Ruined house. Charred and derelict building before which the play’s only two characters, an Old Man and a Boy (his son), stand throughout the play. The Old Man explains to his disinterested son that he was born in the house and that it was occupied for generations before him by magistrates, colonels, members of Parliament, captains, and governors—great people who loved the house and its intricate passages and magnificent library. However, the house is now a ruin, burned nearly to the ground by the drunken groomsman who inherited it from his wife, the Old Man’s mother. All that now remains is a ghostly facade, a ruin without floors, windows, or a roof. For Yeats, the ruined house represents the disordered, democratic present, which he measures unfavorably against the ordered, aristocratic past, symbolized by the house in its original, bygone splendor.
Bare tree. Tree standing behind the house that provides the second key element of the play’s setting, while further symbolizing the loss of familial and social order that resulted from the marriage of the Old Man’s mother and her groomsman. The Old Man recalls that in his boyhood, the tree had had ripe leaves as thick as butter. Once a sign of life, it is now bare, a symbol of sterility and death. The Old Man also remembers other trees that once surrounded the great house, but these were cut down by the groomsman, leaving the estate the barren, lifeless place that it now is.
Purgatory. Place imagined and described by the Old Man. The souls in Purgatory, he says, return to habitations and familiar spots. Thus, his mother is forced, again and again, to relive her “transgression”—the sexual act that mixed her blood with that of the inferior groomsman. The Old Man witnesses this act in the lit window of the ruined house. His mother’s soul must live through everything in exact detail, driven by remorse, just as the Old Man himself must live with the consequences of his mother’s and his own actions.