Flip the Script Friday: William Butler Yeats, Purgatory

Happy St. Patrick’s day, y’all! In honor of the obligatory day each year Americans become Irish in order to have an excuse to drink (and it’s a Friday this year, so of course it’s going to be a big, soggy mess), here’s a play from Ireland.

A few weeks ago, hiding in a corner of one of the bookshelves at the library was a tome entitled 13 Plays of the Ghosts and Supernatural. Naturally, I was intrigued, so I picked it up. I was delighted to find that rather than a bunch of boring classics or plays by nobody I had heard of, it contained a sweet little selection that crossed borders and genres. It’s been sitting at the bottom of various book piles ever since I got it, but I decided that today would finally be the day I’d pick one, read it, and write about it. So here’s an oldie, but a goodie: Purgatory by Ireland’s own William Butler Yeats.

Undated photo of the playwright (Wikipedia)

The Basics

Purgatory was first produced at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Ireland, on 10 August 1938.

Characters

  • A Boy
  • An Old Man

Setting/Plot

Sometime, a ruined house with a bare tree in the background. The old man tells to the boy the story of his parents and this house, which was once theirs, alluding to people he sees in the windows which the boy cannot. After the old man tells of how his father was murdered in that house, and that he was the one who did it. He then demands that the boy – his son – hand over his backpack which is full of money. They struggle, breaking the bag and spilling the money on the ground. The boy threatens to kill the old man, but as he is distracted by the appearance of the silhouette of his grandfather’s ghost in the window, the old man stabs him with the same knife he used to murder his father.

My Thoughts

A short and thought-provoking piece that seems to give the reader more and more with each read. It’s written in kind of a modified rhythmic verse, which gives it a creepy edge; it doesn’t quite have a rhyme or a meter scheme, but seems to be purposeful in its pacing. The fact that the two characters are a father and son, and that rather than the perpetuation of the cycle, with the son killing the father, the father kills the son instead, thus breaking the cycle. But perhaps, in a way, sending the old man to purgatory, forever condemned to live and relive the murders of his own father and his own son.

Major Themes

Over and Over Again

OLD MAN: But there are some

That do not care what’s gone, what’s left:

The souls of Purgatory that come back

To habitations and familiar spots.

BOY: Your wits are out again.

OLD MAN: Re-live

Their transgressions, and that not once

But many times; they know at last

The consequence of those transgressions

Whether upon others or upon themselves;

Upon others, others may bring help,

For when the consequence is at an end

The dream must end; if upon themselves,

There is no help but in themselves

And in the mercy of God. (Yeats 179-180)

There’s this eerie quality about it. The old man speaks of purgatory and warns of what it entails. He seems to remember quite a lot; the type of binding of the books in the house, the exact conditions of the night when he was conceived. And when the boy starts to see the ghosts he has been denying, it’s almost as if he’s seeing into his father’s past.

After the old man stabs the boy, the stage darkens except for the only other thing on stage: the tree, surrounded by white light. Even though people have been murdered and one day the old man will die too, the tree has clearly been there since the old man was a boy and will continue to stand there after the man is gone. A bit reminiscent of The Giving Tree. But unlike the man and the boy, the tree cannot perpetuate a cycle of violence or procreate in the same way man can, just silently oversee the events in its presence.

A Horse, A Horse

Hoofbeats that are heard only by the old man, and not the boy. Horses seemed to contribute to both the birth and the undoing of the old man; his father was a groom in the stable owned by the family of the woman who would become his wife; he rode up to the house on a horse in order to sneak in and sleep with her; and he lost all her money betting on horses, sending his son, the old man, away. The old man kills his father out of rage, and the boy because he cannot bear the thought of him procreating with someone, potentially like his father and mother did. The logic is twisted – maybe it’s me – but there’s something about horses and sexuality that is really driving this old man to do these things.

How I’d Flip It

For some reason, I’m seeing black and white. Like, paper cuttings. The house is described as black and charred, after the old man’s father burnt it down while drunk, and the tree is in a white light. Purgatory itself is described as a gray area between heaven and hell, so I think my designs would incorporate that grayscale; no color at all. A lot of shadowing and dimensioning could be fun, especially with the outlines of the ghosts in the window, and possibly some sort of giant horse projection or something. For some reason I’m also thinking snow, and a lot of sharp angles, maybe even a leafless tree, one that almost looks like a tall hitching post rather than a tree.

I’ve probably had too much to drink (actually, I’ve had nothing at all to drink) but I managed to start and finish a Flip the Script in one sitting, so that’s something.

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6 thoughts on “Flip the Script Friday: William Butler Yeats, Purgatory

  1. Well written, a smooth read although I must admit to a slight stumble at the Shel Silverstein reference. His tree was not a static observer, it was the epitome of altruistic love. Still, nits are made for picking. Thanks for a very enjoyable piece.

  2. I had no idea Yeats could be so calculatingly creepy. Love this story and your take on the ending of the cycle with the father killing the son rather than the other way. The sins of the father then end with the father and don’t get passed down seven generations (or whatever it says in the Bible). Although I somehow think that purgatory is out of the question for this guy.

    • Yeats’s later works are all about the creepy, from the Herne’s Egg to the Words Upon the Window-pane, the latter of which I wrote one of my prelim papers on. Even his earlier plays have that hint of mytery, especially when talking about the mystical qualities of old Ireland. Thanks for reading and for the comment!

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