Arsenic and Old Lace is a play by the American playwright Joseph Kesselring, written in 1939. It has become best known through the film adaptation starring Cary Grant and directed by Frank Capra.

(The lead role of Mortimer Brewster was originally intended for Bob Hope, but he could not be released from his contract with Paramount. Capra had also approached Jack Benny and Ronald Reagan before learning that Grant would accept the role…

The play was written by Joseph Kesselring, son of German immigrants and a former professor at Bethel College, a pacifist Mennonite college. It was written in the antiwar atmosphere of the late 1930s. Capra scholar Matthew C. Gunter argues that the deep theme of the play and film is the conflict in American history between the liberty to do anything (which the Brewsters demand), and America’s bloody hidden past)

The play is a farcical black comedy revolving around the Brewster family, descended from the “Mayflower,” but now composed of insane homicidal maniacs. The hero, Mortimer Brewster, is a drama critic who must deal with his crazy, homicidal family and local police in Brooklyn, NY, 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 Theodore Roosevelt 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 a murderous brother who has received plastic surgery performed by an alcoholic accomplice, Dr. Einstein (a character based on real-life gangland surgeon Joseph Moran) 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 follows the same basic plot, with a few minor changes.

August Strindberg is referenced by the character Mortimer Brewster when he compares the stories of his eccentric, and frequently murderous and disturbed, family as being as if “…Strindberg wrote Hellzapoppin’.”