) why they can't marry—insanity runs in his family. You would need to change this. 


No, it goes way back. The first Brewster—the one who came over on the Mayflower. You know in those days the Indians used to scalp the settlers—he used to scalp the Indians.

Perhaps you could write that an ancestor sailed to the New World and was so crazy that he was deported back to England—then the joke would still work. (You might want to think about whether to keep the joke. Scalping is something often associated strictly with the Native Americans, but we know now this is inaccurate. Scalping...

...was practiced by Native Americans, colonists, and frontiersmen across centuries of violent conflict.)

It was also practiced in ancient European civilizations. In a comedy, though dated, you may find you can leave it. Either way, the reference is clearly American.

Teddy believes he is digging the Panama Canal in the basement and burying yellow fever victims. This is not an issue; but he thinks he is Theodore Roosevelt, a U.S. President, and he is constantly making note of his presidency—he even refers to his successor, Taft. Looking at Mr. Witherspoon, Teddy asks:

Is he trying to move into the White House before I've moved out?


Who, Teddy?



Teddy's character would need to believe he is someone from English history—a contemporary of Teddy Roosevelt—perhaps involved with the Panama Canal—or some other endeavor that would account for his digging, as well as his delusions of grandeur.

In Act One, change Jonathan's recital of the U.S. cities he has traveled through. The mention of Africa needs not be changed (or London, for that matter—if the play is set in a different part of England or the reference to London is changed).

Jonathan's similarity to Boris Karloff, a famous movie actor in 1930s' Hollywood horror films is pointed out.


I'm not so sure I want to be down in the cellar with him. Look at that puss. He looks like Boris Karloff.

Although the comparison is comical, the reference might be too dated. However, the audience would probably clearly know Frankenstein (who Karloff played several times). The line might say:

He looks like Frankenstein.

Considered a "drawing room comedy," I expect the genre would allow for the flexibility necessary to make it a British comedy as opposed to an American one.

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Arsenic and Old Lace

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