Eugéne Ionesco was dogged by the fear of death, with which many of his plays are impregnated. But life, too, could be frightening. In a memoir, he writes: “Torn to pieces between the horror of living and the horror of dying.” The tragic farce The Chairs concerns a nonagenarian couple, caretakers of an abandoned tower on an isolated island surrounded by stagnant water. They are ready to die, and have invited everyone conceivable to hear the Old Man’s testament, which he, unskilled with words, has hired the Orator to deliver for him. The guests – all invisible presences – start coming. The Old Man chats them up while the Old Woman knocks herself out dragging in seating for them. The stage fills up with more and more empty chairs.
The Emperor himself shows up – invisibly. By this time, the accumulated chairs have become a barrier separating the couple. At last, the (visible) Orator arrives to render the apologia. But he proves a deaf-mute, burbling nonsense sounds, then scribbling meaningless messages on a board. Meanwhile, the oldsters have jumped to their separate watery graves from opposite windows. To the audible murmurs of an unseen crowd, the Orator departs. Only the chairs, jiggling slightly, remain.
The exact meaning of every detail is debatable, but the outline is clear enough. We live in terrifying isolation, companioned mostly by imaginary others. We cannot even voice our final justification. The Emperor (God) to whom it is to be presented does not exist, and the Orator (writer, historian, advocate) cannot impart it in speech or writing. The triumphant reality is that of the chairs – dumb objects proliferating all around. “The theme of the play is nothingness,” Ionesco has written; “to give unreality to reality one must give reality to the unreal, until … nothingness can be heard, is made concrete.” To the French critic Claude Bonnefoy, Ionesco summed up, “Total absence: chairs without people.”
But around this skeleton there is much embroidery: memories, observations, philosophizing – all of it distorted to the point of absurdity. So it was right to have Martin Crimp adapt the play to today’s concerns, and without changing anything substantive make the skewed topical references and preposterous puns more current than 1952 (the play’s date) and more English than French. Some few changes seem ill-founded, though. Thus the Old Woman’s name, Semiramis, laden with antiquity and myth, becomes Anna-Rosetta. Anna-Rosetta who?
The production, much more elaborate than previous ones, is often inspired. It adds an evocative first set, viewing the couple from the water-girt outside; it arranges the many requisite doors in two tiers, so that chairs can also tumble from above; it diversifies the shape and period of the chairs to ecumenical effect. On top of the Quay Brothers’ ingenious scenery, Paul Anderson’s lighting and Paul Arditti’s sounds are good and eerie. Simon McBurney’s staging admirably fulfills Ionesco’s wish for “a real ballet with the chairs.”
Geraldine McEwan’s Old Woman may be a bit too singsongy, and does not quite live up to Joan Plowright’s masterly performance in the London and New York premieres. But Richard Briers’s would-be debonair, self-satisfied yet insecure dotard could not be more appropriately laughable or pitiful. I disapprove of the Emperor’s unjustifiably visible gloves and a gratuitous final transformation by the Orator; otherwise this production incises itself indelibly on those privileged to view it.