A Play About Self-Delusion

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Eugène Ionesco’s play The Chairs lends itself to many different interpretations. For example, Allan Lewis asserts in Ionesco, ‘‘The Old Man seeks certainty and truth in the midst of the absurd.’’

The Chairs explores the lack of truth in the Old Man and Old Woman’s life, reflecting the lies humans often tell themselves. Many critics also believe the play is about communication between people. This essay argues that The Chairs is about people’s deluded communication with themselves, which reflects their innate isolation.

The Old Man is the most delusional of the three characters; his needs direct the course of the play. His delusions are evident from the beginning. After the Old Woman pulls him away from the window, Ionesco writes in the stage directions that ‘‘the Old Man seats himself quite naturally on the lap of the Old Woman.’’ The Old Woman treats the Old Man as a child and he acts like one.

A bit later, he calls for his mother and says that he is an orphan. He talks in baby talk, then, as the Old Woman calms him down, he turns back into an adult, claiming ‘‘I have a message, that’s God truth, I struggle, a mission, I have something to say, a message to communicate to humanity, to mankind.’’

He is ninety-five years old, with what he believes is an important message to save the world, yet he acts like a child. A child would not have the insight or feel the responsibility to formulate such a message.

Once the Old Man starts acting like an adult again, his untruths are compounded. He tells the Old Woman, ‘‘I’m not like other people, I have an ideal in life. I am perhaps gifted, as you say, I have some talent, but things aren’t easy to me.’’ These are the statements of an adult rationalizing their life.

Sometimes there is a grain of truth to his deception. He tells the Old Woman, ‘‘I have so much difficulty expressing myself, but I must tell it all.’’ To that end he tells his wife he has hired an Orator to relay his message to his invited guests.

The deception becomes physical when the invisible guests arrive to hear his ‘‘scientific lecture.’’ The Old Man believes a roomful of guests come to hear his message: women and men of all classes; old friends; and important people like colonels and the ‘‘Emperor’’ (of uncertain origin because France had no royalty at the time of the play’s performance). Because the guests are invisible, the conversation is one-sided, mostly of subjects of concern to the Old Man and the Old Woman.

The whole situation is controlled and imagined by the Old Man as well as his wife. This becomes evident when the Old Man talks ‘‘to’’ Belle, a woman from his childhood. In his mind, like many people, he wants to communicate. The Old Man does not talk to Belle as if she, too, is elderly, but much younger. The Old Man has a similar conversation with the Colonel.

The Old Woman encourages the Old Man’s delusions. She repeatedly tells him that he could have done more with his life. At one point, she declares, ‘‘Ah! yes, you’ve certainly a fine intellect. You are very gifted, my darling. You could have been head president, head king, or even head doctor, or head general, if you had wanted to, if only you’d had a little ambition in life.’’

During one of these incidents, the Old Man tries to demure, saying ‘‘Let’s be modest, we should be content with little.’’ Yet he is not. He...

(This entire section contains 1429 words.)

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believes he is so important that dignitaries must come to his house and hear his message.

Later, the Old Woman reinforces these beliefs, claiming ‘‘It’s a sacred duty. You’ve no right to keep your message from the world. You must reveal it to mankind, they’re waiting for it–the universe waits only for you.’’

When the invisible guests begin to arrive, the Old Woman makes polite conversation, but, more importantly, serves her husband’s delusion by fetching chairs, chairs, and more chairs. She runs herself ragged making sure that all the guests he has ‘‘invited’’ have chairs.

When the Old Man believes the Colonel has insulted him, the Old Woman defends him, saying ‘‘My husband never lies; it may be true that we are old, nevertheless we’re respectable.’’ Also, when Belle and her husband bring the elderly couple a gift, the Old Man has to tell her what it is. This is concrete evidence that The Chairs is mostly a figment of the Old Man’s imagination.

The Old Woman also tries to bring the Old Man back to Earth. She tells him that ‘‘You’ve quarreled with all your friends, the directors, with all the generals, with your own brother.’’ He replies simply, ‘‘It’s not my fault Semiramis, you know very well what he said.’’

The Old Man doesn’t want to hear the truth. The Old Woman tries to postpone the meeting just before it is to begin. Guests arrives before he can change his mind.

The Old Woman also has her own delusions. When the Old Man acts like a child, she does too. She demands that they play make believe and that he ‘‘imitate the month of February.’’ Then she demands that he tell her the story of how they arrived on the island seventy-five years ago. During the story, the Old Man contends that

they were in a ‘‘village’’ called Paris, but the Old Woman, switching back to her maternal role, says, ‘‘Paris never existed, my little one.’’ Her conversations with invisible guests are polite but fantastic. Shockingly, she tries to seduce Belle’s husband in a bizarre sexual display.

One scene illustrates just how delusional the whole situation is. When talking with Belle and her husband, the elderly couple contradict each other many times: the Old Woman tells Belle’s husband that she has a son who abandoned them, while the Old Man tells Belle that he and the Old Woman had no children; the Old Man tells Belle that he killed his mother, while the Old Woman informs Belle’s husband that the Old Man took wonderful care of his family. There is no truth—each believes what he or she wants to believe.

There is no real evidence that the Old Man actually has a real message to convey. The play implies that the Old Man hired the Orator sometime before the play began and gave him the information necessary. Yet the Orator is a deaf-mute, according to Ionesco’s stage directions, so the Old Man had to have been aware that the Orator could never speak his message.

Yet when the Orator appears, the Old Man and Old Woman act somewhat surprised. The Old Woman has to touch the Orator before she believes he is really there. The Old Man says, ‘‘He exists. It’s really he. This is not a dream!’’ then, according to the stage directions, he ‘‘clasps his hands, lifts his eyes to heaven [and] exults silently.’’

It is only because the Orator is a real man that the Old Man’s delusions became real and truly pathetic. The Orator could be interpreted as a physical manifestation of the delusion because he allows the couple to believe the Old Man’s lie.

Now that his life’s work is almost complete, the Old Man is ready to die. Yet the delusions continue:

he thanks everyone who has ever helped him, though the island’s isolation has been emphasized throughout the text. What is evident in the last few moments of the Old Man’s lie is that he believes that because his message will be heard, his life has not been in vain.

Many people want to believe such things, though few ever really accomplish this. Yet this is the final delusion. After the couple commits suicide, the Orator is incapable of relaying the Old Man’s message.

The few words the Orator manages to scribble on the chalkboard are nonsense. At the end of the play, all the audience is left with is the chairs and the sound effect of a noisy crowd. The chairs remain as empty symbols of the Old Man’s hopes and dreams. Ultimately, the Old Man wanted to find and understand his own message himself, and killed himself when he thought, incorrectly, that he had accomplished it.

Source: A. Petrusso, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.

Review of a 1998 Revival of Ionesco's Play

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Once, contemplating the survival of his plays, the French-Romanian playwright Eugène Ionesco said, ‘‘It takes a few decades for a work to become brilliant—when it’s no longer written by the author, but rewritten by the generations who come after him.’’ Britain’s Théâtre de Complicité has restaged Ionesco’s one-act The Chairs nearly half a century after it was written, in 1952, and has established finally and forever the indubitable poetry and genius of the play, which Ionesco subtitled ‘‘a tragic farce.’’ Here, at the Golden, superbly directed by Simon McBurney and aided by the Quay Brothers’ water-stained gray-plank surround of towering doors and cornices, Ionesco’s ontological void takes the shape of a floating, threadbare island world ‘‘on the edge of nothingness,’’ in which two nonagenarians—played by the English comic veterans Richard Briers and Geraldine McEwan—act out the folly, fulminations, and fierce solitude of their dwindling days. The production plunges the audience into a vivid, contradictory world of light and darkness, proliferation and absence. Ionesco originally saw an image of ever-increasing chairs on an empty stage—what he called ‘‘present absences’’— as a vision of ‘‘total absence.’’ The great accomplishment of the Complicité’s production is to capture the pulse of the feverish anxiety out of which he wrote—the sense of a metabolism gone haywire, and of what Ionesco referred to as a whirlwind of accumulating emptiness.

A large part of the play’s new shine is a result of the fine playing of Briers and McEwan, who know all there is to know about comic timing. At the opening of the show, Briers, white-haired and feeble, stands at the window, casting a hangdog look at the water vastness just outside his front door. The play’s first words establish the corrupted world they inhabit: ‘‘Please—poppet—shut the window. You’re letting the stench of stagnant water in.’’ The Old Man thinks he’s seeing boats ‘‘like sunspots’’ in the distance. ‘‘There aren’t any little boats,’’ the Old Woman says. ‘‘There isn’t any sun. It’s night-time, popsey.’’ The Old Man counters, ‘‘There’s still the afterglow.’’ It’s a terrific joke. They can’t agree on what is in the world; nonetheless, nostalgia for it prevails. This is the precise emotional affliction that inspired Ionesco’s plays. ‘‘I write out of anguish; out of nostalgia . . . a nostalgia which no longer knows its object,’’ he once said. The Old Man and the Old Woman tell each other stories to agree on their history and to keep their insubstantial selves intact. ‘‘Your story is my story too,’’ the Old Woman says to the Old Man, and at one point she suggests, ‘‘Why don’t you ‘be’ something to cheer us up?’’ The Old Man replies, ‘‘Why don’t you ‘be’ something—it’s your turn,’’ and they fall into a vaudeville of recrimination:

OLD WOMAN: Oh no it’s not. OLD MAN: Oh yes it is. OLD WOMAN: Isn’t. OLD MAN: Is.

Their folderol exudes the distinctive perfume of despair. Later, after being told that he ‘‘could’ve achieved something in life,’’ Briers ends up on McEwan’s lap, regressing. ‘‘I want my mummy,’’ he says. ‘‘Where’s my mummy? I’m an orphan.’’ The air is full of regrets and abdications. Grandiosity vies with self-loathing. The Old Man feels compelled to give the world his message; the Old Woman, always the supportive wife, says, ‘‘Mankind is waiting. The universe hangs on your lips.’’ A party to broadcast his views is called for that night. An Orator is hired to insure the proper delivery of his message, and before you can say ‘‘Hey, Feydeau!’’ the event, and what Ionesco called ‘‘the mechanics of proliferation,’’ gets under way.

Chairs are brought into the room for the imaginary newcomers, and Ionesco’s fun machine goes quickly out of control. McEwan turns into a roadrunner, skittering around the stage with chairs in her hands, over her head, collapsing hilariously with her body slumped against the door. Chairs are shoved through the doors, dropped from the ceiling, popped onto cornices. As the old couple go through their social paces with each guest, including the resplendently invisible King of Kings Himself (a spotlight follows His Invisibleness around the auditorium to the place where he resides, beside a pair of white gloves on the balcony railing), their badinage compounds clutter with cliché. The play, well translated by Martin Crimp, is a virtual encyclopedia of dead phrases, which has the weird comic effect of turning language, too, into emptiness. ‘‘You can find yourself looking at things that seem to be mere Tappearances, expressions of nothing, faces with nothing behind them,’’ Ionesco said, and this proliferating nothingness is what the play both literally and symbolically achieves.

At a certain speed, all things disintegrate: in The Chairs the exhausted old couple, separated by the crowd, finally commit suicide by jumping into the sea out of opposite windows. It’s left to the ghostly Orator (Mick Barnfather) to deliver the message; inevitably, words escape him. He’s deaf and dumb; he speaks in sign language and, finally, in frustration, writes the following punning statements on the doors: ‘‘ANGELSWEEP’’ and ‘‘GOD™ISAGONE.’’ In the final coup de théâtre, McBurney actually stages Ionesco’s ‘‘whirlwind of emptiness.’’ The house appears to be blown away: the doors collapse, the scrim flies up, and the set becomes a gray, skeletal shell, like some bombed war ruin. But Ionesco has one last, chilling laugh. After a few moments of silence, the sound of murmuring laughter and conversation wells up underneath the chairs. As the lights fade, a stationary chair turns in our direction. In that startling moment— not scripted by Ionesco—the production teases one final caprice from oblivion: a theatrical illusion within a universe that to Ionesco was all illusion.

Source: John Lahr. ‘‘Present Absences’’ in the New Yorker, Vol. 74, April 13, 1998, pp. 78–80.

Differences in Languages and Translations

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Willis D. Jacobs¡¯ comment on The Chairs of Ionesco (EXP., Feb., 1964, XXII), is certainly very interesting and probably valid for the English text; but his attempt to find a positive message in the orator¡¯s writing on the blackboard must be doomed by a consultation of the French. The English translation ¡®¡®angelfood¡¯¡¯ stands for the French Angepain, which is the two words angel and bread placed side by side. This construction in French does not give adjectival force to the word angel as it does in English. The effect might be carried into English better if it were written ¡®¡®angel; bread.¡¯¡¯ Yet as a single word, angepain might suggest the adjective Angevin just by the sound. Such an adjective in this place would have the value only of an absurdity. The most that could be made of it is that the orator has replaced the phoneme vin by pain¡ªwine by bread. This scarcely has positive implications.

Next follows the series of letters: NNAA NNM NWNWNW V. These letters were probably chosen because they most resemble pure nonsense scribbling. But if one attempts to pronounce them they suggest the negative ¡®¡®ne¡¯¡¯ or ¡®¡®non¡¯¡¯ more than anything else.

Finally the orator writes ¦«ADIEU ¦«DIEU ¦«P¦«. The inverted V is there to obfuscate. The message is Adieu Dieu¡ªgoodby God. (I have no explanation for the final P; pronounced p¨¦ in French, it probably would not suggest the French word pet, pronounced p¨¨, meaning the breaking of wind.)

That the play is meant to end on a negative note is indicated by the fact that in its first performances the blackboard was not used, only the nonsense mumbling of the orator being heard.

Source: James L. Brown. ¡®¡®Ionesco¡¯s The Chairs¡¯¡¯ in the Explicator, Vol. XXIV, no. 8, April, 1966, pp. 73¨C74.

Ionesco’s The Chairs’

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Absurd, absurd, absurd. It’s time to put this silly misrepresentation of avant-garde playwrights to rest. As for Samuel Beckett, he is melancholy, hopeless, pessimistic, pejoristic, and this is not absurd. It’s a conviction of man’s brutality and life’s difficulty. Living through obscene poverty and the ferocity of Hitler’s Germans, Beckett came to conclusions that are intelligent and sensible, not absurd.

But the case most at point is Eugene Ionesco’s brilliant play The Chairs. Rather than absurd, it is— at least for the vast majority of our population— straightforward and obvious good sense.

The old couple has just died. The Orator strives to speak. His words are not understood. Then he writes the message left by the old people, and which he himself absolutely believes, upon the blackboard. There it faces us with clarity and force. He capitalizes the words to emphasize their meaning, to make them loud and strong. And the message is incorporated in two words of great obviousness. One is ANGELFOOD. The other is ADIEU. Neither of these words is gibberish. Both are words of meaning—all the more meaning in their context of the death if an aged man and woman. The Orator writes: ANGELFOOD. Where have these two dead old people gone; what has become of them? They have gone to heaven. They are the stuff out of which angels are made. There is divine love and divine reward. But the audience, like Mr. Esslin, Mr. Coe, and Mr. Glicksburg, have not yet understood. Impatiently the Orator writes ADIEU ADIEU. These are not nonsense syllables, they are valid words. They mean, literally and emphatically, TO GOD TO GOD. The aged couple have gone to their Creator and Redeemer There is God, there is heaven, there is divine love and reward.

The Orator knows that he has delivered an understandable and joyous message. No wonder he looks with stupefaction, then with anger, at an audience too blind to read, too obtuse to understand simple words. For here indeed is a message that can command equally the attention of all people— janitors, bishops, chemists, bankers, intellectuals— a message to which even the Emperor, even God himself, would rightfully lend his presence.

What explains the willful refusal by so many able people to see the joyous, affirmative, profoundly devout declaration by Ionesco is, I suppose, the conventional opinion that all advanced contemporary writers are dark, gloomy, atheistic. Even the Orator stammers in word and in writing as he attempts to speak in other words to our times. But that conventional opinion is wrong and it destroys our understanding of many writers. Ionesco is a religious man. He is a believer. He is orthodox in faith. In The Chairs he affirms that there is a consolation to even the meanest life, that even the humblest have something worthy to be heard by any and all of mankind, and that what they have to say is that God exists, the soul exists, immortality exists, heaven exists. We are of the stuff of Angels and we shall all be received within the love of God. God loves and rewards us. Not absurd, maybe; not pleasing to the cynical modern ear, no doubt; but there it is in Ionesco. We are angelfood, all of us, and we shall one day go to God.

Source: Willis D. Jacobs. ‘‘Ionesco’s The Chairs’’ in the Explicator, Vol. XXII, no. 6, February, 1964.


Critical Overview