“Arsenic and the Old Lace”¯ by Joseph Kesselring is one of the funniest stories, although the play is full of serial killers and insane characters.
In this respect, it should be said that the play often tends to black humor and refers to parallels to real life people that creates the funny connotation. In such a way, Joseph Kesselring has managed to create the play which keeps attracting the audience due to its internal optimism which seems to confront the seeming cruelty of the play. In fact, it is possible to view the play as the ironic, sarcastic view of Joseph Kesselring on the surrounding world.
The main characters of the play are two spinster aunts that murder old lonely men. Their brother Mortimer is insane and believes to be T. Roosevelt. In spite of the criminal and socially dangerous inclinations of the main characters of the play, it still is funny and pleasant to watch. Paradoxically, viewers are not distressed because of the murderous and insane characters of the play, who are planning murders and terrible acts. At this point, it is worth mentioning the fact that the audience never sees any single murder. The murders are rather implicit than factual in the play. In other words, the audience can guess or learn about murders from the characters but not a single character is killed on the stage. As a result, the play is not as dark as it could have been if there were episodes depicting murders.
Furthermore, the play is full of symbols. For instance, one of the characters is Dr. Einstein who conducts the plastic surgery on the brother of the main characters of the play. In the result of the plastic surgery, the brother looks ugly and resembles horror-film actor Boris Karloff.
Remarkably, this actor played this part originally and it was perceived as a self-referential joke. Dr. Einstein is definitely juxtaposed to the genius scientist because unlike the scientist the doctor in the play is not very successful, while his plastic surgery is rather a joke over plastic surgery. In fact, plastic surgery is normally associated with “improvements”¯ of the appearance of people who undergo the plastic surgery, while in the play the outcome of the plastic surgery is just the opposite.
In addition, the aunts do not look really dangerous because they prepare a poison as a kind of special, delicious dish than a poison that kills people. Moreover, the tragic effect of poisoning is often overshadowed by comic actions of Mortimer-Teddy. For instance, when he walks in before the old man drinks the poison the audience cannot help from laughing. Or else, in the end of the play, Mortimer watches the play where the main character is about to get killed and he has no idea of what is about to happen. After that the curtain closes just before Mortimer dies. Finally, the cast takes several curtain call, for the final one to finish with the murder victims.
Thus, Joseph Kesselring has managed to create the play which is the black comedy but it does not have traditional horror elements such as murders and violence. In fact, the play looks funny and appealing to the audience because viewers do not see any murders throughout the play, while the play of actors, symbolism of the play and comic timing makes the play a true comedy.