Last Updated September 6, 2023.
William Butler Yeats’s short dramatic piece Purgatory has only two characters. At the beginning of the play, the Boy and the Old Man come upon what appears to be an abandoned house. The Old Man insists that he has seen the tree that stands next to the house before, asking the Boy to inspect the home for who might be inside.
The Boy insists that no one is there, describing the house as nothing but a threshold. The Old Man says that it doesn’t matter whether the house looks the way it should because it is the house in which he was born. The Boy inquires if it is the one that burned down long ago, and the Old Man’s response reveals that he is in some way related to the Boy’s “grand-dam.”
The Old Men then recounts the story of the house, which includes the life stories of his mother and father. He says that his father squandered all his mother’s wealth and that she died giving birth to the Old Man. He then discusses all the great people who died inside this house and who were wronged when his father destroyed the house.
The Old Man says that the house burned down on the night his father died, after which the Boy asks if the Old Man killed his own father.
The Old Man confesses that he indeed stabbed his father and left him in the burning house. Afterward, the Old Man left to become a traveling pedlar. Suddenly, the Old Man experiences a vision of his mother and father on the night the Old Man was conceived. While he is entranced with the sadness of this vision, the Boy has been rummaging through the Old Man’s pack trying to take some money. When the Old Man calls out the Boy for stealing, the Boy insists that he was never given his proper share. After a scuffle, the pack falls to the ground.
The Boy threatens to kill the Old Man, and then a window is lit in the burnt-down house, showing a man. Instead of being a mere vision that only the Old Man can see, this apparition is visible to the Boy. Horrified, the Boy covers his eyes. Taking advantage of this moment, the Old Man stabs the Boy, killing him with the same knife he had used to kill his father. After stabbing the Boy, the Old Man says he has killed both his father and son.
In the final soliloquy the Old Man delivers on stage, he bemoans the misery his mother endured because of his father. He addresses his mother, saying he has killed his own son so that he would not have a child to pass on their dreadful family legacy. He vows to leave to a “distant place” and tell his “old jokes” to “new men.” His train of thought is interrupted by the sound of hoofbeats, and the Old Man laments that he has killed in vain. The Old Man believed that if he killed his father and then his son, his mother’s soul would be released from reliving the same scene over and over again. When he hears the hoofbeats, the Old Man knows that he was wrong.
The play ends with the Old Man alone, pleading to some unknown force to “appease the misery of the living and the remorse of the dead.”