Arsenic and Old Lace is now included in my list of favorite plays. It was entertaining from start to finish. I didn’t want it to end. I never knew what was coming next, and the characters were all fantastic.

About the Author

Joseph Kesselring was born in New York City on June 21, 1902. He was brought up around the theater, and was directing amateur plays, teaching voice, and producing Vaudeville plays by the age of 23. When he was 31, he decided to be a full-time playwright. He wrote 12 plays, but the most famous one is Arsenic and Old Lace. Most of his other plays received less-than-positive reviews, but his most famous play still lives on.

Why I Read

I read it because I pulled it off a shelf in the $1 section of a used bookstore. Since I had heard of it, I bought it, despite the fact that the book is in rather terrible condition; the spine is splintering, the front cover is yellowing, and it has signs of water damage. But, I figured that it was only $1, so I may as well buy it, especially since I knew it to be somewhat of a classic.

About The Play

***If you have not read it or seen the movie and don’t know anything about it, skip this part. Although I’m not putting major spoilers, making discoveries along with the characters is what made this play so fun for me.***

This play is known as a farcical black comedy. It takes place in the Brewster household, a bed and breakfast run by two sweet, elderly spinsters, Martha and Abby. They are both Aunts to Mortimer, a drama critic who has come to reveal his engagement to his girlfriend, Elaine. The two are blissfully in love. Mortimer has two brothers; one is living in the house and is not in his right mind. He believes himself to be Teddy Roosevelt.

On the day that Mortimer goes to his aunts’ house to reveal his engagement, he opens up the hollow bench of the window seat and discovers the dead body of a man. Assuming that his brother has taken his delusions of being president in a time of war too far, he goes straight to his aunts. To his complete and utter horror, his aunts casually tell him that it wasn’t Teddy, but it was they who had killed the man. They have a ritual; when a man comes into their house to rent a room, they slip cyanide into his drink while “getting to know him.” Then, they give the body to Teddy, who believes them to be men who fell victim to yellow fever while building the Panama Canal. He proceeds to bury them.

Mortimer is trying to process this information when his infamous brother Jonathan shows up, along with the famous plastic surgeon Dr. Hermann Einstein, who has a very evident drinking problem.

Jonathon’s face has been heavily remodeled by Dr. Einstein while under the influence of alcohol, and he now resembles Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster (it should be noted that this was made even funnier by the fact that Boris Karloff originated this role on Broadway.) It is revealed that Jonathan is a serial killer on the lam and must find a place to dispense the body of his latest victim. Martha and Abby oppose taking in the body of a stranger, saying that all of their victims are “nice men”, and they don’t want to take in a “foreigner”. Jonathan then reveals his intentions to kill Mortimer.

Elaine, ignorant of the situation, returns to the house and tries to get Mortimer to leave with her. Mortimer refuses, as he is secretly trying to take control of the situation, and Elaine is bewildered. He tries to discreetly alert the police about the situation, but the officer proves himself to be inept at his job. Mortimer calls man who runs Happydale Mental Institution to have Teddy committed, partially to get the attention off of his aunts and the dead bodies that are now piling up around them.

Realizing the fact that he most likely has some sort of genetic disposition to severe mental illness, he tells Elaine that he can’t marry her. She becomes very upset and runs off.

I won’t give away the ending here, but more madness ensues, and I found the ending to be very satisfying.

Final Thoughts

There was a surprise at every turn.

It is said that effective stories are told about either ordinary characters in extraordinary circumstances, or extraordinary characters in ordinary circumstances. I felt that this was extraordinary characters creating an extraordinary circumstance for one ordinary character.

It was unpredictable, funny, and outrageous, yet it was written in such a way that I believed it could be possible to be happening to my next door neighbor.



A young man full of life and love. Wants so much to believe that he’s just a normal guy who has not inherited any of his family’s insanity. Yearns to live a normal life with a normal marriage to the love of his life, but is willing to sacrifice his love in order to keep her safe from the madness. His occupation is as a drama critic.

Abby and Martha

I’m putting these two as one because they operate as one. They honestly believe that they are regular people, and that their morbid hobby is just that – a hobby. They see nothing wrong with what they do, and enjoy it.


Mortimer’s brother who believes that he is Teddy Roosevelt during the war. Known as the town looney, and it is mentioned that the other residents of the town think he should be in a mental institution. He is left alone to finish off Abby and Martha’s business because everyone thinks that he is just delusional, rather than actually covering for their horrific endeavors.


Mortimer’s fiance. She is energetic, vivacious, and head-over-heels in love with Mortimer. She is very enthusiastic about getting married to Mortimer, but gets upset when he starts to show trepidation.


Mortimer’s other brother. A psychopathic maniac serial killer, who plans for Mortimer to be his next victim. Has had his face altered by his drunken sidekick, Dr. Hermann Einstein, and now resembles Boris Karloff as Frankenstein.

Dr. Hermann Einstein

A plastic surgeon and alcoholic. Has taken up a life of crime with Jonathan, but is not entirely aware of everything because of his drinking problem.

Officer O’Hara

The bumbling police officer who shows up at the house because of the distress call, but all he really wants is for Mortimer to read the play that he wrote.

Lieutenant Rooney

A tougher police officer.

Officers Klein and Brophy

More inept police officers.

Mr. Witherspoon

The superintendent at the sanatorium, Happydale. He wants to get Teddy into his facility.

Mr. Gibbs

A man who wishes to rent a room from Abby and Martha, who plot to involve him in their scheme.

The Rev. Dr. Harper

Elaine’s strict father.

Stay tuned for next week’s Plays for Players piece! If you’ve read  Arsenic and Old Lace, let me know what you thought of it down in the comments below!

Want more Plays for Players? Check out these links below:

Plays for Players:

The Tempest


Plays for Players:

You Can’t Take it With You


Plays for Players:

The Foreigner

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