Arsenic and Old Lace

by Joseph Kesselring

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Critical Essay on Arsenic and Old Lace

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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 satiric nature of the aunts’ activities when he insists, while discussing the impetus for his own charitable work, ‘‘you get tired playing cards and then you start cleaning your gun and the first thing you know you’ve shot yourself in the foot.’’ The aunts have a similarly dubious motive for their actions. Their charity takes the form of murder followed by a Christian burial, which ensures, they insist, that the lonely old men who come to their Brooklyn home looking for lodging will find appropriate peace.

While their neighborliness initially appears to provide evidence that they are...

(This entire section contains 1322 words.)

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quite sane, the aunts soon prove to be as mentally unstable as their nephew Teddy, but Teddy’s eccentric behavior is harmless. The aunts exhibit a more dangerous form, as did Teddy’s grandfather, who, as the officers and the reverend note, concocted medicines that he often tried out on patients, sometimes with disastrous results. This hereditary insanity at first complicates Mortimer’s marriage plans until he discovers at the end of the play that he was adopted.

The satiric nature of the aunts’ behavior is reinforced by the appearance of Mortimer’s brother Jonathan. The aunts’ generous temperament does not extend to their nephew. They try unsuccessfully throughout the evening to try to get Jonathan to leave, insisting to him, ‘‘you were never happy in this house and we were never happy while you were here.’’ Their activities ironically have the same consequences as does Jonathan’s more sinister ones— twelve dead bodies. The relationship between the aunts and Jonathan is further reinforced by the fact that their dead body, Mr. Hoskins, keeps getting confused with Jonathan’s, Mr. Spenalzo, in a slapstick corpse-swapping scene. The limits of their charitable nature are further highlighted by their insistence that ‘‘it’s a terrible thing—burying a good Methodist with a foreigner.’’

Another satiric focus involves Mortimer’s job as drama critic, with Kesselring poking fun at this profession as well as the theater itself. When Reverend Harper suggests his displeasure at his daughter dating a drama critic, Abby asks him not to think too harshly of Mortimer since ‘‘somebody has to do those things.’’ Feeling himself to be much cleverer than the plays that he hates to review, Mortimer insists that the theater is much too predictable these days. However, during the eventful evening at the Brewster home, he misses several instances where the action resembles the very plays he has been reviewing. Here Kesselring creates an ironic interplay of art and life, a self-conscious reference to the farcical nature of the action. As Mortimer describes the play he will review that night, he insists that, predictably, it will open with the appearance of a dead body just as he opens the window seat and finds a real one hidden inside.

Later, he constructs his own fate as he unwittingly provides Jonathan and Einstein with an effective method to subdue him. Mortimer insists that people in plays do not act intelligently, explaining in one that he saw, a man who is ‘‘supposed to be bright’’ knows that he is surrounded by murderers and so ‘‘he ought to know he’s in danger. He’s even been warned to get out of the house.’’ But he stays there, not having ‘‘sense enough to be scared.’’ Mortimer’s confidence in his own intelligence blinds him to the fact that he is in the exact same situation.

When Einstein asks how the murderers subdue the man, Mortimer readily provides an answer, noting that they tied him up with a curtain cord, which he declares is ‘‘a little too convenient.’’ In an inspired moment of lunacy, Einstein and Jonathan provide their own answer to Mortimer’s declaration, ‘‘when are playwrights going to use some imagination?’’ as they follow the details of Mortimer’s outline to the letter and effectively restrain him. Mortimer, however, suffers the greatest agony as he is forced to listen to the plot of Officer O’Hara’s play.

By the end of the play, all tensions are resolved as each character meets his/her appropriate fate. Mortimer is free to marry Elaine without the fear that he has inherited the Brewster family insanity, Jonathan and Einstein are on their way to incarceration, and the aunts will join Teddy at Happy Dale where they will be prevented from helping lonely old men find ultimate peace. In a clever closing twist, Kesselring suggests that the aunts will have one final chance to perform a ‘‘charitable’’ act by adding Mr. Witherspoon’s body to the count in the basement and thereby besting Jonathan’s record. Through these satiric characterizations of the eccentric Brewster clan, Kesselring pokes fun at human foibles in an entertaining mix of comedy and mayhem.

Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on Arsenic and Old Lace, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Joseph Kesselring’s <i>Arsenic and Old Lace </i>Turns Murder into Fantastic Comedy

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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 continued indefinitely. But he is normal, although naturally more brilliant than ordinary people and he is so upset that he can only stay one act at the play he is supposed to review that evening. The riotous amusement of Arsenic and Old Lace consists in his attempt to keep the murders a secret and, at the same time, to commit his dear aunts to an institution where their foible will be stopped.

Nothing in Mr. Kesselring’s record has prepared us for the humor and ingenuity of Arsenic and Old Lace. He wrote There’s Wisdom in Women in 1935 and Cross Town in 1937. But his murder drama is compact with plot and comic situation. In addition to the homey aunts it includes a sinister maniac who looks enough like Boris Karloff to be Boris Karloff. . . The lines are bright. The story is mad and unhackneyed. Although the scene is always on the verge of the macabre and the atmosphere is horribly ominous, Mr. Kesselring does not have to stoop to clutching hands, pistol shots or lethal screams to get his effects. He has written a murder play as legitimate as farce-comedy.

Source: Brooks Atkinson, ‘‘Joseph Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace Turns Murder into Fantastic Comedy,’’ in New York Times, January 11, 1941, p. 13.

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