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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

The drama Purgatory by Irish playwright and poet William Butler Yeats debuted at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1938, just a few months before Yeats died. This work is influenced by traditional Japanese Noh theater and symbolizes Yeats's preoccupation with the loss of respect for ancient wisdom by a generation driven by individualism.

Yeats was introduced to Japanese Noh drama by poet and contemporary Ezra Pound. Noh has a very strong tradition and thus appealed to Yeats, who drew inspiration deeply from a variety of ancient literary traditions. This theatrical form was developed in the fourteenth century and is still performed today. For Yeats, the antiquity of Noh represented a powerful way in which to convey his message. The stark simplicity of the set for Purgatory, the minimal number of central characters (being only the Old Man and Boy), the archetypal nature of the characters, and the ghostly theme of the work reflect the Noh influence.

Central to the action of the play is the destruction of an honored house, which for generations hosted nobility and held within it books and tools of learning. This house, which was destroyed in a moment of drunken debauchery by the Old Man's father, was a symbol for Yeats of the loss of Ireland's great houses (and the traditions they represented) in his time. This loss was due to both poverty and a lack of interest on the part of the new generation. This symbol can be understood as follows: the destruction of the past and its nuances due to one moment of debauched action is clearly a shameful, pitiable act.

The long-lasting generational effects of one wrong choice is another central takeaway in Yeats's play. The Old Man tells the story of his mother, a wealthy aristocrat who impulsively married the stable boy on her estate (the Old Man's father)—a decision that brought about the destruction of the house, the estate, and cost her her own life.

That the man she chose for a husband was not only outside of her social class but deeply flawed in character: he was an alcoholic who squandered all her wealth and may also represent a warning on the part of Yeats as to the dire consequences of disrespecting tradition.

There is, of course, the notable significance of the work’s title, Purgatory. In religious contexts, purgatory refers to the punishment souls must endure in order to repent for their sins before entering heaven. The notable difference between hell and purgatory is that the latter is for those who have committed forgivable sins. In the drama, the site of the house that burned down is referred to as purgatory for the ghosts of the Old Man’s mother and father. The two have sinned, certainly, and the Old Man agrees with this condemnation. It is even a punishment for the Old Man, who killed his father. The marriage of the Old Man’s parents plays out in ghostly fashion at the ruined house, and history nearly repeats itself when the Old Man murders his son. Yeats seems to be warning through this spooky action that unless the past is honored and rectified, we will be forced to endure its echoing.

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