Arsenic and Old Lace (play)  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Arsenic and Old Lace is a play by American playwright Joseph Kesselring, written in 1939. It has become best known through the film adaptation starring Cary Grant and directed by Frank Capra. The play was directed by Bretaigne Windust, and opened on 10 January 1941. On 25 September 1943, the play moved to the Hudson Theater. It closed there on 17 June 1944 having played 1,444 performances. Of the twelve plays written by Kesselring, Arsenic and Old Lace was the most successful.


The opening night cast consisted of:

  • Jean Adair (Martha Brewster)
  • John Alexander (Teddy Brewster)
  • Wyrley Birch (The Rev. Dr. Harper)
  • Helen Brooks (Elaine Harper)
  • Bruce Gordon (Officer Klein)
  • Henry Herbert (Mr. Gibbs)
  • Josephine Hull (Abby Brewster)
  • Allyn Joslyn (Mortimer Brewster)
  • Boris Karloff (Jonathan Brewster)
  • William Parke (Mr. Witherspoon)
  • John Quigg (Officer Brophy)
  • Anthony Ross (Officer O'Hara)
  • Edgar Stehli (Dr. Einstein)
  • Victor Sutherland (Lieutenant Rooney)

When Kesselring taught at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, he lived in a boarding house called the Goerz House, and many of the features of its living room are reflected in the Brewster sisters' living room, where the action of the play is set. The Goerz House is now the home of the college president.

The 'murderous old lady' plot line may also have been inspired by actual events that occurred in a house in Windsor, Connecticut, where a woman, Amy Archer-Gilligan, took in boarders and allegedly poisoned them for their pensions. Kesselring originally conceived the play as a heavy drama, but a friend, reading the half-finished play, convinced him it would be much more effective as a comedy.

In 1966, Sybil Thorndike, Athene Seyler and Richard Briers appeared in the play in London. The play is still widely performed and has been translated into many languages, including a Russian film. A revival of the play ran from June 26, 1986 to January 3, 1987 at the 46th Street Theatre in New York.


The play is a farcical black comedy revolving around Mortimer Brewster, a drama critic who must deal with his crazy, homicidal family and local police in Brooklyn, NY, as he debates whether to go through with his recent promise to marry the woman he loves. His family includes two spinster aunts who have taken to murdering lonely old men by poisoning them with a glass of home-made elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine, and "just a pinch" of cyanide; a brother who believes he is Teddy Roosevelt and digs locks for the Panama Canal in the cellar of the Brewster home (which then serve as graves for the aunts' victims); and a murderous brother who has received plastic surgery performed by an alcoholic accomplice, Dr. Einstein (a character based on real-life gangland surgeon Joseph Moran) to conceal his identity and now looks like horror-film actor Boris Karloff (a self-referential joke, as the part was originally played by Karloff). The film adaptation follows the same basic plot, with a few minor changes. It is customary, after the cast takes several curtain calls, for the final one to finish with the "murder victims" (often well-known local personalities) entering from the basement and joining the cast for the final bow.

August Strindberg was referred to by Mortimer when he compares the stories of his eccentric, and frequently murderous and disturbed, family to be like "if Strindberg wrote Hellzapoppin'."

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Arsenic and Old Lace (play)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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