Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 611

When The Chairs debuted in Paris in 1952, many critics did not know what to make of the play. A few praised the production. Reneé Saurel (quotT ed by Rosette C. Lamont in her Ionesco’s Imperatives: The Politics of Culture) believes the play is ‘‘hauntingly beautiful and perfectly structured under its surface of incoherence.’’

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Most critics were not as kind. Some regarded it as too strange. Others were just confused. A contemporary critic quoted in Ruby Cohn’s From Desire to Godot: Pocket Theatre of Postwar Paris wrote, ‘‘Since the guests are represented by chairs, I didn’t understand whether this was a symbol of the author, a dream of the Old Man or a financial economy.’’

Because of such reviews, audiences stayed away. Sometimes Ionesco, his wife, and daughter were the only spectators in the theater. Still, he was pleased. Allan Lewis quotes the author as saying ‘‘If my failures continue on this scale I will certainly be a success.’’

The critics changed their opinion as the concept of the theater of the absurd became widespread and popular in Europe and Paris. When The Chairs was revived in Paris in 1956, many critics praised Ionesco’s work.

As quoted by Cohn, French playwright Jean Anouilh wrote in the Paris publication Figaro, ‘‘I think that it’s better than Strindberg because it’s dark in the fashion of Moliere, sometimes madly funny, it’s frightful and ridiculous, poignant and always true.’’

English-speaking critics were divided on The Chairs. The unnamed critic in Newsweek contended: ‘‘There are two articulate schools of thought about Eugene Ionesco. One regards him as a gifted charlatan and a practical joker. The other agrees with Kenneth Tynan, the London critic who classi- fies ’the poet of double-talk’ as ’a supreme theatrical conjurer.’’’

An anonymous critic in Time concurred, maintaining that Ionesco’s ‘‘work has been about equally hailed for its meaning and hooted for lack of any.’’ Moreover, the critic asserted: ‘‘Providing playfully humorous touches and some remarkable stage affects, The Chairs is at times both engaging and lightly evocative, but calls for greater imaginative pressure, has no really tragic underside to its surface drolleries.’’

Many critics shared these divergent opinions. For example, The Nation’s Harold Clurman contended: ‘‘The point of all this is supposed to be that none of us can communicate with another, but I am not convinced that that is the point. There is a strange humor in the play; it presents an arresting theatrical image. Though weird, it is not depressing. There is about it a light, poignant poesy.’’

Henry Hewes of the Saturday Review of Literature countered, ‘‘Eugène Ionesco has, I think, theatre importance that extends beyond his ability as a writer. The technique is simple. The characters are general types. The situations are usual. But the action and dialogue follow whatever course will amplify the absurdity inherent in the contradictions of each immediate moment.’’

Since these original productions, The Chairs has been performed worldwide. While most critics believe the themes have resonated over time, a few disagree. Stefan Kanfer in The New Leader wrote: ‘‘Irrational response to a crazy world was de rigueur in the postwar period. Today it seems as adolescent as acne and obsolete as a 1952 Renault.’’

Such critical division existed even into the late 1990s. Most share the opinion of Adrian Tahourdin of the Times Literary Supplement. He asserted that ’’The Chairs is a sparkling piece, full of wit, pathos and theatrical invention.’’

John Simon agreed: ‘‘The exact meaning of every detail is debatable, but the outline is clear enough. We live in terrifying isolation, companioned mostly by imaginary others. We cannot even voice our final justification.’’

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