Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
The Chairs is a one-act tragic farce. A ninety-five-year-old man and his ninety-four-year-old wife live isolated on an island. They interminably reminisce, joke, and quarrel. He plans to share his life experience with posterity and has invited a large audience to hear the orator who will speak on his behalf. It would be touching if their dialogue were meaningful, but disconnected from reality, past or present, it often derails into a mechanical blurb.
The doorbell rings, and the old man hobbles to the door. He welcomes the first guest, but the Lady is invisible. The old people are excitingly talking to no one; the chair they offer to the visitor remains empty. The episode repeats itself again and again, with the old couple bringing chairs from the wings faster and faster. This multiplication of chairs is a theatrical miracle—the striking image of void. It culminates with the invisible Emperor’s arrival. The orator, who is a real body, is ready to speak. He reaches the dais and salutes the invisible crowd. The old woman sobs, her husband trembles with emotion; they shout “Long live the Emperor,” and throw themselves out of two symmetrical windows. The orator, who has remained impassive during the double suicide, coughs, groans, and utters his message—a few guttural sounds. The expected speech is as void as the chairs.
The Chairs portrays the loneliness of the elderly. Their situation borders on tragic. They have no...
(The entire section is 454 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The Old Man and his wife, the Old Woman, live in a circular room in a tower in the middle of a circular island surrounded by nothing but a stagnant sea. The Old Man stands on a chair and peers out the window to look at the shadows of ships on the water, apparently waiting for someone, but the Old Woman scolds him to come down because she fears that he might fall and, besides, she tells him, it is early morning and thus dark out, so he cannot see the ships.
Reluctantly, the Old Man climbs down. The Old Woman begs him to entertain her by imitating the month of February, which he reticently does, and then she pleads with him to tell her once more the story of how they arrived on the island decades earlier. Reluctantly he agrees to, even though he told it and she heard it too many times before. When he mentions that by coming to this deserted isle he ruined his promising career, the Old Man begins to weep and moan like a child. The sun begins to rise.
The Old Woman, who calls him Semiramis, takes him on her lap and rocks him, as if he were a baby. She assures him that if they had remained in civilization, he could have been anything he wanted, even head orator. Even though the Old Man protests that he has too much difficulty in communicating to ever become a great speaker, he insists that he has something of such enormous importance to tell the world that he hired a professional orator and invited the most important people to come to the island that very day so that they will all hear what the Orator will say on the Old Man’s behalf.
Afraid that the guests will tire them, the Old Woman says that he must call off this engagement. The Old Man wavers and begins to panic. Yet no sooner does he declare that it is too late to cancel than the doorbell rings. Nervously, the old couple prepare themselves. Slowly, the Old Man goes out of their tower room to the entry and, with the Old Woman following him, opens the door. The Lady they bring into their circular room is invisible. They usher the unseen woman into the room, greet and speak to her with extreme politeness,...
(The entire section is 856 words.)