The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

All the action in The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window occurs in the Brustein apartment. Act 1 opens on a late spring evening as Sidney Brustein and Alton Scales return to the apartment carrying cases of restaurant glasses, the remains of Sidney’s venture into the nightclub business. The failure of his nightclub/coffeehouse, however, does not deter Sidney from planning another venture—publishing a weekly community newspaper. Sidney has not yet informed his wife, Iris, of his plans, knowing that the revelation will create tension.

Sidney and Iris love each other, but their marital conflict animates half of scene 1. Alton exits, avoiding an impending argument, as Iris enters. Upon noting the cases of glassware, she immediately declares that the “residue” of Sidney’s “failures” is not to accumulate in their living room. When the conversation turns to news of a casting call which Iris plans to attend, Sidney counterattacks, singling out her inability to go to an audition. Their interaction intensifies, becoming scathing before it returns to safer channels. Iris defends herself with methods learned in therapy; Sidney discounts psychoanalysis, declaring that although she has seen an analyst for two years, “the only real difference is that you used to cry all the time and now you scream before you cry.” The tension gradually subsides until Iris discovers the sketch of the masthead for the newspaper. She demands to know how Sidney, with no financial resources, plans to support his latest endeavor.

The scene shifts when Alton returns, bringing with him Wally O’Hara, a politician running for office as the “reform” candidate. They have come seeking an endorsement of O’Hara’s platform by Sidney’s newspaper and appealing to him to become involved once again. Declaring his intention to abstain from “any kind of politics” because he no longer has such interests, Sidney rejects their appeal.

Scene 2 occurs one week later. A sign supporting O’Hara now hangs from Sidney’s window, showing his capitulation. While the sign frames the play’s developing conflicts, the action of the scene shifts from external political involvement to family politics and aesthetic arguments. The audience meets David Ragin, the avant-garde homosexual playwright living upstairs, and Mavis Parodus Bryson, Iris’s conservative older sister. Mavis does not understand the bohemian lifestyle of her sister and Jewish brother-in-law or their various Greenwich Village friends, nor can she acknowledge the extent of her own parochialism. Her limitations make her an object of ridicule in this setting; she does not know what “gay” signifies, and she is stunned upon learning that Alton, a fair-skinned African American, plans to marry her youngest sister, Gloria.

Act 1, the longest segment of the play, introduces most of the characters and establishes underlying conflicts and themes. It closes on an intense note, underscored by the Joan Baez recording of “All My Trials” filling a darkening stage. Mavis, Alton, and David having all left the apartment insulted or angry, Iris and Sidney return to bickering, each recognizing that something is leaving their marriage.

Act 2 has three scenes. Scene 1 opens just before dawn, the next day. Sidney has created an idyllic fantasy; skillful use of lighting and music transport him from New York to a rustic mountain retreat. The background noise changes to mimic country sounds. The Iris of his imagination, a barefoot Appalachian peasant girl with long flowing hair, appears in his fantasy to dance for him as he plays the banjo. With the dance finished, a light comes on in the...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window is primarily a realistic play that uses traditional dramatic devices to help the audience understand its intentions. Hansberry establishes a credible setting, viable characters, and crisp interaction between them to dramatize the examination of ideas. Production notes specify set design. At rear stage are the “recognizable sight symbols” of New York; in the foreground are facades indicating the Greenwich Village locale—tenement buildings, old farmhouses, a stable, and converted brownstone buildings. There are no extensive special effects, although lighting changes and shifts of music suggest both mood and imagery. Finally, the audience must heed the sign highlighted in the window as it emphasizes various turns in the action.

The play’s complex characterization allows all the characters to function as people, neither types nor stereotypes. Sidney is an intellectual who neither looks nor acts the part; he engages fully in whatever he undertakes. His view of Iris as an unspoiled Appalachian princess (his habit of pulling the pins from her bound-up hair infuriates her) shows both tenderness and tension in their marriage. When Iris has her hair cut, curled, and dyed, it becomes a visual cue that she is a new and different woman.

Mavis undergoes no physical change, but the audience, like Sidney, becomes more aware of her depth as she shares her family’s background and the emotional pain she endures. The family name was changed from Parodopoulos to Parodus (literally, Greek chorus) because their father wanted a “symbolic” name and saw his family functioning the way a chorus works...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

When Mavis declares, in response to an argument about modern drama between Sidney and David, “I just don’t know whatever happened to simple people with simple problems in literature,” one irony is that Lorraine Hansberry’s play itself shows complex people living in a world whose problems are complex. Ironically, much later in the play, even the apparently superficial and conventional Mavis turns out to be complex, concealing depth, feelings, and problems of her own that reveal that her statement arises not from aesthetic naïveté but from a longing for happiness in her own difficult life. While Hansberry’s play is a work of social protest (key repeated words are “revolution” and “revolutionary”), criticizing the oppression of women and minorities as well as societal injustice and political corruption, it also belongs to the genre of the problem play, dealing with art, love and marriage, the family, engagement versus apathy, self-realization, and philosophies of life.

The play’s seven scenes (two in the first and third acts, three in the second act) move through late spring, late summer, and fall, in accord with the timetable of the O’Hara political campaign that Sidney is persuaded to join and also suggesting the cycle of birth and death, paralleling the birth of Sidney’s newspaper and its later threatened extinction from the corrupt sociopolitical establishment, the flourishing of the relationship between Sidney and Iris deteriorating...

(The entire section is 601 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Though not as strong or admirable as the three main female characters—Ruth, Beneatha, and Lena Younger—in Hansberry’s most widely known play A Raisin in the Sun (1959), the three female characters in this later play are sympathetic and have many commendable attributes and strengths, as well as some flaws and weaknesses. Like Ruth Younger, the three Parodus sisters (Mavis, Iris, and Gloria) have had significant trouble with either husband or boyfriend. Mavis has shown understanding, perseverance, and stoicism by her behavior following the discovery of her husband’s longtime infidelity with another woman. Related to the play’s theme of the interrelation of art and life, Mavis reveals to Sidney that with her father’s encouragement she learned and recited passages in ancient Greek from the Greek tragedies, and she demonstrates with a passage from Euripides’ Medea. Ironically, Mavis is no Medea (the title heroine of one of the first and greatest literary works dealing with the struggle of women against male and societal oppression); Mavis, unlike Medea, has not exacted terrible revenge for a husband’s betrayal.

Mavis, like her sisters Gloria and Iris, has to some extent reified the symbolism of the surname, Parodus, that their father contrived from their original surname, Parodopoulos. As Mavis explains to Sidney, Parodus refers to the chorus of Greek tragedy which is “always there, commenting, watching,” but “at the edge of life—not changing anything. Just watching and being.” As a prostitute, Gloria has remained on the fringes of conventional society. When Alton...

(The entire section is 659 words.)

The Play

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, Lorraine Hansberry’s second Broadway play, is set in New York’s Greenwich Village in the early 1960’s. Although its action arises out of the early ferment of the 1960’s phase of the American Civil Rights movement, the play seems only indirectly connected with that movement. A Raisin in the Sun (1959), Hansberry’s first Broadway play, deals with lower-class African American life in Chicago after World War II and directly presents key African American issues of the period, such as the ways African Americans are shut out of and yet tantalized by the materialistic American Dream as well as class, ideological, and intergenerational conflicts within African American...

(The entire section is 696 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Carter, Steven R. Hansberry’s Drama: Commitment amid Complexity. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991. An informative study of Hansberry’s plays and life. The book includes a brief chronology of her life and much other biographical information. The first chapter is an overview of Hansberry’s life and opinions. Subsequent chapters discuss various works. The final chapter considers Hansberry’s legacy to American drama.

Cheney, Anne. Lorraine Hansberry. Boston: Twayne, 1984. A study of Hansberry’s life and works, including her extensive nondramatic works. This book contains a brief chronology of her life, followed by a more detailed examination of her career. There is a chapter on The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window that includes a summary of the play. Includes a useful annotated bibliography.

Effiong, Philip Uko. In Search of a Model for African-American Drama: A Study of Selected Plays by Lorraine Hansberry, Amiri Baraka, and Ntozake Shange. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2000. Evaluates Hansberry’s plays as potentially exemplary for African American theatrical aesthetics.

Hansberry, Lorraine. The Collected Last Plays. New York: New American Library, 1983. In addition to the three plays on which Hansberry was working at her death, this volume contains important discussions of Hansberry and her work by Margaret B. Wilkerson and Julius Lester.

Hansberry, Lorraine. “A Raisin in the Sun” and “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. ” New York: New American Library, 1987. In addition to the texts of both plays, this edition contains essays on each, including an important review of The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window by John Braine, and a detailed account of the circumstances surrounding its Broadway run.

Hansberry, Lorraine. To Be Young, Gifted, and Black. New York: New American Library, 1970. An autobiography compiled from Hansberry’s writings, drawings, and artworks by her former husband, Robert Nemiroff. This readable and informative volume includes several photographs as well as short essays by Nemiroff and James Baldwin.