The Search For Meaning in Ionesco’s The Chairs

Absurdist theatre is known for subverting logic and for being, well, absurd. The Chairs is one such play. An absurdist “tragic farce”, this play was written by Eugene Ionesco in 1952 and first performed in the same year. The play revolves around an old married couple who live in a house that is surrounded by water. Perhaps it’s better to describe the location using the words of the Old Woman, “this house, this island […] Water all around us . . . water under the windows, stretching as far as the horizon”. The play takes us through their day as they prepare to and then host a gathering, to which literally everyone is invited, at their house. A large portion of the play is just the two of them frantically running around welcoming their guests and arranging chairs (hence the name) for them. Oh, and did I mention that the guests are invisible? Because they are. The guests are invisible and no one but the elderly couple can see or hear them. The purpose of the gathering? The Old Man has a message that he wishes to reveal to everyone – as he puts it, “I have a message, that’s God’s truth, I struggle, a mission, I have something to say, a message to communicate to humanity, to mankind”. Lastly, since the Old Man doesn’t believe in his own skills of articulation he invites an orator to deliver the message on his behalf (the Orator is a real person that the audience, as well as the old couple, can see).

One of my favourite things about this play, apart from the invisible guests, is this quest to deliver the message. Of course, there are various interesting aspects to the play, including interactions that include dialogues like “I don’t like the months of the years” and “Paris has never existed, my little one”, as well as the outrageously hilarious flirting attempts made by the Old Man and the Old Woman directed at two of their guests (and at the risk of increasing the length of this already annoyingly long sentence I would like to mention my favourite stage direction in this play: “Some embarrassing things take place, invisibly”), but at the end, at least for me, the primary theme in the play was this oh so important message that must be delivered. Every deviation (which there are a lot of), every conversation, every action, it all seems to connect to the need to deliver the message, or as I like to call it, ‘The Quest for the Message’.

The elderly couple is full of contradictions – they are old and yet seem to act like toddlers arguing about who’s turn it is to create the scenario in their game of make-believe; they have trysts with the oedipal complex when the Old Woman says “I’m your wife, I’m the one who is your mama now”, something which the Old Man initially rejects only for him to later say “My worthy helpmeet, Semiramis, has taken the place of my mother” (he says this to the invisible guest he’s trying to flirt with, by the way); they know that cities and even nations fall, that these things can never be constant, and yet they hope that after the message is delivered a street will be named after them so that their name can live in eternity. The most significant mess of contradictions, however, appears when they talk about their background. The Old Woman says that they had a son who is still alive but left them a long time ago, only for the Old Man to say immediately in a conversation with a different invisible guest “we’ve never had a child”. The Old Man says “I let my mother die all alone in a ditch” and of course the Old Woman says shortly after that the Old Man’s parents died in his arms. The only thing that appears to be unanimously agreed upon by the two of them is the importance of the message that the Old man works on every day, that has become the purpose of their lives, and that they have called everyone, from the janitor to the emperor, for.

Naturally, throughout the play, a lot of hype is generated around the message. As the guests arrive, so many that there aren’t enough chairs for them, the anticipation for the message increases. The last person to arrive is the Orator and unlike the previous guests, this is someone that we the audience can actually see. However, as the stage directions say, “just as the invisible people must be as real as possible, the Orator must appear unreal”. Consequently, he seems to be behaving on his own wavelength with no cohesiveness with the actions of the old couple. This doesn’t seem to faze the old couple and shortly after the arrival of the Orator, the Old Man starts making his speech where he thanks everyone for arriving, his wife, the architects and the builders of the house, the carpenter who made the chairs, and anyone and everyone that could possibly be thought of. He continues his speech, an excerpt from which says “My mission is accomplished. I will not have lived in vain, since my message will be revealed to the world”. He expresses his gratitude towards the Orator who he hopes will deliver the message and says that he and his wife will “make the supreme sacrifice which no one demands of us but which we will carry out even so”. What is this sacrifice? The question is immediately answered by his wife when she says “Yes, yes, let’s die in full glory . . . let’s die in order to become a legend . . . At least, they’ll name a street after us”. Shortly after this, the Old couple “throw themselves out the windows”.

Their death is abrupt and leaves only the orator and the invisible guests on stage. Naturally, the attention now turns to the Orator who is supposed to deliver the message that everyone was called for, that the old couple died for. However, as is often the case with absurdist plays where hope is rarely met and promises seldom kept, it is soon made apparent that the Orator is deaf and mute and even though he makes desperate efforts to make himself understood, he is unable to do so. He then turns to the blackboard, writes “ANGELFOOD” followed by “NNAA NNM NWNWNW V”. Shortly after, he abruptly erases this and writes “AADIEU ADIEU APA”. He waits for a reaction from his invisible audience on stage but after receiving no reaction, he leaves. It is then that “We hear for the first time the human noises of the invisible crowd; there are bursts of laughter, murmurs, shh’s, ironical coughs; weak at the beginning, these voices grow louder, then, again, progressively they become weaker”. This is how the play ends.

The entire play had been a search for meaning. For the Old Couple, the day was an attempt to fulfil what they thought was the purpose of their life. Just as we are all looking for the true meaning and purpose of our own lives so were they, and they found it in the message. The message is constantly alluded to but never the actual content of the message. The play then becomes a promise- a promise for the Old Couple that their life (and death) will have meaning when the message is delivered and its meaning made clear, a promise to the invisible guests who have been invited so that they can be told the message, a promise for us as the audience that there will be a message at the end and that everything that has happened in the play will have meaning. All these promises are broken. The search for meaning, in the message, in the play, becomes futile. My interpretation, which is incredibly bleak and pessimistic, is that this futility of the search of meaning is just another way of expressing existential angst. We all want our lives to have meaning, for our actions to mean something, to have some sort of impact (maybe, like the couple, we even want a street or a landmark to be named after us). But what if nothing has meaning? What if just like the old couple’s death ended up being inconsequential, so will our lives?

Of course, that is an extremely pessimistic worldview that stemmed from the existential angst of the period in which the play was written. I do not know if all our lives will have meaning or not, if all of us will make an impact or not, if a street will be named after us or not; what I do know is that that shouldn’t stop us from trying to be the best versions of ourselves and from trying to make our world a better place. Maybe our own search for meaning will be futile, maybe it won’t but whatever be the case at least we will have tried our best, grown as a person, and contributed something positive to the people and the world around us.

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