An Old Man and an Old Woman both in their 90s, hereafter referred to as "man" and "woman," are on a semicircular stage in dim light. Two empty chairs are downstage center and doors line the curved wall, including a large double door in the rear center, and two nearly hidden doors next to them. There are two windows with two nearby stools and a hanging gas lamp. The man looks out the window, up on a stool. The woman lights the lamp, and the light turns green. She walks over to the man and tells him to close the window to keep out the mosquitoes and the bad smell of stagnant water. He tells her to leave him alone, but she reminds him that François I fell into the water. He disdains French history and says he wants to watch the boats on the water, but she says that he cannot, as it is nighttime. He leans out further, but she pulls him in, and he relents. She says she gets dizzy from being on their island house with water all around them. She drags him over to the chairs and he sits down on her lap.
The man remembers when it would not get dark until late at night, but now it is dark at six o'clock. The woman asks why it has changed, and he answers that "the further one goes, the deeper one sinks. It is because the earth keeps turning around, around, around, around " She praises his intellect, and says he could have had a powerful occupation, if he had any ambition. He scoffs at the notion of a "better" life, and says he has the "general factotum" of their house, or someone who serves a wide range of capacities. He complains of boredom, and she suggests they "making believe," as he did another night. They argue about whose "turn" it is to make believe, and he ends it by calling her "Semiramis" and telling her to drink her tea—of which there is none. She asks him to imitate the month of February, and he scratches his head like Stan Laurel, a popular comedian of the Laurel and Hardy team. She applauds and hugs him. She asks him to tell the story that begins "Then at last we arrived," but he is tired of it—he is told it to her and also imitated people and months every night of the seventy-five years they have been married. She says his life fascinates her, and even though she has heard the story so many times, she takes a dose of salt each night to erase her memory of the story.
She begs him to tell the story. He tells about how they arrived at a big fence to a garden eighty years ago, soaked and frozen from months in the rain. There was a path that led to a square and church in a village, but he can't remember which village it was. Neither can she, and when he thinks it was called Paris, she says that place never existed. He says it must have, since it collapsed 400,000 years ago. All that remains is a lullaby called "Paris will always be Paris." She praises him again, then after a pause he continues, and they both increasingly laugh in the telling. He speaks about a bare-bellied "idiot" who arrived with a trunk full of rice, and then the rice spilled and the idiot fell to the ground as they laughed. The woman remembers how they laughed, and she repeats phrases from the story, and they both laugh and repeat the phrases, until they calm down and alternate the words "arrived" and "aughed" (from "laughed").
Ionesco's semicircular stage design immediately evokes images that develop a main theme of The Chairs: the present is circular and repetitive. The man and woman lead static lives, retelling the same ritualistic story every night, even the water around their island is "stagnant." The exact details of where they are and how they ended up there—apparently as the remaining survivors in some kind of post-apocalyptic world—are not as important as the comment Ionesco makes on old age. When one has lived for so long, one is cut off from the outside world, and each day melts into the next—until it doesn't seem like the "next" anymore. Consider the opening sentence of the man's story: "Then at last we arrived." First, he repeats the sentence each time he resumes the story, so in a sense he never advances but also returns in cyclical fashion—it even closes out the story. Second, the wording reveals its own circularity. The phrase starts off with a seeming progression in time ("Then"), but combines an ending ("at last") with a beginning ("arrived"). The end and beginning are fused, and the sentence is not an advancing "Then" but a repetitive "Then." The nonsensical story, too, is itself repetitive, but we do not know where these repetitions lead. The man's explanation as to why it now gets dark earlier provides a poignant answer: " the further one goes, the deeper one sinks. It's because the earth keeps turning around, around, around, around " These cycles, he implies, lead them down into the earth, into a deathly, dark burial.
Complicating the man and woman's view of the present is their relationship to the past. The woman willfully loses her memory each night, much like the tramps in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, lose their memory of the previous day, though not necessarily on purpose. Cut off from the past, life is even more circular, spinning around on its present-tense axis like the rotating earth. While the man does not voluntarily erase his memories, he does not heed history, as suggested by his shrugging off the story of François I). As in Waiting for Godot, and Beckett's 1958 play Happy Days, the two stranded characters are co-dependent, each having nothing but conversation with the other to keep himself from stultifying boredom. The man and woman, however, maintain a less rancorous relationship than the characters in the other plays. The man's name for his wife—"Semiramis"—is an allusion on his part to the legendarily beautiful 9th-century B.C. queen of Assyria, known as a fertility goddess, who was both wife and mother to Nimrod. However, it could also mean "half-branch." "Semi" is the prefix for "half," and "ramus" means a branch or an extension of bone, especially the lower jaw. Read this way, the woman completes the branch for him or, more saliently, together they form a complete jaw. In other words, together they have the capacity for speech, the ability to withstand loneliness through communication.