Arsenic and Old Lace

by Joseph Kesselring

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The major actions in Acts I, II, and III of Arsenic and Old Lace


In Act I of Arsenic and Old Lace, Mortimer discovers his aunts' deadly secret. Act II involves Mortimer's frantic efforts to prevent more murders while dealing with his brother Jonathan's return. In Act III, the situation escalates as Mortimer tries to resolve the chaos, leading to the eventual arrest of Jonathan and the revelation of Mortimer's true parentage.

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What is the major action in Act I of Arsenic and Old Lace?

Act I of this farcical and macabre play takes place entirely in the Brewster house in Brooklyn where the two spinster aunts of Motimer Brewster reside.  Mortimer, ironically, a dramatic critic, arrives with an announcement that he is going to wed Elaine, the minister's daughter.  Of course, the aunts are delighted and ask Mortimer to bring her for dinner, but he declines, saying that he has to cover a play tonight entitled,  Murder Will Out.  "I'll bet I can write the review without even seeing it," he tells his aunts which turns out to be dramatic irony.  Disparaging the plot of the play, Mortimer suggests how it will be played out, perhaps with a body in a window seat such as the one they have.  When he opens the lid of the window seat, however, Johnathan discovers just that--a dead body.  Horrified, he tells his aunts that there is a dead body in the window seat, but they calmly acknowledge, "Yes, dear, we know."

Of course, Mortimer is taken aback by this acknowledgement.  So, Aunt Martha explains that they have gotten into the practice of helping the lonely men who come to their house to rent Mortimer's empty room find peace by having them drink elderberry wine laced with strychnine and "a pinch of cyanide."  When Mortimer tells his aunts that they cannot give men poison elderberry wine, they say, "We don't stop you from things you like."

In the meantime, the black sheep of the family, Jonathan, whose face now resembles Boris Karloff, sneaks into the house with a Dr. Einstein, a fellow miscreant who has operated on Jonathan's face in order to disguise him since "things got too hot" in Chicago.  They, also, have a dead body, a Mr. Spenalzo who recognized Jonathan when he and Einstein hitched a ride with him.  When they discover the "Panama Canal" that uncle Teddy has dug in his belief that he is President Roosevelt, they decide that they will later put Spenalzo in this canal.  But, for now, they place him in the window seat just recently vacated by Mr. Hoskins whom the aunts quickly remove while Jonathan and the doctor are at their car.  They have told Teddy that the man has died of yellow fever and must be buried.  After Jonathan places Mr. Spenalzo in the window seat, Mortimer surreptitiously returns to try to hide Mr. Hoskins only to discover that there is another man in the window seat.  When he asks Aunt Abby about him, she says that he is a total stranger, and, to Mortimer's questioning, she indignantly replies, "Darling, you don't think I'd stoop to telling a fib?"

Mortimer groans as the act ends. So the major action is the discovery, hiding, and removal of bodies.

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What are the major actions in act 2 and 3 of Arsenic and Old Lace?

In Act II of Arsenic and Old Lace, Dr. Einstein discovers twelve dead bodies in the cellar.  The aunts refuse to let Jonathan bury a stranger with their friends. Angered that his relatives have managed to kill as many as he without even leaving their home, an enraged and insane Jonathan vows to kill a thirteenth. In the meantime, the doctor has followed the descriptions of Mortimer who ridicules the murder dramas he criticizes and ties and gags the equally unsuspecting Mortimer. The doctor and Jonathan are ready to drink a toast to each other with the elderberry wine when Officer Hardy knocks on the door in response to complaints of Uncle Teddy's loud blowing of his bugle.  When the policman notices the gagged Mortimer, the doctor explains that Mortimer has merely been dramatizing one of the plays he has criticized. O'Hara begins to describe a play he himself is writing; fortunately, however, Officer Brophy enters and becomes aware that Mortimer is choking.  When he loosens the restrains upon Mortimer, Jonathan tells the policeman not to listen to Mortimer because he is dangerous:

JONATHAN That's why we had to tie him up. He's the lowest kind of person in the whole world.

O"HARA   A dramatic critic?

When Jonathan tries to tell the police that the aunts are murderers, O'Hara recognizes Jonathan as the murderer who looks like Boris Karloff; Jonathan then tries to choke him to death.  But, Brophy clubs him over the head, and they start to drag him to the patrol car, but O'Hara asks, "What about the bodies?"  Brophy replies that this statement of Jonathan just shows how crazy he is.  Mortimer reminds the policemen of Dr. Einstein who is probably fleeing.

In the meantime, Dr. Witherspoon from the mental asylum, Happy Dale,  arrives to pick up Uncle Teddy.  Mortimer has arranged for his aunts to accompany Teddy so they can "be close to him." At this news, the aunts are elated, offering Mortimer the house since he is going to marry Elaine. Remembering Elaine is outside, he runs to tell her that insanity runs in his family and he cannot marry her. Just then, Witherspoon notices the elderberry wine; the aunts offer him some and the curtain falls. 

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