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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 622

The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window initially appears to be a departure from the playwright’s first success, A Raisin in the Sun . Rather than focus on a working-class family in a black ghetto, it examines an ethnically and racially mixed cross section of the liberal intelligentsia in New York’s...

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The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window initially appears to be a departure from the playwright’s first success, A Raisin in the Sun. Rather than focus on a working-class family in a black ghetto, it examines an ethnically and racially mixed cross section of the liberal intelligentsia in New York’s Greenwich Village. Its chief concern, however, remains the existential choices that propel characters toward a mature morality in what Iris, Sidney’s wife, terms “a dirty world.” Specifically, it inquires to what extent one is willing to become a saleable commodity, as Walter Lee in A Raisin in the Sun thinks of doing.

As the play opens, Sidney, whose restaurant venture has failed, determines to “presume no commitment, disavow all engagement.” Before long, he has bought a newspaper, promising to “steer clear of politics.” He desires most of all to retreat, banjo in hand, to the mountains of Appalachia, there to have Iris dance for him. Yet soon he is supporting Wally O’Hara for political office, complete with a sign in his window. When Wally unexpectedly wins, Iris reveals that he is under the control of the corrupt political bosses, causing Sidney to despair. Where before Sidney had mocked the philosophical position of the absurdists embodied in the works of his neighbor, David, a playwright, now Sidney falls into cynical derision himself.

Sidney’s naïveté about public matters is complicated by his deteriorating relationship with Iris, whom he belittles and fails to encourage in her acting career. Desperate to make it within the establishment, she will do commercials rather than serious work, even—in the first of several moral lapses these characters display—spouting erroneous claims about home-permanent products.

Recognizing her anguish, Sidney attempts to bribe David into including a role for Iris in his new play, promising in return a rave newspaper review. Though David rebukes Sidney’s offer, later he is willing, in an effort to satisfy the desires of his homosexual lover, to proposition Iris’s sister Gloria into being a voyeur to their sex act. Finally, Gloria is rejected by Alton, the man whom she hopes will marry her, when he discovers that she has been a highly paid call girl, a commodity like his enslaved grandmother; he will not take as wife “a white man’s leavings.”

Sidney learns to care again in a most unexpected way. Gloria, whose father called her a tramp on his deathbed and who insisted that Alton know the truth about her, refuses to demean herself as David wishes. She knows that she is “better than this,” and, hoping that her father will forgive her, commits suicide. Her decision to die rather than suffer further indignity teaches Sidney that he must not continue to go through life without taking a firm stand and that out of sorrow can come strength.

The father of Iris, Gloria, and the feisty if bigoted Mavis, the oldest of the three sisters who chooses to stay in a loveless marriage—had changed their last name to Parodus. Referring literally to the chorus in Greek tragedy, the name here symbolizes all those who would watch from the sidelines, distanced and uninvolved. Despite evidence to the contrary, Hansberry insists through Gloria’s impact upon Sidney that “people want to be better than they are,” that humankind must not fear commitment because of the pain it exacts but must rebel against passivity and inaction. A commitment tempered by knowledge will be firmer than one built on naïve and untested idealism. The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window may be less neatly plotted and more philosophical than A Raisin in the Sun, and so less immediately engaging of the emotions; nevertheless, it makes a powerful impact.

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