Arsenic and Old Lace

by Joseph Kesselring

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The theme of charity is satirized in the play. The Brewster sisters appear to be quite altruistic, providing help when needed for their neighbors as well as opening their door to strangers. They make soup for the sick, serve tea and cakes for the preacher and police officers, collect toys for needy children, and provide lodging for lonely old men. They must be the right kind of men though. The sisters have their own rules about how far their charity will extend.

They do not, for example, want to think about the devastation of the war in Europe, which to them has become inconvenient because it may cause them to use ‘‘that imitation flour again’’ as did the first world war. Also, the war involves foreigners, who are not acceptable to the sisters. They prefer ‘‘good’’ American Christians, more specifically Episcopalians. Methodists like Mr. Hoskins are welcomed into their homes, but only because the sisters are so ‘‘charitable.’’ Their own nephew Jonathan is not welcomed because his behavior throughout his life has been undesirable.

Of course, the greatest problem with the sisters’ charitable activities is the fact that they have murdered eleven of the lonely men who have come to their home looking for lodging. They determine that they know best what these men need, and that only through death and a good Christian service at their burial will they find the peace they deserve. The sisters, however, make the end as painless as possible as they poison the men with elderberry wine tainted with arsenic. They are pleased with the fact that one of the men actually praised the wine right before he expired.

The audience, along with Mortimer, soon learns that the sisters are as insane as the obviously deranged Teddy, who thinks that he is Teddy Roosevelt and so continually blows a bugle and charges up the staircase as if it were San Juan Hill. Because the sisters do not display such obvious outward signs, no one in the neighborhood believes Jonathan’s claims that there are twelve bodies buried in the basement. Mortimer also has difficulty believing that his aunts were responsible for the body in the window seat, blaming it instead on Teddy, until the aunts admit their responsibility.

They handle the fact that they have just committed murder quite nonchalantly, with a cool remonstration to Mortimer to ‘‘forget you ever saw the gentleman.’’ They find their actions perfectly justifiable and so go about their daily schedule. When Mortimer suggests that they did not tell the Reverend Harper about Mr. Hoskins because they felt guilty, they insist that the only reason they hid him was because it ‘‘would not be very nice’’ for the Reverend to view a body at tea. Abby adds, ‘‘I do think Martha and I have the right to our own little secrets.’’

Insanity runs in the family, as evidenced by reports of Teddy’s grandfather, a physician who made a fortune developing medicines that he tried out, sometimes with devastating results, on his patients. Jonathan also has the family curse, having killed twelve men and threatening to kill Mortimer by torturing him. He insists that his last murder was justified since the victim accused him of looking like Boris Karloff after Dr. Einstein had botched his reconstructive surgery. This genetic defect causes Mortimer to insist that he cannot marry Elaine until, to his immense relief, the aunts tell him that he is adopted.

Kesselring also satirizes the conventions of the theater as well as those who critique it. The art of the theater reflects life only in the most...

(This entire section contains 808 words.)

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absurd situations in this play. The farcical nature of the action ironically reinforces Mortimer’s claims that the theater does not reflect reality, but it certainly does provide good entertainment. This point is well proven during the absurd situation Mortimer finds himself in as he describes the plot of a play he has recently seen. He tells Jonathan and Dr. Einstein, who are trying to come up with a way to subdue Mortimer so that they can torture and kill him, exactly how the murderer captures the hero. Insisting that the characterizations reveal no imagination or any reflection of reality, Mortimer is blind to the fact that he is in the exact same situation as the play’s hero and has just given his brother the perfect method to carry out his murderous intentions.

Kesselring effectively satirizes the arrogance of theater critics in his portrayal of Mortimer who insists that he is always disappointed by the uninspired plays he is forced to review. He receives his comeuppance not only by providing Jonathan with a successful method to set him up for murder, but also as he is forced to listen all night to Officer O’Hara’s tedious summary of the play that he has written.