The Play

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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...

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and breasts, and making obscene gestures to the photoengraver.

The bizarre behavior of the Old Woman is followed by an equally bizarre dialogue of contradictions between the old couple about familial relationships. She insists that they had one son who abandoned them because they killed birds; he insists that they never had any children at all. Contradictory also is their discussion concerning the Old Man’s mother. The Old Woman praises his loving care for her until her death; he guiltily admits that he left his poor mother to die in a ditch. The argument is interrupted by another ring of the doorbell. In pantomime the Old Man greets several more invisible guests, while the Old Woman begins to rearrange the chairs in preparation for the arrival of the Orator. She turns all the empty chairs around so that they now have their backs to the audience and then hurries off for more chairs. The Old Man’s greetings reveal that members of the press have arrived, including a cameraman, as have some children and a pair of twins.

From this point on, the ringing of the doorbell becomes increasingly frequent, and the action soon reaches a frenzied crescendo as both the ringing of the doorbell and the sound of boats arriving become almost constant. The sound effects become louder and louder, and the stage lighting becomes increasingly bright. The old couple repeatedly bump into each other in their flurry of greeting guests, seating them, and chaotically opening and closing doors to bring out more chairs. The Old Woman has arranged the chairs in regular rows facing downstage with the rows getting narrower as they get closer to the dais and blackboard in front.

The stage now resembles a theater, and the old couple begin selling invisible programs and refreshments to the invisible throng that pushes and shoves for seats. The crowd eventually forces the old couple to opposite sides of the stage. Each is now positioned by one of the stools under the windows at stage left and right. They shout at the audience to settle down and clear the aisles, reminding them that the Orator will soon arrive. Suddenly there is a loud fanfare offstage, and the large central door downstage opens with a great crash. A powerful light floods the stage. “It is the Emperor,” cries the Old Man in great astonishment.

The Old Man’s response to the Emperor fluctuates absurdly from his reciting of grandiloquent accolades to his making barking sounds to signify doglike fidelity. Then, as if in the confessional, he implores the Emperor’s forgiveness for myriad sins of the past. All the while the Old Woman echoes the final words her husband speaks. The liturgical nature of the scene culminates in the repeated antiphonal shouting by husband and wife of the words: “He will come. . . . He is coming,” referring to the Orator. The central door opens again, and the real and visible Orator appears; he greets the Emperor with a flourish of his hat, mounts the dais, and then mimes the signing and distributing of autographs.

The Old Man, thrilled by the Orator’s presence, gives thanks to all those who have figured in his life, “the technicians, the machinists, the electrocutioners,” even thanking the leftovers of humanity, since “with such leftovers one can make good soup.” Separated by the crowd of empty chairs, the Old Man and Old Woman have remained standing on their stools at opposite ends of the stage. They remain jubilant that the Old Man’s message to the world will finally be delivered; their purpose has been fulfilled and they can end their lives nobly, adding that they “may even have a street named after them.” Rejoicing, they fling confetti and streamers toward the Emperor, the Orator, and the empty chairs, with fireworks accompanying these gestures. They shout, “Long Live the Emperor,” and simultaneously throw themselves out the windows on either side of the stage.

The Orator, dressed in the flamboyant garb of a typical nineteenth century painter or poet, steps forward to speak. He utters the unintelligible noises and guttural sounds of a deaf-mute. Seeing the blackboard behind him, he is struck by an idea, and he turns to write “the message.” He writes “ANGEL FOOD . . . NNAA NNM NWNWNW V” and makes more guttural sounds. Seemingly unhappy with what he has written, he erases the words and now writes the letters: “ADIEU DIEU P.” He again indicates to the crowd what he has written, senses their disappointment, waits an awkward moment, then bows to the crowd and exits “like a ghost” through the main door, which is now cast in darkness.

The closing effect of the play is striking; suddenly the human noises of the invisible audience are heard. There are sounds of nervous laughter and coughing, whispers and murmurs; these sound effects grow louder and then slowly diminish. The stage directions indicate that this must last long enough to make a strong impression on the audience, until finally “the curtain falls very slowly.”

Dramatic Devices

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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 chairs, both as an image and as physical props, are central to the tragedy/farce paradox of the play; while they are responsible for much of the comic business of the play, they are also responsible for the separation of the old couple at the mock tragic moment of their double suicide.

Sound and lighting effects are equally important to the staging of the work. The offstage sound effects of arriving boats and the subsequent ringings of the doorbell, increasing in both tempo and volume, turn the old couple into automatons instinctively responding to stimuli. The combination of the real sound effects with the entrance of invisible guests, as well as the audible noises of the invisible audience at the end of the play, is central to the play’s paradoxical view of the real and unreal. The lighting pattern for the play, which begins with only the eerie green glow of a gas lamp and then slowly intensifies to a near-blinding light at the entrance of the Emperor, works in two significant ways. First, since the play has begun at six in the evening and light comes in from the surrounding windows and doors, the increased light is contradictory to the natural darkening of evening. Second, and more important, the brightening light suggests a movement toward revelation in the Orator’s message, but there is no revelation, no illumination—the increasing light has been another false signal. During the last moments of the play, the light dims again to the eerie glow seen at the beginning. The empty stage and empty chairs strewn with confetti and streamers express the waste and absence of nothingness.

Places Discussed

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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

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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 lingering sense of political, social, and economic uncertainty.

During the German occupation of France during World War II, Germany had exploited much of France’s raw materials, food, and severely disrupted their transportation system. There also had been severe restrictions on French citizens and their civil liberties.

After the war, many reforms were put into place. For example, a social security system was implemented.

Governmental instability led to uncertainty in France. For example, in 1952 there were three French leaders: Rene Pleven, Edgar Faure, and Antoine Pinay. There were also economic problems including high inflation, an increasing cost-of-living index, and tax increases. The government asked shops to lower prices in an attempt to halt rising inflation.

While industrial production increased signifi- cantly in 1952, it was not until the mid-1950s that the foreign aid from the United States began to facilitate new levels of growth. France also had problems converting from an exclusively private economy, based on independently run businesses, to a deficit-ridden public economy in which certain types of businesses were run by the government.

France’s economic problems were compounded by its involvement in the Korean War (as part of the United Nations) and in Vietnam. Vietnam was one of several countries where France still had colonial interests.

After World War II, half of Vietnam was taken over by Ho Chi Minh, a communist. A war resulted, but France’s poor economic situation limited its ability to intervene. By the mid-1950s, Vietnam was divided in half.

Literary Style

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SettingThe Chairs is a ‘‘tragic farce’’ (as Ionesco describes it), which takes place on a remote island. The play is not set in a particular time or place.

All the action of The Chairs takes place in a room with a circular or semi-circular shape. Along the wall are two important elements: a window that overlooks the seas and eight doorways.

The window frames the action of the play. When The Chairs opens, the Old Man is leaning far out the window. By the end, both the Old Man and Old Woman have committed suicide by jumping out of the window.

Many of the elements of The Chairs are ironic, which means that the intended meaning is different from the actual meaning. This sense of irony contributes to the absurd atmosphere. The Old Man has a very important message to give to the world, yet all of his invited guests are invisible. The Old Man hires an Orator to broadcast his message. Yet the Orator cannot effectively communicate because he is deaf and mute. These and other uses of irony in The Chairs underscore the play’s thematic concerns.

Sound Effects
Although the guests in The Chairs are invisible, sound effects are employed to make their presence known. The sound of boats announces the arrival of guests. The sound of waves reminds the audience of the isolation of the island. The doorbell rings to signal the arrival of guests.

Some sound effects provide a clue to what kind of guest has arrived. For example, when the Colonel appears, a trumpet sounds. There are gate-crashing noises when the Emperor appears. Furthermore, the stomping of feet is audible when the Emperor is announced by the Old Man and Old Woman. When the elderly couple commits suicide, the sound of their bodies hitting the water is heard.

After the Orator leaves, frustrated that he could not make himself understood, the stage is empty— but the audience can hear the sounds of a large crowd talking. These sound effects emphasize the absurd elements of The Chairs.

The use of lighting is an interesting aspect of The Chairs. In the opening scene, the Old Woman lights a lamp that emits a green glow. When the Emperor arrives, a powerful light announces his presence. The lights dim after the couple commits suicide.

Compare and Contrast

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1952: Television is very popular. In fact, 42% of American households own a television set. In the United States, color television is introduced. There are four major networks.

Today: At least one television can be found in nearly every American home. With the advent of cable and satellite television, there are hundreds of networks available. The average citizen can gain access to the television medium through public access programming.

1952: Numerous countries in the world place restrictions on media and their ability to gather information.

Today: The Internet and cable television changes the way people get news and information from around the world.

1952: While the American economy is very strong, many countries, including France, suffer from severe inflation and relatively weak economies.

Today: While the American economy is very strong, the economies of many other countries in the world, especially in Asia, are weakening.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Cohn, Ruby. From Desire to Godot: Pocket Theater of Postwar Paris, University of California Press, 1987, pp. 122-33.

Clurman, Harold. A review of The Chairs in The Nation, July 6, 1957, pp. 186-93.

Hewes, Henry. ‘‘‘Sanity’ Observed,’’ in Saturday Review of Literature, January 26, 1958, p. 26.

Ionesco, Eugène. Four Plays by Eugène Ionesco, Grove, 1958, pp. 111-60.

———. Notes and Counter Notes: Writing on the Theatre, translated by Donald Watson, Grove, 1964, pp. 17-18.

Kanfer, Stefan. A review of in The New Leader, April 6, 1998, p. 23.

Lamont, Rosette C. Ionesco’s Imperatives: The Politics of Culture, The University of Michigan Press, 1993, pp. 69-70.

Lewis, Allan. Ionesco, Twayne Publishers, 1972, pp. 40-2.

A review in Newsweek, January 20, 1958, p. 84.

Simon, John. ‘‘Lost Will and Testament,’’ in New York, April 20, 1998, pp. 64-5.

Tahourdin, Adrian. ‘‘Sitting Uncomfortably,’’ in TLS, December 5, 1997, p. 25.

A review in Time, January 20, 1958, p. 42.

Coutin Andre and Rosette C. Lamont. ‘‘Culture Dreams: A Conversation,’’ in Grand Street, Summer, 1998, p. 166-75. An interview with Eugène Ionesco.

Dolamore, C. E. J., ‘‘Adam at Odds with Eve: Ionesco and the Woman’s Mission,’’ in Journal of European Studies, December, 1993, pp. 409-26. Discusses the female characters found in Ionesco’s plays, including The Chairs.

Gaensbauer, Deborah B. Eugène Ionesco Revisited, Twayne/ Prentice Hall, 1996, 177 p. Biographical and critical study.

Ionesco, Eugène. Present Past/Past Present: A Personal Memoir, translated by Helen Lane, Grove, 1971, 192 p. Autobiography of Ionesco.

Lamont, Rosette C. and Melvin J. Friedman, eds. The Two Faces of Ionesco, Whitston Publishing Company, 1978, 283 p. This collection of essays includes original writing by Ionesco as well as criticism of his work.


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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.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide