Examine the ways in which Yeats presents the futility of man struggling against the consequences of his mortal condition and how this contributes to the tragedy of his drama: "Purgatory".

Purgatory – both the play by Yeats and the Christian concept – is in part a reference to a cycle that cannot be broken. In his play Yeats establishes this cycle as one of the miseries of man. The themes of regeneration and renewal were hot topics for the writers of the Modernist era who took artistic inspiration from anthropology and religion. However, the writing these topics inspired was less embracing of the miracle of rebirth and renewal - which was the way they were commonly interpreted by ethnologists and anthropologists - than it was lamenting of the imprisonment of man, whom it saw as helplessly trapped in an endless revolution of doom. Yeats’ account of man’s helpless strife echoes and draws from other works and authors of the time dealing with the same subject of man’s desolation and abandonment. T S Eliot’s The Wasteland and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot are two such pieces, both setting the “action” in bleak, unedifying environments, with an unremarkable backdrop, and a constant uncertainty on the part of the characters as to where they are, why they are and what they are doing.
The well-known Greek myth of Prometheus offers a neat metaphor of man’s trapped condition, as he stands inadvertently pitted against the ancient forces in the world. He was the Titan who was bold enough to steal fire from the fierce and fickle Gods of Mount Olympia and give it to man, and who went on to pay eternal retribution for his actions, having his liver pecked out daily by an eagle. The protagonist in ‘Purgatory’ tells a similar story of the rise and fall that characterized his own heritage. Using the ancestral past of Old Man to stress the lack of autonomy an individual has on the directions of his life Yeats re-establishes this myth: ‘Great people lived and died in this house; / Magistrates, colonels, members of Parliament, / Captains and Governors, and long ago / Men that had fought at Aughrim and the Boyne.’ Although these people of Old Man’s lineage are high achievers they still fall victim to death just as the lowly do. To be ambitious, to strive, like Prometheus, to greater things, means ultimately that there is further to fall. To be one of the good and the great does not release one from a mortal lifespan. Nor does it protect ones family and reputation from the less desirable inhabitants of the Earth. This is illustrated by Old Man’s sinful nature and his fervent belief that the reason for his repugnance is the mismatched union between his father and mother.  On the contrary: it seems that to achieve a version of eternal life one must be a sinner in fact, or at least to have had ‘transgressions’. If you have accumulated some of these you can be confident in the knowledge that you shall live beyond the grave.
 However, this is an undesirable goal and another example of the Modernist penchant for taking a spiritual positive and redefining it in a very negative light. As Old Man informs his frustrated son, to return to the Earth is to be trapped perpetually in the traumatic places and events of one’s life, where one can ‘Re-live / transgressions, and that not once / But many times’. Even the best efforts of any offspring to save a relative’s condemned soul will not prevail, as Old Man proves when attempting to ‘Release (his) mother’s soul from its dream’. He does not manage to do so and instead only seems to add to the woes his mother must re-live. By vanquishing her family he seems to believe he will redeem her, but ultimately he only furthers the consequences of her marriage to his father.
 Through the miseries of his protagonist Yeats criticises human desire, in its various guises. The lust for sexual gratification gives rise to stupidity: ‘This night she is no better than her man / And does not mind that he is half drunk, / She is mad about him’.  Lust for money is deploringly illustrated in the scrap between Old Man and Boy as accusations and threats fly between them: ‘You never gave me my right share.’ ‘Give me that bag and no more words.’ ‘I will not.’ ‘I will break your fingers’. Lust for alcohol is illustrated in a somewhat cliched fashion by Old Man’s father ‘riding from the public-house’ on the night of his wedding, ‘whiskey-bottle under his arm’ after ‘Bragging and drinking’ there with his fellows. Yeats uses the aggression and self-concern spawned by monetary greed and the irresponsible oblivion induced by love of the bottle to emphasise the shameful weakness of mankind. It is Old Man’s father who becomes the major example of this and the greatest target for the latter’s scorn, as he is depicted as the worst kind of human: ‘...to kill a house / Where great men grew up, married, died, / I hear declare a capital offence’. Yet Old Man is just as condemning of himself and his own past, he makes no attempt to exculpate himself. This is illustrated in the connections he draws between himself and his parents, connections which are – unsurprisingly - dispirited and macabre.
 He establishes himself as very much a product of his father – ‘I am my father’s son’ - and mother – ‘Half-loved me for my half of her’ and he speaks lengthily about the process of his ‘begetting’, ‘Whilst those two lie upon the matress’. Certainly the manner in which he creates his own son is hardly any more quixotic: ‘Upon a tinker’s daughter in a ditch’. His self-defamation is plenteous to the point where he seems to wallow in it, and not without some satisfaction. However, as a result of his acknowledgment of the incapacitated state of man – at mankind’s lack of free will - it appears that he simultaneously exonerates himself from responsibility for any actions he may perform. The blame for his father’s death lies with his parents: Old Man warns the ghost of his mother; ‘Do not let him touch you! / if he touch he must beget / And you must bear his murderer’. After murdering his son he attempts to pass it off as a duty, ‘because had he grown up / He would have struck a woman’s fancy, / Begot, and passed pollution on’. As Boy tells him, his ‘wits are out’, and by attempting to justify his behaviour in this way – presenting himself as one example of futile man – he certainly comes across as mad, almost schizophrenic. This is disturbing as it is a sign of a man who has indeed taken leave of his senses, responding to his urges without any moral consideration of their consequences. It seems that the merry-go-round of life and death has got the better of him.
 In conclusion Yeats play is tragic because of the complete lack of hope it offers its audience. It bemoans the imperfection of the human condition and seems only to foresee the further degeneration of civilisation.


Pethica, J Yeats Poetry, Drama and Prose. Norton, New York, 2000.

Rain, K W. B Yeats and the Learning of the Imagination. First Dallas Institute Publications, Cambridge, 2001.

Yeats, W B The Collected Poems of W B Yeats. Simon & Schuster Inc, New York, 1983