Arsenic and Old Lace

by Joseph Kesselring

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Historical Context

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World War II
The world experienced a decade of aggression in the 1930s that would culminate in World War II. World War II resulted from the rise of totalitarian regimes in Germany, Italy, and Japan. These militaristic regimes gained control as a result of the Great Depression experienced by most of the world in the early 1930s and from the conditions created by the peace settlements following World War I. The dictatorships established in each country encouraged expansion into neighboring countries. In Germany, Hitler strengthened the army during the 1930s. In 1936, Benito Mussolini’s Italian troops took Ethiopia. From 1936 to 1939, Spain was engaged in civil war involving Francisco Franco’s fascist army, aided by Germany and Italy. In March 1938, Germany annexed Austria and in March 1939 occupied Czechoslovakia. Italy took Albania in April 1939.

One week after Nazi Germany and the U.S.S.R. signed the Treaty of Nonaggression, on September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and World War II began. On September 3, 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany after a U-boat sank the British ship Athenia off the coast of Ireland. Another British ship, Courageous, was sunk on September 19. All the members of the British Commonwealth, except Ireland, soon joined Britain and France in their declaration of war. On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II.

Theater in the 1930s and 1940s
In the late nineteenth century playwrights such as Henrik Ibsen turned away from what they considered the artificiality of melodrama to a focus on the commonplace in the context of everyday contemporary life. Their work, along with much of the experimental fiction written during that period, adopts the tenets of Realism, a new literary movement that took a serious look at believable characters and their sometimes problematic interactions with society. Dramatists who embraced Realism use settings and props that reflect their characters’ daily lives and realistic dialogue that replicates natural speech patterns.

Realism remained a dominant form in twentiethcentury drama. In the 1930s and 1940s a group of playwrights, known as social realists, brought drama to American audiences that reflected the political and social realities of the period. Dramatists such as Lillian Hellman, Sidney Howard, Sidney Kingsley, and Clifford Odets examined political institutions such as capitalism, totalitarianism, and socialism along with social issues such as lesbianism and poverty.

Comedies, specifically drawing room comedies and vaudeville shows, also became a popular dramatic form in early decades of twentieth century. During the 1930s and 1940s, comedic theater, dedicated to escapism during the depression and war years, became as popular as drama. This genre branched out into musicals, most notably with the first of the Rodgers and Hammerstein masterpieces, Oklahoma in 1943, which helped define the musical play as a significant American art form.

Literary Style

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Farce and Melodrama
Kesselring departs from dramatic tradition in his combination of farce and melodrama. Elizabethan tragedy contain scenes that provided audiences with comic relief, but they were not part of the main action of the play. Joseph Wood Krutch, in his review of the play for the Nation, notes that Elizabethan tragedies rarely ‘‘confuse[d] the comic and the tragic, since the comic characters and the tragic ones were kept separate and we were supposed to stop laughing when the porter went off and Macbeth came on.’’ He writes that plays during the first decades of the twentieth century, including some by George M. Cohan, began to mix drama and comedy, suggesting that ‘‘the audience was expected to laugh when the corpse fell out of the closet and to regard the more extreme forms of violence as comic per se.’’


(This entire section contains 282 words.)

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adopts this modern style as he integrates farce into the dramatic structure of the play, which focuses on the Brewster sisters’ murder of eleven lonely old men who come to their home looking for lodging. The murders take place off stage and so when the comedic elements are introduced, they are less shocking. The absurdity of the body switching scene becomes pure farce, removing the focus from the acts of murder to the efforts to hide them. Since the audience does not have to watch the murders take place, they are more open to accepting Mortimer’s comedic efforts to save his aunts. The only real suggestion of violence occurs when Jonathan threatens to torture Mortimer, but that threat deteriorates into farce when Officer O’Hara appears and forces the bound Mortimer to listen to a summary of his play.

Compare and Contrast

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1941: On December 7, Japan attacks Pearl Harbor, and the United States enters World War II.

Today: The United States is engaged in a war in Iraq that is not supported by many countries around the world.

1941: On December 11, four days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Germany, along with Italy, declares war on the United States.

Today: The world is threatened by Islamic fundamentalist groups that have declared a holy war against the West. These radical groups have committed terrorist acts in several countries including the United States. The most devastating act of terrorism occurs on September 11, 2001, when terrorists fly planes into the World Trade Center Towers in New York City and into the Pentagon, killing approximately 3,000 people.

1941: Arsenic and Old Lace begins its 1,444 performance run. Audiences herald the play’s successful mixture of farce and melodrama.

Today: Films that spoof the thriller genre, like Scream, have gained significant box office success.

Media Adaptations

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• Kesselring collaborated on a successful Hollywood screen version of the play, directed by Frank Capra in 1944. The film starred Cary Grant as Mortimer, with Josephine Hull and Jean Adair recreating their stage performances.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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

Gilder, Rosamond, Review, in Theatre Arts, March 1941, pp. 185–86.

Kesselring, Joseph, Arsenic and Old Lace, Dramatists Play Service, 1995.

Krutch, Joseph Wood, ‘‘Homicide as Fun,’’ in the Nation, Vol. 152, No. 4, January 25, 1941, pp. 108–09.

Rich, Frank, ‘‘Arsenic and Old Lace Revival,’’ in the New York Times, June 27, 1986, p. C3.

Blum, Daniel C., A Pictorial History of the American Theatre, 1860–1980, Outlet, 1983. As its title suggests, this book presents representative pictures of successful productions in American theater.

Bordman, Gerald, American Theatre: A Chronicle of Comedy and Drama, 1914–1930. Oxford University Press, 1995. This volume traces the development of these two genres in American theater, providing an insightful background for an examination of the play’s roots.

Coleman, Janet, The Compass: The Improvisational Theatre That Revolutionized American Comedy, University of Chicago Press, 1991. Coleman’s study focuses on how improvisational theatrical methods influenced comedy in America.

Wilmeth, Don B., and Tice L. Miller, eds., The Cambridge Guide to American Theatre, Cambridge University Press, 1996. This comprehensive study traces the important trends in American theater.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide