Contextual notes on Yeats' "Purgatory"

The play was first produced at the Abbey Theatre on August 19, 1938. In a letter of March 1938, Yeats wrote,

"I have a one-act play in my head, a scene of tragic intensity . . . . I am so afraid of that dream. My recent work has greater strangeness and I think greater intensity than anything I have done. I never remember the dream so deep."

In an interview published in the Irish Independent in August 1938, Yeats answered questions posed by an American Jesuit priest:

"Father Connolly said that my plot is perfectly clear but that he does not understand my meaning. My plot is my meaning. I think the dead suffer remorse and re-create their old lives just as I have described. There are medieval Japanese plays about it, and much in the folklore of all countries.

"In my play, a spirit suffers because of its share, when alive, in the destruction of an honoured house; that destruction is taking place all over Ireland today. Sometimes it is the result of poverty, but more often because a new individualistic generation has lost interest in the ancient sanctities.

"I know of old houses, old pictures, old furniture that have been sold without apparent regret. In some few cases a house has been destroyed by a mesalliance. I have founded my play on this exceptional case, partly because of my interest in certain problems of eugenics, partly because it enables me to depict more vividly than would otherwise be possible the tragedy of the house.

"In Germany there is special legislation to enable old families to go on living where their fathers lived. The problem is not Irish, but European, though it is perhaps more acute here than elsewhere."

"Purgatory," when it was first performed, had a substantial number of detractors, people who were offended by what seemed to them a lack of respect for religion. But the controversy was short-lived; Yeats wrote to a friend in September 1938 that "Most people seem to be on our side and the daily newspapers had leaders [i.e., leading articles] in our support."

The critic Richard Ellmann has noted the "clipped rhythm and intentionally awkward syntax which Auden had made available for confiscation" and the Auden-like abruptness of the minor characters' speeches.

Numerous of the ideas and images in the play had already been expressed, in various ways, in Yeats' poetry and other works. For example, he emphasizes elsewhere the momentous importance that one choice can make; he wrote in "If I were Four-and-Twenty" that "a single wrong choice may destroy a family, dissipating its traditon or biological force, and the great sculptors, painters, and poets, are there that instinct may find its lamp."

The idea of archetypes is also behind what's at work in this play. According to Yeats, there is an experience of "timeless individuality" that "contains archetypes of all possible existences whether of man or brute, and as it traverses its circle of allotted lives, now one, now another prevails. We may fail to express an archetype or alter it by reason, but all done from nature is its unfolding into time. Some other existence may take the place of Socrates, yet Socrates can never cease to exist . . . Plotinus said that we should not `baulk at this limitlessness of the intellectual; it is an infinitude, having nothing to do with number or part'; yet it seems that it can at will re-enter number and part and thereby make itself apparent to our minds. If we accept this idea many strange or beautiful things become credible . . . All about us there seems to start up a precise inexplicable teeming life, and the earth becomes once more, not in rhetorical metaphor, but in reality, sacred."

At the end, the Old Man utters a prayer for release from his sins. It's an open question whether this prayer really constitutes a way out of the typically Yeatsian cyclic repetition. The Old Man says,

"But there's a problem: she must live

Through everything in exact detail,

Driven to it by remores, and yet

Can she renew the sexual act

And find no pleasure in it, and if not,

If pleasure and remorse must both be there,

Which is the greater?"

The prayer may provide the only solution, however much it may contain of Yeats' own despair, which is evidenced in the following passage:

"Unless there is a change in the public mind, every rank above the lowest must degenerate, and as inferior men push up into its gaps, degenerate more and more quickly. The results are already visible in the degeneration of literature, newspapers, amusements, and, I am convinced, in benefactions like those of Lord Nuffield, a self-made man, which must gradully substitute applied science for ancient wisdom."

This sense of ominous uncertainty represents a move on Yeats' part away from earlier moments in which he had bolstered his pessimism with a belief that the worst could be overcome by a willed assertion of joy (as he suggests, for example, in the poem "Lapis Lazuli").

In "Purgatory" he wants his audience to realize the dangers of what he perceived as a degradation of the human stock and soul, to understand, and, perhaps, to try to stop the process by "a change in the public mind."

Source of the information above: A Commentary on the Collected Plays of W. B. Yeats, ed. A. Norman Jeffares and A. S. Knowland (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1973).

Note also what Yeats said to his friend the writer Dorothy Wellesley, as documented by her:

"He had been talking rather wildly about the after life. Finally I asked him: 'What do you believe happens to us immediately after death?' He replied: 'After a person dies he does not realize that he is dead.' I: 'In what state is he?' W.B.Y.: 'In some half-conscious state.' I said: 'Like the period between waking and sleeping?' W.B.Y.: 'Yes.' I: 'How long does this state last?' W.B.Y.: 'Perhaps some twenty years.' 'And after that' I asked, 'what happens next?' He replied: 'Again a period which is Purgatory. The length of that phase depends upon the sins of the man when upon this earth.' And then again I asked: 'And after that?' I do not remember his actual words, but he spoke of the return of the soul to God. I said: 'Well, it seems to me that you are hurrying us back to the great arms of the Roman Catholic Church.' He was of course an Irish Protestant. I was bold to ask him, but his onlyretor was his splendid laugh" (qtd. in Helen Vendler, Yeats' Vision and the Later Plays 195).

As Helen Vendler observes, there seems something comic about this exchange--the possibility that Yeats is just drawing the number 20 years out of a hat, plus Wellesly's own rather naive characterization of Yeats as "Irish Catholic" as if that could explain him! But what can explain his message in this play?

Eliot thought its "theology" was lacking. In an essay on Yeats, he said, "The play Purgatory is not very pleasant, either . . . I wish he had not given it this title, because I cannot accept a purgatory in which there is no hint, or at least no emphasis on Purgation." And elsewhere, Eliot wrote, "Mr. Yeats' 'supernatural world' was the wrong supernatural world. It was not a world of spiritual significance, not a world of real Good and Evil, of holiness or sin, but a highly sophisticated lower mythology" (qtd. in Vendler 196).

But not even the distinguished critic Eliot gets the last word, of course. Others have thought this play is successful. The levels on which it works include the way it serves as an allegory for the fallen state of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, which (in Yeats' view) had become "contaminated" through its association with lower classes; and the way in which it seems to foreshadow the senseless "purgations" of World War II.

We can turn to one more comment by Yeats to see that he might have intended a link between purgation and the very act of creation. "This earth-resembling life is the creation of the image-making power of the mind, plucked naked from the body, and mainly of the images in the memory . . . Like the transgressions, all the pleasure and pain of sensible life awaken again and again, all our pasisonate events rush up about us and not as seeming imagination, for imagination is now the world." That last phrase, "imagination is now the world," might as well be describing the moment of artistic creation (see Vendler 197).

Finally some commentary from Harold Bloom, who is not a fan of the play.

"Yeats intended Purgatoryto stand at the end of his last volume, which he knew would be published posthumously [the volume is called On the Boiler]. . . . Yeats himself insisted that the play expressed his own conviction about this world and the next. It is, then, the poet's deliberate testament, the work in which [he] passes a Last Judgment on himself. We turn to the play expecting to encounter the wisdom and the human powers developed through a lifetime of imaginative effort. What do we find?"

In short, Bloom finds a play that renders an "exercise in practical eugenics" (i.e., the father's murder of the son, which ends the faulty genetic line). "If the poet's conviction about this world is in the play, it would seem that the old wanderer acts for Yeats in preventing 'the multiplication of the uneducatable masses' [quoting from a prose passage in On the Boiler]. That leaves the poet's conviction about the next world, if a reader is still minded to seek enlightenment from this testament. The somewhat more aesthetic purgation outlined in [Yeats' big mystical work] A Vision has little to do with the notion of purgaion in the play, and apologists for the play have been driven to strained allegories to justify the play's apparent conviction as to the next world. The next world, toward the end, looked to Yeats like a cyclic repetition of this one, and so the lustful begetting of the murderous wanderer is doomed always to be re-enacted, despite the wanderer's violence and his anguished prayer. Whether or not Yeats fully intended it, the closing prayer is simplyinaccurate and becomes an irony, for the actual repetition in the play is not one of remorse, but of fierce pleasure, of lust fulfilled andyet again fulfilled. The old wanderer anticipates the irony, saying of his parents' repeated sexual act: 'If pleasure and remorse must both be there, / Which is the greater?' but he cannot answer the question, and neither can Yeats, whose confusion is in the play as much as his conviction is."

Bloom's major complaint is that "Yeats is not separate enough from the old man's rage to render the play's conclusion coherent. That hardly makes the play less powerful," he says, "but perhaps we ought to resent a work that has so palpable a design upon us. Eugenic tendentiousness is not a formula for great art, even in Yeats."