Arsenic and Old Lace

by Joseph Kesselring

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Abby Brewster
Abby and her sister Martha have interchangeable personalities in the play. Neither exhibits distinctinct characteristics that are identifiable as separate from the other. Abby, like her sister Martha, is oldfashioned 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 Brewster
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 Brewster
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 Brewster
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 Brewster
Teddy has lost all contact with reality, completely immersed in the delusion that...

(This entire section contains 979 words.)

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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.

Officer Brophy
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
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 Harper
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.

Officer Klein
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.

Officer O’Hara
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.




Critical Essays