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The Chairs

Eugène Ionesco

Part Three: From after second guest arrives until the room is filled

Part Two: From end of man's story until the second guest

Part Four: From the Emperor's entrance until the end

Summary

The doorbell rings. The Old Man tells the Old Woman to get another chair, and he opens the second door on the wall while she hobbles toward one of the concealed doors. He formally greets an invisible Colonel, stumbling over his words. While the man recounts a war story to the Colonel, the woman reprimands the Colonel for dropping cigarette butts on their floor. She enlists her husband in her argument against the Colonel. The doorbell rings and the man goes to answer it, but knocks over the invisible chair of the Lady. The woman leaves to find a chair, exiting and entering through different doors, while the man greets Belle, an elderly friend of his who was once beautiful, d her husband, a Photo-engraver. He tells the woman to find another chair; she does and sets them both down. He introduces the new guests to the others. The woman receives a gift of a painting from the photo-engraver. She calls him "Doctor" and complains of several ailments until the man reminds her he is a photo-engraver. She says it doesn't matter, as he's so charming. The man and the woman sit back to back and talk to Belle and the photo-engraver, respectively. He says he is flattered, and that he loved her years ago, but there has been a change. The woman repeats "Oh! Sir" to the photo-engraver.

The light brightens, and it continues to do so as more guests arrive. The man and woman carry on their conversations. The woman defies the photo-engraver's expectations about her age and sexuality and makes increasingly sexual gestures. The man reminisces with Belle about their romantic youth, and how they could have been happy together. The woman says the photo-engraver flatters her for calling her youthful-looking. The man speaks poetically of their cowardice in not partaking of their love, while the woman gets tickled by the photo-engraver and continues flirting with him. The man tells Belle that Semiramis has taken the place of his mother, and the woman expresses amazement at the photo- engraver's belief that one can have children at any age. The man tells Belle that his message has sustained him through the years, and the woman tells the photo-engraver that she has never betrayed her husband. She says she is "only his poor mamma," then sobs, and tells him to find someone else.

The man and woman seat Belle and her husband next to the other two guests, and then sit down on the opposite ends and listen to the conversations. The woman discusses their one son who left them when he was seven. The man says they never had a child. The woman recalls how their son accused them of killing birds, though they refuted this, then left them as he said, "It's you who are responsible." The man remembers how he let his mother die alone in a ditch. The woman says for them not to speak to her husband about their son, as he himself was a perfect son and his parents died in his arms. They speak clipped sentences to their guests, then the doorbell rings and the man lets in a handful of newspapermen while his wife gets more chairs. He introduces the other guests to the newspapermen, there to hear the Orator. In the chaotic atmosphere, they try to accommodate the guests. The doorbell rings again and the man lets in more guests, including a small child he leads by the hand. He thinks the child will be bored by the lecture, and then introduces the new guests and their children to his wife. While they get acquainted, the doorbell rings several more times, and the man scrambles to let them in through all doors but the center one while the woman fills up the room with chairs.

The woman starts hawking invisible programs in the packed room as the man seats the standing guests. From the dais he announces that there are no chairs left, but is jostled by the milling crowd. He and the women are pushed to the stools, which are by the windows at the opposite sides of the room. Unable to see each other, they call over and verify their positions. The woman makes chit-chat with the guests while the man discusses exploitation of man, dignity, and more abstract topics, such "I am the one in the other." He says the Orator will soon speak on his behalf about a system he's perfected. The woman echoes or nearly echoes other statements of his—he has suffered and learned much, and only if his instructions are carried out can they save they the world.

Analysis

The man and woman's regrets over the path their lives have taken dominate this section, and cement the idea that the past is inaccessible. While the man stands up for his wife against the Colonel, it is obvious that the man and woman both love Belle and the photo-engraver, respectively, and are hung up on the past—the man even says "I loved you, I love you." But the past is more difficult to change than his quick verb-tense change suggests. While the semicircular stage design is necessary to integrate the audience into the action, it also serves as a symbolically incomplete circle. The complete half can be seen as the present that the couple must circle around endlessly, while the missing half is the inaccessible past.

Note how the man and woman are truly talking to each other though they go through two intermediaries—Belle and the photo-engraver. Both project their regrets and insecurities to the other and respond accordingly. While the man reminisces about his youth with Belle, points out parts of her face that are no longer as attractive, and says they will not be able to recapture their lost romance, the woman pretends the photo-engraver has called her youthful-looking. Likewise, when the man says his wife has taken the place of his mother, she comments on the photo-engraver's remark about extended childbearing years. Most important, their discrepancy over the son, combined with the man's corresponding story about leaving his mother alone, while they sit with four empty chairs between them, exposes their true divide. What, exactly, has happened is not as crucial as the mutual feelings of abandonment—the woman has been abandoned and the man has abandoned. It makes sense, then, that the woman has also become her husband's surrogate mother, as she replaces the son who left them, while he gains a new mother.

Both examples, the unrequited loves and the familial problems, pertain to responsibility, which the son mentions as he leaves. While his example about the birds is odd, he may as well be referring to their lifelong irresponsibility, especially the man's, which we still witness. They regret the past, not taking responsibility for the path they have chosen, and they have to craft a fantasy- present in order to escape their real lives, another irresponsible gesture. As stated previously, the existentialist believe that only a responsible, committed life could be meaningful, and it looks more likely that the man's message will be his last-ditch effort to gain such meaning.

It is a remarkable achievement that Ionesco can create a palpable sense of excitement for the man's message as the rooms fills—with invisible people. Obviously, the chairs help set the mood, but the incessant action creates the sense of chaos and mass in the room. Ionesco calls his play a "tragic farce," and this section, above all, lives up to that billing. While the characters' scrambling to seat invisible guests on chairs is comical, the illusion is nonetheless poignant, and even disturbing.

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