The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window

by Lorraine Hansberry

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Set in Greenwich Village in 1964, described in the stage directions as “the preferred habitat of many who fancy revolt, or at least, detachment from the social order that surrounds us,” The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window by Lorraine Hansberry, best known for her play A Raisin in the Sun(1959), centers on Sidney Brustein, his wife Iris, and the people in their milieu as their ideals and reality clash. The play indicts America’s capitalist commodification of ideas and people while exploring humankind’s flaws of failure, hypocrisy, and inertia. 

The play covers many issues ranging from the individual’s responsibilities in a community to political corruption, anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia, intellectual detachment from reality, the purpose of art, and the limitations of prescribed social roles. 

As the play opens, Sidney is mourning his latest failed venture, which he describes as a “place to listen to good folk music” and everyone else calls a nightclub. He reveals that he’s just bought a local newspaper. When Iris returns to their apartment from her job as a waitress in a luncheonette, she and Sidney have a barbed exchange, each cruelly pointing out the other’s flaws–Iris’s unmet aspirations to be an actress and Sidney’s naive dreams of retreating to the woods. This combative tension underlies most of their interactions throughout the play. 

Sidney insists that his “little artsy-craftsy newspaper is going to stay clear of politics,” though his friends pressure him to support Wally O’Hara, a reformist. Maintaining that he hates organizations and movements, Sidney repeats his desire to withdraw from society and become a sort of Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry David Thoreau-esque figure. Eventually, however, he cedes and hangs a sign in his window that reads, “CLEAN UP COMMUNITY POLITICS. Wipe Out Bossism. VOTE REFORM.” 

As Sidney and his friends debate the kind of newspaper they want to publish, additional thematic concerns like freedom, social conformity, and ideological purity arise. 

Alton Scales, the lone Black character, has proposed to Iris’s sister, Gloria. Both Iris and Sidney struggle to come to terms with the idea of an interracial marriage, and despite initially describing Gloria as a model, Iris later says Gloria is “a fancy call girl, a big-time, high-fashion whore.” 

In the opening scene of Act Two, Iris and Sidney discuss the state of their marriage and their desires. Iris says that she wants “more than ten or a hundred people [to] know the difference” when she dies, that she’s made it in some way. Sidney wants the world to start over, unpolluted by people and pain, just him and the planet, “in the primeval sense.” 

David Ragin, a playwright who lives above the Brunsteins, is receiving rave reviews for his most recent work. Sidney asks David to consider writing Iris into his next play, but David has seen Iris perform and thinks she’s a horrible actress. He calls Sidney’s request a “corruption” and lauds his integrity as an artist. 

Alton discovers Gloria’s true profession and feels betrayed that Sidney would let him marry her. Knowing that his ancestors were enslaved and treated as commodities, he’s horrified to think of marrying someone who willingly sells her sexuality as if it’s an inanimate object and is the “white man’s leavings.” 

To Sidney’s–and everyone else’s–immense surprise, Wally wins the election. Iris manages to earn a role in a commercial for a home perm solution. When Sidney expresses his contempt, Iris tells Sidney that even though Wally won the election, he’s “owned” by the people Sidney’s been fighting against. She packs her things and leaves the apartment and the marriage. 

In Act Three, Gloria arrives at the...

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Brusteins’ apartment to find a drunk and incoherent Sidney. Sidney gives her Alton’s letter, breaking their engagement. She takes alcohol and a pill bottle into the bathroom as the scene ends. 

Gloria’s suicide brings Iris back to the apartment. Wally stops by to explain himself to Sidney, saying, “In order to get anything done, you’ve got to know where the power is” in response to Sidney’s calling him a “rank-and-file bastard.” 

Sidney announces that Wally’s behavior has “forced [Sidney] to take a position” against authority, collusion, power, politics, and capitalism. Iris becomes tender toward him, in awe of his newfound energy and authenticity. She sobs in his arms as he tells her they will “make something strong of this sorrow” and the curtain falls. 

As the characters’ hopes continually butt up against the practicalities of reality, they begin to wrestle with their roles as individuals in a complicated, interdependent society. Through dialogue, Hansberry has characters grapple with significant existential questions about identities, ideals, and social justice. 

Though less famous than A Raisin in the SunThe Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window further supports Hansberry’s belief in human rights and social justice. Though there is only one Black character in the play, Hansberry explores other oppressed identities through Sidney’s Judaism, David’s homosexuality, and Gloria’s prostitution. Ultimately, she reminds her audience that societal change and progress come only when individuals themselves transform.

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