Arsenic and Old Lace (play)

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Arsenic and Old Lace
Written by Joseph Kesselring
Characters Mortimer Brewster
Martha Brewster
Abby Brewster
Teddy Brewster
Jonathan Brewster
The Rev. Dr. Harper
Elaine Harper
Dr. Einstein
Date premiered January 10, 1941 (1941-January-10)
Place premiered Fulton Theatre (later named Helen Hayes Theatre)
Original language English
Genre Dark Comedy
Setting The living room of the Brewster home in Brooklyn. The Present.

Arsenic and Old Lace is a play by the 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 January 10, 1941. On September 25, 1943, the play moved to the Hudson Theater. It closed there on June 17, 1944, having played 1,444 performances.[1]

Of the twelve plays written by Kesselring, Arsenic and Old Lace was the most successful, and, according to the opening night review in The New York Times, the play was "so funny that none of us will ever forget it."[2]


File:Boris Karloff Arsenic and Old Lace Broadway.jpg
Boris Karloff as Jonathan Brewster

The play is a farcical black comedy revolving around the Brewster family, descended from the "Mayflower," but now composed of insane homicidal maniacs. The hero, Mortimer Brewster, is 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 Theodore Roosevelt and digs locks for the Panama Canal in the cellar of the Brewster home (which then serve as graves for the aunts' victims; he thinks that they died of Yellow Fever); 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 on Broadway by Karloff).

The film adaptation follows the same basic plot, with a few minor changes.

August Strindberg is referenced by the character Mortimer Brewster when he compares the stories of his eccentric, and frequently murderous and disturbed, family as being as if "...Strindberg wrote Hellzapoppin'."


The opening night cast consisted of:


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 on Prospect St in Windsor, Connecticut, where a woman, Amy Archer-Gilligan, took in boarders, promising "lifetime care", and poisoned them for their pensions. M. William Phelps book The Devil's Rooming House tells the story of the police officers and reporters from the Hartford Courant who solved the case.[3] Kesselring originally conceived the play as a heavy drama, but it is widely believed that producers Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse (who were also well known as play doctors) convinced Kesselring that it would be much more effective as a comedy.

TV adaptation

On January 5, 1955, a 60-minute version of the play aired on the CBS Television series The Best of Broadway.


File:Jezinky a bezinky MdB.jpg
Jezinky a bezinky, a Czech translation of the play in performance by the Brno City Theatre in 2012

Later revivals in the 40's and 50's had Bela Lugosi playing the role of Jonathan Brewster with box office returns reflecting better sales than when Boris Karloff traveled through the same cities.[4][5][6]

In 1965, 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 Broadway revival of the play ran from June 26, 1986, to January 3, 1987, at the 46th Street Theatre in New York, starring Polly Holliday, Jean Stapleton, Tony Roberts and Abe Vigoda. A recent revival was mounted in February 2011 at the Dallas Theater Center starring Betty Buckley and Tovah Feldshuh.[7] The Fulton Theatre in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia staged a joint production revival in 2014, starring Mary Martello and Jane Ridley as the two sisters, and Laurent Giroux as Dr. Einstein.[1] A Hebrew version was staged at the Habima Theatre in Tel Aviv with the opening night on October 29, 2012, with Lea Koenig and Dvora Kaydar in the main roles.

Further reading

  • Bela Lugosi In Person by Bill Kaffenberger and Gary D. Rhodes (2015) BearManor Media, ISBN 1593938055
  • No Traveler Returns: The Lost Years of Bela Lugosi by Bill Kaffenberger and Gary D. Rhodes (2012) BearManor Media, ISBN 1593932855
  • Bela Lugosi: Dreams and Nightmares by Gary D. Rhodes, with Richard Sheffield, (2007) Collectables/Alpha Video Publishers, ISBN 0-9773798-1-7 (hardcover)


  1., Internet Broadway Database.
  2. "Arsenic and Old Lace", Brooks Atkinson, The New York Times, 11 January 1941.
  3. Leavenworth, Jessica (21 March 2010). "'Devil's Rooming House' Examines 'Arsenic And Old Lace' Killings (Interview)". Hartford Courant. Retrieved 20 April 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Rhodes, Gary (2007). Bela Lugosi: Dreams and Nightmares. Collectables Press. ISBN 0977379817.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Kaffenberger, Bill; Rhodes, Gary (2012). No Traveler Returns: The Lost Years of Bela Lugosi. BearManor Media. ISBN 1593932855.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Kaffenberger, Bill; Rhodes, Gary (2015). Bela Lugosi In Person. BearManor Media. ISBN 1593938055.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "Buckley and Feldshuh shine in Arsenic and Old Lace", Lawson Taitte,The Dallas Morning News, February 11, 2011.

External links