The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

As the curtain rises on The Chairs, the audience is immediately struck by the play’s unusual setting: a sparsely furnished semicircular room, surrounded entirely by doors and windows, with two stools facing windows on opposite sides of the stage, two chairs at center stage, and a dais and blackboard centered downstage. The Old Man stands on one of the stools looking down at the water below as his wife, the Old Woman, Semiramis, lights a hanging gas lamp, which creates an eerie green glow. They live atop a tower completely surrounded by water. The play’s action begins as the Old Woman pulls the Old Man down from the stool, reminding him of some mysterious accident in the past. They move to the two chairs center stage, and he, childlike, sits in her lap.

They bemoan their isolated state and the lost opportunities of the past when he might have been a “head king, head journalist, or head general”; now he is only a “general factotum.” They reminisce about the past, before the city of Paris was extinguished—“four hundred thousand years ago.” To pass the time, they play games and tell stories. The Old Woman reminds her husband that this is the day he is to reveal his message to the world and that the guests are certain to arrive soon. Alternately they recite an absurd litany of the guests to come—“the janitors? the bishops? the chemists? the tinsmiths? the violinists? . . . the buildings? the pen holders? the chromosomes?” Their frenzy of excitement quickly turns to doubts and second thoughts, and they wish the whole event could be called off. It is too late, however, as the sound of the first arriving boat is heard.

Soon after the sound of a boat moving toward the tower is heard, the doorbell rings and the first of the “guests” arrives—a young lady. She, like all of the guests to follow, is invisible to the audience. The old couple, in pantomime, escort her in and seat her in one of the chairs at center stage. The Old Woman then goes out through one of the concealed side doors to get another chair, which she places by the others. The old couple chat idly to the guest about her journey and hint of the Old Man’s message, to be revealed this evening through the Orator, soon to arrive.

The sound of another boat arriving is followed by the ringing of the doorbell; the Old Man rushes to answer the door as the Old Woman goes for more chairs. The invisible Colonel now arrives to the accompaniment of a trumpet fanfare and is ceremoniously welcomed. The Old Woman curtsies as she places another chair next to that of the young woman. The old couple become upset by the Colonel’s lustful advances toward the young woman and warn him that her husband may soon arrive; they are shocked at this behavior from so august a presence. The sound of boats is heard again, as is the ringing of the doorbell; the Old Woman again rushes off for chairs as the Old Man greets the latest arrivals, “La Belle,” a former lover of the Old Man, and her husband, a photoengraver. Two more chairs are dragged in by the Old Woman and set up behind the first row. The Old Man reminisces with Belle about their lost love, the happiness they might have shared, and the children they might have had. Suddenly the Old Woman, inexplicably, reveals the deeply buried erotic side of her nature. She begins “simpering grotesquely,” raising her skirt, exposing her legs and breasts, and making obscene gestures to the photoengraver.

The bizarre behavior of the Old Woman is followed by an equally...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The paradoxical subtitle of The Chairs—“A Tragic Farce”—is the key to an understanding of the nature of its staging. The tragic vision of the work is presented through broadly farcical actions, exaggerated gestures, absurd pantomines, and flamboyant theatrical business. There are elements of Grand Guignol, silent comedy, and the physicality of the Punch and Judy puppet shows that Ionesco enjoyed as a young child in Paris. Ionesco insisted that everything about the staging of his work be excessive and exaggerated. The acting styles of the visible characters should fluctuate from naturalism to stylization, from low comedy to the grand style of opera or high poetic tragedy. The overall effect should be to unsettle the viewer, to create anxiety, and occasionally to shock.

Ionesco’s stagecraft is extremely physical; ideas are concretized in physical objects, lighting, and sound effects. The device of the chairs is central to the farcical nature of the play. The repetition of the Old Woman rushing out through one door and reemerging with chairs through another becomes increasingly amusing, and the comic effect is heightened by the careful pacing and accelerating tempo of the action. The proliferation of objects on the stage makes the old couple’s movements increasingly difficult, and comic effects multiply as they pantomime tripping over chairs, knocking over chairs with invisible occupants, and bumping into “guests” and each other. The...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Tower. Structure in the middle of a circular island surrounded by a stagnant sea in which an Old Man and an Old Woman live. Eugène Ionesco describes this, the play’s setting, in meticulous detail; it is half of a circular room with basically symmetrical windows and doors. The play’s initial dialogue indicates that the room is above a vast expanse of water. Two unusual but real people appear and soon there are real chairs on stage, along with realistic sound effects from outside the tower. However, the increasingly bizarre dialogue soon claims that the action takes place in an unbelievably futuristic setting 400,000 years after the destruction of Paris. When guests arrive from the outside world—accompanied by realistic sound effects of boats and doorbells—they are invisible. Strangely, after dozens of chairs are added to accommodate the invisible guests, the room begins to seem realistically crowded and theaterlike, and the play’s real audience seems to become an extension of the fictional audience on stage. It is a surprise when the long-awaited orator is not invisible and even more surprising when the orator is a deaf-mute incapable of communicating the main character’s important message to the world. However, the most chilling effect is saved for last. After the stage turns to darkness, but before the final curtain falls, the invisible audience makes laughing, murmuring, and coughing sounds, just like a real audience. The imaginary stage audience is thus drawn into the bizarre fictional world, making imaginary and real and certain and uncertain difficult to discern.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

In 1952, France was still recovering from the devas- tating impact of World War II, which had ended less than a decade earlier. There was a...

(The entire section is 273 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

The Chairs is a ‘‘tragic farce’’ (as Ionesco describes it), which takes place on a remote island. The play...

(The entire section is 388 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1952: Television is very popular. In fact, 42% of American households own a television set. In the United States, color television is...

(The entire section is 141 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Compare and contrast The Chairs with Waiting for Godot, an absurdist play written by Samuel Beckett in 1952. What does each...

(The entire section is 134 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

No Exit (1944), a play by Jean-Paul Sartre, is an existentialist drama that explores the meaning of life.


(The entire section is 90 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Cohn, Ruby. From Desire to Godot: Pocket Theater of Postwar Paris, University of California Press, 1987, pp....

(The entire section is 262 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Coe, Richard N. Ionesco: A Study of His Plays. Rev. ed. London: Methuen, 1971. Presents a careful study of The Chairs, offering information about the early productions of this work and discussing how confused and delighted critics were by this cryptic play.

Cohn, Ruby. From “Desire” to “Godot”: Pocket Theater of Postwar Paris. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989. Has a chapter devoted to the first production of The Chairs, with much informative material about what the play means and has meant to those who have seen it. Provides a very solid discussion of how one might respond to this perplexing masterpiece.

Dobrez, L. A. C. The Existential and Its Exits: Literary and Philosophical Perspectives on the Works of Beckett, Ionesco, Genet, and Pinter. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. Explores some of the possibilities of what is one of Ionesco’s best pieces.

Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd. 3d ed. London: Methuen, 2001. Long before other critics had a clue about what Ionesco’s plays might mean, Esslin had placed Ionesco in a group with other writers, whom he called “absurdists.” Esslin delivers an often moving interpretation of The Chairs and how Ionesco came to write it.

Gassner, John. Theatre at the Crossroads: Plays and Playwrights of the Mid-Century American Stage. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1960.

Guicharnaud, Jacques. Modern French Theatre: From Giraudoux to Genet. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1967. The chapter on Ionesco and his work uses The Chairs as a centerpiece. Long an admirer of the absurdist playwright, Guicharnaud looks into the texts of Ionesco’s one-act dramas and finds much to explain.

Ionesco, Eugène. Present Past, Past Present: A Personal Memoir. Cambridge, England: Da Capo, 1998.

Kluback, William, and Michael Finkenthal. The Clown in the Agora: Conversations About Eugène Ionesco. New York: Lang, 1998.

Lahr, John. Review of The Chairs. The New Yorker 74 (April 13, 1998): 78-80.