The Chairs Summary
by Eugene Ionesco

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The Chairs Summary

(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 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.


(Drama for Students)

The Chairs opens with the Old Man sitting on a stool looking out the window. His wife, the Old Woman, worries that he will fall out of the window. Finally, she pulls him in and drags him towards two chairs. The Old Man sits on her lap.

The Old Woman works to calm him, reminding him that he has a message to deliver. The Old Man is excited when he remembers this. He gets up and starts to pace. The Old Woman tells him how talented he is and that he must tell the world his message.

It is revealed that the Old Man will reveal his message to many important people that evening. The doorbell rings and the first guest arrives.

All the guests are invisible. The first guest is The Lady. The old couple makes small talk with this invisible woman and gets her a chair. Another guest arrives. It is a Colonel, who is seated next to the Lady.

The doorbell rings again and two more guests arrive: Belle and her husband. The Old Woman makes grotesque sexual gestures towards Belle’s husband; the Old Man intimates that he had been involved with Belle in the past.

More invisible guests arrive. The Old Woman fetches more chairs, but she cannot keep up. She gets frustrated by the Old Man’s demands. The Old Woman does not even know who the guests are, but the Old Man is too busy to explain them to her.

Other invisible guests arrive, some bringing children. This upsets the old couple, but they try to seat them just the same. As more invisible guests arrive, the Old Woman’s hunt for chairs becomes comical.

When the Old Woman runs out of chairs, she begins to sell programs and food treats. The invisible guests without chairs are forced to stand against the wall. The crowd is so massive that the Old Man and the Old Woman have to shout to locate each other across the room. They continue, however, to make small talk among their guests, assuring them that the message will be spoken in a few moments.

The Emperor arrives. The old couple is shocked that such an important man is in their house. The invisible crowd gives the Emperor the best seat in the house.

The Orator arrives to announce the Old Man’s message. Unlike the other guests, he is a real person and dressed in the garb of a nineteenth-century artist. The Orator mounts the dais, and the Old Man directs the invisible audience to ask the Orator for autographs. He signs them.

The Old Man thanks his guests for coming. He tells the Emperor that his life will not have been in vain after his message has been shared with them. Finally, the Old Man thanks his wife. Then, after one last praise of the Emperor, the Old Man and the Old Woman jump out the window and commit suicide.

The Orator begins to speak, but he is a mute as well as deaf. He can only make throaty noises. To communicate the message, he writes a few meaningless words on a chalkboard. He finally leaves and the noise of the invisible audience marks the end of the play.