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The Chairs

Eugène Ionesco

Study Questions and Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

What are the implications of the Old Man's nickname of "Semiramis" for the Old Woman?

The first meaning is a direct allusion to Semiramis, the 9th-century B.C. queen of Assyria, renowned for her beauty. She was known as the fertility goddess, and was both the wife and mother of Nimrod, the great-grandson of the Bible's Noah. The Old Man often calls her his mother during his crying fits, and the Old Woman says she is wife and mother to him. The man's confusion over his identity and age—he is at times senile and at times infantile—reinforces the idea that his life is circular, revolving around only the present-tense routine. The line between beginnings and endings, such as birth and death, therefore, are blurred, and the Old Woman truly is Semiramis—his present wife and past mother.

The other possible meaning derives from Latin. "Semi" is the prefix for "half," and "ramus" means a branch or an extension of bone, especially the lower jaw. The Old Woman completes the half-branch for the Old Man or, more likely, together they form a complete jaw. Together they have the capacity for speech, the ability to withstand loneliness through communication, while alone they are helpless, like half a jaw.

How does the presence of Belle and the Photo-engraver affect the Old Man and Old Woman?

Belle and the Photo-engraver's attendance excites long-dormant yearnings in the Old Man and Old Woman that indicate their irresponsibility. The Old Man's conversation with Belle is filled with regret over the past. He speaks longingly of the life they could have led together, and even says, "I loved you, I love you," showing that he has not gotten over her. He is unwilling to accept responsibility for the choices he has made, but tries to evade them in his fantasy world. The Old Woman's interaction with the Photo-engraver is highly sexual, provoking her otherwise neglected and repressed sexual feelings. He gives her a painting, introducing "physical" art to her barren life. The painting, however, is not truly physical, as it still resides in her imagination. The painting evokes very different reactions than the stories and imitations the Old Man performs for her. The Photo-engraver's continuing flirtations with her evoke her silenced sexuality. She makes lewd gestures and comments, though at the end she "rejects" his advances.

Finally, the separate conversations also enable the Old Man and Old Woman to speak to each other through their imaginary intermediaries. While the Old Man comments on Belle's declining appearance and age, the Old Woman responds to the Photo-engraver's remarks on her beauty and youth. Still, this indirect conversation is an irresponsible means of communication. Were they responsible and committed, they would talk directly to each other, but their reliance on escapism makes this impossible.

Whatever the Old Man's message is before the Orator butchers it, most likely Ionesco did not plan for it to have a specific meaning. He purposely leaves it vague—as a compilation of the man's "life" and "philosophy." However, the man does say he has invited anyone who is proprietary and intellectual—which turns out to be anyone—to hear his message, which will save humanity, and we see that an Emperor rules over everyone. What does this say about the possible underpinnings of his message, especially in reference to the word "proprietary"?

The audience that the man and woman invite is very much the ruling class, as the keywords "intellectual" and "proprietary" suggest, although the Old Man claims that it means everyone, everyone we see is in the upper echelon of society. The Colonel is a renowned military figure; the Lady, Belle, and the Photo-engraver are all part of the upper-class; and the Orator is a celebrity, signing autographs in his posh outfit. The entire proceedings are tinged with a capitalist feel, as the Old Woman sells programs and the Old Man thanks all the specific people involved in the production of the night. He makes sure to thank the many manual laborers, as well, which may provide the best clue to his message. It may be a message of communism, an appeal to the bourgeois to change the system he's "perfected." The icing on the cake of the night is that the Emperor is a throwback to a feudal overlord. Karl Marx believed that feudalism was the last time there was a mutually beneficial employer-employee relationship. The self-consciousness of The Chairs as being a play—the implication is that what is happening on-stage is itself a theater, and that the chairs there are chairs for a virtual audience—suggests an implicit connection between its own message and its message to the real audience. Most likely, the educated and wealthy bourgeois would be the ones attending The Chairs. Perhaps the failure of the message, then, is Ionesco's belief that communism cannot work, that it will not be heard by the masses.

Suggested Essay Topics

Compare The Chairs with Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot or Happy Days, which also prominently features a couple stranded in one place.

Why is the stage of The Chairs a semicircle? What does this say about the concept of time in the play?

Why do the Old Man and Old Woman diverge over their accounts of whether they had a son and over what happened to the Old Man's mother?

Compare the Old Man to the character of Berenger in Ionesco's Rhinoceros. How are both similar, and why does Berenger choose to fight the rhinoceroses while the Old Man commits suicide?

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