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(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical 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 descendent, and the offspring that the woman describes is too perfect to be true. As for the man, the apotheosis that he wants is so inflated that it can only blow up. Their conduct neutralizes the empathy they could inspire. The man is ridiculously dependent on his wife; the woman shamefully tries to be sexy. They appear to be close at first, but when the visitors arrive they go their own way, tell contradictory stories, or even lies, and flirt with the guests. Their marriage is an appearance. It is at the same moment, but separately, that they plunge to their deaths.

Ionesco progressively makes puppets out of them. He places in their mouths a language so meaningless that, in extreme cases, it is a verbal flight in which words are associated by sound rather than by meaning. The frantic and shaky transportation of chairs becomes as mechanical as the couple’s language. It is a proliferation of objects without a purpose, the same concept that Ionesco used for the accumulation of eggs in The Future Is in Eggs. Ionesco’s puppets, however, recover some dignity as representatives of the human condition. In the face of death, human activities become irrelevant. Ionesco’s tragic farce is a superb expression of the insignificance of life.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1,851 words.)