Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The repetitive present and inaccessible past
The Old Man and Old Woman are stuck in a repetitive existence, retelling the same story and performing the same imitations day after day—even the water around their island is stagnant. The man can hardly even advance his story, rarely getting past "Then at last we arrived," which is itself a conflation of an ending and a beginning that circles around itself. In fact, they are not entirely sure what does come next. When the man resumes the story, after having remembered they were in Paris, he says "at the end of the end of the city of Paris, there was, there was, was what?" He keeps pushing to "the end of the end," but the end of the road is shrouded in mystery. But perhaps a previous comment the man has made sheds some light. Giving an explanation for why the sky gets darker earlier now, he says "the further one goes, the deeper one sinks. It's because the earth keeps turning around, around, around, around " The revolutions—of earth and of a repetitive existence—grind the couple into deathly routines, cyclical actions that inch them closer to death as they seek ways to create some excitement in their lives. The man, especially, is such a prisoner of this repetition that he is at times infantile, belying his ninety-five years, and calls his wife his mother, and father, at one point. His confusion over beginnings and endings—whether he is a child or old man—and finds some roots in his story, which is about being cast out of a garden. The reference is to the Garden of Eden, and since he cannot remember mankind's initiation into the real world and expulsion from a godly one, it helps explain his confusion over lesser beginnings and endings.
In this never-ending present-tense cycle, the man and woman both try to access a past that is now beyond reach. The woman even takes a dose of salt each night, she says, to erase her memory of her husband's story, while the man expresses his distaste for history. More than that, they both regret the course their lives have taken. She continually reminds her husband that he could have had a better occupation had he been more ambitious, a notion he derides, as he is already the "general factotum" of their house. While the woman flirts with the Photo-engraver, the man has a deeper attachment to Belle, waxing poetic about their lost chance at romance. When he says, "I loved you, I love you," it is clear he has not given up on her and wishes he could change his past. Much like the tramps in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot and the old couple in Beckett's Happy Days, the couple in The Chairs is trapped in a repetitive prison with their best days either behind them or completely forgotten.
Responsibility and a meaningful life
Ionesco was one of the founders of Theatre of the Absurd, the French postwar theatrical movement. The Absurdists shared many ideas with the existentialist philosophers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Above all, the existentialists believed man's condition in the universe was absurd—beyond human rationality—and therefore meaningless. Only by committing oneself responsibly to a greater good, they thought, could a life have meaning. The old man in The Chairs certainly aims for this; he feels his life of suffering will have meaning once he communicates his message and saves humanity. But when the Orator finally delivers the message, it comes out garbled, nonsensical, irrational—in other words, it is absurd.
The failure of the message can be attributed to the fact that the old man did not take responsibility through his life. Most notably, in the play we see him and his wife create an illusory world so they can escape from the real one. Escape marks the man's character for much of his life. He denies being in the wrong in his rifts with his brother and someone named Carel, and his double suicide with his wife is another form of escape. The existentialists believed that taking responsibility in life meant accepting death as inevitable, confronting it rather than shying away from it. But suicide, most of their literature suggests, is not a confrontation but a retreat. The only part of the Orator's message that makes any sense is something he writes on the blackboard that looks like "Adieu, Papa." Whether this is intentional is unclear—the blackboard sequence was not even in the original production, making the message all the more cryptic—it does recall what the couple's son said to them before he left: "It's you who are responsible." The parting shot has a double meaning; the parents are responsible for his departure, and it's also an ironic comment since they are not, in fact, responsible. The man denies they even had a son, another form of irresponsibility, but he does own up to his cruel abandonment of his dying mother, though his wife refutes this. Finally, a more immediate reason behind the message's irrationality is the man's irresponsibility in the actual delivery. He fears he cannot express himself well, so he doles out the responsibility of conveying the message to the Orator.
The Theatre of the Absurd is known for its innovative use of self-conscious dramatic techniques. In Ionesco's Rhinoceros, for example, a character recommends the plays of Ionesco. The Chairs is ripe for this, since the stage can be seen as another auditorium, filled with chairs for an audience. When the old man introduces himself before the message is to be delivered, and thanks everyone involved in the evening—the crowd, the Orator, the organizers, the construction workers, the technicians, and writers of the programs—it bears more than a passing resemblance to the way a playwright might thank everyone involved in a production of a play. The old man, especially, is much like a playwright; not only he has toiled over his "message," culled from his life and his philosophy, but he is a storyteller and an illusionist, crafting characters with his wife out of thin air. The Orator, then, would be an actor, someone who merely delivers the lines the man has written. "Merely" is an appropriate word, since The Chairs suggests that Ionesco does not think highly of actors. The failure of the garbled message may be Ionesco's charge that actors ruin his work, and that they do not understand it and render it unintelligible. On the other hand, the old man is a coward, not taking responsibility for many things, among them delivering his own message. The Orator's failure, then, may be a self-criticism of his inability to deliver the message on his own.
Ionesco's semicircular stage design evokes one of the main themes of The Chairs, that the present is circular and repetitive. But the semicircle is just that—a half-circle. While the complete half can be seen as the present that the couple must circle around endlessly, the missing half is the inaccessible past.
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