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Purgatory


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A: W. B. Yeats Pf: 1938, Dublin Pb: 1939 G: Drama in 1 act; mainly 4-stressed lines S: Before a ruined house, early 20th c. C: 2mAn Old Man and his young son wandering the roads stop before a ruined house. The Old Man says that the souls in purgatory revisit the places of their past and relive their transgressions. He tells how his mother who lived in the great house married the groom, who squandered all her wealth and eventually burned down the house. She died giving birth to the Old Man and now must again and again live through the agony of conceiving her son with her drunken husband in the now ruined house. The Boy, demanding his share of his father's money, tries to wrest it from him, pointing out that the Old Man had killed his father. The house lights up once more, and the Old Man, desperate to release his mother's soul, stabs his son, so that the pollution cannot be passed on. But hoof-beats are heard, and the re-enactment begins again. The sacrifice of the Boy has been in vain.

A: W. B. Yeats Pf: 1938, Dublin Pb: 1939 G: Drama in 1 act; mainly 4-stressed lines S: Before a ruined house, early 20th c. C: 2m

Composed with ‘extraordinary theatrical skill’ (T. S. Eliot), this short and savage piece can work powerfully on stage, provided the vision of the past is not staged too literally, which would steer the action close to melodrama. It works as an intense poetic recital of a cursed family with obvious echoes of the Atrideans (see e.g. Oresteia, The). But for the Old Man there are no Eumenides, only the plea that God will ‘Appease | The misery of the living and the remorse of the dead’, a plea that had considerable relevance to the political situation in Europe of the late 1930s.

Subjects: Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights).


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