Arsenic and Old Lace (play)

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Arsenic and Old Lace
First edition, 1941
Written byJoseph Kesselring
CharactersMortimer Brewster
Martha Brewster
Abby Brewster
Teddy Brewster
Jonathan Brewster
The Rev. Dr. Harper
Elaine Harper
Dr. Einstein
Date premieredJanuary 10, 1941 (1941-January-10)
Place premieredFulton Theatre, Broadway
Original languageEnglish
GenreDark comedy
SettingThe living room of the Brewster home in Brooklyn. The Present.

Arsenic and Old Lace is a play by American playwright Joseph Kesselring, written in 1939. It has become best known through the 1944 film adaptation starring Cary Grant and directed by Frank Capra.

The play was produced by Lindsay and Crouse and directed by Bretaigne Windust, and opened on Broadway at the Fulton Theatre on January 10, 1941. On September 25, 1943, the play moved to the Hudson Theatre, closing there on June 17, 1944, having played 1,444 performances.[1] The West End production – directed by Marcel Varnel and produced at London's Strand Theatre – enjoyed a similarly long run.[2] Opening on December 23, 1942, and closing on March 2, 1946, it totalled 1,337 performances.[3]

Of the 12 plays written by Kesselring, Arsenic and Old Lace was by far the most successful. According to the opening night review in The New York Times, the play was "so funny that none of us will ever forget it."[4]


Boris Karloff as Jonathan Brewster

The play is a farcical black comedy revolving around the Brewster family, descended from the Mayflower settlers but now composed of maniacs, most of them homicidal. The hero, Mortimer Brewster, is a drama critic who must deal with his crazy, murderous family and local police in Brooklyn, New York, as he debates whether to go through with his recent promise to marry the woman he loves, Elaine Harper, who lives next door and is the daughter of the local minister.

His family includes two spinster aunts, Abby and Martha Brewster, 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, Teddy, 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, Jonathan, 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).

Throughout the play, Jonathan is plotting to kill his brother, in fact almost does in one scene. Mortimer is struggling to find solutions to rid his family of the crazy, eventually sending Teddy and his Aunts to a senior living home and letting Officer O'Hara deal with his brother.

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

The character Mortimer Brewster says of his family’s history that it is as if "...Strindberg wrote Hellzapoppin."


Erich von Stroheim replaced Boris Karloff as Jonathan Brewster in the original Broadway production.[5]

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 (2010) tells the story of the police officers and reporters from the Hartford Courant who solved the case.[6] 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. According to The Encyclopedia of American Humorists, Lindsay and Crouse gave the play its title by adapting the title of a Frank Sullivan humor collection called Broccoli and Old Lace.[7]

National tours[edit]

In parallel with the main Broadway run (January 10, 1941–June 17, 1944), a series of national roadshows took place, the first one in 1941–1942 which travelled to 57 cities in about 18 months,[8]: 134  opening in Chicago on April 1, 1941.[9]: 185  The cast comprised Laura Hope Crews as Abby Brewster, Effie Shannon as Martha Brewster, Angie Adams as Elaine Harper, Erich von Stroheim as Jonathan Brewster, Jack Whiting as Mortimer Brewster, and Forrest Orr as Teddy Brewster.[10] In December 1941, von Stroheim returned to New York to take over the role of Jonathan Brewster from Karloff on Broadway.[11]: 273 

A second national tour started on August 5–18, 1943 in San Francisco, then continued in Los Angeles from August 20 until October 24. The cast included Minna Phillips as Abby Brewster, Ida Moore as Martha Brewster, Louise Arthur as Elaine Harper, Bela Lugosi as Jonathan Brewster, Michael Whalen as Mortimer Brewster, and Herbert Corthell as Teddy Brewster. [12]: 178–179 

A third national tour took place on January 29, 1944 for a run of 80 performances throughout the Midwest and East Coast that lasted until June 3, 1944. The cast included Jean Adair as Abby Brewster, Ruth McDevitt as Martha Brewster, Ann Lincoln as Elaine Harper, Bela Lugosi as Jonathan Brewster, Jack Whiting as Mortimer Brewster, and Malcolm Beggs as Teddy Brewster.[12]: 179–180 

Lugosi carried on playing the role of Jonathan Brewster, in New Hope, PA (June 30–July 5, 1947);[12]: 182  in Saratoga Springs, New York (August 5, 1947);[12]: 183–184  in Sea Cliff, New York (August 9–14, 1948);[12]: 184  in Fayetteville, New York (July 11–16, 1949);[12]: 184  and in St. Louis, Missouri (January 19–25, 1954).[12]: 186  His box office returns reflected better sales than when Boris Karloff travelled through the same cities.[13][14][15]

TV adaptations[edit]

On January 5, 1955, a 60-minute version of the play aired on the CBS Television series The Best of Broadway. It starred Boris Karloff, recreating his stage role as homicidal maniac Jonathan Brewster. Helen Hayes and Billie Burke played his not-so-innocent aunts, Abby and Martha. Peter Lorre and Edward Everett Horton repeated their roles as Dr. Einstein and Mr. Witherspoon, which they had played in Frank Capra's film version. John Alexander, who created the role of Teddy Brewster on Broadway and reprised it in the film version, returned once more to play the role in the broadcast. Orson Bean played the role of Mortimer Brewster.

Karloff played Jonathan once more (and for the last time) on the February 5, 1962 broadcast of NBC's Hallmark Hall of Fame. Dorothy Stickney and Mildred Natwick played Abby and Martha. Joseph Kesselring had sent his original play, then titled Bodies in Our Cellar, to Stickney when she was starring opposite her husband Howard Lindsay on Broadway in Life with Father (opened in 1939), with a view to her playing Abby Brewster. It would be 23 years before she would finally play the part. Tony Randall played Mortimer in the Hallmark production and Tom Bosley played Teddy.

In 1969, Robert Scheerer directed a TV version with Helen Hayes and Lillian Gish as the elderly aunts, Bob Crane as Mortimer, Fred Gwynne as Jonathan, Sue Lyon as Elaine Harper and David Wayne as Teddy.[16]


Jezinky a bezinky, a Czech translation of the play in performance by the Brno City Theatre in 2012

The play was produced by the Edinburgh Gateway Company in 1959.[17] In 1966, Sybil Thorndike, Athene Seyler, Julia Lockwood and Richard Briers appeared in the play in London.[18] The play is still widely performed and has been translated into many languages, including a Russian film.[citation needed]

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.

Regional revivals[edit]

Arsenic and Old Lace with Betty Garrett, Carole Cook and Michael Stever. September 1998.


  1. ^ ​Arsenic and Old Lace​ at the Internet Broadway Database
  2. ^ "Production of Arsenic and Old Lace | Theatricalia".
  3. ^ 'Chit Chat', The Stage, 14 February 1946, p.4.
  4. ^ "Arsenic and Old Lace", Brooks Atkinson, The New York Times, 11 January 1941.
  5. ^ Erich von Stroheim at the Internet Broadway Database
  6. ^ Leavenworth, Jessica (21 March 2010). "'Devil's Rooming House' Examines 'Arsenic And Old Lace' Killings (Interview)". Hartford Courant. Retrieved 20 April 2015.
  7. ^ Gale, Steven H. (2016). The Encyclopedia of American Humorists. Routledge. p. 418. ISBN 9781315668826.
  8. ^ Noble, Peter (1950). Hollywood Scapegoat: The Biography of Erich von Stroheim (hardcover) (1st ed.). London: The Fortune Press.
  9. ^ * Mank, Gregory William (2014). "7. Libel and Old Lace". The Very Witching Time of Night: Dark Alleys of Classis Horror Cinema (softcover) (1st ed.). Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co. ISBN 978-0-7864-4955-2.
  10. ^ Arsenic and Old Lace (Theatre program/playbill). Erich von Stroheim, Laura Hope Crews, Jack Whiting, Effie Shannon. Hartford, CT: Bushnell Memorial Hall. September 18, 1941. p. 1. Archived from the original on March 17, 2022.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  11. ^ Curtiss, Thomas Quinn (1970). Erich von Stroheim (softcover) (in French) (1st ed.). Paris: Editions France-Empire.
  12. ^ a b c d e f g Rhodes, Gary Don (2006). Lugosi: His Life in Films, on Stage, and in the Hearts of Horror Lovers (softcover) (1st ed.). Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co. ISBN 978-0-7864-2765-9 – via
  13. ^ Rhodes, Gary (2007). Bela Lugosi: Dreams and nightmares. Collectables Press. ISBN 978-0-977379-81-1.
  14. ^ Kaffenberger, Bill; Rhodes, Gary (2012). No Traveler Returns: The lost years of Bela Lugosi. BearManor Media. ISBN 978-1-59393-285-5.
  15. ^ >Kaffenberger, Bill; Rhodes, Gary (2015). Bela Lugosi in Person. BearManor Media. ISBN 978-1-59393-805-5.
  16. ^ Arsenic and Old Lace (1969) at IMDb
  17. ^ Edinburgh Gateway Company (1965). The Twelve Seasons of the Edinburgh Gateway Company, 1953 - 1965 (hardcover) (1st. ed.). Edinburgh: St. Giles Press. p. 50.
  18. ^ "Production of Arsenic and Old Lace | Theatricalia".
  19. ^ Taitte, Lawson (February 11, 2011). "Buckley and Feldshuh shine in Arsenic and Old Lace". The Dallas Morning News.
  20. ^ "'Arsenic & Old Lace: Play Highlights [LGS 15-C & ITP Collaboration]". Daily Pakistan. 25 November 2016. Retrieved 25 November 2016.
  21. ^ "Maitland Repertory Theatre main page". Maitland, New South Wales, Australia.
  22. ^ Mouli, Mohua (2022-02-16). "Open Space Theatre's Arsenic and Old Lace". The Daily Star. Retrieved 2022-08-03.

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