Places: The Chairs

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Les Chaises, 1954 (English translation, 1958, in Four Plays by Ionesco)

First produced: 1952, at the Théâtre du Nouveau Lancry, Paris

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Absurdist

Time of work: Indeterminate

Places DiscussedTower

Tower. Chairs, TheStructure in the middle of a circular island surrounded by a stagnant sea in which an Old Man and an Old Woman live. Eugène Ionesco describes this, the play’s setting, in meticulous detail; it is half of a circular room with basically symmetrical windows and doors. The play’s initial dialogue indicates that the room is above a vast expanse of water. Two unusual but real people appear and soon there are real chairs on stage, along with realistic sound effects from outside the tower. However, the increasingly bizarre dialogue soon claims that the action takes place in an unbelievably futuristic setting 400,000 years after the destruction of Paris. When guests arrive from the outside world–accompanied by realistic sound effects of boats and doorbells–they are invisible. Strangely, after dozens of chairs are added to accommodate the invisible guests, the room begins to seem realistically crowded and theaterlike, and the play’s real audience seems to become an extension of the fictional audience on stage. It is a surprise when the long-awaited orator is not invisible and even more surprising when the orator is a deaf-mute incapable of communicating the main character’s important message to the world. However, the most chilling effect is saved for last. After the stage turns to darkness, but before the final curtain falls, the invisible audience makes laughing, murmuring, and coughing sounds, just like a real audience. The imaginary stage audience is thus drawn into the bizarre fictional world, making imaginary and real and certain and uncertain difficult to discern.

BibliographyCoe, Richard N. Ionesco: A Study of His Plays. Rev. ed. London: Methuen, 1971. Presents a careful study of The Chairs, offering information about the early productions of this work and discussing how confused and delighted critics were by this cryptic play.Cohn, Ruby. From “Desire” to “Godot”: Pocket Theater of Postwar Paris. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989. Has a chapter devoted to the first production of The Chairs, with much informative material about what the play means and has meant to those who have seen it. Provides a very solid discussion of how one might respond to this perplexing masterpiece.Dobrez, L. A. C. The Existential and Its Exits: Literary and Philosophical Perspectives on the Works of Beckett, Ionesco, Genet, and Pinter. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. Explores some of the possibilities of what is one of Ionesco’s best pieces.Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd. 3d ed. London: Methuen, 2001. Long before other critics had a clue about what Ionesco’s plays might mean, Esslin had placed Ionesco in a group with other writers, whom he called “absurdists.” Esslin delivers an often moving interpretation of The Chairs and how Ionesco came to write it.Gassner, John. Theatre at the Crossroads: Plays and Playwrights of the Mid-Century American Stage. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1960.Guicharnaud, Jacques. Modern French Theatre: From Giraudoux to Genet. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1967. The chapter on Ionesco and his work uses The Chairs as a centerpiece. Long an admirer of the absurdist playwright, Guicharnaud looks into the texts of Ionesco’s one-act dramas and finds much to explain.Ionesco, Eugène. Present Past, Past Present: A Personal Memoir. Cambridge, England: Da Capo, 1998.Kluback, William, and Michael Finkenthal. The Clown in the Agora: Conversations About Eugène Ionesco. New York: Lang, 1998.Lahr, John. Review of The Chairs. The New Yorker 74 (April 13, 1998): 78-80.
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