In Eugène Ionesco’s plays, many ideas are presented very directly, through startling images that defy commonly accepted theatrical conventions. Setting, character, and story as they are usually understood are noticeably absent from The Chairs. The audience is asked to accept that the peculiar string of events it witnesses throughout the play is something that, presumably, has meaning.
Ionesco’s dramas are absurd. In the context of theater,“absurd” does not simply mean “silly” or “ridiculous.” Rather, absurdity refers to the perception that in the modern world, where people are cut off from their traditional ties, all actions become useless, senseless. The absurdity of the absurd play is a reflection of the absurdity of the world. The emphasis of many absurd plays is on the emotional content, or lack thereof, of the moment. Often, nothing appears to be occurring onstage, and characters seem shallow, puppetlike creatures, but amid the frightening lack of communication come waves of humor and terror. Rejecting the logic and reason of earlier writers, Ionesco offers an illogical and irrational drama that expresses the often mystifying feeling of senselessness that pervades the awareness of many modernists.
The Chairs very clearly concerns communication among human beings or perhaps the inevitable lack of communication. The Old Man, who spends his life on an isolated island, feels he must share the message of his life with others before he dies. He invites an audience of notables to hear what he has to tell them. Yet instead of experiencing the presence of other people, he and the Old Woman experience the absence of others. The “people” who come to this secluded island are invisible and mute. Similarly, the Orator whom the Old Man chooses to convey his message is incapable of presenting it, even if someone was there, because he can neither speak with any meaning nor write in intelligible signs. By the time the Orator begins his futile attempts, both the Old Man and the Old Woman kill themselves, convinced that they reached the high point of their long lives.
The old couple talk a great deal throughout the play, but very little of what they say makes any sense. The story that the Old Woman begs the Old Man to tell her, of their arrival on the island, seems circular, insignificant. Moreover, the Old Woman heard it so many times that she hardly even listens to what he says. Rather, she relates to the story as if it were a piece of music and seems more interested in the emotions that the Old Man’s tale inspires rather than in gaining any meaning from the words.
Ionesco called The Chairs “a tragic farce,” and indeed much of the play is extremely funny. The early scenes, for example, in which the Old Man and the Old Woman seem to shift from acting like old people to acting like small children, are especially humorous, and later in the play, with the arrivals of the unseen guests, the behavior of the old couple (who carefully observe all the social niceties with the invisible guests) amounts to high comedy. Nevertheless, the failure of the Old Man to communicate what he seems to believe is the essence of his life’s experience, even amid the bizarre absurdities of the play, turns The Chairs toward tragedy.
Instead of providing any readily understandable answers, the tragic farce provokes many questions. Is communication between people possible? How much of what a speaker says is genuinely understood? Do writers actually make contact with their readers, whom they never meet? Perhaps most significant, what role does a theater audience play in a drama as it is in progress? Are spectators, who sit by silently in the darkened auditorium, in fact rather similar to the unseen, unheard guests who come to the old couple’s island?
Since The Chairs premiered in 1952, it remains one of Ionesco’s most respected and popular plays. Frequently revived all over the world, this play has contributed to Ionesco’s reputation as a serious dramatist.