Play Reading in English - Arsenic and Old Lace by Joseph Kesselring (1939)


HK English Speaking Union
  • Mon 15-01-2018 7:30 PM - 2 h

Colette Artbar

Free Admissions


This month’s play, the first of the year, was written on the eve of WW2 and has remained a very popular stage work, thanks partly to Frank Capra’s celebrated 1944 film adaptation. The stage work played for 1,444 performances following a highly successful premiere in 1941. It is a farcical black comedy revolving around the Brewster family, descended from the original Mayflower pilgrims, who colonised America in the 16th century from Britain. The dark twist on this august genealogy is that the family is now composed of insane homicidal maniacs - perhaps an unintentional metaphor for the founding fathers who systematically reduced the indigenous population over the subsequent centuries.

The hero, Mortimer Brewster, is a drama critic who must deal with his crazy, homicidal family and local police in Brooklyn, New York, as he debates whether to go through with his recent promise to marry the woman he loves. His family includes two spinster aunts who have taken to murdering lonely old men by poisoning them with a glass of home-made elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine, and "just a pinch" of cyanide; a brother who believes he is actually Roosevelt’s brother, and digs locks for the Panama Canal in the cellar of the Brewster home (which then serve as graves for the aunts' victims; he thinks that they died of yellow fever) and an murderous brother who has received plastic surgery performed by an alcoholic accomplice, Dr. Einstein (a character based on real-life gangland surgeon) to conceal his identity, and now looks like horror-film actor Boris Karloff (a self referential joke, as the part was originally played on Broadway by Karloff). The film adaptation, starring Cary Grant as Mortimer Brewster, follows the same basic plot, with a few minor changes, and has become a comedy movie classic. However, the play is also still performed regularly, and has been translated into many languages.

Facilitators: Mike Ingham & Julian Quail

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