Arsenic and Old Lace
Goodreads ratings
4.14 / 5

"Arsenic and Old Lace" Summary

By Joseph Kesselring

plays | 104 pages | Published in NaN


Estimated read time: 6 min read

One Sentence Summary

A drama critic discovers that his charming aunts are actually serial killers.


"Arsenic and Old Lace" is a classic play written by Joseph Kesselring. This dark comedy has captivated audiences for decades with its unique blend of humor and suspense. Set in the 1940s, the play takes place in a charming yet sinister old house in Brooklyn, New York. The Brewster sisters, Abby and Martha, seem like sweet old ladies on the surface, but they harbor a deadly secret. As the plot unfolds, the audience is taken on a rollercoaster ride of mystery, murder, and mayhem, all wrapped up in a veil of dark humor.

Brief Synopsis

Plot Overview and Setting

The play unfolds in the Brewster sisters' home, a quaint and seemingly peaceful house in Brooklyn. However, beneath the surface, the house holds dark secrets. Abby and Martha Brewster are known for their acts of charity and kindness in the neighborhood, but they have a macabre hobby - they poison lonely old men with arsenic-laced elderberry wine. Their delusional nephew Teddy believes he is Theodore Roosevelt and digs graves in the basement, believing he is digging locks for the Panama Canal. Another nephew, Mortimer, is a theater critic who discovers the truth about his aunts and tries to cover up their crimes while dealing with his own romantic entanglements.

Main Characters

Abby BrewsterKind and sweet on the outside, she is the more level-headed of the Brewster sisters.
Martha BrewsterEqually sweet and endearing, she is the more scatterbrained of the Brewster sisters.
Mortimer BrewsterThe protagonist, a theater critic who is horrified by his aunts' actions and desperately tries to keep their secret hidden.
Teddy BrewsterBelieves he is Theodore Roosevelt and is obsessed with digging locks for the Panama Canal in the cellar.
Jonathan BrewsterThe evil and criminally insane brother of Mortimer, who has returned home after years on the run.

Summary of Different Story Points Over Chapters

Act 1

The play opens with Mortimer visiting his aunts and discovering a dead body in the window seat. He learns about his aunts' deadly activities and tries to figure out how to handle the situation. Meanwhile, his brother Jonathan, who has a face like Boris Karloff, arrives with his accomplice, Dr. Einstein. Chaos ensues as Mortimer tries to prevent Jonathan from committing further crimes.

Act 2

Mortimer's romantic interest, Elaine, becomes entangled in the mayhem as he tries to keep her away from the house. Teddy's delusions escalate, and Jonathan's criminal plans become increasingly dangerous. Mortimer struggles to maintain a semblance of normalcy while dealing with the madness unfolding around him.

Act 3

The chaos reaches a crescendo as Mortimer desperately tries to keep the police and his aunts at bay. Jonathan's menacing presence looms large, and Mortimer's efforts to contain the situation become increasingly frantic. The play hurtles towards a climactic and darkly comedic finale.

Main Events

  • Discovery of the Body: Mortimer's shocking discovery of a dead body in the window seat sets the stage for the unfolding chaos.
  • Revelation of the Aunts' Secret: Mortimer's realization that his aunts are serial killers sends him into a panic as he grapples with the implications and consequences.
  • Jonathan's Return: The arrival of Jonathan, a menacing and deranged figure, adds a new layer of danger and suspense to the plot.
  • Teddy's Escalating Delusions: Teddy's belief that he is Theodore Roosevelt and his obsession with digging locks in the basement contribute to the play's darkly comedic atmosphere.

Themes and Insights


  1. Good vs. Evil: The play explores the contrast between the Brewster sisters' outwardly kind personas and their dark, murderous activities, as well as the struggle between Mortimer's attempts to do the right thing and the sinister presence of Jonathan.
  2. Madness and Delusion: The theme of madness is prevalent throughout the play, from Teddy's delusions about being Theodore Roosevelt to Jonathan's deranged criminal behavior.
  3. Mortality and Morality: The play delves into the moral implications of the Brewster sisters' actions and the characters' grappling with their own mortality.


  • Dark Humor: The play masterfully blends dark subject matter with moments of comedic relief, creating a unique and engaging theatrical experience.
  • Family Dynamics: The dysfunctional and eccentric Brewster family provides insight into the complexities of familial relationships and the secrets that can lurk beneath the surface.
  • Morality Under Pressure: The characters' moral compasses are put to the test as they navigate the escalating chaos and deception, leading to thought-provoking insights into human nature.

Reader's Takeaway

"Arsenic and Old Lace" offers readers a captivating and twisted tale that skillfully combines elements of comedy, suspense, and moral ambiguity. The play's exploration of dark themes and eccentric characters leaves a lasting impression, inviting audiences to ponder the complexities of human nature and the thin line between humor and horror.


In "Arsenic and Old Lace," Joseph Kesselring weaves a darkly comedic and suspenseful narrative that continues to enthrall audiences with its macabre charm. Through a cast of eccentric characters and a plot rife with mystery and mayhem, the play offers a thought-provoking exploration of morality, madness, and the enigmatic nature of familial relationships. With its timeless appeal and unforgettable characters, "Arsenic and Old Lace" remains a beloved classic that invites readers to embrace the darker side of humor and humanity.

Arsenic and Old Lace FAQ

  1. What is 'Arsenic and Old Lace' about?

    Arsenic and Old Lace is a play by Joseph Kesselring that revolves around the eccentric Brewster family, particularly the two elderly aunts who have a habit of poisoning lonely old men with arsenic.

  2. Is 'Arsenic and Old Lace' a comedy?

    Yes, 'Arsenic and Old Lace' is a dark comedy that combines elements of farce and black humor to tell the story of the Brewster family's macabre activities.

  3. Who are the main characters in 'Arsenic and Old Lace'?

    The main characters include Mortimer Brewster, the theater critic nephew; his aunts Martha and Abby Brewster, who commit the murders; and his brother Teddy, who believes he is Theodore Roosevelt.

  4. Is 'Arsenic and Old Lace' based on a true story?

    No, 'Arsenic and Old Lace' is a work of fiction by Joseph Kesselring, inspired by a combination of urban legends and the author's imagination.

  5. What is the setting of 'Arsenic and Old Lace'?

    The play is set in the Brewster family home in Brooklyn, New York, where much of the action takes place.