Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 767

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.

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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 world devoid of spirit, and the conformity and interchangeability of people in a world devoid of values and individuality.

Two plays written before The Chairs prefigure the important theme of the devaluation of language which is central to the meaning of The Chairs. In La Cantatrice chauve (pr. 1950, pb. 1954; The Bald Soprano, 1956), language is ultimately reduced to utter nonsense in a babble of meaningless non sequiturs; language is used to obfuscate rather than to reveal or to communicate meaning. In La Leçon (pr. 1951. pb. 1954; The Lesson, 1955), language becomes a tool of tyranny used by the professor to crush the young student. In The Chairs, the victims of language multiply, and the idea becomes more complex. The old couple who have hired the Orator, the guests who have come to hear the message, and the real audience gathered in the theater all become implicated in meaninglessness. The unintelligible guttural noises of the mute Orator coupled with the nonsense he writes on the blackboard become Ionesco’s most chilling indictment of words and language as a path toward understanding, knowledge, or truth.

In Ionesco’s later full-length plays, the dramatic style and narrative methods become more conventional, yet they retain elements of the stylization, fantasy, and grotesquerie of the earlier works. Rhinocéros (pr., pb. 1959; Rhinoceros, 1959), Ionesco’s most political play, became the greatest commercial success of his career. The repetition of the rhinoceros mask imagery throughout the play (and its symbolic representation of giving in to conformity) is reminiscent of the powerfully reiterative imagery of the peopleless chairs in The Chairs. The post-World War II European feelings of malaise, fear of fascism, and loss of individuality which are implicit in The Chairs become explicit in Rhinoceros.

The critical success of Rhinoceros worked to validate the earlier one-act plays such as The Chairs, which had been critically controversial during the time of their original productions, and by the late 1960’s Ionesco was firmly established as one of the major dramatic craftsmen and voices in mid-century French theater. In retrospect, The Chairs, like Samuel Beckett’s En attendant Godot (pr. 1952, pb. 1954; Waiting for Godot, pb. 1954), first produced the same year as the first production of The Chairs, should be seen as a seminal work in the Theater of the Absurd. In The Chairs Ionesco achieved an ideal blending of form and content, turning the stage itself into a theater-within-a-theater, projecting the absurdity of the stage actions onto the real audience gathered to witness the work. The theatergoers, like the assembled throng of invisible guests on the stage, have come to hear a message, to get answers. As so often occurs in the works of Ionesco, however, the audience leaves with only questions, renewed doubts, and a revivified sense of the absurd.

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Critical Evaluation