Leaping Over Gravestones
(or The Unbearable Lightness of Being Dead.)
By Dan Tarker
The old house, the cursed family, the misty landscape, the gravestones, the claustrophobia, the mystery, the fear, the murders, the madness: these are the motifs of the Gothic. Since the 18th century, this literary tradition, which was imported from Europe, has thrived in America. From Charles Brockden Brown, whose Wieland (1798) was the first American gothic novel, to writers such as Poe, Hawthorne and Capote, the Gothic’s haunting imagery and macabre subject matter have inspired goose bumps and sleepless nights in readers and audiences for centuries. However, what happens when you take all the characteristics of the gothic and substitute a sweet and breezy atmosphere for its normally grave and suspenseful mood? The answer: a Gothic Parody called Arsenic and Old Lace.
A prominent element of the Gothic is ambiguity, an uncertainty about the truth, and although it’s not a major device in Arsenic and Old Lace itself, it does cast a tall shadow over the story behind the play. The legend goes that a script called Bodies in the Cellar by a little known playwright named Joseph Kesselring landed in the lap of Broadway character actress Dorothy Stickney. How it landed there is uncertain. Some say it was sent directly to her in hopes that she would play one of the aunts while others claim it was sent to her husband, Howard Lindsay, an accomplished playwright and aspiring producer. In any event, she read the script—which was then a ghoulish murder mystery modeled after the brooding melodramas of August Strindberg—and found herself mad with laughter. When Lindsay saw his wife’s reaction to the play, he became understandably curious. In short order, he and his partner, Russel Crouse, acquired the rights and gave Kesselring a list of revisions to make. That, of course, is the legend.
It is widely believed, however, that Kesselring, whose other playwriting efforts were universally reviled as “juvenile” and “old hat”, had little to do with the revision. Most critics instead suspect that Lindsay and Crouse—who, unlike Kesselring, had proved themselves master playwrights with a string of hits including, among others, Anything Goes with Cole Porter—rewrote the play themselves and, like true gentlemen, gave Kesselring sole credit. What did these two ghostwriters add to the brew? The essential ingredient that resurrected the gothic devices in Kesselring’s “old hat” melodrama from their interment in the crypt of clichés: levity.
The play essentially takes every gothic element it can find and slips a banana peel under its feet. Instead of an elegant vampire, they bring in a Boris Karloff doppelganger. (Karloff, incidentally, parodied himself in this role on Broadway.) Instead of two decrepit old Crones a la Macbeth, they present two lovable old ladies. Instead of murder for revenge, they offer murder as Christian charity. Instead of imprisoning the protagonist under a razor sharp pendulum, they bind and gag him and force him to listen to a cop turned playwright read his brilliant new play. In short, instead of showing us the image of Elaine, the heroine, morosely walking home through the cemetery, they literally have her leaping over gravestones, undermining the weight of physical death with a lightness of spirit.
If this was the intention—and who can know for certain with so many invisible pens at work behind the scenes—then the timing could not have been better. Opening on Broadway in January of 1941, Arsenic and Old Lace gave World War II audiences living under the threat of air raids and Nazi invasion a venue to stare death square in the face, and escape the terrifying world around them with a hearty laugh.