EUGÈNE IONESCO 1952
Eugène Ionesco’s The Chairs is one of the playwright’s most popular plays. First performed in Paris on April 22, 1952, The Chairs was only the third of Ionesco’s plays to be produced. At the time, Ionesco was still a struggling playwright.
Most critics and audiences did not know what to make of The Chairs. In the play, an elderly couple sets up chairs and greets invisible guests who have come to hear the Old Man’s message to the world. The message is left in the hands of an Orator after the couple commits suicide, but he is deaf-mute and cannot relay it.
In the program for the original production, Ionesco writes, “As the world is incomprehensible to me, I am waiting for someone to explain it.” As the idea of a theater of the absurd—a literary form that explored the futility of human existance—evolved, The Chairs came to be seen as a seminal example of the genre, highlighting the loneliness and futility of human existence.
By the time the play was revived in Paris in 1956, most critics and audiences lauded Ionesco for his unique staging and profound sense of humor. Since these early productions, The Chairs is still regularly performed worldwide.
Eugène Ionesco was born on November 26,1912, in Slatina, Romania. When he was still an infant, his family moved to Paris, France, where Ionesco spent much of his childhood.
When Ionesco was thirteen years old, his family moved back to Romania. He attended the University of Bucharest, graduating with a degree in French. It was at this time he began to write poetry and literary criticism. After graduation, he became a teacher of French.
During the 1930s Ionesco moved to Paris on a grant to study contemporary poetry. Instead of working on his proposed thesis, he went to work for a publisher and became a French citizen. During World War II he worked a variety of different jobs.
Ionesco wrote his first play, The Bald Soprano, in 1948. A one-act work, it was not produced until 1950 and was initially considered a failure. Still, his reputation as a playwright began to grow.
In 1952 Ionesco wrote The Chairs. Critics were confused about the meaning of the play, but its run was relatively successful. In 1954 Ionesco’s reputation as a playwright was cemented in France with the success of Amédée, his first full-length play. Within a few years, his work was known worldwide.
As a playwright, Ionesco was extremely prolific, writing twenty-eight plays over the course of his career. He was a prominent proponent of the theater of the absurd, a literary form that explored the ridiculous nature of the human condition.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Ionesco stopped writing plays, instead focusing on his love of painting. He died in his Paris home on March 28, 1994.
The Chairs opens with the Old Man sitting on a stool looking out the window. His wife, the Old Woman, worries that he will fall out of the window. Finally, she pulls him in and drags him towards two chairs. The Old Man sits on her lap.
The Old Woman works to calm him, reminding him that he has a message to deliver. The Old Man is excited when he remembers this. He gets up and starts to pace. The Old Woman tells him how
talented he is and that he must tell the world his message.
It is revealed that the Old Man will reveal his message to many important people that evening. The doorbell rings and the first guest arrives.
All the guests are invisible. The first guest is The Lady. The old couple makes small talk with this invisible woman and gets her a chair. Another guest arrives. It is a Colonel, who is seated next to the Lady.
The doorbell rings again and two more guests arrive: Belle and her husband. The Old Woman makes grotesque sexual gestures towards Belle’s husband; the Old Man intimates that he had been involved with Belle in the past.
More invisible guests arrive. The Old Woman fetches more chairs, but she cannot keep up. She gets frustrated by the Old Man’s demands. The Old Woman does not even know who the guests are, but the Old Man is too busy to explain them to her.
Other invisible guests arrive, some bringing children. This upsets the old couple, but they try to seat them just the same. As more invisible guests arrive, the Old Woman’s hunt for chairs becomes comical.
When the Old Woman runs out of chairs, she begins to sell programs and food treats. The invisible guests without chairs are forced to stand against the wall. The crowd is so massive that the Old Man and the Old Woman have to shout to locate each other across the room. They continue, however, to make small talk among their guests, assuring them that the message will be spoken in a few moments.
The Emperor arrives. The old couple is shocked that such an important man is in their house. The invisible crowd gives the Emperor the best seat in the house.
The Orator arrives to announce the Old Man’s message. Unlike the other guests, he is a real person and dressed in the garb of a nineteenth-century artist. The Orator mounts the dais, and the Old Man directs the invisible audience to ask the Orator for autographs. He signs them.
The Old Man thanks his guests for coming. He tells the Emperor that his life will not have been in vain after his message has been shared with them. Finally, the Old Man thanks his wife. Then, after one last praise of the Emperor, the Old Man and the Old Woman jump out the window and commit suicide.
The Orator begins to speak, but he is a mute as well as deaf. He can only make throaty noises. To communicate the message, he writes a few meaningless words on a chalkboard. He finally leaves and the noise of the invisible audience marks the end of the play.
The Old Man
The Old Man is ninety-five years old and married to the Old Woman. He works as a handyman on the unnamed island where they live. He has waited forty years to unveil his profound message to the world; to that end, he and his wife have invited many important guests and even hired an orator to announce the message.
Yet the Old Man seems confused on the big night: he almost falls out of the window; he sits on his wife’s lap; he calls for his mother at one point; and he directly contradicts some things his wife says.
After the Orator arrives, the Old Man commits suicide with his wife, confident that his message will be heard. It is an absurd twist that the Orator is a deaf-mute and cannot express it to the crowd.
The Old Woman
The Old Woman is ninety-four years old and married to the Old Man. A supportive and mothering presence, she believes that her husband is brilliant and could have been much more than a handyman. She is also demanding, making the Old Man repeat stories he has told over and over again.
Although she is supportive of the Old Man, she also can undermine him. Just as the first guest is about to arrive, the Old Woman admonishes him when he shows a moment of insecurity. When she is introduced to an attractive man, she makes inappropriate sexual advances.
Yet in the end, she remains loyal to him and commits suicide with him.
The Orator has been hired by the Old Man to deliver his message to the invisible crowd. When arrives, he is silent and signs autographs for the guests. He is dressed like a nineteenth-century artist and makes grand gestures with his arms.
After the couple has jumped out of the window, the Orator unsuccessfully tries to speak. Unable to talk because he seems to be mute, he writes words on a chalkboard. The only identifiable words are “Angelfood” and “Adieu.” When it becomes clear that he cannot communicate, he leaves.
Many of the events in The Chairs are absurd, underscoring the loneliness of human existence and the hunger for human contact. The Old Man acts like a child, calling out for his mother as he sits in his wife’s lap. The Old Woman makes bizarre sexual gestures as she flirts with one of the invisible guests.
The guests are invisible, though the Old Man and Old Woman talk to them as if they were real. The Old Man is desperate to relay his profound message for the world; yet his invited audience—including the Emperor—is invisible.
The Old Man hires an Orator to relay this profound message. After the couple commits suicide, it is revealed that the Orator is a deaf-mute—he cannot communicate the message to the invisible audience. He tries to write it on the chalkboard, but can only manage a couple of comprehensible words. These absurdities underline the ridiculous nature of human life.
Like all humans, the Old Man and Old Woman are isolated from each other and the rest of the human race. They live on an island and seem to have little contact with others. When they finally receive guests in their home, their guests are invisible, emphasizing their isolation.
Only the Orator is more isolated than the elderly couple—he must face the invisible crowd alone. Even more symbolic of his isolation is the fact that he is a deaf-mute. He can only speak in guttural noises, and his attempts to write on a chalkboard yield only a few nonsensical words. Every character in The Chairs tries to make contact with other people and overcome their isolation; tragically, these people are invisible.
Communication (or the Lack Thereof)
The play revolves around the Old Man’s attempts to broadcast his message to the world. To that end he has invited many important people into his home to hear it. His wife, the Old Woman, tries to discourage him from holding his meeting that night—thus putting off communication with the outside world for another day—but the guests have already begun to arrive.
Yet the guests are invisible; there is no one to hear the Old Man’s message. The couple goes through the formalities with these invisible guests—but in reality, they are communicating with no one. They do not even communicate with each other.
The Orator also underscores this theme. A deaf-mute, he communicates with noises and gestures that the invisible crowd does not understand. He tries to communicate through writing, but he can only write nonsensical words. When his attempts
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Compare and contrast The Chairs with Waiting for Godot, an absurdist play written by Samuel Beckett in 1952. What does each play express about human existence? Which one do you identify with and why?
- Research the rates of and reasons for suicide among the elderly. How do your findings relate to the Old Man and Old Woman’s decision to kill themselves at the end of the play?
- What do plays like The Chairs say about society at the time it was written? Is the play still relevant? Why or why not?
- Reseach the philosophical writings of Albert Camus (such as The Myth of Sisyphus) and Jean-Paul Sartre (such as Being and Nothingness), two authors that greatly influenced Ionesco’s work. Are there direct parallels between the ideas of those philosophers and The Chairs?
to communicate fail, the Orator becomes upset and leaves.
The Chairs is a “tragic farce” (as Ionesco describes it), which takes place on a remote island. The play is not set in a particular time or place.
All the action of The Chairs takes place in a room with a circular or semi-circular shape. Along the wall are two important elements: a window that overlooks the seas and eight doorways.
The window frames the action of the play. When The Chairs opens, the Old Man is leaning far out the window. By the end, both the Old Man and Old Woman have committed suicide by jumping out of the window.
Many of the elements of The Chairs are ironic, which means that the intended meaning is different from the actual meaning. This sense of irony contributes to the absurd atmosphere. The Old Man has a very important message to give to the world, yet all of his invited guests are invisible.
The Old Man hires an Orator to broadcast his message. Yet the Orator cannot effectively communicate because he is deaf and mute. These and other uses of irony in The Chairs underscore the play’s thematic concerns.
Although the guests in The Chairs are invisible, sound effects are employed to make their presence known. The sound of boats announces the arrival of guests. The sound of waves reminds the audience of the isolation of the island. The doorbell rings to signal the arrival of guests.
Some sound effects provide a clue to what kind of guest has arrived. For example, when the Colonel appears, a trumpet sounds. There are gate-crashing noises when the Emperor appears. Furthermore, the stomping of feet is audible when the Emperor is announced by the Old Man and Old Woman. When the elderly couple commits suicide, the sound of their bodies hitting the water is heard.
After the Orator leaves, frustrated that he could not make himself understood, the stage is empty—but the audience can hear the sounds of a large crowd talking. These sound effects emphasize the absurd elements of The Chairs.
The use of lighting is an interesting aspect of The Chairs. In the opening scene, the Old Woman lights a lamp that emits a green glow. When the Emperor arrives, a powerful light announces his presence. The lights dim after the couple commits suicide.
In 1952, France was still recovering from the devastating impact of World War II, which had ended less than a decade earlier. There was a lingering sense of political, social, and economic uncertainty.
During the German occupation of France during World War II, Germany had exploited much of France’s raw materials, food, and severely disrupted their transportation system. There also had been severe restrictions on French citizens and their civil liberties.
After the war, many reforms were put into place. For example, a social security system was implemented.
Governmental instability led to uncertainty in France. For example, in 1952 there were three French leaders: Rene Pleven, Edgar Faure, and Antoine Pinay. There were also economic problems including high inflation, an increasing cost-of-living index, and tax increases. The government asked shops to lower prices in an attempt to halt rising inflation.
While industrial production increased significantly in 1952, it was not until the mid-1950s that the foreign aid from the United States began to facilitate new levels of growth. France also had problems converting from an exclusively private economy, based on independently run businesses, to a deficit-ridden public economy in which certain types of businesses were run by the government.
France’s economic problems were compounded by its involvement in the Korean War (as part of the United Nations) and in Vietnam. Vietnam was one of several countries where France still had colonial interests.
After World War II, half of Vietnam was taken over by Ho Chi Minh, a communist. A war resulted, but France’s poor economic situation limited its ability to intervene. By the mid-1950s, Vietnam was divided in half.
When The Chairs debuted in Paris in 1952, many critics did not know what to make of the play. A few praised the production. Renee Saurel (quoted
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1952: Television is very popular. In fact, 42% of American households own a television set. In the United States, color television is introduced. There are four major networks.
Today: At least one television can be found in nearly every American home. With the advent of cable and satellite television, there are hundreds of networks available. The average citizen can gain access to the television medium through public access programming.
- 1952: Numerous countries in the world place restrictions on media and their ability to gather information.
Today: The Internet and cable television changes the way people get news and information from around the world.
- 1952: While the American economy is very strong, many countries, including France, suffer from severe inflation and relatively weak economies.
Today: While the American economy is very strong, the economies of many other countries in the world, especially in Asia, are weakening.
by Rosette C. Lamont in her lonesco’s Imperatives: The Politics of Culture) believes the play is “hauntingly beautiful and perfectly structured under its surface of incoherence.”
Most critics were not as kind. Some regarded it as too strange. Others were just confused. A contemporary critic quoted in Ruby Cohn’s From Desire to Godot: Pocket Theatre of Postwar Paris wrote, “Since the guests are represented by chairs, I didn’t understand whether this was a symbol of the author, a dream of the Old Man or a financial economy.”
Because of such reviews, audiences stayed away. Sometimes Ionesco, his wife, and daughter were the only spectators in the theater. Still, he was pleased. Allan Lewis quotes the author as saying “If my failures continue on this scale I will certainly be a success.”
The critics changed their opinion as the concept of the theater of the absurd became widespread and popular in Europe and Paris. When The Chairs was revived in Paris in 1956, many critics praised lonesco’s work.
As quoted by Cohn, French playwright Jean Anouilh wrote in the Paris publication Figaro,“I think that it’s better than Strindberg because it’s dark in the fashion of Moliere, sometimes madly funny, it’s frightful and ridiculous, poignant and always true.”
English-speaking critics were divided on The Chairs. The unnamed critic in Newsweek contended: “There are two articulate schools of thought about Eugene Ionesco. One regards him as a gifted charlatan and a practical joker. The other agrees with Kenneth Tynan, the London critic who classifies ’the poet of double-talk’ as ‘a supreme theatrical conjurer.’”
An anonymous critic in Time concurred, maintaining that Ionesco’s “work has been about equally hailed for its meaning and hooted for lack of any “Moreover, the critic asserted: “Providing playfully humorous touches and some remarkable stage affects, The Chairs is at times both engaging and lightly evocative, but calls for greater imaginative pressure, has no really tragic underside to its surface drolleries.”
Many critics shared these divergent opinions. For example, The Nation’s Harold Clurman contended: “The point of all this is supposed to be that none of us can communicate with another, but I am
not convinced that that is the point. There is a strange humor in the play; it presents an arresting theatrical image. Though weird, it is not depressing. There is about it a light, poignant poesy.”
Henry Hewes of the Saturday Review of Literature countered, “EugÈne Ionesco has, I think, theatre importance that extends beyond his ability as a writer. The technique is simple. The characters are general types. The situations are usual. But the action and dialogue follow whatever course will amplify the absurdity inherent in the contradictions of each immediate moment.”
Since these original productions, The Chairs has been performed worldwide. While most critics believe the themes have resonated over time, a few disagree. Stefan Kanfer in The New Leader wrote: “Irrational response to a crazy world was de rigueur in the postwar period. Today it seems as adolescent as acne and obsolete as a 1952 Renault.”
Such critical division existed even into the late 1990s. Most share the opinion of Adrian Tahourdin of the Times Literary Supplement. He asserted that “The Chairs is a sparkling piece, full of wit, pathos and theatrical invention.”
John Simon agreed: “The exact meaning of every detail is debatable, but the outline is clear enough. We live in terrifying isolation, companioned mostly by imaginary others. We cannot even voice our final justification.”
In this essay, Petrusso considers The Chairs a play about self-delusion.
Eugène Ionesco’s play The Chairs lends itself to many different interpretations. For example, Allan Lewis asserts in Ionesco, “The Old Man seeks certainty and truth in the midst of the absurd.”
The Chairs explores the lack of truth in the Old Man and Old Woman’s life, reflecting the lies humans often tell themselves. Many critics also believe the play is about communication between people. This essay argues that The Chairs is about people’s deluded communication with themselves, which reflects their innate isolation.
The Old Man is the most delusional of the three characters; his needs direct the course of the play. His delusions are evident from the beginning. After the Old Woman pulls him away from the window,
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- No Exit (1944), a play by Jean-Paul Sartre, is an existentialist drama that explores the meaning of life.
- Contact: Human Communications and Its History (1981) is a collection of essays edited by Raymond Williams. It includes numerous essays on the history of human communication.
- Written in 1956, The Balcony is a play by another absurdist playwright, Jean Genet. In the play, clients of Madame Irma get their lifelong wishes fulfilled.
- The Loves of the Subway (1952), a play by French avant-garde playwright Jean Tardieu, also concerns a couple and the futility of human communication.
Ionesco writes in the stage directions that “the Old Man seats himself quite naturally on the lap of the Old Woman.” The Old Woman treats the Old Man as a child and he acts like one.
A bit later, he calls for his mother and says that he is an orphan. He talks in baby talk, then, as the Old Woman calms him down, he turns back into an adult, claiming “I have a message, that’s God truth, I struggle, a mission, I have something to say, a message to communicate to humanity, to mankind.”
He is ninety-five years old, with what he believes is an important message to save the world, yet he acts like a child. A child would not have the insight or feel the responsibility to formulate such a message.
Once the Old Man starts acting like an adult again, his untruths are compounded. He tells the Old Woman, “I’m not like other people, I have an ideal in life. I am perhaps gifted, as you say, I have some talent, but things aren’t easy to me.” These are the statements of an adult rationalizing their life.
Sometimes there is a grain of truth to his deception. He tells the Old Woman, “I have so much difficulty expressing myself, but I must tell it all.” To that end he tells his wife he has hired an Orator to relay his message to his invited guests.
The deception becomes physical when the invisible guests arrive to hear his “scientific lecture.” The Old Man believes a roomful of guests come to hear his message: women and men of all classes; old friends; and important people like colonels and the “Emperor” (of uncertain origin because France had no royalty at the time of the play’s performance). Because the guests are invisible, the conversation is one-sided, mostly of subjects of concern to the Old Man and the Old Woman.
The whole situation is controlled and imagined by the Old Man as well as his wife. This becomes evident when the Old Man talks “to” Belle, a woman from his childhood. In his mind, like many people, he wants to communicate. The Old Man does not talk to Belle as if she, too, is elderly, but much younger. The Old Man has a similar conversation with the Colonel.
The Old Woman encourages the Old Man’s delusions. She repeatedly tells him that he could have done more with his life. At one point, she declares, “Ah! yes, you’ve certainly a fine intellect. You are very gifted, my darling. You could have been head president, head king, or even head doctor, or head general, if you had wanted to, if only you’d had a little ambition in life.”
During one of these incidents, the Old Man tries to demure, saying “Let’s be modest, we should be content with little.” Yet he is not. He believes he is so important that dignitaries must come to his house and hear his message.
Later, the Old Woman reinforces these beliefs, claiming “It’s a sacred duty. You’ve no right to keep your message from the world. You must reveal it to mankind, they’re waiting for it-the universe waits only for you.”
When the invisible guests begin to arrive, the Old Woman makes polite conversation, but, more importantly, serves her husband’s delusion by fetching chairs, chairs, and more chairs. She runs herself ragged making sure that all the guests he has “invited” have chairs.
When the Old Man believes the Colonel has insulted him, the Old Woman defends him, saying “My husband never lies; it may be true that we are old, nevertheless we’re respectable.” Also, when Belle and her husband bring the elderly couple a gift, the Old Man has to tell her what it is. This is concrete evidence that The Chairs is mostly a figment of the Old Man’s imagination.
The Old Woman also tries to bring the Old Man back to Earth. She tells him that “You’ve quarreled with all your friends, the directors, with all the generals, with your own brother.” He replies simply, “It’s not my fault Semiramis, you know very well what he said.”
The Old Man doesn’t want to hear the truth. The Old Woman tries to postpone the meeting just before it is to begin. Guests arrives before he can change his mind.
The Old Woman also has her own delusions. When the Old Man acts like a child, she does too. She demands that they play make believe and that he “imitate the month of February.” Then she demands that he tell her the story of how they arrived on the island seventy-five years ago.
During the story, the Old Man contends that they were in a “village” called Paris, but the Old Woman, switching back to her maternal role, says, “Paris never existed, my little one.” Her conversations with invisible guests are polite but fantastic. Shockingly, she tries to seduce Belle’s husband in a bizarre sexual display.
One scene illustrates just how delusional the whole situation is. When talking with Belle and her husband, the elderly couple contradict each other many times: the Old Woman tells Belle’s husband that she has a son who abandoned them, while the Old Man tells Belle that he and the Old Woman had no children; the Old Man tells Belle that he killed his mother, while the Old Woman informs Belle’s husband that the Old Man took wonderful care of his family. There is no truth—each believes what he or she wants to believe.
There is no real evidence that the Old Man actually has a real message to convey. The play implies that the Old Man hired the Orator sometime before the play began and gave him the information necessary. Yet the Orator is a deaf-mute, according to Ionesco’s stage directions, so the Old Man had to have been aware that the Orator could never speak his message.
Yet when the Orator appears, the Old Man and Old Woman act somewhat surprised. The Old Woman has to touch the Orator before she believes he is really there. The Old Man says, “He exists. It’s really he. This is not a dream!” then, according to the stage directions, he “clasps his hands, lifts his eyes to heaven [and] exults silently.”
It is only because the Orator is a real man that the Old Man’s delusions became real and truly pathetic. The Orator could be interpreted as a physical manifestation of the delusion because he allows the couple to believe the Old Man’s lie.
Now that his life’s work is almost complete, the Old Man is ready to die. Yet the delusions continue: he thanks everyone who has ever helped him, though the island’s isolation has been emphasized throughout the text. What is evident in the last few moments of the Old Man’s lie is that he believes that because his message will be heard, his life has not been in vain.
Many people want to believe such things, though few ever really accomplish this. Yet this is the final delusion. After the couple commits suicide, the Orator is incapable of relaying the Old Man’s message. The few words the Orator manages to scribble on the chalkboard are nonsense.
At the end of the play, all the audience is left with is the chairs and the sound effect of a noisy crowd. The chairs remain as empty symbols of the Old Man’s hopes and dreams. Ultimately, the Old Man wanted to find and understand his own message himself, and killed himself when he thought, incorrectly, that he had accomplished it.
Source: A. Petrusso, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.
Lahr reviews a 1998 revival of Ionesco’s play in this essay. The critic offers a highly favorable appraisal of the play, labeling it as one of the great dramatic pieces of the twentieth century.
[Text Not Available]
[Text Not Available]
[Text Not Available]
Source: John Lahr. “Present Absences” in the New Yorker, Vol. 74, April 13, 1998, pp. 78–80.
James L. Brown
In the following brief essay, Brown discusses the manner in which certain meanings in Ionesco’s play can be misconstrued due to differences in language and translations.
Willis D. Jacobs’ comment on The Chairs of Ionesco (EXP., Feb., 1964, XXII), is certainly very interesting and probably valid for the English text; but his attempt to find a positive message in the orator’s writing on the blackboard must be doomed by a consultation of the French. The English translation “angelfood” stands for the French Angepain, which is the two words angel and bread placed side by side. This construction in French does not give adjectival force to the word angel as it does in English. The effect might be carried into English better if it were written “angel; bread.” Yet as a single word, angepain might suggest the adjective Angevin just by the sound. Such an adjective in this place would have the value only of an absurdity. The most that could be made of it is that the orator has replaced the phoneme vin by pain—wine by bread. This scarcely has positive implications.
Next follows the series of letters: NNAA NNM NWNWNW V. These letters were probably chosen because they most resemble pure nonsense scribbling. But if one attempts to pronounce them they suggest the negative “ne” or “non” more than anything else.
Finally the orator writes AADIEU ADIEU APA. The inverted V is there to obfuscate. The message is Adieu Dieu—goodby God. (I have no explanation for the final P; pronounced pé in French, it probably would not suggest the French -word pet, pronounced pè, meaning the breaking of wind.)
That the play is meant to end on a negative note is indicated by the fact that in its first performances the blackboard was not used, only the nonsense mumbling of the orator being heard.
Source: James L. Brown. “Ionesco’s The Chairs” in the Explicator, Vol. XXIV, no. 8, April, 1966, pp. 73–74.
Willis D. Jacobs
Jacobs discusses the nature of absurdity as it applies to drama. He argues that The Chairs, rather than being an example of theatre of the absurd, is actually “straightforward and obvious good sense.”
Absurd, absurd, absurd. It’s time to put this silly misrepresentation of avant-garde playwrights to rest. As for Samuel Beckett, he is melancholy, hopeless, pessimistic, pejoristic, and this is not absurd. It’s a conviction of man’s brutality and life’s difficulty. Living through obscene poverty and the ferocity of Hitler’s Germans, Beckett came to conclusions that are intelligent and sensible, not absurd.
But the case most at point is Eugene Ionesco’s brilliant play The Chairs. Rather than absurd, it is—at least for the vast majority of our population—straightforward and obvious good sense.
The old couple has just died. The Orator strives to speak. His words are not understood. Then he writes the message left by the old people, and which he himself absolutely believes, upon the blackboard. There it faces us with clarity and force. He capitalizes the words to emphasize their meaning, to make them loud and strong. And the message is incorporated in two words of great obviousness. One is ANGELFOOD. The other is ADIEU. Neither of these words is gibberish. Both are words of meaning—all the more meaning in their context of the death if an aged man and woman. The Orator writes: ANGELFOOD. Where have these two dead old people gone; what has become of them? They have gone to heaven. They are the stuff out of which angels are made. There is divine love and divine reward. But the audience, like Mr. Esslin, Mr. Coe, and Mr. Glicksburg, have not yet understood. Impatiently the Orator writes ADIEU ADIEU. These are not nonsense syllables, they are valid words. They mean, literally and emphatically, TO GOD TO GOD. The aged couple have gone to their Creator and Redeemer There is God, there is heaven, there is divine love and reward.
The Orator knows that he has delivered an understandable and joyous message. No wonder he looks with stupefaction, then with anger, at an audience too blind to read, too obtuse to understand simple words. For here indeed is a message that can command equally the attention of all people—janitors, bishops, chemists, bankers, intellectuals—a message to which even the Emperor, even God himself, would rightfully lend his presence.
What explains the willful refusal by so many able people to see the joyous, affirmative, profoundly devout declaration by Ionesco is, I suppose, the conventional opinion that all advanced contemporary writers are dark, gloomy, atheistic. Even the Orator stammers in word and in writing as he attempts to speak in other words to our times. But that conventional opinion is wrong and it destroys our understanding of many writers. Ionesco is a religious man. He is a believer. He is orthodox in faith. In The Chairs he affirms that there is a consolation to even the meanest life, that even the
“WHAT EXPLAINS THE WILLFUL REFUSAL BY SO MANY ABLE PEOPLE TO SEE THE JOYOUS, AFFIRMATIVE, PROFOUNDLY DEVOUT DECLARATION BY IONESCO IS, I SUPPOSE, THE CONVENTIONAL OPINION THAT ALL ADVANCED CONTEMPORARY WRITERS ARE DARK, GLOOMY, ATHEISTIC.”
humblest have something worthy to be heard by any and all of mankind, and that what they have to say is that God exists, the soul exists, immortality exists, heaven exists. We are of the stuff of Angels and we shall all be received within the love of God. God loves and rewards us. Not absurd, maybe; not pleasing to the cynical modern ear, no doubt; but there it is in Ionesco. We are angelfood, all of us, and we shall one day go to God.
Source: Willis D. Jacobs. “Ionesco’s The Chairs” in the Explicator, Vol. XXII, no. 6, February, 1964.
Cohn, Ruby. From Desire to Godot: Pocket Theater of Postwar Paris, University of California Press, 1987, pp. 122–33.
Clurman, Harold. A review of The Chairs in The Nation, July 6, 1957, pp. 186–93.
Hewes, Henry. “’Sanity’ Observed,” in Saturday Review of Literature, January 26, 1958, p. 26.
Ionesco, Eugène. Four Plays by Eugène Ionesco, Grove, 1958, pp. 111–60.
_______. Notes and Counter Notes: Writing on the Theatre, translated by Donald Watson, Grove, 1964, pp. 17–18.
Kanfer, Stefan. A review of in The New Leader, April 6, 1998, p. 23.
Lamont, Rosette C. Ionesco’s Imperatives: The Politics of Culture, The University of Michigan Press, 1993, pp. 69–70.
Lewis, Allan. Ionesco, Twayne Publishers, 1972, pp. 40–2.
A review in Newsweek, January 20, 1958, p. 84.
Simon, John. “Lost Will and Testament,” in New York, April 20, 1998, pp. 64–5.
Tahourdin, Adrian. “Sitting Uncomfortably,” in TLS, December 5, 1997, p. 25.
A review in Time, January 20, 1958, p. 42.
Coutin Andre and Rosette C. Lamont. “Culture Dreams: A Conversation,” in Grand Street, Summer, 1998, p. 166–75.
An interview with Eugène Ionesco.
Dolamore, C. E. J., “Adam at Odds with Eve: Ionesco and the Woman’s Mission,” in Journal of European Studies, December, 1993, pp. 409–26.
Discusses the female characters found in Ionesco’s plays, including The Chairs.
Gaensbauer, Deborah B. Eugène Ionesco Revisited, Twayne/ Prentice Hall, 1996, 177 p.
Biographical and critical study.
Ionesco, Eugène. Present Past/Past Present: A Personal Memoir, translated by Helen Lane, Grove, 1971, 192 p.
Autobiography of Ionesco.
Lamont, Rosette C. and Melvin J. Friedman, eds. The Two Faces of Ionesco, Whitston Publishing Company, 1978, 283 p.
This collection of essays includes original writing by Ionesco as well as criticism of his work.