Arsenic And Old Lace Summary

Joseph Kesselring

Arsenic And Old Lace

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

Arsenic And Old Lace Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Arsenic And Old Lace by Joseph Kesselring.

Arsenic and Old Lace is a black comedy play by American playwright Joseph Kesselring, written in 1939. Debuting on Broadway in 1941, it ran for three years and over fourteen hundred performances. The plot centers on the Brewster family, a once elite American bloodline that has now descended into homicidal insanity. Mortimer Brewster, a drama critic and the most ostensibly normal of his clan, is forced to cover up for his sadistic kin while being torn between family loyalty and his desire to marry the woman he loves. Exploring themes including family loyalty, nature versus nurture, and whether we can ever truly break away from our family’s influence, Arsenic and Old Lace was praised for its dark, screwball comedy tone with The New York Times theater critic declaring it one of the funniest plays he’d ever seen. Still widely read, studied, and performed today, it has been adapted multiple times including CBS and ABC TV movie adaptations. It is perhaps best known for the 1944 film adaptation directed by Frank Capra and starring Cary Grant as Mortimer Brewster. Revivals remain common today, and have been staged in countries ranging from Pakistan to Israel.

Arsenic and Old Lace begins in the living room of the Brewster family home, which is inhabited by Abby and Martha, spinster aunts who care for their nephew Teddy. In the play’s first moments, they meet with Reverend Dr. Harper, who mentions their other nephew, Mortimer. Mortimer and the Reverend’s daughter Elaine have been courting. The aunts and the Reverend are soon joined by two friendly police officers, Klein and Brophy, who are dropping by to pick up a charity box from the philanthropic Brewster sisters. Teddy is introduced and proves to be quite insane, although mostly harmless. The young man thinks he’s Theodore Roosevelt. The Reverend and police leave, and the family is soon joined by Mortimer, who announces that he’s accompanying Elaine to a play that night. He’s also planning to propose to her shortly. The happy family reunion doesn’t last, however, as Mortimer discovers a dead body hidden in the living room. He’s horrified and accuses Teddy of killing the man, but Abby and Martha reveal they were the killers. Not only did they poison the man with their secret stash of homemade elderberry wine, but he was only one of a dozen men they have killed this way. The sisters explain that they’re actually doing a good deed, from their perspective. They befriend lonely old men who have lost the will to live, give them a good time, and then kill them with the elderberry wine, which is laced with arsenic. They tell Mortimer not to worry, because Teddy is downstairs digging a grave in the cellar. They have told Teddy that he’s digging the “Panama Canal.”

Elaine arrives at the house, and Mortimer is anxious and worried. He tells her that he’ll have to break their date for the theater because of a pressing family matter, and they briefly argue before she leaves. Mortimer’s brother Jonathan arrives next, accompanied by his mad surgeon friend named Dr. Einstein. Jonathan, a sadistic career criminal, has had his face changed by Einstein to look like Boris Karloff. Teddy invites Einstein down to the cellar to inspect his digging work. Einstein returns and tells Jonathan that there’s a hole big enough to bury Mr. Spenalzo, Jonathan’s latest victim, once everyone goes to sleep. Jonathan and Einstein head out to the car to retrieve the body, and this leads to a farcical segment as people move bodies back and forth, trying to avoid detection. When the lights finally come up, the entire family realizes there’s not one but two dead bodies in the house.  The family members begin hurling accusations and threats at each other. Because of the noise at the house, the family is visited from Officer O’Hara, who checks in to make sure there’s no criminal activity. After he sees nothing out of sorts, he corners Mortimer, who works as a drama critic, to discuss a play that O’Hara is writing. Lieutenant Rooney, O’Hara’s superior, joins them, and immediately recognizes Jonathan as a recently escaped convict from a prison for the criminally insane. Jonathan tries to buy his freedom by selling out his family, but the police do not believe his claims about dead bodies in the cellar. Teddy, still acting as President Roosevelt is deemed insane by the officers, and is taken to Happy Dale Sanitarium, while Einstein escapes entirely. Mortimer still has to deal with the problem of his aunts, but is pleasantly surprised when they agree to go to Happy Dale with Teddy. Before they go, they tell Mortimer that he’s actually not a Brewster—he’s an illegitimate child and won’t pass the congenital Brewster insanity onto his own children after marrying Elaine. Ecstatic, Mortimer goes to find Elaine. The play closes as Abby and Martha meet with the visiting head of Happy Dale and offer him a glass of their homemade elderberry wine.

Joseph Otto Kesselring was an American playwright best known for Arsenic and Old Lace, his most enduring work. In all, he wrote twelve original plays, four of which were performed on Broadway—There’s Wisdom in Women, Four Twelves are 48, and Mother of that Wisdom. Many of his plays contained a strong anti-elite and isolationist message. He is honored today by the National Arts Club, which created the Joseph Kesselring Prize for up-and-coming playwrights in 1980, which has been won by luminaries of stage including Tony Kushner and Anna Deavere Smith.