Themes and Meanings
The central themes of The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window concern the obligation of individuals to become involved and to take responsible action; withdrawal or detachment from the community leads to disintegration and failure. At the start of the play, Sidney is disconnected from the world around him. Alton labels Sidney’s detachment “ostrich-ism” and calls this the “great disease of the modern bourgeois intellectual.” Sidney considers his withdrawal an earned right; since his youth he has been involved in various causes and served on assorted committees trying to change the world—all to little avail. One of his intellectual mentors has been Henry David Thoreau, but Alton accuses Sidney of reading the “wrong” portions of Thoreau, those emphasizing the solace and strength the solitary individual can gain from communing with nature. Sidney’s mountaintop retreat, where he goes to find innocence, is his version of Thoreau’s Walden Pond. Thoreau, however, was also noted for his acute social consciousness, and Sidney stands charged with letting his political and social conscience atrophy.
Commitment to responsible political action represents only the outer level where Lorraine Hansberry’s characters engage one another. The personal interaction between Sidney and Iris and the social relationships among members of the Brustein extended family (not only Iris’s sisters but also the friends and neighbors wandering in and out of the apartment) are all part of Hansberry’s exploration of compassionate involvement. Despite their love, Sidney and Iris grow steadily apart because there is no meaningful communication between them. They fail to ask the crucial questions about the cause of the changes in their relationship. Because Sidney has always assumed the leadership in their marriage, more of the responsibility belongs to him. His mask of cynical detachment dramatically affects his perception of Iris. Not until he really listens to Mavis is he made aware that his wife has lied to him continually about her background. Contrary to his cherished image of her as an uncultured, unsophisticated, rustic girl whom he educated, she grew up in a home presided over by a father who read Greek tragedy to his daughters. For her part, Iris has been trying to fit Sidney’s image until finally that image chokes her.
Mavis’s social status makes it difficult for her to establish a comfortable relationship with the Greenwich Village intellectuals. An ordinary woman, on their turf she is an alienated outsider. Stung by their callous disregard for her humanity, Mavis challenges their intellectual smugness, suggesting that their lack of compassion, their egocentrism, is not part of any solution to society’s ills but in fact is part of the problem.
While Wally, with his sign, symbolizes corruption, Alton and David permit the discussion to range into the areas of the function of art, homophobia, and racism while still treating the themes of individual responsibility and integrity. After confronting Sidney, an angry, disappointed, and disillusioned Alton disappears from the play; David, however, remains a pivotal character, partially responsible for Gloria’s death. The themes of David’s plays, cynical pieces about guilt, futility, the uselessness of innocence, and the emptiness of modern life, underscore the dilemma faced by the Brusteins; discussion of his work also permits Hansberry to show the paralysis affecting white intellectuals at this juncture of American social history. The dynamic activism of the late 1960’s had not yet begun; Sidney and David’s arguments represent the problem of “the Western intellectual poised in hesitation before the flames of involvement.” Gloria’s death forces Sidney to drop that stance.
Themes and Meanings
Hansberry believed that all plays have ideological content, that all contain a thesis or central idea about what sort of social order is best. Some plays may seem not to have such content, because nearly...
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