Study Guide

The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window

by Lorraine Hansberry

The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window Themes

Themes and Meanings (Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The central themes of The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window concern the obligation of individuals to become involved and to take responsible action; withdrawal or detachment from the community leads to disintegration and failure. At the start of the play, Sidney is disconnected from the world around him. Alton labels Sidney’s detachment “ostrich-ism” and calls this the “great disease of the modern bourgeois intellectual.” Sidney considers his withdrawal an earned right; since his youth he has been involved in various causes and served on assorted committees trying to change the world—all to little avail. One of his intellectual mentors has been Henry David Thoreau, but Alton accuses Sidney of reading the “wrong” portions of Thoreau, those emphasizing the solace and strength the solitary individual can gain from communing with nature. Sidney’s mountaintop retreat, where he goes to find innocence, is his version of Thoreau’s Walden Pond. Thoreau, however, was also noted for his acute social consciousness, and Sidney stands charged with letting his political and social conscience atrophy.

Commitment to responsible political action represents only the outer level where Lorraine Hansberry’s characters engage one another. The personal interaction between Sidney and Iris and the social relationships among members of the Brustein extended family (not only Iris’s sisters but also the friends and neighbors wandering in and...

(The entire section is 591 words.)

The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window Themes and Meanings (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Hansberry believed that all plays have ideological content, that all contain a thesis or central idea about what sort of social order is best. Some plays may seem not to have such content, because nearly everyone who sees them accepts the main ideas. Only when a play contains ideas that challenge majority opinion do those ideas tend to become visible and to draw direct commentary. The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window contains many ideas that set viewers to arguing in 1964. The play also contains ideas that remain highly controversial, such as those regarding homosexuality. The quantity of intellectual conversation and the range of issues discussed might make the play seem mainly a drama of ideas. The center of the play, however, is human action. Many of the ideas flow from the nature of the main characters, people who are passionately concerned about how to live according to their best ideas and who, therefore, talk incessantly about those ideas. Accounts of the Broadway production, which ran for 101 performances, suggest that on stage the play was lively and engaging, despite initial doubts about the audience appeal of its intellectual tone.

The human action of the play points to the center of its meanings. Sidney Brustein wants to improve his world in some clear way. Most of the characters believe that suffering and stupidity are much more common than enlightenment and happiness. Sidney’s stomach ulcer becomes symbolically associated with this hard reality. The world would be better, Sidney thinks, if people were more tolerant of differences, if people treated each other as individual human beings rather than as stereotypes, if people never compromised with the forces that manipulate social differences for power or profit or with the forces that encourage the sale of personal integrity to achieve independence and success. Sidney believes that the arts, more than any other social force, can help people see how to better themselves and their world. Sidney lives in a society in which people debase and destroy individuals and groups in order to gain and keep power and wealth, and he continues to find in himself the weaknesses and limitations he deplores in others. He wavers between despair of making any significant change and desire to help bring about the world he dreams. This play chronicles one of his swings, from mild despair, to high hope, to deeper despair, and finally back again to a chastened and perhaps more mature hope.

As Sidney moves through this cycle, he also moves through a counterpointing cycle in his marriage. This movement highlights a feminist theme. In A Raisin in the Sun, feminism is an unresolved theme. Men believe that in the proper social order, women are subordinate and obedient, and even the rebellious Beneatha Younger seems finally to accept this view, though she...

(The entire section is 1160 words.)