Absurd things are always absurdly welcome in our house. The news that Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner, who played Siamese twins in the musical Side Show , can qualify for a Tony Award as one actress is a deliriously funny case in point. The New York Times gravely announced that the producers of the long-since-closed Side Show had argued successfully that the actresses were “yoked together during the production so theirs had to be considered a single performance.” It’s a great yoke, and I’m praying they win. They shall proudly receive one Tony Award split in two, or two Tony Awards yoked together.
Absurdity is happily in the air! The Broadway success of Eugene Ionesco’s wonderfully eccentric comedy of human folly, or tragedy, or both-a tragi-farce, then! For the ages!-is an astonishing absurdity in itself. What is this 1952 French classic of the dear old avant-garde actually doing on Broadway?
Then again, what is The Sound of Music doing there? What is Quentin Tarantino?
Ionesco, the founding member of the Theater of the Absurd, would have understood-believing, as he did, that life as we know it has no rational explanation. He wisely chose to see its funny side. But not always. “When I want to write a tragedy, I make them laugh,” he once explained. “When I write a comedy, I make them cry.” The current revival of Wait Until Dark , starring Quentin Tarantino and Marisa Tomei, must therefore rank, in the theater law according to Ionesco, as a Sophoclean tragedy. I’m certain it would have given him a terrific time.
What, after all, could be more fantastically absurd than a thriller without thrills? Aha! Ionesco would say, drawing the only sensible conclusion. It’s deliberate! Wait Until Dark is a statement about the meaningless meaning of theater! (As, indeed, The Chairs is about the meaningless meaning of life and theater-which makes it, of course, an illusion within an illusion, or Grand Illusion.) Let me assure you that all this isn’t as nonsensical as it may seem. During Wait Until Dark , for example, the evil Harry Roat (played by the ingénue, Quentin Tarantino) disguises himself in order to deceive the sweet, blind Susy Hendrix (Marisa Tomei, bumping into the furniture). Why is he in disguise? Susy can’t see him, you see.
Ionesco would have the answer. The play is a perfect example of the Theater of the Absurd, and Quentin Tarantino’s evil Harry Roat is the stupidest criminal who ever walked the face of the earth. Wait Until Dark is, therefore, about intriguing perceptions of reality. Ionesco would have got the yoke immediately. Not only do we have a thriller without thrills, we have a star actor, Mr. Tarantino, who can’t act, a plot that makes no sense, a live theater that’s dead and a 15-minute intermission that doesn’t happen. Which makes it the first intermissionless intermission in absurdist theater history.
Ionesco’s The Chairs , the daddy of them all, announces that it has no intermission and means it. Ionesco is comically serious that way. What is it doing on Broadway? Very few people have noticed, but the French are everywhere. Next door to the John Golden Theater, where The Chairs is playing to acclaim, is the equally successful import from Paris, Art (which is across the street from Les Misérables ). The Chairs is directed by Simon McBurney of the renowned Théâtre de Complicité, which is an Ionesco-like eccentricity, a French name for a London theater company. The French are taking over, unless it’s the Irish.
Ionesco’s masterpiece-which coincided with Waiting for Godot , originally written by the Irishman Samuel Beckett in French-takes place in a black hole, a feudal tower on an island, with several doors. (The doors are a clue to the manic Georges Feydeau-like farce that tragically follows.) The striking setting-which suggests Beckett’s Endgame and has been memorably designed by the Quay Brothers-isn’t a symbolic gateway to hell, exactly; it’s more of a suspended, hellish nonexistence with a gateway to oblivion. A decrepit husband and wife, aged 95 and 94, live there, and we are blessed that they’re played by the great English comic veterans Richard Briers and Geraldine McEwan, reprising the roles they played in London.
The Old Man, as he’s known, is a janitor-not all he might have been. “Such gifts, poppet!” laments his wife, the Old Woman. “You might have been a master of the arts.” She is devoted to him. “Mummy. Where’s my mummy? No more mummy.” “I’m your wife,” she replies. “I’m your mummy now. You poor, poor fatherless, motherless, sisterless, brotherless darling.” He is philosophical and hangdog, yet hopeful of something, an answer, a connection, some saving grace. “I feel the pain, you see, when others don’t,” he says, planning a Last Statement-a crucial message-to the world.
They’re expecting a crowd of important people, including the Emperor or God, to turn up to hear the message. The Old Man, lacking an actor’s talent, has hired a distinguished orator to deliver it for him. The guests arrive, but we neither see nor hear them. The couple greet them ingratiatingly, the guests are imagined or invisibly real. The two hosts manically fetch more and more chairs for the swelling crowd, until the entire stage is filled with chairs. No disrespect to Mr. Briers and Ms. McEwan, but those immutable, empty chairs are the real stars of the show. They’re meant to be.
“The subject of the play,” Ionesco wrote to the director of the first performance in Paris, “is not the message, nor the failures of life, nor the moral disaster of the two old people, but the chairs themselves. That is to say, the absence of people, the absence of the emperor, the absence of God, the absence of matter, the unreality of the world, metaphysical emptiness. The theme of the play is nothingness .”
Now, according to Shakespeare, “Nothing comes from nothing.” But Ionesco knew there’s more to nothing than meets the eye. He therefore wrote a play about it. The singular achievement of Simon McBurney is to make Ionesco’s void concrete, the invisible visible. The sweet, befuddled Old Man of Mr. Briers and the demonic clownishness of Ms. McEwan’s sad old sack of a doting wife are an extraordinary partnership. They live, half-live, in a dream. Yet we see their unseen guests. They make the unreal real, and vice versa.
When, at last, the orator arrives to deliver the Old Man’s message to the world, he walks in like an automaton, as Ionesco intended.
“He’s really here. He’s really real. As large as life,” the Old Woman exults.
“He’s really real,” says the Old Man, “and really here. It’s not a dream.”
“I told you it wasn’t a dream,” she adds.
The Chairs is a dream play or comic nightmare. Ionesco might not believe in life. I think he believes in love. The nonagenarian odd couple can’t connect to life, but they love each other. They kill themselves by jumping simultaneously out of different windows. They die separately but jump together.
The orator is then left to deliver the message . What is the meaning of life? It all depends what you mean by ‘of.’ Here it comes, we think excitedly as the orator wags a finger like a mime, as if to say: “Take heed now! Take heed!” Our anticipation couldn’t be higher, however well we know the play (and know the message). But the orator turns out to be deaf and dumb and somewhat frustratedly scribbles on a board a few jumbled words, including ‘God’ and ‘Angels.’ They’re words that have been scrutinized again and again over the years with the dedication of scholars searching for clues to the universe in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
In an ultimate coup de théâtre -not in Ionesco’s script, strictly speaking-Mr. McBurney destroys the set at the close, literally blowing it away to reveal the illusion of theater, or life, for each is one and the same thing. How British directors love to wreck sets! They ought to be reported to the authorities. Stephen Daldry of the Royal Court Theater famously collapsed the set of An Inspector Calls . Sam Mendes similarly reveals all in the final moments of Cabaret . And Simon McBurney previously wrecked the set at the end of his super production of The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol .
They must all stop doing it now. But Mr. McBurney’s wreckage at the close of The Chairs is nicely appropriate. He and Ionesco are saying: “Look! Don’t you see? There’s nothing there!”