Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 589

The central theme of The Chairs, as Ionesco himself stated, is “nothingness,” and this theme is concretely embodied in the physical prop of the chairs themselves. They come to represent the existential void that the play depicts. The empty chairs and the invisible crowd become a metaphor for the reality of unreality, just as the unreal, anachronistic, and absurd appearance of the Orator suggests the unreality of reality. The contradictory and absurd nature of the human condition is also embodied in the characters of the Old Man and the Old Woman, who exist in isolation and try vainly to impose order and meaning on the emptiness that surrounds their existence. The Old Man feels “the responsibility of radiating upon posterity the light of [his] mind.” The futility of this feeling is personified by the professional Orator who has been hired to deliver the message. The Orator is a deaf-mute who pitifully mocks the very notion of message and meaning with his unintelligible guttural noises and the nonsensical message he writes on the blackboard.

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The overriding theme of the absurdity of the human condition is bolstered by related themes and patterns which challenge traditional social structures and institutions. Language itself is devalued and often becomes merely a meaningless babble of puns and non sequiturs between the Old Man and the Old Woman. Communication is rendered additionally absurd by the fact that most of the dialogue in the play is addressed to empty chairs. The institution of marriage is degraded by the fact that the Old Man’s “helpmeet” (ironically named Semiramis—the legendary queen and founder of Babylon) is reduced to mere chair toter and echoer of her husband’s words. Marriage is seen as claustrophobic, and the couple’s frustrations are amply evidenced by his flirtations with a former lover and her vulgar erotic displays to a stranger.

The family as a social unit is indirectly depicted in mysterious and perverse ways: references to a son who abandoned the old couple because they killed birds, references to the Old Man’s mother, who was perhaps left to die alone in a ditch. The military, government, and religion are also the butts of Ionesco’s satire: The invisible Colonel is rude and lascivious with a young female guest, there are subtle references to improprieties and cowardice during arbitrary wars of the past, the invisible Emperor is merely a shaft of brilliant light, and the Orator, whose entrance is preceded by a kind of revivalist zeal appropriate to the second coming of Christ, proves to be a mute and impotent mock messiah.

Ionesco depicts a world in which self-delusion is the only means of survival. The Old Man sees himself as gifted, talented, special, with something to say to the world. The old couple has a nostalgia for a vague utopian past, “when all of Paris was like a garden.” The suicides of the old couple before the Orator delivers the long-awaited message constitute both their self-delusive triumph and their final admission of meaninglessness. The real theatrical audience, however, does not escape so easily. The whispered conversation, nervous murmurs, and coughs of the invisible audience emanating from the stage—the very sounds that one might hear from the “real” audience witnessing the play—have the effect of making the actual audience seem as unreal as the empty chairs. In a true coup de théâtre, Ionesco projects the absurdity of the characters onstage onto the audience itself, making the theatrical audience also a part of the absurd cosmos of the play.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 443

Absurdity
Many of the events in The Chairs are absurd, underscoring the loneliness of human existence and the hunger for human contact. The Old Man acts like a child, calling out for his mother as he sits in his wife’s lap. The Old Woman makes bizarre sexual gestures as she flirts with one of the invisible guests.

The guests are invisible, though the Old Man and Old Woman talk to them as if they were real. The Old Man is desperate to relay his profound message for the world; yet his invited audience— including the Emperor—is invisible.

The Old Man hires an Orator to relay this profound message. After the couple commits suicide, it is revealed that the Orator is a deaf-mute— he cannot communicate the message to the invisible audience. He tries to write it on the chalkboard, but can only manage a couple of comprehensible words. These absurdities underline the ridiculous nature of human life.

Human Condition/Isolation
Like all humans, the Old Man and Old Woman are isolated from each other and the rest of the human race. They live on an island and seem to have little contact with others. When they finally receive guests in their home, their guests are invisible, emphasizing their isolation.

Only the Orator is more isolated than the elderly couple—he must face the invisible crowd alone. Even more symbolic of his isolation is the fact that he is a deaf-mute. He can only speak in guttural noises, and his attempts to write on a chalkboard yield only a few nonsensical words. Every character in The Chairs tries to make contact with other people and overcome their isolation; tragically, these people are invisible.

Communication (or the Lack Thereof)
The play revolves around the Old Man’s attempts to broadcast his message to the world. To that end he has invited many important people into his home to hear it. His wife, the Old Woman, tries to discourage him from holding his meeting that night—thus putting off communication with the outside world for another day—but the guests have already begun to arrive.

Yet the guests are invisible; there is no one to hear the Old Man’s message. The couple goes through the formalities with these invisible guests— but in reality, they are communicating with no one. They do not even communicate with each other.

The Orator also underscores this theme. A deafmute, he communicates with noises and gestures that the invisible crowd does not understand. He tries to communicate through writing, but he can only write nonsensical words. When his attempts to communicate fail, the Orator becomes upset and leaves.

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