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by Eugene Ionesco
The Chairs The Chairs Summary
Stage directions tell us that the Old Man is sitting on a stool, peering out a window. The Old Woman lights a gas lamp. She tugs on her husband's sleeve. The Old Woman tells him to shut the window; it's letting in mosquitoes and the smell of stagnant water. He tells her to leave him alone. She's concerned that he might fall out the window into the water outside; she doesn't want him to die like Francois I. The Old Man says he's tired of her references to French history. He wants to see the boats in the sunlight. The Old Woman reminds him that it's dark outside. Well, he says, I want to look at their shadows, then. She pleads with him to come away from the window. Reluctantly, he does as she asks, but reminds her of how much he likes to look at the water. The Old Woman can't understand why; the stench of it makes her feel lightheaded. The Old Man sits in the Woman's lap. He recollects that it used to get dark much later than it does now. The Old Woman agrees and compliments him on his fine memory. He says it's dark because the earth keeps spinning round and round, sinking deeper and deeper. She compliments him on his intellect and tells him he could have been a general. The Old Man replies that he is a general, a "general factotum" (17) – an employee who does a little of everything. The Old Man complains that he's bored. The Old Woman suggests that they play make-believe. They argue over whose turn it is to make believe. The Old Man tells her to drink her tea, but there in none. He calls her by the name of Semiramis. (Semiramis was a legendary Assyrian queen, with a reputation for being sleazy.) She asks him to imitate the month of February. He replies that he doesn't like the months of the year. Too bad, she says, they're the only months we have for now. The Old Man does an impression of February, which for some unknown reason involves scratching his head like Stan Laurel (of the famous comic duo Laurel and Hardy). She's very impressed and says he could have been head general. He reminds her again that he's a general factotum. The Old Woman begs him to tell a story that begins, "Then at last we arrived…" (40) He complains that he's been telling the story every night of their 75-year marriage. She begs him some more, saying that it's her story too. Reluctantly, the grumpy Old Man agrees. He recalls that they were very cold when they first arrived. They went through a garden and on the other side was a village. The Old Woman asks the name of the village. He says it was Paris; it was a city of light, but now there's nothing left of it. The Woman says that her husband could've really been something but now all hope is washed down the drain. She begins to laugh in a demented way. The Old Man laughs too and continues his story. It's pretty garbled because he's laughing so hard, but it has something to do with an idiot arriving with rice stuck to his belly. (Yeah, pretty weird.) Apparently, whatever incident the two are recalling is hilarious, because their laughing gets even crazier. The Old Woman exclaims that Paris was wonderful. She says again that he could've really done something and suggests that perhaps he's wasted his life. The Old Man replies that they should be happy with what they have. He breaks into tears, calling for his mother. The Old Man whines that he's, "an orphan...dworfan" (75). He wonders where his mother is. His wife tells him she's in Heaven. The Old Man cries. The Old Woman tries to comfort him. She reminds him that he has a message to deliver, something he's always wanted to say. The Old Man bucks up. He wipes his tears and declares that he is special because he has a message for all of humanity. His wife tells him that he would've gotten farther in life if he'd learned to get along better with people. They sit for a while in silence. Suddenly the Old Man begins to talk again about the lost city of Paris. He tries to remember more but keeps getting befuddled. The Old Man complains that he has trouble expressing himself. She says it's his duty to get his message to humanity. She's proud of him because he's finally going to speak to the heads of the entire world. He corrects her, saying that he's hired a professional orator to speak for him. The Old Woman gets excited. She can't believe that tonight is the night. It seems the Old Man has invited every kind of person in the entire world to hear the Orator speak his message. The guests should be arriving any minute. The Old Woman worries that the whole thing might make them too tired. Too late, though... They hear the sound of a boat outside – the first guests are arriving. The Old Woman wonders if it's the Orator. Her husband says the Orator won't arrive till later. The doorbell rings. The Old Woman frets over her hair and clothes. The old couple hobbles off stage. We hear them greeting a guest. The Old Woman compliments the guest on her clothes. The couple comes back on stage with the guest walking in-between them. The guest is invisible (to us at least). The Old Man brings a chair onstage for the invisible Lady. The couple makes small talk with her. They appear to be very amused with whatever the Lady is saying. The invisible Lady drops an invisible object, which the Old Man insists on picking up for her. We live a pretty good life, the couple tells their guest. Fishing occupies a lot of the Old Man's time, but he spends at least two hours a day working on his message. The doorbell rings again. A new invisible guest enters. It's a Colonel. The Old Man is honored to meet him and is flattered he's taken the time to come. The Old Woman compliments the Colonel's uniform. She blushes as the invisible Colonel kisses her hand. They get the Colonel a chair and introduce him to the Lady. The doorbell rings. The Old Man greets an invisible couple. Apparently he knows the woman from the past; they used to call her Belle. They come to the conclusion that her nose has gotten longer. The Old Man tells Belle's husband that she will always be Belle to him even though she's old now. The Old Man introduces the new guests to the Colonel and the Lady. More chairs are brought on. Belle's husband has brought the Old Woman a present. It's a painting. The Old Woman thinks that Belle's husband is a doctor and tells him about her aches and pains. The Old Man corrects his wife, saying that Belle's husband is a Photo-engraver, not a doctor. The Old Woman begins to talk with the Photo-engraver while the Old Man talks to Belle. It seems the Old Man once loved Belle long ago. The Old Woman thanks the Photo-engraver, who is apparently hanging up the picture he brought. Both the Old Man and the Old Woman begin to flirt with their conversation partners. The Old Man speaks wistfully to Belle about times gone by. The Old Woman raises her skirts and compliments the Photo-engraver on his clever fingers. Eventually, the old couple asks Belle and the Photo-engraver to take seats with the other guests. Stage directions tell us that a long mute scene follows. The old couple sits silently for a while and listens to the conversations of their invisible guests. The Old Woman tells the Photo-engraver that she and the Old Man have only had one son. The Old Man, however, tells someone else that they've never had a son at all. Not acknowledging this, the Old Woman tells the Photo-engraver a story about her son. Apparently, one day the streets were full of dead baby birds and her son yelled at her, thinking it was all her fault. The Old Woman tried to deny that there were dead birds, and her son ran away. The Old Man begins speaking of his mother, saying that he left her to die alone in a ditch. These two stories seem to intertwine and become a bit garbled. Eventually, the old couple stops their story telling and sit in silence for awhile. More boats are heard. The Old Man goes off to welcome the new guests. The Old Woman arranges chairs. The Old Man shows in the new guests, who are apparently newspapermen. He introduces them to all the other invisible people and comments that the Orator should be arriving soon. Tons of invisible guests begin to fill the room. The couple scurries around trying to accommodate them all. They worry that there won't be enough chairs. The sounds of doorbells, boats, and waves grow louder. The old couple runs around like crazy trying to deal with the growing invisible crowd. Eventually we get the impression that the room is totally crammed with people. The Old Woman begins selling programs and candies. Apparently, the room is so packed that she can't even move, so she just throws them all up in the air. Pushed by the crowd, the old couple ends up at opposite windows. They call to each other from across the mass of invisible people. They each speak to random people near them. The say that the Orator should be here by now. They talk about how all the world's problems will be solved once the Old Man's message is heard. Suddenly, the main doors open wide and bright light shines in. The Old Man exclaims that the Emperor has arrived (of course, he is invisible too). The couple celebrates joyously that the Emperor has honored them with his presence. They push their way through the crowd to show their respects. The Old Man tells the Emperor about all the failures and disappointments of his life. He implores the Emperor to be patient; the Orator will be here any moment to deliver the message. At long last the Orator arrives. He is a real person. Well, he's played by real actor at least. Stage directions tell us that he looks like a typical painter or poet from the nineteenth century. The Old Woman seems a little unconvinced that he's real, but after touching him she declares, "Here he is!" (488). The Old Man and Old Woman are both so happy that this hasn't all been a dream. The Orator bows to the crowd and salutes the invisible Emperor. The Orator signs tons of autographs for the eager, invisible crowd. Proudly, the Old Man thanks the crowd, then extends his thanks to basically the entire human race. He thanks the Emperor especially. The Old Man tells the ruler that his and his wife's mission in life is now complete. Now that the Old Man's message will finally be heard, his life will not have been for nothing. He thanks everybody who helped him get to this glorious day and reminisces a bit about his life. The Old Man declares that after years of toil in the name of humanity's greater good, he and his wife will now make the ultimate sacrifice. The Old Woman agrees; it's better that they die now while in their full glory. The couple laments that their bodies won't be able to rot together in the same grave. Instead, their corpses will drift apart in the waters that surround the house. The Old Man turns to the Orator and tells him that he's placing all his faith in him; he's trusting the Orator to get his message across to the world. With that, the Old Man and Woman throw themselves out separate windows, crying, "Long live the Emperor!" (537-540). We hear splashes as their bodies hit the water. The Orator is left alone onstage in dimming light. He stares at the rows of chairs. He tries to communicate to the crowd, but it becomes obvious that he is deaf and mute. His speech comes out as gibberish. Frustrated, he turns to a blackboard behind him and writes, "ANGELFOOD," among other things (541). He tries to explain himself to the crowd, but it becomes increasingly obvious that they have no idea what he's talking about. Eventually, he gives up, bows politely to all, and leaves. After he exits, we begin to hear the noise of a crowd; it gets louder and louder then fades into nothing.
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