Thursday, August 13, 2009
Arsenic and Old Lace
For the new school I'll be teaching at, I have a few options of what play to teach. Arsenic and Old Lace by Joseph Kesselring is one of those options. In this space, I will explore the play and its many dynamics.
I don't know if many people are familiar with the play since it was written in 1939 and was most popular during the 1940s and during a brief stint in the 80s, from 86 to 87, when it was performed in New York City. Otherwise, you would just have to be a studying actor, drama student, or lover of literature to have crossed the path of this play. I hadn't heard of it otherwise before now.
Arsenic and Old Lace is a farcical black comedy that has many different story angles all tied into one. I find I might teach this one over Inherit the Wind and You Can't Take It with You since my audience is a sea of twelve year olds. This play is bizarre and off-the-wall, and I think that would be more appealing to them. Especially since my other competetors have to do with a trial about evolution and a family comedy.
The main plot has to do with two elderly ladies, the aunts, who live in Brooklyn and are well off. They take it upon themselves to poison old men who come looking for a room because it is their "charity work" to put them out of their misery. They then get their nephew, Teddy (who thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt), to dig their graves in the basement. He thinks they are yellow fever victims and that he is digging the Panama Canal downstairs.
These old ladies, Martha and Abby, have a newphew who is the star of the play, Mortimer Brewster who is a drama critic. He writes nasty reviews of plays, so since he has earned a reputation of being a bachelor and hating love, he tries to put off and/or hide his marriage proposal to Elaine. Throughout the play, Elaine tries to get him to commit to marriage, and once he does, he discovers the deaths of the men in the house and tries to get her to leave him as much as possible in order to rid her of the insanity.
Later on in the play, Teddy and Mortimer's long-lost brother returns. His name is Jonathan and he brings with him a Dr. Einstein who is a plastic surgeon. He has reconstructed Jonathan's face since he has committed so many crimes and murders. When Jonathan returns, they don't recognize him, but he convinces them otherwise. He is offered to stay the night, and when Mortimer comes home, he tries to dispute this. Jonathan secretly wants to run a plastic surgery operation in the basement and live there forever, and no one else likes this idea except for him and his doctor, who he controls mercilessly.
Meanwhile, Teddy runs around the house screaming "CHARGE!" or giving and receiving commands from others as the President. Cops come from time to time, and they are depicted as absolute fools, and they seem to have no idea what's going on.
At one point, Jonathan decides to murder Mortimer because he is getting in the way of their plans. Jonathan has also murdered someone and is going to bury him in the hole dug for the recent murder of the old ladies. Mortimer tries to use this as collateral to get them out, but they won't since they know of the other murders. They even try to take Elaine away before Mortimer interrupts them. So, Jonathan ties up Mortimer, in a scene of pure irony as he describes the play he went to that night of the same plotline, and they attempt to kill him before they are interrupted by a police officer, O'Hara. O'Hara thinks they are reenacting the play from the night, and he spends hours telling them about the plotline until they all fall asleep.
The third act resumes later in the morning when O'Hara has finished his story. Mortimer has already signed paperwork for Teddy to go to Happy Dale, a mental institution, so that he can be safely away from the murders. The cops burst in and recognize that Jonathan is a wanted felon, and they take him away. Before they do, Jonathan bursts out their secret of the dead bodies, and they think he's joking. A man comes to take Teddy away to Happy Dale, and the old ladies freak out about it. They want to come too, so they talk about the murders in the basement. Thinking they're crazy--not honest--they submit them to Happy Dale too. Mortimer and Elaine are left to be wed.
Now, this plot is supposedly based on actual accounts where an old lady did poison old men, except she did this to gain their pensions. This play was originally supposed to be a drama, except a friend of Kesselring convinced him that it would be much more interesting and successful as a comedy. And so, it was.
There are many controversial topics that are brought up during the play that are poked fun at, farce: plastic surgery, murder, dumb cops, the mentally insane, bachelorhood and marriage. There is a lot to talk about, but it's a bit scattered so I could see difficulties in sustaining a coherent discussion. I'll find my ways.
I'm thinking of focusing on farce and having students create their own one-act farcical black comedy to perform in front of the class, in groups. We would focus on identifying and defining farce, and then they would demonstrate their understanding of plot, drama, and farce in their short, very short, play. That's what is running through my mind right now. Please add any other ideas of how to tackle this play with students, besides acting it out and showing the classic old film of course.
I also watched the film adaptation yesterday which was relatively close to the plotline of the drama. Some areas were skewed or different, such as Mortimer wedding Elaine in the first scene. But, I think it gives a good depiction of what happens, when it might be confusing to a beginning reader, and it helps make sense of the random plot details throughout. The characters seem to be right-on to their depiction in the play. It would be worthwhile to watch.
So what do you think of Arsenic and Old Lace?