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 day—they’re all here in this house. The gentle virtues that went out with candlelight and good manners and low taxes.’’ Soon after, officers Brophy and Klein arrive to pick up toys for the Christmas Fund. Abby brings Officer Brophy beef broth for his sick wife, informing him that her sister is not with them that afternoon since she has taken the broth to a neighbor. After explaining how the aunts cared for his wife before she died, and him after, the Reverend Harper declares to the officers, ‘‘if I know what pure kindness and absolute generosity are, it’s because I’ve known the Brewster sisters.’’ The officers concur, pointing out that the aunts often take in boarders free of charge and that they are very indulgent with their nephew Teddy, who, they claim, is ‘‘so happy being Teddy Roosevelt.’’

After the discovery of the body in the window seat, however, it soon becomes apparent that the aunts have a quite unusual definition of charity. They have decided that they know best how to help the lonely people of the world, only, of course, if they are the ‘‘right’’ kind—Christian and American. The satirical nature of this situation is developed through the comically macabre details of their altruism, which are hinted at in the opening scene.

Bothered by the rationing of flour during the war, Abby admits in a wonderful example of comic understatement that she has determined ‘‘that Mr. Hitler isn’t a Christian.’’ She reveals the limited nature of her altruism when she declares, ‘‘Let’s not talk about the war.’’ The Reverend Harper unknowingly provides an ironic note when he suggests ‘‘that war and violence seem far removed from these surroundings.’’

Officer Klein reinforces the...

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Joseph Kesselring’s <i>Arsenic and Old Lace </i>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...

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