Eugene Ionesco was a late bloomer as far as playwriting goes. He was in his forties when his first play, The Bald Soprano, was produced in 1950. This amazingly weird, amazingly awesome play was inspired by English language primers. It didn't have much success until it was discovered by some bigwigs in Paris's avant-garde theater movement. Before long, Ionesco was an international theatrical superstar. The Chairs was produced in 1952. Though it was critically acclaimed, Samuel Beckett's famous Waiting for Godot stole the spotlight that year. Still, Ionesco continued to grow in popularity and influence. Many think he reached his playwriting peak with Rhinoceros, in 1960.
In 1962 Martin Esslin wrote a little book called The Theater of the Absurd, which basically defined an entire genre of theater. Esslin placed several playwrights, including Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Arthur Adamov, and later Harold Pinter under this label. Though some of the playwrights disliked being labeled as any one particular type of writer, you can definitely see similarities in their works. All of them seem to have been inspired by, or at least to sympathize with, the famous Albert Camus's idea of the Absurd. Camus outlined his philosophy in his essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. To make a long story short, he proposed that life is meaningless and therefore everything humans do is essentially Absurd.
Ionesco and his Absurdist buddies used similar techniques to express the idea of the Absurd. In many of their plays, characters are trapped in repetitive, meaningless situations, speak in clichés, and exist in decidedly unrealistic realities. Absurdist plays also often use clowning techniques borrowed from vaudeville and the films of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. All of these elements are present in The Chairs.
Ionesco kept writing plays way into the 1980s, but none of them ever seemed to rock quite as hard as his early stuff. He died, at age 84, in March 1994. Though his body lies in a Paris graveyard, his influence lives on. Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Edward Albee and many other famous playwrights all owe a debt to our buddy Eugene. His horrifically comic anti-plays helped redefine the theater. Ionesco and his Absurdist buddies changed the language of drama forever.
The Chairs is a play for anyone who's ever wondered, "Why?" Scratch that. Make it, "Why?! WHY?! WHY?!"
Here's an example: it's 3am and a girl is desperately trying to memorize the capitals of every country in South America. Her test is first period. The pressure is on, but somewhere in the back of her mind there's a nagging voice:
Voice: Why am I doing this?
Girl: Because I need good grades.
Girl: Because I want to get into a good college.
Girl: So, I can get a good job.
Girl: I want nice things.
Girl: Because...I want to be comfortable.
Girl: I don't know, I mean, that's what people want.
Girl: Because we're made that way.
Girl: Jeez, shut up! I'm trying to study here!
Voice: Just asking.
Voice: Don't you start!
Has your mind ever gone down a similar path? Eugene Ionesco definitely spent some time thinking about the great big "Why?" His plays have been labeled as Theater of the Absurd, and many Absurdist plays seem to be based on the on the Existentialist idea that human lives have no meaning. We're born; we do whatever it is we do; we die. That's it. Game over. The Absurdists thought that since there was no great meaning to life, everything we do to fill our days is ultimately ridiculous or absurd.
Depending on your point of view, this philosophy might seem either totally depressing or totally liberating. Absurdists believed that if there's no larger universal meaning, then each of us gets to decide what's meaningful for ourselves. If the ghost of Eugene Ionesco happened to be passing through the bedroom of our poor confused girl, he might answer her question of "Why?" with "Why do you think?" If he happened to be standing behind you right now and you turned around and asked, "Why should I care about The Chairs?" he might say, "That's something you'll have to decide for yourself."
Here's a great site for all things Ionesco.
Hey look, there's a theater festival dedicated solely to Ionesco.
Check out this review of a recent production of the play.
Here's a link to the many articles published on Ionesco in the New York Times.
Here's a virtual model for the set of The Chairs.
An old interview with the playwright (in French).
A Digital Interpretation
Check out this digital collage inspired by play.
A designer's model for a possible set for the play.
Here's a caricature of the playwright.
The Old Man and his Bride
Here's a shot from a production of The Chairs.
A photo of the playwright.