In the annals of great American playwrights, the name of Joseph Kesselring (1902-67) is little more than a footnote. That’s not for the lack of trying. He wrote a dozen plays, including Aggie Appleby, Maker of Men, There’s Wisdom in Women, Four Twelves are 48, Mother of That Wisdom, Maggie McGilligan, Solomon’s Mother, Surgery is Indicated, and A Frog in His Pocket. You’d be hard pressed to find any productions of these plays nowadays, or even any old copies on the dusty shelves of ancient libraries. Kesselring was active and soon forgettable, with one exception. He is the forgotten man who wrote Arsenic and Old Lace, possibly the greatest one hit wonder of the American stage. Its surprising quality was immediately noticed by Brooks Atkinson, reviewing the play for the New York Times: “Nothing in Mr. Kesselring’s record has prepared us for the humor and ingenuity of Arsenic and Old Lace... his murder drama is compact with plot and comic situation... The lines are bright. The story is mad and unhackneyed. Although the scene is always on the verge of macabre and the atmosphere is horribly ominous, Mr. Kesselring does not have to stoop to clutching hands, pistol shots, or lethal screams to get his effects. He has written a murder play as legitimate as farce-comedy.”
One hit wonders are common enough, especially in popular music. Former teenagers of the Bronze Age can rock down the road singing “Sh-Boom, ” but we’d be hard pressed to remember anything else by the Chords; we all moaned with “Earth Angel,” but that’s the only time we heard the Penguins. Many of you know “Mule Skinner Blues,” “Who Let the Dogs Out,” and “Macarena” but I doubt you have many other tracks by The Fendermen, The Baha Men, or Los del Rio. But one hit wonders can be really good. Literature has several, with Wuthering Heights, Gone with the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Black Beauty topping the charts. (It’s remarkable that all of these were written by women—but that’s the subject of another essay.)
In the theater, one hit wonders are perhaps more rare, but Arsenic and Old Lace is certainly one of them. It opened on January 10, 1941 and played for 1,444 performances, nearly a five year run, not bad for a show without hit tunes. The play’s life after Broadway has been even more wondrous. I’m willing to bet that not a night has gone by in America without the Brewster sisters serving their delicious Elderberry wine on some stage or other. The body count is astounding (at a conservative estimate, 12 dead men in every cellar x 500 productions per year = 60,000 in this young century alone). There are already over 500 clips of the play on youtube (please do not go there). There really is nothing quite like Arsenic and Old Lace.
How can we account for such a phenomenon, the work of a writer otherwise known only for workmanlike competency and assiduity? To begin with, Arsenic and Old Lace rode in on the high tide of the screwball, one of America’s greatest contributions to comic style. Screwball comedy takes its name from a pitch thrown by Carl Hubbell, a novel and bewildering variation of the curve ball. The screwball comedy, like Hubbell’s pitch, was reliably unpredictable. In the movies and on stage, screwball comedy depended on surprising juxtapositions—an aristocrat was paired with a low life, a couple found themselves with a pet leopard. As we all now know, the central juxtaposition of Arsenic and Old Lace is that the play’s endearing old ladies are also homicidal maniacs. They really are sweet, and they really are serial killers. For just once in his life Joseph Kesselring stood on the mound, went into his motion, reared back and threw a pitch that is still fluttering, still spinning in surprising ways. He found the perfect screwball.
We now know, however, that like many a great pitch, Arsenic and Old Lace was doctored. The play is the work of Joseph Otto Kesselring, but also of Howard Lindsay and Rachel Crouse who were definitely not one hit wonders. They wrote Life With Father, a play just as popular as Arsenic, as well as State of the Union, a Pulitzer Prize winner. Lindsay and Crouse were the first readers of Kesselring’s play, and they were also its producers and skillful re-writers. Though they always gave sole credit to its originator; they were major league screwballers too, adding lots of their own extra spin.
Screwball comedy at its best combined preposterous situations with knowing and elegant repartee; another of its surprising juxtapositions. The innocent share the stage with the sophisticated; the artless meets the artful. In Arsenic and Old Lace, Mortimer Brewster is the witty theater critic who hates the theater; he’s seen too many first nights and liked none of them. (It’s a pity he was moved over from real estate, which he actually knew something about.) Mortimer is the brother of Teddy, an unadulterated enthusiast who thinks he’s President Roosevelt charging San Juan Hill. At almost every one of its many wonderful moments, Arsenic and Old Lace is reminding us that this is just a very silly play, and sometimes a silly play about silly movies (the other brother’s face has been surgically altered to resemble Boris Karloff)— and yet its active and intricate plot carries us along, often with some thrilling moments of silly suspense. It’s just the best kind of fun you could have in a home that’s also a graveyard.
A recurring characteristic of one hit wonders is that they are frequently infused with autobiographical energy. Arsenic and Old Lace is no exception. Kesselring’s father was a famous New York surgeon, and you can guess from the characters of Dr. Einstein and Jonathan Brewster (a sadistic butcher), that the playwright had a few mixed feelings about his dad. Teddy Brewster’s identification with Teddy Roosevelt is akin to Kesselring’s own bursting pride and patriotism. And in the characters of the self-absorbed theater critic and the would-be playwright Officer Patrick O’Hara, Kesselring paints self portraits of a man who, as he confessed in jingle, was endlessly self preoccupied:
I thought to rhyme of simple things
Of lily leaves and package strings,
Of travel trunk and Christmas tree—
And all I wrote about—-was me.
In another rhyming self portrait the playwright mocked his own sad decline into the trivia of light comedy:
What a man is Kesselring
Former jump and wrestle king.
Now he trips on hill of mole
Grappling with a feather stole.
Considering the events of 1941, you might agree that this very silly play does seem a bit on the light side. It’s almost as insulated from the Second World War as the Brewster house is removed from the 20th century. Yet in hindsight the dark time seeps through the walls and comes up through the floorboards. In the parlor, old fashioned fruit wine is being served, but the wine is laced with strychnine. The sweet old ladies are as sweet as they can be, and completely insane. The comic villain is absurdly sadistic and out of control, but he is sadistic and out of control. You’ll remember there was one of those loose in Germany. (As Abby Brewster confesses, “I’ve almost come to the conclusion that this Mr. Hitler isn’t a Christian”.) Teddy Brewster’s dismissal of Europe reflects America’s isolationism, but his warning about Japan is prophetic. There are twelve bodies in the cellar. Pearl Harbor is eleven months away.
It’s this combination of the still gruesome and the truly hilarious, perfectly juxtaposed, that continues to make this oldest of comic warhorses, the steady staple of high school theaters, an arresting theatrical experience. Like the wine of the Brewster house, it’s delicious and packs a quite a kick. It was Joseph Kesselring’s one big hit. And it’s still a real wonder.