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A Play about Plays

By Heidi Madsen

A somewhat unsuccessful and inconspicuous playwright by the name of Joseph Kesselring wrote an insane frolic and christened it Bodies in our Cellars—the title suggests a tale of horror—and truly, malefaction and macabre accounts of torture were to be found amongst the script’s pages. This script, in its original state, was sent to the residence of producer Howard Lindsay (Anything Goes, The Sound of Music) actually in hopes that Lindsay’s wife, actress Dorothy Stickney would play one of the “dear, demented old sisters whose method of showing compassion to lonely elderly men is to solace them with a drink of poisoned elderberry wine” (Cornelia Otis Skinner, Life with Lindsay and Crouse [Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976], 187). However, it caught the attention of Lindsay, who then sent a copy and the following wire to his partner and collaborator Russell Crouse: “Shake your head, take a cup of coffee and read further. Have just read play about two charming old ladies who go around murdering old men. Very funny. How would you like to be a producer?” To which Russell wired back, “Buy it” (Skinner, 188).

As he lovingly stamped and mailed the envelope containing this auspicious work, author Kesselring probably never anticipated the evolutions his play would undergo, or to what heights of theatrical success his play would soar—at least, that altered semblance of his own original infrastructure of authorship and composition.

The script was revolutionized by the voraciously creative duo of producers who saw irresistible potential in the black comedy Bodies in our Cellars. It was to become Arsenic and Old Lace, and Joseph Kesselring, despite the extreme care taken to give full credit at all times to the playwright (Skinner, 188), was more or less overrun and ultimately left behind in the dust of obscurity. Fascinating renovations and additions were installed, until, in the end, it was more a play about plays—a satire on theatre and its genres and histrionic elements, how themes are developed, and through what devices and characters.

In Arsenic and Old Lace everybody does theatrical things in one way or another. Jonathan, partly through his own evil inclinations and partly through chance, winds up playing a Boris Karloff character in real life; Teddy’s insanity takes the form of pretending to be Teddy Roosevelt—one of the greatest showmen who ever occupied the White House; Doctor Einstein’s job is to see that people can enter the Brewster house with one face and leave it with another (plastic surgery in lieu of makeup); and Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha are perhaps the most consummate actors of all—seemingly sweet old women who kill as many men as their criminally insane nephew. Perhaps the most interesting message from this mix of stage techniques and traditions is that most of these performers manage to convince themselves of their own truthfulness, no matter how far from reality they wander.

Einstein: “You shouldn’t have killed him Johnny. He’s a nice fellow—he gives us a lift—and what happens?” Johnny: “He said I looked like Boris KarloffÉ!” A hesitant Boris Karloff, famous for his frightening screen personification of Frankenstein and other chilling roles, was recruited by Crouse and Lindsay to play the nightmarish Jonathon (who has had his face, though not intentionally, lifted to resemble that nefarious face of Karloff’s). The actor too, was “enchanted by the idea of making fun of himself” (Cynthia Lindsay, Dear Boris: The Life of William Henry Pratt a.k.a. [New York: Proscenium Publishers, 1975], 117), but to play the part he had to put aside his fear of the stage and of acting in front of a live audience.

Arsenic and Old Lace opened at the Fulton Theatre in 1941, and ran in New York for over three years. Reviewers and drama critics raved. Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times wrote, “Let’s not exaggerate! At some time there may have been a funnier murder charade than Arsenic and Old Lace . . . but the supposition is purely academic. Joseph Kesselring has written one so funny none of us will ever forget it” (George Freedley, The Anta Series of Distinguished Plays: Three Plays About Crime and Criminals [New York: Washington Square Press, 1962], 3). The New York Post said it was “guaranteed to make even dramatic critics care about theatre” (Freedley, 3). The lead player, Mortimer Brewster, is of course a dramatic critic—an occupation that is some cause for concern for his future father-in-law, although Aunt Abby Brewster entreats him not to think harshly of poor Mortimer because “somebody has to do those things” (1.1.41 all references are to line numbers are from The Anta Series of Distinguished Plays: Three Plays About Crime and Criminals). Russell Crouse and Harold Lindsay never allowed the show to get stale. They frequently visited even road productions “using their finely tuned ears to fix spots, where, because of an actor’s carelessness or through a shift of emphasis, the laughs no longer worked” (Peter Hay, Broadway Anecdotes [New York: Oxford University Press, 1989], 283).

In 1944, Frank Capra directed a motion picture version with Cary Grant and Josephine Hall. Though Grant believed that he overplayed his character, Mortimer (Nancy Nelson, Evenings with Cary Grant: Recollections in his own words and by those who knew him best [New York: William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1991],126), the film also was a tremendous success and has ensured the immortality of, rightfully, Joseph Kesselring’s fabulously sinisterArsenic and Old Lace.

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The 39 Steps

June 22 - October 5, 2024

Randall L. Jones Theatre

The Taming of the Shrew

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Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre

The Winter's Tale

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Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre

Henry VIII

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Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre

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Silent Sky

July 12 - October 5, 2024

Eileen and Allen Anes Studio Theatre

Much Ado About Nothing

June 21 - October 5, 2024

Randall L. Jones Theatre

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