The Chairs Essays and Criticism
by Eugene Ionesco

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A Play About Self-Delusion

(Drama for Students)

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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 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...

(The entire section is 3,287 words.)