The Chairs

by: Eugène Ionesco

Old Man

The Old Man believes his life of suffering will translate into a "message" that will save humanity. But his message fails—the deaf and dumb Orator can only mumble the words and spell out nonsensical ones. The failure for this lies less with the Orator, than with the Old Man himself. The existential philosophers argued that man's condition was absurd and meaningless unless he committed himself responsibly to a greater good. The man believes his life will become meaningful with his message, but he has lived an irresponsible life. He relieves himself of the blame for his fights with his brother and friends, and his double suicide with the Old Woman is a retreat from death, not a confrontation with it. He also indulges in the fantastic illusions he and his wife create to escape from reality, and though he claims his life has been well lived, he clearly regrets not having taken up with Belle. Moreover, he has been a neglectful parent and son, abandoning his dying mother and failing his son, who called his parents responsible for his departure. His final touch of irresponsibility is his inability to deliver the message himself as he relies on the Orator.

The Old Man is also bored of his repetitive existence. He has told the same story to his wife every night for their seventy-five married years, and his day is filled with routine. Life is so cyclical for him, in fact, that he seems to be confused about his age. Though he is ninety-five years old, he defers tremendously to his superiors and, moreover, is infantile. He sobs on his wife's lap—whom in fickle fits he calls his "Mamma" and then decides she is not the Mamma. He calls himself an orphan, though he is the one who abandoned his mother. This confusion over beginnings and endings is understandable, since he cannot even recall the details of when he and his wife were cast out of a garden years ago—an allusion to the Garden of Eden, another prominent ending of one godly world and initiation into a human world.

Ultimately, we can view the Old Man as Ionesco's projection of his own literary frustrations. Ionesco has similarly toiled on his message, built from his life and philosophy, and the actors—or the Orator—do not understand his work, rendering it meaningless. On the other hand, the Old Man is an irresponsible coward, afraid and unable to deliver his message himself, and Ionesco may be launching a self-critique.