Arsenic and Old Lace

by Joseph Kesselring

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Critical Overview

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When Arsenic and Old Lace opened at the Fulton Theatre in New York City on January 10, 1941, it was an immediate success with the public as well as the critics. Rosamond Gilder, in her review for Theater Arts, noted its ‘‘continuous hilarity,’’ and deemed it ‘‘the ultimate in the genre. Arsenic and Old Lace lives up to its beguiling title and succeeds in turning homicide into side-splitting farce.’’ Brooks Atkinson insists in The New York Times that he does not exaggerate when he writes, ‘‘Joseph Kesselring has written [a play] so funny that none of us will ever forget it.’’ He adds, ‘‘swift, dry, satirical and exciting, Arsenic and Old Lace kept the first-night audience roaring with laughter.’’

The production ran for 1,444 performances, and along with four touring companies, earned more than four million dollars. In London, where it ran for 1,337 performances after it opened on December 23, 1942, the play became a favorite escape from the horrors of the post-blitz for Londoners who did not flee to the countryside. Although Frank Rich of The New York Times found a 1986 revival dated, the play continues to be a favorite production for community theaters.

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Criticism