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About the Playwright: Arsenic and Old Lace

By Stephanie Chidester

Joseph Otto Kesselring was born in New York City on June 21, 1902. His career was always linked in some way to the theatre. At the age of twenty, he began teaching music and directing amateur theatre productions at Bethel College in Newton, Kansas; at twenty-three, he left academia to pursue acting, writing short stories, and producing vaudeville plays; and at thirty-one—one year after his marriage to Charlotte Elsheimer—he devoted himself to writing, continuing to pen short stories and initiating his career as a playwright.

Between 1933 and his death in 1967, he authored twelve plays—mostly light comedies. His first play to be produced, Aggie Appleby, Maker of Men, premiered in 1933, and four later plays were produced on Broadway:There’s Wisdom in Women (1935), Arsenic and Old Lace (1941), Four Twelves Are 48 (1951), and Mother of That Wisdom (1963).

However, most of these received little positive attention. Brooks Atkinson’s review of There’s Wisdom in Women was less than glowing: “Two women, one man and a faithful friend loitering hopefully around the corner, a few smashing bars of concerto music, some reasonably bawdy conversation, and there you have the pattern of a comedy by Joseph O. Kesselring. . . . You have also, a formula for routine playwrighting that needs the breeziest lines . . . to keep it on the bright side of entertainment. . . . But is Mr. Kesselring’s wisdom of women old hat or comedy con brio? The question is difficult to answer simply, but there is too much old hat in it for the comfort of this play reviewer” (“There’s Wisdom in Women: A Comedy in Three Acts.” The New York Times 31 Oct. 1935: 17).

Walter Kerr’s review of Four Twelves Are 48 was even more cutting: “[Kesselring has] conceived a comic situation which takes precisely four minutes’ acting time to exploit. . . . I believe Mr. Kesselring once wrote plays for what is known as the amateur market, and if so he has come down with an occupational complaint. A writer for the amateur market is under injunction to avoid, as the plague, Sex and Swearing.

After some years of feeling unduly bound by these limitations, and prostrate from the effort to think up new twists on the junior prom, he fondly begins to imagine that all he has to do to make his work professional is to add the missing ingredients. Whereupon he adds them in the lavish manner of a little boy who is determined to show that he has grown up, his play closes, and he is right back at the junior prom. Whether or not this may be fairly said of Mr. Kesselring, Four Twelves Are 48 had a strong air of the junior prom packed up with illegitimacy” (“Four Twelves Are 48.” Commonweal 9 February 1951: 477).

Only one of Kesselring’s efforts met with any real success with critics and audiences. When Arsenic and Old Lace premiered on Broadway in 1941, theatre critic Brooks Atkinson was frankly surprised by the quality of the script: “Nothing in Mr. Kesselring’s record has prepared us for the humor and ingenuity of Arsenic and Old Lace. He wrote There’s Wisdom in Women in 1935 and Cross Town in 1937. But his murder drama is compact with plot and comic situation. . . . The lines are bright. The story is mad and unhackneyed.

Although the scene is always on the verge of macabre and the atmosphere is horribly ominous, Mr. Kesselring does not have to stoop to clutching hands, pistol shots or lethal screams to get his effects. He has written a murder play as legitimate as farce-comedy” (“Joseph Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace Turns Murder into Fantastic Comedy.” The New York Times 11 Jan. 1941: 13).

Arsenic and Old Lace was wildly successful, receiving almost universal praise. “This absurdly gruesome yet gloriously funny comedy . . . ran in New York for 1444 performances and in London for 1337, the longest in the British capital for any American play” (Cornelia Otis Skinner, Life with Lindsay and Crouse. [Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976], 187).

Joseph Wood Krutch summarized critical response to the play: “The Herald Tribune called it ‘the most riotously hilarious comedy of the season,’ and the Sun’s critic protested, ‘you wouldn’t believe homicidal mania could be so funny.’ . . . In fact, there seems to have been no dissent unless one wishes to count as such the remarks of the reviewer for The Nation, . . . who admitted that he had been considerably amused but suspected that the importance of the play had been overestimated” (“Homicide as Fun,” The Nation 25 Jan. 1941: 108-9).

There are two good reasons for this play’s brightly shining success amidst the lesser lights of Kesselring’s earlier and later plays—Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Though only Kesselring is credited with the authorship of Arsenic and Old Lace, it was, in fact, a collaboration among three playwrights.

Cornelia Otis Skinner describes the gestation of Arsenic and Old Lace and the part played by the brilliant playwrighting and producing team of Lindsay and Crouse, who were responsible for as Life with Father, State of the Union, and The Sound of Music, among other hits: Kesselring had sent Howard and Dorothy Lindsay a copy of the script, hoping “that Dorothy would be interested in playing one of the dear, demented old sisters. . . . Howard handed his wife the script to read, saying he hadn’t the time just then.

Dorothy started reading it that evening, and as she did, she kept letting out little gasps and whoops of suppressed laughter, and ended up saying that nobody could possibly get away with a play on the subject of blithe madness and cheerful murder but that it was very, very funny. Howard, his curiosity piqued, started to read and he too began emitting similar vocal noises. The script, which was then called Bodies in Our Cellar, was uneven. Some of it was in bad taste, as when one of the characters would open the cellar door and complain about the terrible smell” (187-88).

However, recognizing the play’s great potential, Lindsay immediately sent a message to Crouse, which read: “‘Shake your head, take a cup of coffee and read further. Have just read a play about two charming old ladies who go around murdering old men. Very funny. How would you like to be a producer?’ Russel wired back, ‘Buy it.’ The two went to work as soon as they had made their agreement with Kesselring. They all but rewrote everything, changing many of the situations and introducing some new characters. But they were careful to give full credit at all times to Kesselring” (188).

Regardless of the reasons for the play’s success, Arsenic and Old Lace remains dear to the hearts (and funnybones) of modern audiences. It has become Kesselring’s legacy, with its film incarnation and numerous stage revivals around the world.

(From Insights, the Study Guide of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, 2001)

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