Arsenic and Old Lace

by Joseph Kesselring

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Student Question

What are the themes of the play Arsenic and Old Lace?

Quick answer:

In this play, a comedy of errors and terror, the audience sees a group of aunts who have been poisoning lonely old men to save them from an unhappy married life. The main theme of the play is that these women have no regard for anyone's happiness but their own. The play opens with two police detectives going to the house of the sisters Brewster who are taking care of their brother Teddy. The boys think that it is Teddy Roosevelt who has come to visit them and they welcome him in, talking about Teddy Roosevelt all night long. Suddenly, their nephew Jonathan shows up and he tells his story as he talks to his uncle Jack as if Jonathan were Teddy Roosevelt.

Expert Answers

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A delightful combination of the sinister with the farcical, Jonathan Kesselring's play was so often performed by senior classes in high school's across the country in the 1950s and 1960s. 


The main theme that so often delighted the audiences at the high schools is the theme of the conventions of the theater.  Kesselring's presentation implies that the theater reflects life only in absurd situations.  Mortimer, for instance, claims that drama does not reflect reality; it only provides entertainment.  Kesselring's play certainly provides entertainment in a most absurd manner.  In an especially farcical scene, Mortimer describes how a character in a play he has just seen dies when a murderer captures the hero.  In so doing, he provides his brother the perfect way to murder him.


Mortimer's aunts and Uncle Teddy are all mentally ill.  While the uncle charges up the stairs in the delusion that he is Teddy Roosevelt, the aunts calmly tell Mortimer to just pretend that he has not found a dead gentleman.  They say that they hidden the body because it would not have been nice to have the Reverend Harper to have seen it; besides, they have a right to their own secrets.  And, they believe that they are doing a service to the lonely men by giving them arsenic.

Not only is Uncle Teddy insane, but his grandfather was, as well; for he created some medicines that he tested on people, to their detriment.  Of course, Jonathan is cursed, also, as he has killed twelve men.


While the aunts seem charitable as they open their home to people, giving toys to the poor children, offering lodging for strangers, and providing tea and snacks for the policemen, they also are killing people in this farce.  But, they are only "good" Christian Americans as the sisters do not want foreigners in their home, not their murderous nephew Jonathan whom they have forbidden to come to their house.  It is on this "charitable" work that the satire lies.

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