Joseph Kesselring

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Joseph Otto Kesselring (July 21, 1902 – November 5, 1967) was an American playwright known best for Arsenic and Old Lace, a hit on Broadway from 1939 to 1944 and other countries as well. He was born in New York City to Henry and Frances Kesselring. His father's parents were immigrants from Germany. His mother was an English Canadian.[1] Kesselring spent much of his life in and around the theater. In 1922 he began teaching vocal music and directed stage productions at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas a Mennonite school. After two years, Kesselring left teaching and returned to the stage, working for two years with an amateur theatrical group in Niagara, New York.[2] He began working as a freelance playwright in 1933, completing 12 original plays, of which four were produced on Broadway: There's Wisdom in Women (1935), Arsenic and Old Lace (1939), Four Twelves are 48 (1951), and Mother of that Wisdom (1963). "Arsenic and Old Lace" was his masterpiece. It ran for 1444 performances on Broadway and 1337 performances in London, and became a staple on the high school and dinner theater circuits. The movie version released in 1944 was also a comedy hit.

In 1939 America's old WASP elite came under ridicule in Kesserling's smash Broadway comedy hit, "Arsenic and Old Lace." The play appeared at a time of strong isolationist sentiment regarding European affairs, of the sort that was very strong at Bethel College. The play suggested that the elite running America had a murderous heritage.[3] Kesserling lived in a college house that resembled the set of "Arsenic and Old Lace," and locals have tried to identify who were some of some of the character models he used. Kesserling was an Episcopalian who did not fit in well with the straight-laced college. He moved on in 1924.[4]

Kesselring died in Kingston, New York in 1967 at the age of 65.

In 1980, the National Arts Club created the Joseph Kesselring Prize for up-and-coming playwrights. It was funded by Kesselring's widow, Charlotte. Among the playwrights who have won the prize are Tony Kushner, David Adjmi, Doug Wright, Anna Deavere Smith, David Auburn, Rajiv Joseph, Melissa James Gibson, Jo Carson, Nicky Silver, David Lindsay-Abaire, José Rivera, Naomi Wallace, Philip Kan Gotanda, Kira Obolensky, Tracey Scott Wilson, and Marion McClinton.[5][6]


  1. US Census 1920, New York Borough of Manhattan, enumeration district 913,Sheet 19A
  2. Dramaturgy: Notes from the Director, Methacton Community Theater website. Retrieved February 19, 2010.
  3. Matthew C. Gunter (2012). The Capra Touch: A Study of the Director's Hollywood Classics and War Documentaries, 1934-1945. McFarland. pp. 49–51.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. See Keith L. Sprunger, "Another Look Another Look: Joseph Kesselring, Bethel College, and the Origins of Arsenic and Old Lace, Menonnite Life (May, 2013).
  5. Cox, Gordon (February 13, 2009). "Kesselring Fellowship honors duo; Playwrights Rajiv Joseph, David Adjmi awarded". Variety. Retrieved April 3, 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. The Kesselring Fellowship, The National Arts Club, The Exchange website. Retrieved February 19, 2010.

External links