Written in 1938, Purgatory demonstrates William Butler Yeats’s lifelong fascination with the connections between the present world and the past and future. In his last public appearance in August, 1938, on the occasion of the play’s opening, the old Irish poet-dramatist told the audience that the drama expressed his beliefs about this world and the next. Purgatory, asserted Yeats, was symbolic, not allegorical. The plot does not represent a story in a real-world context.
To Yeats, geometric symbols of circles and conical gyres expressed the repetitious pattern of time, which incorporates past and present into future cycles. In Purgatory, the Old Man believes that souls in Purgatory bring the past into the present by reliving past transgressions. The repeated hoofbeats of his father’s ghost approaching at the play’s end indicate that the cycle will continue into the future also and that the Old Man’s prayer for God to release his mother’s soul from its recurrent dream clearly will not be granted.
Purgatory, like other Yeats plays—Calvary (1921), The Resurrection (1927), and The Words upon the Windowpane (1930)—explores possibilities of life after death, especially ritualistic death. Killing his father in the inferno the father had created resembles a ritual of punishment; killing his son, whom he identifies with the hated father, after watching his own begetting repeats the murder ritual. Many Yeats plays center on father/son relationships, especially those about the Irish mythic hero Cuchulain, who kills a young man before remorsefully learning that the victim was his own son.
The thought of his mother’s life after death is agonizing for the Old Man. While he prays to relieve his mother’s dream, he is evidently interested in his own relief as well. His anguish in watching sexual relations between his father and mother has obvious Oedipal ramifications. In the Greek tale, Oedipus vengefully kills his father, marries his mother, and fathers children. In this drama, too, the son appears to be jealous of his father’s privilege; he cannot tear himself from the scene. He loathes the sight in the vision of his mother’s lust and calls out to her not to let her husband touch her using the argument...
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