The play concerns two characters, known as Old Man and Old Woman, frantically preparing chairs for a series of invisible guests who are coming to hear an orator reveal the Old Man's discovery. It is implied that this discovery is the meaning of life, but it is never actually said. The guests supposedly include "everyone", implying everyone in the world; there are other implications that this is a post-apocalyptic world. The Old Man, for example, speaks of the destruction of Paris. The invisibility of the guests implies that the Old Man and Old Woman are the last two people on the planet. As the "guests" arrive, the two characters speak to them and reminisce cryptically about their lives. A high point in the happiness of the couple is reached when the invisible emperor arrives. Finally, the orator arrives to deliver his speech to the assembled crowd. Played by a real actor, the orator's physical presence contradicts the expectations set up by the action earlier in the play.
The old couple then commit suicide by throwing themselves out of the window into the ocean. They claim that life couldn't get any better at this point because the whole world is about to hear the Old Man's astounding revelation. As the orator begins to speak, the invisible crowd assembled in the room and the real audience in the theatre discover that the orator is a deaf-mute.
At the end of the play, the sound of an audience fades in. Ionesco claimed that this sound was the most significant moment in the play, writing in a letter to the first director, “The last decisive moment of the play should be the expression of ... absence,” He said that after the Orator leaves, "At this moment the audience would have in front of them ... empty chairs on an empty stage decorated with streamers, littered with useless confetti, which would give an impression of sadness, emptiness and disenchantment such as one finds in a ballroom after a dance; and it would be after this that the chairs, the scenery, the void, would inexplicably come to life (that is the effect, an effect beyond reason, true in its improbability, that we are looking for and that we must obtain), upsetting logic and raising fresh doubts."
The play was first produced on 22 April 1952 at the Théâtre Lancry under the direction of Sylvain Dhomme. It was revived in 1956 at the Studio des Champs Elysées, directed by Jacques Mauclair. Two revivals of the play were produced in 1997 and 1998. One developed as a collaboration between Theatre de Complicite and the Royal Court Theatre, was directed by Simon McBurney, and became a surprise hit in London, later running at the John Golden Theatre on Broadway in 1998.
Director/choreographer David Gordon and his wife, dancer/actress Valda Setterfield appeared in a version of the play, somewhat adapted and re-written by Gordon to the extent allowed by the Ionesco estate, in 2004. This version of The Chairs was presented in London, at the Barbican Center, in Seattle, Washington, and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York. The play was also revived at the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill, London in November 2006. The farewell production of departing artistic director Thea Sharrock, it starred Susan Brown and Nicholas Woodeson in the key roles.
- Rubin, Don; Pong, Chua Soo; Chaturvedi, Ravi (1 January 2001). "The World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre: Asia/Pacific". Taylor & Francis – via Google Books.
- Chairs – V&A Theatre Collections Online
- This week's theatre reviews | Arts | The First Post In her autobiography ‘And That’s Not All’ the famous English actress Joan Plowright remembers the difficulties ‘The Chairs’ encountered when she and George Divine played the main roles on the stage of the Royal Court Theatre in London. “Tynan expressed his dislike of Ionesco's nihilistic view that communication between human beings is impossible; and went on to chastise those who championed the playwright's evocative escape from realism. He warned that it must not be held up for emulation as the gateway to the theatre of the future. This sparked off a vigorous controversy on the merits of the Romanian-born author, and escalated into a debate on the role of the artist in society. Ionesco wrote to the Observer in his own defence, claiming a work of art has nothing to do with doctrine and saying that a critic's job was to look at it and decide whether it was true to its own nature'. Devine wrote defending his author's conception of theatre as an art and Orson Welles joined in on Tynan's side, saying 'an artist must confirm the values of his society; as he must challenge them'. The correspondence grew larger as half of London's artistic and literary community battled it out. Ionescu was not impressed by the contemporary playwright’s century drama (O’Casey, Sartre, Arthur Miller, John Osbourne, Tennessee Williams and even Brecht) and called them the 'new auteurs du boulevard'. And as far as society was concerned, he wrote: 'the authentic human community is revealed by our common anxieties, our desires, our secret nostalgias...no political system can deliver us from the pain of living, from our fear of death.' 'Nor can any work of art' Tynan answered, but both are in the business of trying.' I found it exciting to be involved in such a hullabaloo, and of course it meant that the theatre was packed every night.”
- League, The Broadway. "The Chairs – Broadway Play – 1998 Revival - IBDB".
- Demetre, Jim. "A fresh arrangement of 'The Chairs'" Seattle Post-Intelligencer (November 12, 2004)
- McCarter, Jeremy. "Made in Japan (& America, & Japan...)" New York Sun (December 3, 2004)
- The Chairs