Okay, be honest and show me your hands. How many people thought Arsenic and Old Lace was written by Agatha Christie? I’ll admit that when I first heard the title years ago I thought it must be a Christie story. It just sounded like something she would write. She did write several plays, and it would be easy to assign this black comedy to her, but it was written by Joseph Kesselring in 1939.
The story, originally titled Bodies in the Cellar, revolves around Mortimer Brewster, a drama critic who has a crazy, homicidal family whose antics often get the attention of local police in Brooklyn, NY. His love interest, Elaine Harper, is keen on getting married, but Mortimer is not so sure when he discovers that his two spinster aunts have taken to murdering lonely old men by poisoning them with a glass of home-made elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine, and “just a pinch” of cyanide. Then there’s the brother who believes he is Theodore Roosevelt and digs locks for the Panama Canal in the cellar of the Brewster home, and another brother who has committed murder and is on the lam with his alcoholic accomplice, Dr. Einstein.
All told it is a cast of zany characters, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to play Martha, one of the sisters, in a production at a local community theatre two years ago. Here I am with Elaine Harper, the girl Mortimer is going to marry.
I don’t look nearly as sinister there as I do in this shot taken when I was in a different costume, trying to convince a gentleman that a glass of wine is just what he needs.
Kesselring, 1902 to 1967, wrote twelve plays, and Arsenic and Old Lace was the most successful. For two years he taught and directed stage productions at Bethel College in Newton, Kansas, before returning to New York to work with an amateur theatrical group in Niagara. He started writing plays in 1933, completing 12 original plays, of which four were produced on Broadway: Wisdom in Women (1935), Arsenic and Old Lace (1941), Four Twelves are 48 (1951), and Mother of that Wisdom (1963).
The role of Martha was one that I always wanted to play and will be a favorite no matter how many other roles I get. What character would you like to play on stage?