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Arsenic and Old Lace


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AT: Bodies in the Cellar A: Joseph Kesselring Pf: 1941, New York Pb: 1942 G: Farce in 3 acts S: Brooklyn, 1940s C: 11m, 3fSisters Abby and Martha Brewster are sweet old spinsters, known for their charitable work, who murder lonely old men by inviting them home and giving them elderberry wine laced with arsenic. Fortunately, their brother Teddy imagines he is Teddy Roosevelt, who is digging the Panama Canal in their cellar and quite happily buries 11 bodies, ‘the victims of yellow fever’, down there. When nephew Mortimer, a theatre critic who is courting their neighbour Elaine Harper, finds a body in the window seat, he learns the truth about his aunts' activities. Jonathan, another nephew who is a hardened criminal, arrives with the sinister Dr Einstein. They need to dispose of a murder victim of their own and intend to set up the house as a plastic surgery clinic for criminals. Teddy's late-night bugling attracts the attention of the police, who arrest Jon and commit Teddy to a home. When Jon tries to tell the police of the bodies in the cellar, they assume he is mad too. Mortimer is relieved to learn that he was an adopted child and can marry Elaine without fear of congenital insanity. Abby and Martha decide to join Teddy in the home, but first, since the head of the home is lonely and unhappy, they give him a glass of their special elderberry wine.

AT: Bodies in the Cellar A: Joseph Kesselring Pf: 1941, New York Pb: 1942 G: Farce in 3 acts S: Brooklyn, 1940s C: 11m, 3f

Kesselring's only successful play ran for four years on Broadway and was made into a popular film in 1944, starring James Stewart. Originally, it seems that it was intended as a serious thriller, but the producers Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse transformed it into a zany farce. It stands as one of the earliest examples of ‘black’ or grotesque comedy, which became so voguish in the 1960s and beyond.

Subjects: Theatre — Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights).


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