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 that they will beget the husband’s murderer. He is fascinated with his ghost-mother’s ability to experience sexual pleasure even while bringing on her own remorse.
Pleasure leading to destruction, and the interweaving of sex and death, is a familiar theme in Yeats’s drama. Here, sexual culmination in the vision is directly followed by the boy’s murder. Irony is evident when the boy is able to see the Old Man’s vision only during the moment before he is killed, when he tries to stop the vision from repeating. Another common Yeats theme is the impossibility of lasting love, which resonates in the story of the mother’s haste leading to betrayal and isolation from her bridegroom.
As in other Yeats pieces with simple plots involving violence, the narrative drive of Purgatory concentrates on an intensely dramatic moment, here the torturing vision. Stage directions are rare, as is characteristic of Yeats’s verse plays; the reader must infer from the dialogue what action would actually be seen on stage. For example, the reader finds out about the boy’s location and his subsequent attempt to steal solely from the dialogue itself, when the Old Man commands the boy to sit on the rock, and later to “Come back!/ And so you thought to slip away,/ My bag of money between your fingers.” The play’s quick resolution is also typical of Yeats’s dramas, as is his combining art and religion in some of the...
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symbolism. Yeats believed that the supernatural world met the natural through dreams, both pleasant and unpleasant.
The play has been variously interpreted. Among those who have studied it, some contend that underlying the play is Yeats’s anger against a domineering, overly talkative, and emotionally undemonstrative father. In Purgatory, the Old Man never addresses the boy as his son; only once does the boy address him as “father,” and that is when the Old Man is about to confess to having murdered his father. The boy challenges his father, just as the Old Man challenged his father; each ignores the other’s concerns.
Some critics have attempted to interpret the play’s symbols. The Old Man’s knife can be thought to have Freudian implications; the eggshell might represent broken femaleness or cycles of birth and death. The bare tree, which inhabits many Yeats plays and often symbolizes seasonal rebirth, here might be thought to represent the mother’s stripped wealth. Birds are ever-present in Yeats poetry and drama, often representing spiritual soaring; in Purgatory, a jackdaw has discarded from a nest, a site for births, the only sign of life in the ruined house, an eggshell. The nightmare cycles of Purgatory could be interpreted as symbolizing the political violence in Irish history, which Yeats often deplored in such works as the poem “September 1913.” Certainly the ruined great house bears an unmistakable resemblance to Coole, Lady Gregory’s ruined home where Yeats often lived during his most productive years. He often lamented the fall of the Irish aristocracy in his poetry.
The play never gained widespread popularity, perhaps because the symbols are not sufficiently defined. Undoubtedly, Purgatory is a disturbing work for its treatment of such human taboos as filicide, parricide, and a son’s observation of sexual relations between his parents. Still, the play offers rich poetic imagery, impassioned characters, and intense dramatic climaxes, and it is permeated by themes that are evident in Yeats’s entire oeuvre.