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The Chairs

Eugène Ionesco

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

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

Important Quotations Explained

Summary

There is an increasingly loud noise and the main door opens. A powerful light floods in, and the invisible Emperor stands there, bathed in the light. The Old Man and Old Woman show their respects, introduce the Emperor to the crowd, and stand up on the stools to get a better look at him. He proclaims himself the Emperor's most faithful subject and tries to make his way over, but cannot move. The woman reassures him that the Emperor gave him a wink, and is being led over to the dais. The man is overjoyed that the Emperor has come and says he is his last recourse. His friends have all betrayed and hurt him, but he has never sought revenge. He maintains that he could have saved humanity, had he been able to communicate his message. The woman reminds him the Orator will soon be there, and all is well. The man pleads with the Emperor to be patient and stay until the Orator arrives. He tells him and the guests a story of how, when he was forty years old, he sat on his father's lap, and they married him off right then; fortunately, he says, his wife "has been both father and mother to me." The man and the woman keep saying "He will come," then "He is coming," then "He is here."

The room becomes still and silent. They stare at a door for a long time until the door slowly opens to reveal the Orator, a real person. He looks like a pompous 19th-century artist. He glides along the wall to the center door, passing by the woman without even noticing her touching his arm. The man and woman are astounded that he exists. The Orator bows to the Emperor and mounts the dais. The man gives permission for the crowd to get his autograph, and the Orator signs invisible autographs. The man introduces himself and thanks the crowd for coming, and thanks the Orator, the organizers of the event, the people who built the building and the chairs, the technicians, and those who made the programs. He thanks his wife, those who have supported him and, finally, the Emperor. The man addresses the Emperor. He says he and his wife can die happily now that his message will be communicated. He tells the crowd—all that is left of humanity—that he has been long unrecognized, but what matters now is he can make his philosophy and the details of his life known to the universe. He says he and his wife must die after years of aiding humanity, and she agrees. The crowd separates them, and he recites a poem about how he had hoped they would rot together. Though they will not be united in space, he says, they will be in time. He says he is counting on the Orator to convey his message, then bids farewell to everyone and the Emperor. He throws confetti on the Emperor, and the fireworks and fanfare increase as more confetti is thrown on the Orator.

The man and woman chant, "Long live the Emperor!" and throw themselves out the window. There is silence and the fireworks cease, and there is a sound of their yelling and bodies falling into water. The light dims to its original strength. The Orator addresses the crowd, and makes it clear that he is deaf and dumb. He mumbles some unintelligible sounds, then gives up and writes with some chalk on the blackboard the word "ANGELFOOD" and then some nonsense words with a lot of "N"s. He points to the board and makes more unintelligible sounds, then erases the board and writes "AADIEU ADIEU APA" (only the second "A" is an actual "A"; the others are missing the horizontal line). He smiles and is satisfied, but when he does not get the reaction he was hoping for, he loses the smile and trudges away, bowing to the Emperor before he leaves through the main door. Suddenly, sounds issue from the invisible crowd—laughter, murmurs, hushes, coughs, which increase, and then subside.

Analysis

After all the build-up, the message turns out to be incomprehensible. In the original production of the play, the blackboard was not even used, but the curtain fell as the Orator mumbled. Whatever message the man had, it is beyond human comprehension. The central tenet of existentialism is that man's condition in the universe is absurd, beyond human rationality, and the message certainly encompasses this. The only way to make meaning out of life was to dedicate oneself to a greater good. The man has seemingly done this, as he believes his life of suffering will translate into good once he shares his message with humanity. But this is not enough, as the Orator's garbled speech proves. So is Ionesco's brand of existentialism against any notion of redemption and we wonder whether we should read The Chairs as an overwhelmingly pessimistic play. In Ionesco's Rhinoceros, the main character, apathetic at the beginning, finally makes his life—and all of humanity's—significant when he decides to save humanity by fighting the overwhelming rhinoceros hordes. We question why the main character of the Rhinoceros succeed while the old man fails.

Though the Orator's message is cryptic, there is one clue we can cull from it: the words "Adieu papa" seem to emerge from the Orator's last scribbles. In other words, "Goodbye, Father." When the couple's son left them, he did not say this, but rather "It's you who are responsible." Even if this is not the link Ionesco intended, the man's lifelong irresponsibility is what has made him fail. He has never taking any blame for his failed relationships with friends or family. He has acted like a child and he did not even heed his wife's warning at the beginning of the play about falling into the water. In fact, even the double suicide is a form of irresponsibility. While the existentialists believed that the major way to combat meaninglessness was to accept that one would die, to commit oneself to this unpleasant notion, suicide is not the answer for them. Suicide is not a direct confrontation with death, as most of their literature attests to, but a way around death. Regardless of this view, the illusory world the couple has created around them is a deeper form of irresponsibility, a false attempt to make life meaningful that, in its escapism, actually makes life even more meaningless, since nothing they dream up really exists.

There is one final piece of irresponsibility in the play. For his final message, the man has bestowed the responsibility of communication on someone else—the Orator. He does not accept responsibility for conveying it himself, and his message becomes worthless. Ionesco could be attacking the oratorical actors who destroy his work and render it meaningless, as well as everyone else in the real theater whom the old man thanks. The crowd of invisible guests is the audience; the organizers are the producers and director; those who built the building and chairs are the crew; the newspapermen are the critics; and those who made the programs could even be considered the publishing house for Ionesco's play. On the other hand, Ionesco may be criticizing himself for ducking out of the theater like the old man and not directly delivering the message himself. This is a less likely answer, but it makes Ionesco a more sympathetic figure and gives the play an interesting slant.

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