I suppose I oughtn’t have been surprised by just how disjointed Ionesco’s “The Chairs” seemed and how difficult that made it to follow considering that we are, in a class on transgression, naturally bound to contend with works that resist conventional forms of literary consumption. In my experience reading drama heretofore, fully saturating myself in scenes and narratives has been hard, since so much depends on the literal physicality of performing the acts and the language. Ionesco, in writing in only three real characters and compressing the locale of the scene to a single room, alleviates the particular tension of attempting to imagine with little to no interpretive cues from the dialogue and limited narration via stage direction. However, he makes the task of reading and interpreting his work infinitely more difficult by writing in characters that don’t actually exist, but whose presences are definitively marked by each of the chairs the old woman brings into the room. We, as readers (or in the case that we actually get to see the play in production), are forced to extrapolate what conversations between characters are about, since whenever the old man or the old woman engages in discourse with anyone else, there is no response, certainly, to be heard by the audience.
The onus of creation (with regard to half the dialogue in such scenes) is placed on us, and thus we end up having to do much work in order to be able to even begin to follow the course of the scene. For example, in Scene 13, the old man engages primarily Belle and secondarily the Colonel in conversation, while the old woman speaks with the photo-engraver. Over the course of the scene, we must, through the one-sidedness of the story that we receive, determine the sort of relationship between the two parties, the nature of this particular interaction, and what might actually said to the speakers as response. It may be noted that it is more necessary for us to extrapolate how the photo-engraver responds to the old woman, as it seems that she is engaging in a more literal, discursive conversation. The old man, conversely, seems to embark upon a sort of lamenting monologue with a rhetorical question posed here and there to promote his interlocutor’s continued engagement. This I read as one of the first signs that the old woman herself may not even believe these people to be real, and thus she does not know well the rules of this game of make-believe entertained by her husband. (Though it is questionable whether for him it is a game of make-believe or his actual reality as a result of some illness or post-traumatic stress from being in the war that becomes catalyzed by retelling the story, “Then at last we arrived…”) We also see signs of her imperfect knowledge of, as Kendall Walton would term this, this game of make-believe slightly earlier in Scene 12 and again later in Scene 23. In the former scene, the old woman cannot tell what the housewarming gift she’s been brought is, despite that it has been handed directly to her. In order not to upset her husband’s imaginings, she allows him to direct the details of the scene (11). In Scene 23, she makes this awesome aside to the audience, breaking out of the mere unthinking, servant-like, hyper-gendered role that she plays, assenting, though grumbling, to execute her husband’s orders. At whom might such an aside might be directed other than to the audience? Certainly not to any of the guests, nor to the deaf Orator (though we don’t know this upon the initial read-through, upon reflection, we can realize that this is the case). She must, thus, be speaking to us, an audience who can see what is really going on in the scene, as we’re removed from it. With us, she need not play the unthinking servant, but can revert to her normal mode of existence, tender and motherly toward her husband (24).
Though marketed as a “tragic farce,” the play seems to fit neither ascription. The lack of a Dionysian chorus in the play is noticeable, and thus “The Chairs” resists categorization as a classical tragedy, as defined by philosophers who’d written on the subject, like Schopenhauer in his The World as Will and Representation and Nietzsche in his The Birth of Tragedy, and thus the play pushes against the limits of the definition of tragedy. Further, there is no sense of a climactic event being horrible, nor, if we were to argue for the existence of such an event in the play, would that event be packaged so beautifully that it might redeem the horror of the event itself. It wouldn’t be ironic enough. Additionally, “The Chairs” does not seem like much of a farce from my reading of it. There’s nothing particularly funny about two nonagenarians not interacting with one another but with imaginary players, one seriously believing them to be there and the other not, and merely doing so for the sake of her husband. Also, the ironic twist at the end in which the Orator turns out to be a deaf mute seems to be looking to evoke the same sort of tragic poetic irony as that in Sophocles’s “Oedipus Rex,” in which the king blinds himself and thus brings into alignment his lack of sight in terms of his ability to see how the pieces of his unsolved mysteries fit together with his literal ability to see, or rather now his disability of literal blindness. However, instead of giving us a sense of satisfaction and sheer joy with regard to how perfectly awful and awfully perfect the situation is, as does “Oedipus,” we are left in “The Chairs,” with a single word in chalk, the Orator’s incomprehensible attempt at speaking to us, and a feeling of deep dissatisfaction and discontentment with the ultimate outcome.
I was particularly interested in the role of gender in the play, especially relating to the dynamic between the old man and the old woman. The play seems to me to be pointedly anti-feminist, though perhaps the case is that Ionesco creates such characters to highlight the perverse nature of such conformism with gendered structures. At the outset, the old woman plays the traditional role of the care-giver for her husband. As the play progresses, she then entertains him in his delusions and even is willing to fulfill the traditional order-taking role of the wife. Despite that she is displeased by being ordered around to bring all the chairs, and that it is physically taxing, she does so anyway, without any outward verbal resistance to her husband. The aside to the reader, as touched upon earlier, might demonstrate that she is actually in control over the situation, but nonetheless, she acts just as her husband wanted and ultimately ends up killing herself with and for him. For me, this makes the extent of autonomy she has and uses in the situation extremely questionable. One final additional point: I’m not exactly sure what to make of the fact that her name is Semiraris (as a direct allusion to her myth), but I feel as though that is somehow significant and plays a huge role in the gendered reading, and my lack of clarity renders my understanding on this front incomplete.
[1,222] posted by Loy’s Baedeker.