Arsenic and Old Lace

by Joseph Kesselring

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Student Question

What is Mortimer's profession in Arsenic and Old Lace?

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A farcical play with macabre overtones, Arsenic and Old Lace, written in 1939, portrays two eccentric spinster aunts, who charitably murder lonely and alienated people. When their nephew Mortimer, who is a dramatic critic brings his fiancee to meet his lovable aunts, he is completely unsuspecting of them. Instead, he ironically boasts that he is far more intelligent than the plays about which he must write.

The aunts provide their unhappy guests with elderberry wine, arsenic, strychnine, and a pinch of cyanide while Mortimer's brother, who believes himself Theodore Roosevelt, digs ditches for the Panama Canal, which become the tombs of their distressed men. Certainly, the comedy begins with Mortimer's discovery of what the aunts have been doing as he lifts a cushion in the window seat and discovers a body. When he considers the murderous character of his aunts, along with his crazy siblings, one of whom thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt, and the other, an escaped convict who has undergone surgery, but now resembles Boris Karloff.

One of the funniest lines in this black comedy comes from the mouth of the Irish policemen, Officer O'Hara, who with Officer Brody are two bumbling officers, who do not recognize the criminals in their midst. When Mortimer tries to tell O'Hara who the men are that scream, Johnathan hurriedly provides his acceptance of these characters:

JONATHAN: Don't listen to him officer, he is dangerous

O'HARA:  Huh?

JONATHAN: That's why we had to tie him up.  He's the lowest kind of possession

         O'HARA:  A dramatic critic?

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