The Old Woman praises the Old Man for his story and says he could have been more in life than a general factotum. He says they should be content, and when she suggests he has "spoiled his career," he makes nonsense words, calls her "Mamma" and himself an "orphan." She tries to comfort him, but he says she is not his mamma. She rocks him on her knees as he sobs and says she is his wife and mamma, but he insists he is an orphan. After she chimes in with nonsense words of her own and tells him his mother is in heaven and can hear him—a claim he does not believe—he calms down when she reminds him that guests are coming, and he must deliver his message to them. He is energized by the anticipation of his message "to mankind." He considers himself unique in life, since he has an ideal and is gifted. She agrees, but says he would have done better had he gotten along with others, such as his brother. He defends himself, retelling an insult his brother made. She asks why he got angry with Carel and he warns her she will make him angry, and then retells Carel's insult. She lists a few occupations he could have had, and then there is a long, rigid silence.
The man dreamily recalls that at the end of the garden "there was " She declares "Paris!" He says that "at the end of the end of the city of Paris, there was, there was, was what?" He cannot recall it, and though he admits he has difficulty expressing himself, he feels he must "tell it all." She agrees, since he has a message he must reveal to mankind, and that all it takes is to have one's mind made up, since ideas come in speech. He says he will not speak, as he has hired a professional Orator who will speak in his name. He has invited all the property owners and intellectuals—and anyone who is at all intellectual or proprietary, which means everyone—for the oration tonight. He feels that, thanks to her and the Orator, he can relieve his lifelong suffocation by communicating the message to everyone. She suggests putting off the meeting, as it might be fatiguing. He turns around her with clipped, hesitant steps, then asks if she really thinks it will be tiring, and how he could call it off. She tells him to call and invite them all for another evening, but he says it is too late—they have already embarked.
They hear a boat approaching, and the doorbell rings. As they walk to the concealed door, the woman frets about her appearance. Hidden from view, they open the door and close it after having shown someone in. We hear them introduce themselves to the guest and help her put away her coat. They re-enter, and leave space for the Lady—who is invisible. They carry on a casual conversation with her—the audience hears only their words—and the man exits through a door to get her a chair. The woman tells the Lady to sit on one of the chairs present, and she sits at the other one and compliments the Lady's fan. The man returns with another chair and sits on it opposite the woman, with the Lady between them. They listen to her speak, and the woman responds by saying her husband might be able to alleviate her concerns with something he will tell her. He tells her it is not time yet. They smile and laugh at a story the Lady tells, then agree and disagree with what she has said until they both laugh again at her charm. He picks up an invisible object the Lady has dropped but, being younger, she gets to it first. He laments his age, and the woman comments on his sincerity. They smile, listen to the Lady, and reply to her inquiries about their lives: he is not misanthropic, but merely likes solitude; he fills his time with the radio, fishing and, on clear nights, the moon; there is regular boat service; until ten years ago they received visits from their remaining family; and the man devotes two hours per day to working on his message.
The man and woman's "conversation" with the invisible Lady hints that all their guests will similarly arrive in their minds. While the man's story he always retells is a ritual that, in making life bearable, also drives the couple closer to death, their imaginary conversation is more than that: it is an illusion they have created that tries to make their lives meaningful. Ionesco was a prominent playwright of the Theatre of the Absurd, the French postwar theatrical movement that was closely allied with existentialist philosophy. The existentialists believed man's condition in the universe was absurd—beyond human rationality—and meaningless. The only way for a life to have meaning was to commit responsibly to something beyond the self. In Ionesco's play Rhinoceros, a man overturns his apathetic, irresponsible life by committing himself to saving humanity. It appears that the old man's "message" is an attempt to do the same thing, and the play's tension is over what the message will be. The woman seems to uphold this existentialist argument when she tells the man that needs only to have his mind made up, and the ideas will come through his words. She believes that with a mental commitment, he will attain some kind of meaning. However, her argument is circular, and she wonders how we can make up our mind before the ideas have entered into it.
The man's anxiety over his actual communication and whether he will even be able to communicate, then, is an additional tension in the play. His reliance on the Orator to deliver the message can be viewed as a self-conscious move by Ionesco, as he, too, relies on actors to speak his words. The Lady, as a fiction of the man and woman's minds, is also a character whose dialogue and actions they "write." Self-conscious techniques were used frequently in the Theatre of the Absurd, generally as ways to keep the audience honest; they were reminded that what they were watching was not an escape, but an artificial representation of life. In Rhinoceros, for instance, one character recommends the plays of Ionesco. In The Chairs, Ionesco uses self-consciousness more subtly and for a more personal effect, as a comment on himself as a frustrated playwright. This theme will grow more important as the play continues.
The man's continuation of the story that repeats words and dangles into nothingness—"at the end of the end there was, there was, was what?"—picks up on the theme of a repetitive present that slowly approaches death. He keeps inching closer to the end, but never reaches it, just as they keep inching closer and closer to death with each passing moment but never reach it. His faulty memory again means that the past is inaccessible and all he knows is the cyclical present. That they were cast out of a garden is also an explicit Biblical reference to Eden, the event that began mankind's life in the real world. But the old man cannot remember this well, so even the most momentous beginning is blurry. A further fusion of beginnings and endings comes out in the old man's character. At times he is senile, as his spotty memory indicates, but at other times he is child-like, sitting on his wife's lap and sobbing for his mother. The woman's status as his wife and confirms her name of Semiramis, the wife and mother of Nimrod in 9th-century B.C. Assyria.