The Chairs is in many ways scathingly satirical, skewering the idea that human beings have some greater purpose in life. When the Old Man's dreams all come to nothing at the end of the play, we're forced to ask ourselves if anyone's dreams ever really come true, to wonder whether any of our lives have a greater purpose or meaning. Of course, there are tons of laughs along the way. Like many absurdist plays, The Chairs manages to find humor in the idea that we all live and die for absolutely no reason.
Well, the play is definitely a drama, because, you know...it's a play, a piece of literature meant to be spoken by actors in front a live audience. We also think it qualifies as a tragicomedy. Ionesco actually labeled it a tragic farce, which is pretty much the same thing. The play has elements of both comedy and tragedy. It manages to be hilarious and horrific at the same time. Check out our "Booker's Seven Basic Plots" analysis for a discussion of how the play is also both comic and tragic in terms of plot structure.
The Chairs takes its name from the chairs that the Old Man and Old Woman set up for their invisible guests. The way these chairs are arranged is perhaps intended to remind the audience of the seats that they themselves are sitting in. The title of the play may highlight this even more in the audience's mind.
As we point out in our section on the theme "Art and Culture: The Theater," the entire play could be seen as a comment on the art of theater itself. When the Orator delivers the garbled message before the rows of chairs, the audience is reminded of the garbled language of the very play they've just watched. Just like The Chairs, the Orator's message offers no explanations. Both audiences, the invisible guests and the audience in the theater, are left only with questions.
Notice that these rows of seemingly empty chairs are the last image Ionesco leaves his audience with. What could these apparently vacant chairs possibly symbolize? Perhaps their emptiness is meant to highlight the emptiness of our lives. What do you think? What other meanings can be gleaned from these empty chairs?
The very last moment of The Chairs does nothing but raise questions. After failing to deliver the Old Man's message, the frustrated Orator exits. At this point, Ionesco tells us in his stage directions:
We hear for the first time the human noises of the invisible crowd; these are bursts of laughter, murmurs, shh's, ironical coughs; weak at the beginning, these noises grow louder, then again, progressively they become weaker. (542)
What are we to make of this? For most of the play, it's seemed pretty darn likely that there weren't any invisible guests at all. There's a good possibility that the Old Man and Woman are just imagining the whole thing to fill the emptiness of their lives. Now, though, we actually hear the invisible guests.
With this final touch, Ionesco hurls one last question at his audience, forcing us once more to question the reality of the play. Were the invisible guests there the whole time? The Orator saw them, and he seemed real. Then again, he may have just been the old couple's hallucination. The play could be taking us along with them, as they descend even deeper into their dream world. There's no way to know for sure what's real and what isn't in the play. Then again, how do we know if anything is real at all? We have a feeling this is just the sort of question that Ionesco wanted his audiences to ask themselves as they left the theater.
It also seems significant that the playwright requires the crowd noise to steadily get louder, then fade away. Perhaps this rise and fall is meant to symbolize the way we human beings grow and progress through life only to fade away into death. Notice also that these sounds happen in the midst of apparent emptiness. The chairs are all vacant and "the main door is wide open onto darkness" (542). It could be that the crowd noise in the darkness represents the Existential view that we live our absurd little lives in a universe that is ultimately mysterious and unknowable.
We should also note that the original production of the play ended a little sooner, with the Orator mumbling nonsense. We have no idea why the original director chose to end the play this way, but, in our minds at least, he robbed his audience of one the coolest, most thought-provoking moments in the script. Tsk, tsk, director guy.
The Chairs is set in the house of the Old Man and Old Woman. The crazy thing about this particular house is that it's surrounded by stagnant water as far as the eye can see. The fact that the water is stagnant could be seen as symbolic. The elderly couple's lives have in many ways become stagnant as well. The two don't really do much of anything. They just hang out in their house playing pretend games everyday; their lives have become an endless repetition of the same old thing. The water surrounding the house also serves to heighten the sense of the couple's isolation; they're totally cut off from whatever remains of the rest of the world.
Though the play never says so specifically, it's quite possible that it takes place at the end of the world. The couple says that the city of Paris, where they apparently used to live, no longer exists. Many Absurdist plays take place in this kind of seemingly post-apocalyptic universe. (Beckett's Endgame is another good example.) It could be that the Old Man and Woman are the last two people on earth, and that the entire world is now covered with stagnant water. These kind of apocalyptic landscapes were perhaps inspired by the devastation of World War II and the constant fear of nuclear annihilation that the conflict left in its wake.
OK, so a lot of this play may seem like nonsense. The characters talk about all kinds of random stuff for apparently random reasons. This can make The Chairs seem more than a little mysterious at times. The thing you have to remember is, that's the point. Ionesco admitted to being completely baffled by the world. He and other writers tagged with the Theater of the Absurd label saw the universe as one big unsolvable mystery. No wonder their plays are just as mysterious. So chill out! Don't worry if you don't get every line. Nobody else does either. Think of the play as a puzzle with many different answers. The fun is in coming up with your own interpretation.
The Old Man and Old Woman's house is surrounded by stagnant water. We detect symbolism. The fact that the water is stagnant could represent the way in which the elderly couple's lives have stalled. For years all they've really done is play make-believe and tell the same old stories. Their lives have become just as stagnant as the water surrounding their house. The fact that the house is basically an island could also be symbolic of their isolation. Though the two have been together for many years, they still feel totally alone. The water could be symbolic of the distance between them and between all human beings.
Water could also be seen to represent time in the play. There are hints throughout that time is in some ways cyclical. The old couple seems doomed to repeat the same actions over and over until their death. At one point, the couple is recounting how the Old Man has repeatedly failed in life. The Old Woman comments, "All that's gone down the drain, alas...down the old black drain" (56). With this image, we imagine water spiraling down into the darkness of the drain. It calls to mind how the Old Man's life has been one big repetitive loop, which is dragging him inevitably towards the darkness of death.
The last image Ionesco leaves us with is a stage full of seemingly empty chairs. We figure this has to be symbolic of something. As we mention in "What's Up With the Title?" and in our section on the theme "Art and Culture," these chairs seem intended to remind us that in many ways we're watching a play within a play. When the Orator delivers his nonsensical message to the invisible guests, the audience is reminded of the nonsensical play they've just watched. With this in mind, it could be said that the chairs symbolize the audience itself.
Also notice that these rows of chairs are empty, at least of visible people. We wonder if this could possibly symbolize the emptiness of all our lives. This would in some ways seem to go along with the Existentialist idea that our lives are ultimately meaningless. When the sound of the invisible crowd rises hauntingly over the empty chairs at the end of the play, we are reminded of the possibility that everything we do may have no ultimate meaning.
The Chairs is often labeled a tragic farce. This seems pretty accurate when you look at it from Booker's point of view. The play has structural similarities to both tragedy and comedy:
The Old Man and Old Woman have been living a meaningless life filled with repetition and boredom. However, the Old Man has been working on a great message that will give meaning to existence. Tonight, tons of guests are supposed to arrive and hear the message revealed by an Orator.
Everything seems to be going great. Lots of guests show up, and even the Emperor makes an appearance. Sure, the guests are all invisible, but that doesn't seem to bother the Old Man and Woman. Their dream seems complete when the Orator arrives to deliver the message. The Old Man and Woman are super happy and decide their lives are complete. They both commit suicide, thinking that the Orator will now deliver the long-awaited message. You could also see this double suicide as the Old Man and Woman jumping the gun on the upcoming Destruction or Death Wish Stage. They're OK with the suicide, but it's suicide just the same.
Unfortunately, it soon becomes apparent that the Orator is a deaf-mute. He struggles to speak but the sounds he makes are unintelligible.
The Orator tries to write on a blackboard but those words too are simply gibberish.
The frustrated Orator exits without having communicated the message. It seems that all the Old Man's hopes were for nothing.
The Old Man and Woman have lived meaningless, disappointing lives. However, the Old Man has been working forever on a great message that will reveal to everyone the meaning of it all. He and the rest of humanity will soon be saved when his great message is delivered by the Orator.
The guests begin to arrive to hear the all-important message. However, these folks are invisible to everyone accept the Old Man and Woman. The audience is left to wonder whether the elderly couple is just imagining it all. Are they crazy or can they see things that we can't?
For a moment, the mystery seems to be dispelled. The Orator arrives and he's actually a real person. Well, he's played by a real actor at least. The Old Man and Woman are incredibly happy. Here, though, the play veers drastically from most comedies. The couple is so confident that the message will be revealed that they both commit suicide. But the Orator, a deaf-mute, is incapable of communicating with the crowd. The message only comes out as gibberish. In the end, nothing comes to light. Unless, of course, the message the whole time was that the universe itself is gibberish. Perhaps it's all an unsolvable mystery, and we're supposed to take some kind of comfort in that. Either way, the answer to it all remains hidden from view.
At the beginning of the play, the Old Man and Woman are doing what they apparently do every evening. They hang out in their house, which is surrounded by water, reminiscing and playing make believe. We get the impression that their lives have become an endless cycle of boredom and regret.
We learn that the Old Man has been working his entire life on crafting a message that will bring meaning to the lives of all humanity. Pretty much everybody in the world is showing up tonight to hear it. The Old Man, feeling he can't deliver the message himself, has hired an Orator to speak it for him.
The guests start to show up. They're all invisible. No one can see them but the old couple. (Or can they?) The Old Man and Woman run around greeting their invisible guests and finding chairs for them to sit in. They get super excited when the biggest invisible guest of all arrives – the Emperor.
At long last he Orator arrives. Surprisingly, he's actually played by a real person. The Old Man is so happy that his message will now be heard. He and his wife commit suicide because they've done all they can for the world; their lives are now complete. The play peaks as the Orator opens his mouth to finally deliver the long-awaited message.
It becomes clear that the Orator is a deaf-mute. He tries to deliver the message to the crowd, but his words sound like gibberish.
The frustrated Orator tries writing on a blackboard to get the message across. Once again all he can communicate is incomprehensible. Finally he gives up and exits the stage, with the message undelivered.
Suddenly, the sound of the invisible crowd fills the empty stage. The sound swells and then fades into nothing. The curtain slowly falls.
The Old Man and Old Woman are hanging out in their house telling nonsensical stories. The Old Man claims that he has a message for the world. The act peaks as we learn that tons of people are showing up tonight to hear the message spoken by a professional Orator.
The guests begin to arrive. Of course, the weird thing is that they're all invisible. The invisible crowd gets bigger and bigger. Elated at the size of the throng, the Old Man and Woman scurry around, greeting them all and providing them with chairs. The act ends as the most honored invisible guest of all arrives – the Emperor.
Finally, the Orator shows up. He's played by a real actor. The Old Man gets all misty-eyed; the world will finally hear his message. He decides that his life is now complete, so he and his wife commit suicide by hurling themselves out the windows. It becomes apparent that this decision was a little premature. The Orator tries to communicate the message to the crowd but is hindered by the fact that he's a deaf-mute. Act III comes to its bitterly ironic conclusion as the frustrated Orator exits the stage.