The Chairs Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Context

Ionesco’s The Chairs, although an early work in his career as a dramatist, is considered one of the key works in what theater scholar Martin Esslin would later term the “Theatre of the Absurd.” Like other major absurdist dramatists of the 1950’s—Samuel Beckett, Arthur Adamov, and Jean Genet—Ionesco was deeply influenced by the philosophic existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. It was, in fact, Camus who first used the word “absurde” in Le Mythe de Sisyphe (1942; The Myth of Sisyphus, 1945) to describe the essential meaninglessness and irrationality of the human condition. Among the dramatists of the absurd, Ionesco was perhaps the most theatrically flamboyant in presenting this vision, using broadly farcical situations and vivid imagery.

Just as the mass of empty chairs filling the stage in The Chairs comes to represent the emptiness and nothingness of the human situation, in Amédée: Ou, Comment s’en débarrasser (pr., pb. 1954; Amédée: Or, How to Get Rid of It, 1955) a huge corpse, symbolizing the death of emotion and love, inexplicably grows in the apartment of an old couple similar to the protagonists of The Chairs. By the end of the play the corpse’s gigantic leg has broken through the wall of the room where it had been concealed. Idea becomes image in the works of Ionesco. Similarly, in L’Avenir est dans les ufs: Ou, Il Faut de tout pour faire un monde (pr. 1953, pb. 1958; The Future Is in Eggs: Or, It Takes All Sorts to Make a World, 1960), the idea that a young couple, Jacques and Roberta, must propagate is imaged by filling the stage with baskets of eggs that are to be hatched. All these works share three other ideas which recur in Ionesco’s work: the lovelessness of the conventional bourgeois marriage, the proliferation of matter in a...

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