Places: Purgatory

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1939

First produced: 1938

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Fantasy

Time of work: Early twentieth century

Places DiscussedRuined house

Ruined Purgatoryhouse. Charred and derelict building before which the play’s only two characters, an Old Man and a Boy (his son), stand throughout the play. The Old Man explains to his disinterested son that he was born in the house and that it was occupied for generations before him by magistrates, colonels, members of Parliament, captains, and governors–great people who loved the house and its intricate passages and magnificent library. However, the house is now a ruin, burned nearly to the ground by the drunken groomsman who inherited it from his wife, the Old Man’s mother. All that now remains is a ghostly facade, a ruin without floors, windows, or a roof. For Yeats, the ruined house represents the disordered, democratic present, which he measures unfavorably against the ordered, aristocratic past, symbolized by the house in its original, bygone splendor.

Bare tree

Bare tree. Tree standing behind the house that provides the second key element of the play’s setting, while further symbolizing the loss of familial and social order that resulted from the marriage of the Old Man’s mother and her groomsman. The Old Man recalls that in his boyhood, the tree had had ripe leaves as thick as butter. Once a sign of life, it is now bare, a symbol of sterility and death. The Old Man also remembers other trees that once surrounded the great house, but these were cut down by the groomsman, leaving the estate the barren, lifeless place that it now is.


Purgatory. Place imagined and described by the Old Man. The souls in Purgatory, he says, return to habitations and familiar spots. Thus, his mother is forced, again and again, to relive her “transgression”–the sexual act that mixed her blood with that of the inferior groomsman. The Old Man witnesses this act in the lit window of the ruined house. His mother’s soul must live through everything in exact detail, driven by remorse, just as the Old Man himself must live with the consequences of his mother’s and his own actions.

BibliographyBradley, Anthony. William Butler Yeats. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1979. A clearly written overview of Yeats’s life, with a discussion of his accomplishments as dramatist in the Irish context. Includes photographs of productions, including those of Purgatory.Jeffares, A. Norman, ed. W. B. Yeats: The Critical Heritage. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977. An excellent collection of contemporary critical comment on several Yeats plays, including a chapter on Purgatory and its relationship to Yeats’s other works.Moore, John Rees. Masks of Love and Death: Yeats as Dramatist. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1971. Chapter 14 focuses on Purgatory as a dark view of fate taking vengeance on mean-spirited materialism.Nathan, Leonard. The Tragic Drama of William Butler Yeats. New York: Columbia University Press, 1965. Discusses Purgatory as an objective tragedy with supernatural elements.Ure, Peter. Yeats the Playwright. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1963. A thorough investigation of all Yeats’s major plays, showing relationship of structure, theme, and character. Chapter 5, “From Grave to Cradle,” includes a discussion of Purgatory.
Categories: Places