Study Guide

The Chairs Themes

  • Philosophical Viewpoints: The Absurd

    The plays of Ionesco, along with the work of Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Arthur Adamov, became the foundation for the theatrical movement known as the Theater of the Absurd. This movement was defined by Martin Esslin in his important book entitled (you guessed it) The Theater of the Absurd.

    On the whole, these writers seemed to be inspired by the philosophy of Existentialism, popularized by Jean-Paul Sartre, and the idea of the Absurd as articulated by Albert Camus. Basically, they believed that there is no great purpose in life, therefore everything we do is meaningless or absurd. Ionesco said that, "Absurd is that which is devoid of purpose…Cut off from his religious, metaphysical, and transcendental roots, man is lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless" (source). In the minds of the Absurdists, it was each individual's responsibility to create meaning for himself. This philosophy can be seen throughout The Chairs.

    Questions About Philosophical Viewpoints: The Absurd

    1. How is the philosophy of Existentialism reflected in the idea the Absurd?
    2. In the Absurdist view, how do we bring meaning to our lives?
    3. Read another Absurdist play, such as Beckett's Waiting for Godot. How does it compare to The Chairs?
    4. In what ways might the play argue against the idea of the Absurd?

    Chew on This

    The Old Man bears all the hallmarks of a typical Absurdist hero.

    The Old Man's message goes against the ideas of Existentialism because it proposes the existence of an absolute, objective truth.

  • Versions of Reality

    It's really hard to tell what's real and what's not in The Chairs. As soon as you think you've got the world of the play figured out, Ionesco pulls the rug out from under you. By the end, audiences have been completely absorbed into the hallucinatory dream world of the Old Man and Woman. We leave the theater wondering if the elderly couple was crazy or if we are. The Chairs forces us to examine our own lives and wonder if they're real. How do we truly know fact from fiction? How can really know if we're awake or dreaming? Is there a difference? Does it matter?

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. How do the door bells and boat sounds affect the audience's concept of reality in the play?
    2. Do you think the whole play is a dream, or are there really invisible people in the room?
    3. If this is all just fantasy, whose is it? The Old Man's? The Old Woman's? Both?
    4. Is the Orator really there, or is he part of the Old Man and Woman's hallucination?

    Chew on This

    The old couple attempts to combat their isolation through the creation of a joint fantasy.

    There is no true reality in the play, showing that everything is ultimately subjective.

  • Language and Communication

    Some think The Chairs presents a cynical view of language and communication. The language of the play is quite garbled the entire way through. The characters mostly speak in random clichés and non-sequiturs and spout half-forgotten memories in broken sentences. At the end of the play, the great Orator is supposed to reveal the meaning of life but instead only mumbles unintelligibly. Ionesco was attacked in the London Observer by the critic Kenneth Tynan for not believing in the possibility of communication through language. We can see why Tynan would say this after reading The Chairs, but Ionesco thought the criticism was silly. As a playwright, of course he thought language could communicate meaning. Why else would he, you know, write? Ionesco saw the unconventional use of language in his play as a way of reawakening "a dead form of communication" (source).

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. What is the purpose of the seemingly purposeless language in the play?
    2. When, if ever, do the characters in the play truly communicate?
    3. What is the play saying about communication when the Orator delivers the message in gibberish?

    Chew on This

    The play presents the pessimistic view that language is incapable of truly expressing human experience.

    The play reawakens the power of language by reimagining the way it can be used.

  • Art and Culture

    The Chairs seems in many ways to be a comment on the art of theater itself. It is littered with self-referential touches and often references the fact that it is a play. This style of theater, called meta-theater, was typical of the Theater of the Absurd. This ties in closely with the theme "Versions of Reality": the audience is never allowed to forget that the theatrical event it's watching is merely a self-conscious illusion. When the play ends without definitely answering any of the questions it raises, some may wonder whether theater itself is capable of truly communicating to an audience. On the other hand, you could interpret the dislocated nature of the play as the only honest way to portray reality, making this meta-theatrical romp the closest thing to "reality" that a play can provide.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. What moments in the play remind the audience that it is watching a play?
    2. What do you think the play is saying about theater in general?
    3. What is the purpose of meta-theatricality, or theater that makes us aware that we're watching theater?

    Chew on This

    The Chairs presents the pessimistic view that the art of creating theater is itself absurd.

    The Chairs celebrates the theater and champions its power to reveal new truths to audiences everywhere.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    In The Chairs, an old man longs to bring meaning to his wasted life. All his dreams have come to nothing, and now he's trapped in a boring, repetitive existence. His grand plan is to deliver a message that will articulate the meaning of life, but as the play progresses, this dream becomes more and more absurd. We're forced to ask ourselves if there's any point in making plans at all. Do all dreams ultimately end in disappointment? Of course, we might also ask if the Old Man's dreams would have come true if only he'd taken responsibility for his own actions. This idea of personal responsibility is central in the philosophy of Existentialism, which seems to inspire the play.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    1. Are all human dreams absurd? Why or why not?
    2. Is the Old Man's dream of helping humanity totally selfless? Why or why not?
    3. What do you think the Orator's dream might be? The Old Woman's?
    4. How might an Existentialist justify a person pursuing a goal in life? If there's no point, then why bother?

    Chew on This

    When the Old Man's dream fails to come true at the end of the play, it shows that all human ambitions are ultimately absurd.

    The Old Man's dreams don't come true because he refused to take responsibility for his own actions.

  • Isolation

    The characters in The Chairs are totally alienated. Though the Old Man and Woman have spent their lives together, they both still feel alone. They try to come together through the creation of joint fantasies, but even these ultimately fail them in the end. The theme of isolation is seen quite often in the Theater of the Absurd. This type of theater is said to be inspired by the philosophy of Existentialism, which states that all human beings are inherently alone. According to the Existentialists, we are all alone in an unknowable universe. The only way we can bring meaning to our lives is to take responsibility for our own actions and to decide for ourselves what is meaningful.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. If the Old Man and Woman have been together for so long, why do they feel so alone?
    2. What metaphors does the play use to express the characters' isolation?
    3. In what ways do the Old Man and Woman attempt to conquer their loneliness?

    Chew on This

    The old couple's isolation is a comment on the isolation of all humanity.

    The fact that the old couple's bodies will be separated in death suggests that we all die alone.

  • Time

    The theme of time is an important one in The Chairs. There are many hints in the play that time is cyclical. Characters quite often end up where they began or at least are doomed to repeat the same actions over and over again until they die. You see this sort of thing a lot in other Absurdist plays as well. Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, which was produced the same year as The Chairs, is a typical example. The Absurdists were interested in the notion that our lives aren't linear progressions toward anything; instead, they are endless loops that spiral meaninglessly toward death. (Bummer.)

    Questions About Time

    1. In what ways can time be seen as cyclical in the play?
    2. What effect does memory have on the characters' perception of time?
    3. Does the play seem to suggest that time is real or an illusion?

    Chew on This

    The play expresses the idea that time is an absurd illusion created by man.

    The characters in the play are trapped in a time loop and are doomed to repeat the same actions over and over.

  • Mortality

    The specter of death looms large over the characters in The Chairs. The Old Man and Woman know that their lives will soon be over. The fact of their mortality drives them both to seek some sort of meaning in their lives. In the Absurdist view, the inevitability of death renders many of our actions ultimately meaningless – at least in a universal sense. The play seems to suggest that the only way to bring meaning to our time on earth is to decide for ourselves what is meaningful. Throughout the play, we watch the Old Man and Woman scramble desperately to create meaning before the inevitable end. Perhaps the play is pointing out that this is, to some extent, how we all spend our lives. It could be that everything we do – work, marry, have children, write plays – is motivated by our inherent fear of our own mortality.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. How does a fear of death motivate the characters in the play?
    2. Do you think the invisible guests could be ghosts? Why or why not?
    3. What is the larger meaning of the old couple's double suicide?

    Chew on This

    The play suggests that everything human beings do is out of a fear of death.

    The play expresses a negative view of suicide, showing that it is the ultimate example of not taking responsibility for one's life.