The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window by Lorraine Hansberry

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Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 622 words.)