Fun not Horror


By: Robert Machado

In “Arsenic and Old Lace” a play by Joseph Kesselring we read about insanity and serial killers, yet it is a funny and delightful piece.  In 1941, Americans were looking to keep their minds out of the possibility that the U.S. entered the Second War World. In that scenario, “Arsenic and Old Lace” comes to be a hit by making fun of the unexpected (“Arsenic”). By mocking the horror, ridiculing charity and criticizing the conventions of the theatre, Kesselring makes people laugh instead of profiting from fear.

The plot happens in the Brewster’s Old Mansion where two well respected aunts (Martha and Abby) secretly kill lonely gentlemen as an “act of charity”. When trouble arises, Mortimer - the beloved nephew - at all cost tries to protect the aunts whom have raised him. Teddy is one of Mortimer’s brothers who think that he is Roosevelt. He digs locks for the Panama’s canal where the “yellow fever victims” are buried. Jonathan - the “declared villain”- is the third brother and has travelled the world and killed 12 people. When he appears in scene, he carries one of his victims and needs to bury it.

Throughout the play the author mocks the horror. We never happen see the victims or their relationship with the world. We are distanced from them and never feel them as real people. Instead, we focus on the characters’ peculiarities. Misunderstandings and confusions tip the balance to the side of humour.  For instance, when Mortimer discovers the first victim we know of, he believes is Teddy who has killed him because Teddy is the only character who, at this point, is obviously insane. However, we already know that Abby is responsible for this body. In time, we learn that the whole Brewster family is deranged. The aunts who had been described as “angels” turn to be serial killers. In contraposition, we discover that Teddy’s insanity is harmless. Mortimer -once aware of the aunts’ culpability - tries to blame the harmless Teddy in order to protect Martha and Abby. When Jonathan appears in the plot, he looks like Frankenstein and ironically the aunts – despite having killed 11 people which is more than the Boris Karloff’s character- declared that they had felt fear when they saw the movie.

In “Arsenic and Old Lace”, charity is satirized and used to make us laugh. The Brewster sisters appear to be quite altruistic. They give help to neighbours and open their doors to provide lodging to strangers; they prepare soup for the sick and donate toys for the needy children.  However, they have rules about who deserve their ultimate charity. They will only give it to “good Americans”, and preferably Christians who are lonely in the world. Only those who fit these standards will be eligible for receiving a liberating, painless death and a good Christian service. As a result, Kesselring makes the aunts refuse Jonathan in their house because he is not a “good American” and he could interfere with their charity. Martha and Abby are so sure about their good heart that they even threaten Jonathan with calling the police when they learn he has a dead body and that he plans to bury it along with one of “their gentlemen”.

By scrutinizing and criticizing the conventions of the theatre, the author makes us smile. Mortimer is a famous theatre critic and Kesselring seems to put his point of view in his ideas.  The makes clear that theatre does not reflect reality but it does provide a good entertainment. This is well proven when Jonathan discovers that the aunts have killed as many people as him. Jonathan’s pride is hurt and he wants to regain it by killing Mortimer whom he hates since childhood. Jonathan needs to subdue him but finds no way. Mortimer provides the method when he criticizes a play in which the killer uses the curtain cords to immobilize the victim. He finds this stupid, out of reality and a proper vehicle to entertain; yet, Jonathan who is listening uses this method to tie and subdue him.


At the end, the story takes several twists among which we find action and horror to support its comedy orientation. In order to entice the reader, we prefer not to reveal all the details, however, we recommend you the delightfully unexpected end. “Arsenic and Old Lace” have many innovative devices that instead of profiting from horror lead us to enjoyment. It was well received then and will be enjoyed by future generations as well.

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