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Would-be Serious Play into a Zany Farce

By Christine Frezza

In 1933, Joseph Kesselring, first a boy soprano, then a professor of vocal music, then a music director for a community theatre, began a fourth career as a freelance playwright. After writing two other produced plays, There’s Wisdom for Women and Cross-Town, he originally intended his third play to be a serious melodrama, and called it Bodies in the Cellar. As cited in the Burns, Mantle Best Plays of 1940-41, Kesselring said “he got the idea . . . trying to imagine the most fantastically impossible thing his dear old grandmother could do. That turned out, in his imagination, to be murder.” Fortunately for generations of playgoers to come, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse (authors of the wildly successful Life with Father ) recognized the comic potential of a pair of “humanitarian” senior citizens bringing a peaceful end to the lonely existence of some of their fellows, and set about turning this would-be serious play into a zany farce.

How this perennial favorite came to the stage is worthy of a play itself: Having seen the professional actress, Dorothy Stickney perform, Kesselring sent her a copy of his original script, hoping she might be interested in playing one of the aunts. Ms. Stickney (who was, not coincidentally, wife to the playwright and actor, Howard Lindsay) guffawed her way through a first reading, and Lindsay, curious as to what had caused his wife to collapse so helplessly with laughter, asked to read the script.

When Lindsay sent a copy to his once and future partner, Russel Crouse, Crouse also declared himself intrigued. Thus, the script became a Lindsay-Crouse property. It was a while before the successful collaborators could get to work on Kesselring’s material, however, as they were involved in other theatrical endeavors, most notably their own popular script, Life with Father. Once that successful play was launched, Lindsay and Crouse then took six months to turn Bodies in the Cellar into an American classic.

To bring it to production, the team enlisted the aid of twenty-one financial backers, who each put in around $1,000. Somewhat nervous as to whether audiences would enjoy the lighthearted way in which more than a dozen murders were treated, Lindsay remarked to Crouse as the curtain rose on opening night: “We either have a hit or we’ll be run out of town.” Neither the producers nor the backers need have worried; the play ran for 1,444 performances, the length of the season, and the backers were ably and lengthily repaid for their stake; one recouped $18,000 for his initial $500 investment.

Described by Mortimer Brewster, one of the few sane characters in the play, as if “Strindberg had written Hellzapoppin”, the story of Abby and Martha Brewster and their three manic nephews was the instant hit of the 1940 theatre season, opening at the Fulton Theatre on January 10, 1941. “Insanity and murder have not previously been employed in the theatre with such riotous results” exulted one of the many favorable reviews, and Richard Lockridge in the New York Sun described it as “a noisy, preposterous, incoherent joy.” Fresh from its Broadway triumph, Arsenic and Old Lace immediately mounted several national tours and a London production in 1942 which ran for 1,332 performances. Following London, Arsenic and Old Lace mounted productions in Sweden and South America. The play has proved a favorite of audiences worldwide ever since, not only in English, but Russian, Japanese, and a host of other languages.

The charm of the piece lies, as it does in all great farces, in the collision of everyday logic (in the persons of Mortimer and the Harpers) with the logic of the inhabitants of what seems to be an alternate, but parallel universe, operating under completely different rules—in Arsenic and Old Lace, those inhabitants are Martha and Abby Brewster and their nephew, Teddy, who believes himself Teddy Roosevelt, and busies himself digging the Panama Canal in the Brewsters’ cellar. In perhaps a third universe lives the Brewsters’ third nephew, Jonathan, who bears an unfortunate resemblance to Boris Karloff, and who is interested in disposing of bodies for his own gains. Lindsay and Crouse seemed to have been operating under the rules of this other universe when, having helped Kesselring create this third nephew, they had the idea that the best person to imitate Boris Karloff would be—Boris Karloff! Even though they had some difficulty persuading him to return to the live stage (Karloff was unsure he could hold an audience outside of film) they prevailed, to the great benefit of the production.

In 1944, the Hollywood director, Frank Capra (best known for his direction of It’s A Wonderful Life) finished the film Arsenic and Old Lace. The producers had sold the rights to Warner Brothers three years earlier, at Capra’s urging, but had refused to allow the film to be released till the Broadway production closed. Capra cast Cary Grant in the role of Mortimer, the irritable theatre critic, and brought in the original Broadway cast members to play Abby and Martha Brewster and their nephew Teddy. Unfortunately, Karloff was unavailable for the film, so was replaced by Raymond Massey. The film is thought to be even more madcap than the original production, and has been a favorite of moviegoers for nearly half a century.

Kesselring is only remembered forArsenic and Old Lace, though he wrote four other plays and had a long and happy life in the theatre. His influence on playwrights is still being felt in another arena. The Kesselring Award of $10,000 was established by his late widow, Charlotte, through the National Arts Club. Each year, the prize is awarded to a promising playwright, chosen based on nominations of qualified professional theatres, regional companies, and arts groups. Past honorees include Tony Kushner, Anna Deavere Smith, and Howard Korder. Thus, the generous man of the theatre brings new works to a new century.

(From Midsummer Magazine, the Official Magazine of the Utah Shakespeare Festival.)

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