Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 856
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, and offer her a chair. They even argue about what this invisible guest might mean by a particular remark and talk behind her back. As they sit beside her, they pause to listen to what the Lady is saying—none of which can really be heard.
Then, the bell rings again and the sounds of a boat pulling away from the island can be heard. The Old Man jumps up, orders his wife to bring in more chairs, and, excusing himself to the invisible lady, runs for the door. Just as the Old Woman returns with a chair, the Old Man comes back with another invisible guest, a colonel, to whom he presents his wife and also the invisible Lady, already seated. The Old Woman admires the colonel’s uniform, and the Old Man asks him to sit down beside the Lady. The four of them—two visible and two not—become involved in a heated conversation. Once again, the doorbell sounds. The Old Man springs to his feet and runs for the door while the Old Woman races to find more chairs for these unseen guests.
More invisible people now arrive. The room soon begins to fill with chairs, and the light grows brighter and brighter. As more and more unseen guests come in, the Old Man and the Old Woman speak to them animatedly, entertaining them, sometimes individually, sometimes together. Outside they hear more boats docking on the island. As the doorbell continues to ring, the Old Man opens the door and the Old Woman goes for chairs. Finally, with the room completely packed with chairs and invisible guests, one more person arrives: the emperor himself. Deeply moved by his majesty’s unseen presence, the Old Man tearfully introduces his wife and then explains that this moment is the high point of their long lives. They thank the emperor for gracing them with his presence on this special night when all will be revealed. The couple agree that they could not wish for anything more. Content now to lie eternally together in death, they unexpectedly jump from the window, both shouting “Long live the Emperor!”
Then, after a moment of silence, as the light in the room and through the windows suddenly dims, the Orator who was hired by the Old Man comes into the circular room. He faces the rows of empty chairs and begins to make sounds—not words, merely meaningless noises. He then tries to scrawl a message on the blackboard; he does not write words, just incomprehensible lines. He politely bows to the chairs and then leaves.
Now from the chairs come the sounds of people—laughter, murmurs, coughs—all the different noises that a theater audience might make. Gradually, these noises grow louder.