Revisiting Ionesco’s “Les Chaises”

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“Les Chaises” photo: Pascal Victor

Classics tempt revisitings as surely as candy lures a child. After Wilsonian ornementation of Beckettian desolation (see review here of “Oh les beaux jours”), Luc Bondy has softened the “tragic farce” of Eugène Ionesco’s “Les Chaises”, to the apparent consternation of the playwright’s daughter (reported on //www.rue89.com). Bondy’s memory of the father of absurdist theater, whom he assisted as a teenager in Zurich, is nevertheless of an irreverent iconoclast probably more open to the kinds of changes the Swiss director proposes.

Ionesco wrote “Les Chaises” before “Rhinoceros” brought him fame, and the play is an equally funny and melancholy reflection on aging and life legacies, by a man who may have wondered when his moment would come. In it, an elderly couple (le Vieux et la Vieille) living isolated and forgotten in a lighthouse, imagines the moment they always secretly wished for, when the old man would be recognized as a brilliant savant for the ideas he has spent a lifetime hashing around in his head. The play’s title refers to the hundreds of chairs they must put out to receive the countless dignitaries and distinguished thinkers who would come to hear him finally deliver his Discourse.

The problem with Bondy’s “Chaises”, for Ionesco purists, is the (insufficient) number of them and the (orderly) way they are distributed on stage. Rather than fill the already tight, cylindrical space of the lighthouse with an extraordinary number of chairs, Bondy has first of all chosen a wide and deep black box of a stage, entirely bare and devoid of exterior views of the ocean as Ionesco wished, and has directed Dominique Reymond (la Vieille) to arrange the dozens of chairs she carries on stage in more or less clearly delineated rows facing a mauve- curtained stage.

Both more abstract and literal than Ionesco’s lighthouse, Bondy’s set points up a larger interpretative issue with this play, which draws as much on fantasy as on mortal considerations. Does the couple imagine its guests, or is it the audience who does not believe enough in their farce to see the soirée for themselves?  If these old-timers are play-acting, are they pitiable or noble in their attempt to lend greater weight to existences that seemingly knew little? If the audience refuses to believe in their final attempt to make their desire reality, what is revealed about our ability to dream and surpass real-life limitations?

Bondy has made the choice to read Ionesco’s play as a poignant life- and love- story in its final hours. By painting in a grand stage for the old man’s speech and creating a plausible assembly of seats rather than pure chaos, he creates the soirée’s setting as the couple would have wanted to have it done. If he does not show their suicide on stage, as Ionesco imagined, he does sufficiently foreshadow their fate by way of the chairs and hangman’s nooses which dangle above the stage.

Throughout, however, the mood is not of impending doom but rather of considerable wonder, as the man and woman throw themselves into the fantasy of the evening that would have crowned their humble lives. Reymond’s bursts of dancing and Micha Lescot’s linguistic pirouettes lend the couple a kind of grace that makes them more the masters of their fate than victims of it, while retaining the essential tenor of Ionesco’s “tragic farce” throughout. Bondy makes a strong statement with “Les Chaises” but one which calls for more celebration than dismay.

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