Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 683
Old Man, a “general factotum” aged ninety-five. He is an employee, or assistant, who serves in a wide range of capacities. He, like all the characters in this play, both visible and invisible, is made up of contrasts and contradictions; he is both man and child. His speech is composed of words and logical sentences as well as some nonsense words and syllables and illogical sentences. Although he is a character of flesh and blood, he sometimes appears to be more illusionary than the invisible characters. While awaiting the arrival of guests, he and his wife reminisce about earlier times and play games of make believe; for example, he sits on his wife’s lap like a little child and calls for his mother. Although he says he is bored with it all, he continues to play the same games and tell the same story night after night. He invites a large crowd of both great and ordinary people to hear his great message that will benefit humanity. Believing himself to be inadequate to communicate this message to others, he has hired a professional orator to deliver it. He greets invisible guests as they arrive and talks with these guests while awaiting the Orator. When the Orator finally arrives, the Old Man gives him a wordy ineffectual introduction. Saying that his life is now fulfilled, the Old Man jumps out of the tower window to his death.
Old Woman, the Old Man’s ninety-four-year-old wife and “helpmeet.” Like the Old Man, she is made up of contrasts and contradictions. She is both mother and wife to the Old Man. At times, she seems stronger and more mature than her husband, telling him that he could have been so much more than what he is if he had had more power in life. At other times, she seems only her husband’s shadow as she literally echoes the words that he says. She has heard the same bedtime story for seventy-five years but still asks the Old Man to tell it again. It fascinates her because it is his life, and she purposely makes her mind new, “a clean slate,” for him every evening. She helps the Old Man greet their invisible guests and brings chairs for them. She also serves as usher and seller of Eskimo pies and programs. She reveals a hidden personality when she reacts like an old prostitute to one of their guests. She claims that she and the Old Man have a son, but the Old Man says they have no children. Like the Old Man, she is extremely honored that the emperor has come to their house to hear the Orator present her husband’s message. She echoes her husband’s words and actions about their dying but states that at least a street will be named for them. She jumps to her death from another window to die at the same moment as the Old Man and to be united with him in time and eternity.
The Orator, a deaf-mute between forty-five and fifty years old, dressed in the typical garb of a bohemian artist of the nineteenth century. He is built up by the Old Man as the greatest professional orator of all time, having documents to prove it. He is also called a friend of the Old Man. Although he is the third flesh-and-blood character, he is made to seem more like an invisible character than those who are invisible because he does not speak or react to the Old Man and Old Woman. He signs autographs in an automatic fashion and is impassive and generally immobile until after the double suicide, when he tries in vain to communicate with the invisible audience.
Guests, a cross section of humanity, including the emperor. The guests have come to hear the Old Man’s message. All of them are invisible to the audience and are indicated by empty chairs placed on stage for them to occupy and by the speech and gestures of the Old Man and the Old Woman.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 347
The Old Man
The Old Man is ninety-five years old and married to the Old Woman. He works as a handyman on the unnamed island where they live. He has waited forty years to unveil his profound message to the world; to that end, he and his wife have invited many important guests and even hired an orator to announce the message.
Yet the Old Man seems confused on the big night: he almost falls out of the window; he sits on his wife’s lap; he calls for his mother at one point; and he directly contradicts some things his wife says.
After the Orator arrives, the Old Man commits suicide with his wife, confident that his message will be heard. It is an absurd twist that the Orator is a deaf-mute and cannot express it to the crowd.
The Old Woman
The Old Woman is ninety-four years old and married to the Old Man. A supportive and mothering presence, she believes that her husband is brilliant and could have been much more than a handyman. She is also demanding, making the Old Man repeat stories he has told over and over again.
Although she is supportive of the Old Man, she also can undermine him. Just as the first guest is about to arrive, the Old Woman admonishes him when he shows a moment of insecurity. When she is introduced to an attractive man, she makes inappropriate sexual advances.
Yet in the end, she remains loyal to him and commits suicide with him.
The Orator has been hired by the Old Man to deliver his message to the invisible crowd. When arrives, he is silent and signs autographs for the guests. He is dressed like a nineteenth-century artist and makes grand gestures with his arms.
After the couple has jumped out of the window, the Orator unsuccessfully tries to speak. Unable to talk because he seems to be mute, he writes words on a chalkboard. The only identifiable words are ‘‘Angelfood’’ and ‘‘Adieu.’’ When it becomes clear that he cannot communicate, he leaves.