Relational Destruction I: Arsenic and Old Lace

by John Garland Winn
Sep 6, 2016

Games are often played according to the variation of an established series of rules. The potential for the game to be played otherwise, such as the creative capacity for the player to yell and walk off the field, is exterminated, as this potential is programmed within the game itself. Desire here is either actual or in-actual, with the game providing no space for the open potential of broken rules. That is, if the player were to yell or walk off the field, the game would either cease to exist or the player would have to be disciplined according to a regime of transgression.

Hepburn and Tracy play such a game. The rules dictate that the field, preceding the onset of play, is ossified in the law of man. Once the game begins, this rule is overturned and the space is made open, oscillating between man and woman. The goal is to territorialize the space according to the player’s gendered pole. Hepburn recreates the field according to variable reterritorialization (gendered as woman), whilst Tracy attempts to preserve the state, out of which the game’s rules were constituted (gendered as man). No matter the winner, the rules dictate an irreconcilable essentialism between two poles. The game is set, it’s only a matter of providing variation within its preordained play.

So also is Frank Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) ruled by the game, but one unruly with loose desire. The film opens with a prelude of a baseball match that breaks down into a chaotic brawl. This is like a faux-origin, where the rules have already broken apart prior to the game’s onset. The film is about writer Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) who makes a living promoting a bachelor lifestyle but has, in spite of all odds, fallen in love and married girl next door Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane). But Mortimer’s plans are upended when he learns that his aunts poison lonely old men so as to alleviate their suffering. As we will see, this narrative matrix—much like the baseball brawl—sets up an already undone series or rules from which the game deviates.

Asexual filitation defines Arsenic’s relationships: an unconsummated marriage, a single preacher father, two aunts who live alone, Mortimer’s being adopted. But rather than this absence resulting in the repression of sexual desire it potentializes other routes through which this excess desire can realize itself. These routes allow for far more creative and open channels of bodily relation than had desire been sublated in the normative sexuality of familial bonds.

This sexual surplus constantly plays with the repulsion and attraction of death. Sex and death intermingle, potentialize their respective intensities, tangle, and confuse, but they retain their difference. The film’s pleasure derives not from the dominant territorialization of death taking sex or of one becoming the other, but with each in complimentary play. A dance of difference where bodies perform around a voided center, promoting vacuous production and destruction, grounds the entangled polarity of death and sex.

Arsenic and Old Lace suggests that stable subjectivities hinge on the presence and actualization of normative sexual relations. In their absence, soft and indeterminate relations play out. Mortimer’s brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) returns to the Aunts’ home on Halloween in the hopes of using the location as a hideout from the law. His sidekick, Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre), just performed facial reconstruction on Jonathan. Halloween attaches Jonathan’s new face to the playful performances of the children outside and, like them, he lives by an infantile malice. This face is a volatile and variable surface, exposed to transformative lacerations by the hands of Einstein, and is the passive terrain of destructive potential.

Jonathan’s body, on the other hand, is an active figure that transforms and destroys the area and life around it. His sole consistency, as a subject, is destruction. But this consistency engenders variation on a nightly basis. For Jonathan, every night is Halloween wherein he can and must physically embody a variable identity. He is a monster that threatens the constituted violence of normative desire and, as a result, is forced to metamorphose into unidentifiable mutant forms. Jonathan’s virtual body plays through destructive production, as he destroys himself and his other through a violence that eliminates their pre-existence. From their demolition, a categorically new form is produced.

The two aunts expend surplus desire through consumption, in their poisonous gift to old men. As devout Protestants with Anglo-Saxon ancestry, the pair would first appear perversions of repressed Reformation subjectivity. Rather, Arsenic and Old Lace allows perversion to act out. These are radically free ladies who have initiated an ethics of death directed at remnant men. Their decision to take the lives of old men, lacking family and home, is made without remorse and is given as pure, surplus charity. Yet this charitable exchange prompts the expenditure of another life. The gift simultaneously poisons and consumes its recipient.

Their gift giving is polyamorous and unending in its ability to produce new relations as well as expenditures. In place of the husband, of whom they would be required to care for exclusively, they direct their desire toward the bodies of other men and relinquish from them the burden of life. The charitable burdens of selfhood give way to sacrifice.

Mortimer is the intellectual equivalent of his aunts and brother since, as a writer, he attempts to verbally map out a coherent argument for a non-familial lifestyle. But he is outstripped of his psychological reservation, externalizing in disorder and disarray. The intensity of potential death forces the internality of this body out, onto, and in extension of its surface. Mortimer lacks the capacity to playfully mutate desire, which his Aunts clearly possess. As soon as his desire is projected in the direction of a woman, it is made normative and drawn to marriage. But when confronted with a dead man his voice scrambles between high and low as his body throws its limbs wayward. His unruly movements provide no hope for the emergence of an understandable gameplay but rather are the indication of complete bodily waste. He expends towards nothing, being caught in a suspended vacuum between action and inaction, a virtual terrain where potential is caught in absolute stoppage. Yet we are not expected to view this body as inoperable, hypocritical, or farcical. In a sense, this body, trapped as it is in the impossibility of action, is divine in its scrambled dissemination of pure waste.

Mortimer is the relational knot that ties together the other players of the game. By himself he is something of a schizophrenic automaton that refuses to perform. But, between his aunts and brother, he is the ball of play. With this, a third player enters the game. Mortimer’s wife, of unconsummated relation, joins the field as the representative of proper familial bonds and the temptation of normative desire. Elaine’s image is meant as a stable representation of normative femininity and her movements, voice, and humor relinquish nothing of their energy to the decoded movements of open desire. These three players— destructive producer, destructive consumer, and normative stabilizer—contest for the fleeting possession of Mortimer, using his frantic body as a ball of play, bringing each competitor into irreconcilable conflict.

They play on a field woven out of the buried histories of an opaque America. These histories emerge through the destabilization of time and with them new forms of play. Histories fall and flatten like the abstracted autumn leaves descending the celluloid cemetery. When Teddy Roosevelt Brewster (John Alexander) (Mortimer’s half-brother) goes running up the stairs, banging open his door, the grandfather clock loses its time and must be reset not once but five times. Teddy digs the Panama Canal in the basement where dead old men are laid to rest. Fabulative histories rise from the earth with the ecstatic scrambling of time. Einstein and Frankenstein join hands as race relations compress into the marble statue of a small black boy.

However, the obvious allusion to America’s atrocious history belongs to a representational order, wherein the image signifies elsewhere. These allusions arise only with the image’s destruction and its violation by the text. Rather these are unstable images of time that unwork cinematic cementation, further displace desire, and make non-localizable a social or historical order with which to situate the film. This field of play is not one of hidden meaning but one whose terrain constantly seeks to deterritorialize itself and its players.

Arsenic and Old Lace is a game of relational destruction. It is a primordial game whose play sustains the suspension of rules. Movement and time form ephemeral connections that link up with the shifting sheets of America’s (a)collective memory. The film is comprised less of characters than of players who are adamant in destroying the rules of a game that never began.