The inaugural performance of Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist one-act play The Chairs took place on April 22, 1952 in Paris, France. As just the third of the idiosyncratic playwright’s absurdist takes on the futility of existence to be mounted, it was received with the expected combination of appreciation and bafflement.
The simple fact is that The Chairs is a very strange and bizarre concept; it is, really, more of a concept than anything approaching a traditional narrative. Were the total number of characters in the play not invisible, it would certainly feature one of the largest casts of any one-act play in history. Surprisingly, economics is not the reason that the overwhelming majority of characters in the play cannot be seen except by the actual human cast. The reason that so many characters are invisible is that the lack of ability to see everything the visible characters see is integral to the play’s overarching thematic concerns with the absurdist qualities of its existentialist approach to modern life.
Critics and audiences alike have over the decades since that debut in the City of Lights left the darkened theater scratching their heads. In those decades, however, Eugene Ionesco’s ideas that used to be at the farthest end of the avant-garde have moved steadily toward the middle. While hardly mainstream—and, thankfully, The Chairs never will be considered mainstream—Ionesco’s influence can be felt in every theatrical performance that pushes audiences to question the very purpose of the stage as a medium for the transmission of ideas considered too radical to put into musical comedy form.
What is really worth keeping in mind when read or attending a performance of this or any other Ionesco play, however, is just how truly far from the mainstream are both a play populated by invisible characters in invisible chairs and a performance of play featuring hoodlums dancing and singing their way through the west side of New York City.
The loneliness of the long distance run through that absurdity known as existence is portrayed with equal artistic daring in the portrait of an Old Man and Old Woman inviting invisible guests just as much as it is portrayed in the image Tony and Maria dancing together in a brief whirl of solipsistic rejection of the prejudices emanating around them.