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Dramaturgical Notes: Joseph Kesselring’s ARSENIC AND OLD LACE

Amy Archer-Gilligan in a plaid dress with a white bow-tie.
Amy Archer-Gilligan

It has been suggested that what inspired Joseph Kesselring to write Arsenic and Old Lace was the real-life story of Amy Archer-Gilligan (1873-1962), a serial killer who murdered between 20 and 100 people. As the story goes, Archer-Gilligan lured seniors to her home – known as The Archer Home for Elderly People and Chronic Invalids in Windsor, Connecticut – under the pretense that she would care for them. A pattern of sudden deaths – many of which were reported as stomach problems – began to emerge and was soon recognized by families of some of Archer-Gilligan’s lodgers. Kesselring heard of the Archer-Gilligan story when he was a young boy. Once an adult, Kesselring visited Connecticut and learned more of the story through the town’s records and newspaper archives. This, in turn, inspired him to write Arsenic and Old Lace.

Some studies note that Kesselring intended his play to be a serious drama, but was convinced by producers Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse to revise the script into a comedy. Other historians have noted, however, that the play (initially titled Bodies in Our Cellar) was already a dark comedy. With the assistance of Lindsay and Crouse, Arsenic and Old Lace would become a farce-style comedy. Undeniably, the producers were correct, for the play went on to become a significant hit and one of the longest-running shows on Broadway (including a revival in 1986). Theatre critic Brooks Atkinson applauded the Broadway premiere noting that “Nothing in Mr. Kesselring’s record has prepared us for the humor and ingenuity of Arsenic and Old Lace. He has written a murder play as legitimate as farce-comedy.”

So, one may ask: why this classical comedy today? Director Ron OJ Parson stated that “coming off the pandemic, I wanted to do something funny – I want people to laugh, and I want to laugh.” What Parson’s getting at is the healing power of humor and laughter, especially during troubling times and social crises. Ironically, despite its dark themes, the 1941 Arsenic and Old Lace premiere was dubbed a comedic break for audiences from the devastation of War II. Today, Kesselring’s dark comedy is being revived to offer relief from the pressures of politics, social crises, economic recessions, and impending acts of devastation.

Conclusively, Arsenic and Old Lace is an example of the intersecting qualities of comedy. That is, comedy as catharsis, comedy as restoration, and most significantly, comedy as entertainment. 

Joseph Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace is on stage at Court Theatre from September 2 – October 2, 2022 → Get Tickets.

Posted on August 2, 2022 in Productions

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