Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window initially appears to be a departure from the playwright’s first success, A Raisin in the Sun. Rather than focus on a working-class family in a black ghetto, it examines an ethnically and racially mixed cross section of the liberal intelligentsia in New York’s Greenwich Village. Its chief concern, however, remains the existential choices that propel characters toward a mature morality in what Iris, Sidney’s wife, terms “a dirty world.” Specifically, it inquires to what extent one is willing to become a saleable commodity, as Walter Lee in A Raisin in the Sun thinks of doing.
As the play opens, Sidney, whose restaurant venture has failed, determines to “presume no commitment, disavow all engagement.” Before long, he has bought a newspaper, promising to “steer clear of politics.” He desires most of all to retreat, banjo in hand, to the mountains of Appalachia, there to have Iris dance for him. Yet soon he is supporting Wally O’Hara for political office, complete with a sign in his window. When Wally unexpectedly wins, Iris reveals that he is under the control of the corrupt political bosses, causing Sidney to despair. Where before Sidney had mocked the philosophical position of the absurdists embodied in the works of his neighbor, David, a playwright, now Sidney falls into cynical derision himself.
Sidney’s naïveté about public matters is complicated by his deteriorating relationship with Iris, whom he belittles...
(The entire section is 622 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Sidney Brustein and his friend Alton Scales are lugging wire racks with drinking glasses—salvage from the failure of Sidney’s folk-music coffee house—around the Brustein’s apartment—the site of Sidney’s newspaper office. Later, Sidney argues with his wife, Iris, when he belatedly reveals to her his purchase on credit of a weekly local newspaper. The couple had earlier discussed Iris’s continued desire to be an actor and her continuing psychoanalysis. Alton returns to the apartment with Wally O’Hara, a lawyer who is trying to persuade his friend Sidney to back his reformist campaign for office. Sidney, however, had earlier decided to withdraw from political concerns, so he rejects placing O’Hara’s political poster in his apartment window; still, he is drawn to the poster, despite Iris’s warning not to get involved.
The following week, Alton, Sidney, and a local artist are discussing the art and content for the front page of Sidney’s weekly paper. The paper will now include political content as well. After the meeting, Alton and Sidney put up a banner for the reform party in the apartment window. Alton confirms news of his having asked Iris’s sister Gloria to marry him. The news came to Iris in the form of a letter from Gloria, whom Sidney and Iris first identify as a traveling high-fashion model.
Sidney has a sharp exchange with Iris, which, as usual, belittles her intellect and her acting abilities. They also discuss the proposed front-page art for the newspaper. After Iris’s set speech about the difficulty of an actress’s life, her older sister, Mavis, unexpectedly arrives to deliver a fashionable dress she has bought for Iris. Mavis bemoans Gloria’s life and lack of a husband. Sidney and Iris argue about sex in society—reminding themselves that Gloria is not a high-fashion model but a high-priced prostitute, as the rest of the family knows. Mavis is shocked that spousal prospects in Sidney’s circle of friends include an African American (Alton) and a gay man (David Ragin).
David, a playwright and a neighbor of the Brusteins, comes to the Brustein apartment to ask for writing supplies. He then gets into an argument with Sidney about modern drama; Sidney thinks it is apolitical. David stays for dinner. Alton arrives with dinner extras then ends up exchanging insults with David. Alton is introduced for shock value to Mavis, who then leaves, justifiably criticizing the intellectual group’s lack of compassion. What began as a communal dinner breaks up because Alton departs in antipathy to David. Then David departs because of Sidney’s analysis of his previous argument with David. Iris warns that her arguments with Sidney have changed and now threaten the marriage; Sidney, too, leaves.
At dawn the next day, Sidney sits on a staircase landing above his apartment and is playing the banjo. He visualizes his fantasy of being with Iris in the mountains. Iris reminds him that she enjoys urban life and does not want to return to her rural roots, then tells Sidney to move the car because of the parking restrictions on Tuesdays.
Weeks later, Sidney and O’Hara are arriving at the apartment with campaign leaflets, optimistic about the unexpected upturn in O’Hara’s election chances. David comes over with newspapers that praise him and his play. Sidney and Iris congratulate David, but Sidney again argues about...
(The entire section is 1388 words.)