71 pages 2 hours read

Joseph Kesselring

Arsenic and Old Lace

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1941

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Summary and Study Guide


Arsenic and Old Lace is a three-act, farcical dark comedy by American playwright Joseph Kesselring. It made its Broadway debut in 1941 and enjoyed a successful three-year run. The play was made famous by the 1944 film adaptation directed by Frank Capra and starring Cary Grant as Mortimer Brewster. It is still commonly read and performed today.

This guide correlates to the official script published by Dramatists Play Service Inc.

Page numbers in your edition may vary slightly.

Please be advised that Arsenic and Old Lace features outdated and insensitive portrayals of psychiatric conditions.

Plot Summary

The entirety of Arsenic and Old Lace takes place in the Brewster family home. It is inhabited by spinsters Abby and Martha Brewster and their nephew Teddy Brewster, who thinks he is President Theodore Roosevelt. Abby and Martha chat with local Reverend Dr. Harper, whose daughter Elaine is in a relationship with their other nephew, Mortimer Brewster. Harper hopes to help the aunts place Teddy at Happy Dale Sanitarium to ensure he will be safe after they pass away.

Mortimer, a theater critic, soon arrives to take Elaine out to see a play. He also informs Abby and Martha of their recent engagement. As Mortimer prepares to leave, he stumbles upon the dead body of an older man in the living room. Horrified, Mortimer rushes to tell Abby and Martha, assuming Teddy was responsible. Much to his shock, his aunts confess to the murder, saying that it is one of many they carried out. They have a special stock of poisoned, home-brewed elderberry wine, which they serve to any lonely old men they encounter. Once the unlucky visitor passes away, Abby and Martha bury him in the cellar, where Teddy digs graves that he believes to be the Panama Canal. Abby and Martha see their actions as a service—they assume these men live sad and lonely lives, and believe they are putting them out of their misery.

When Elaine returns for their date, a flustered Mortimer cancels, vaguely citing family issues. As Elaine angrily leaves, Mortimer’s brother Jonathan arrives with his friend Dr. Einstein, a plastic surgeon with a penchant for experimentation. Jonathan is a longtime criminal, so Einstein regularly changes his face to evade capture. Einstein’s most recent surgery left his face resembling actor Boris Karloff, so Jonathan hopes to undergo another operation in the Brewster home. Mortimer tries to make them leave, since his relationship with Jonathan is contentious, but Abby and Martha are coerced into allowing him to stay. After observing Teddy’s work in the cellar, Einstein tells Jonathan that there is ample space to bury Mr. Spenalzo, Jonathan’s latest victim. The two bury him in the “canal” after the family goes to bed.

Later that evening, everyone is surprised to learn there are now two bodies in the house. This launches a massive argument that draws the attention of Officer O’Hara. O’Hara, an aspiring playwright, is oblivious to the chaos in the house and is more interested in utilizing Mortimer’s connections in the theater world. In an attempt to remain undiscovered, Jonathan ties Mortimer to a chair in order to kill him. Mortimer is stuck there through the night as the oblivious O’Hara drones on about his play. Mortimer is finally able to escape upon the arrival of O’Hara’s fellow officers, Brophy and Klein. They bring their supervisor, Lieutenant Rooney. Rooney immediately recognizes Jonathan as a wanted escapee from an Indiana prison for convicts with psychiatric conditions. Jonathan tries to evade arrest by telling the cops about the bodies in the cellar, but they refuse to believe him and he is re-captured. Teddy, still in his Roosevelt persona, is ordered to go to Happy Dale Sanitarium. Abby and Martha oppose this, saying they refuse to be separated from their nephew. Mortimer is relieved to hear that they will join Teddy at the sanitarium voluntarily. Einstein is able to escape during all the commotion.

As they prepare to leave, Abby and Martha confess that Mortimer is an illegitimate child and is not a direct descendent of the Brewsters, who trace their lineage back to the arrival of the Mayflower. Mortimer, who shunned Elaine out of fear of passing on Brewster family conditions to their future children, welcomes her back. The curtain closes on Abby and Martha as they offer the visiting Happy Dale Superintendent a glass of their homemade elderberry wine.