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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