“Hello”, the boy said.
“Hi.” I said.
“My friend and I are working a project for our theatre class. Will you take part?”
“What’s the part?” I asked.
“You’ll be the Old Woman?”
“Who’s the Old Woman?”
“She’s a character in the play.”
The boy handed me the script. It was Eugene Ionescu’s The Chairs.
“You read this scene,” he said, unfolding the ring bound script and pointing to a dialogue circled in ballpoint blue pen on the photocopied page.
I held the script in my hand and looked it over. “Who’s going to play the Old Man?” I asked.
“Someone else,” he said, "different people are reading different sections. Then we’re gonna edit them into a video production of play.”
“Hm.” I thought, “Okay.” I said.
“You can take a few minutes to go over your part."
I mustered what sense of character I could from the following snippet of the Old Woman's lines. I improvised.
[She tidies her hair and straightens her dress as she hobbles along, pulling up her thick red stockings.]
Old Woman: What a sight I look … such an old frock on, all creased up …
Old Woman’s Voice: Good morning, Madam, very pleased to make our acquaintance. Be careful, don’t spoil your hat. You can take out the hat-pin, you’ll feel more comfortable. Oh no! No one will sit on it.
Old Woman’s Voice: Oh, what a pretty suit … a blouse in red, white, and blue … You will have some biscuits, won’t you? … But you’re not fat … no … Just plump … Do put your umbrella down.
[The Old Couple turn to face the audience at the same time, moving a little apart to leave room for the Lady Guest between them. She is invisible. The Old Couple now come forward to the front of the stage, as they talk to the invisible Lady between them.]
Old Woman [to the invisible Lady]: You’re not feeling too tired? … A little, perhaps.
Old Woman [to the invisible Lady]: Really most kind of you.
“Thanks,” he said when I had finished, “That was great. We’ll invite you to the screening in late September.”
I waited for the invitation, but it never came.
However, my curiosity in the play grew. Later reading the uncut version, my character unveiled herself - as much as that is possible in the Theatre of the Absurd. Set on a minimalist stage, The Chairs tells the story of an aging man and woman living alone on an isolated seemingly post-apocalyptic island. The play opens with the pair leaning out of their house, waiting expectantly for guests to arrive. We learn the couple is waiting for an unnamed "Orator" to deliver the Old Man's message “for all mankind”. Like Waiting for Godot, the hapless pair wait for the arrival of a mysterious speaker in a perpetual state of suspension. The Old Woman encourages her husband to tell stories of their lives - to imitate the months of the year, to replay time in a circular way - as if she constantly wishes to relive those years. She urges him above all to tell her the story of how they arrived 80 years ago at a garden gate - in a city the man believes may have been once Paris - but that the garden gate was closed to them. All that's left is memories, "a lullaby", a "parable" or a "song" of the faded city. In their state of banishment from a symbolic Eden, the couple frantically prepare chairs in the invisible theatre on the stage, preparing for the arrival of invisible guests to hear the Old Man’s frequently mentioned, but never revealed, final words. The Old Man believes that once the world hears his message, his life's fulfillment - or perhaps return of the never-reached-garden - will arrive.
“But I find it so difficult to express myself; things don’t come easily to me.” The Old Man says to his wife. She responds, “Once you begin, things come easily enough, like life and death (...)” The Old Man yearns to be heard, to be known for the life he has lived, to be told for his unfulfilled dreams, his unarticulated "message". His message - unexpressed but felt poignantly by the Old Man - carries with it a “meaning of life” quality to it. The impending arrival the Orator promises its achievement, intimates the coming of a Messianic figure, suggests the presence of someone who will reveal the ultimate message finally, and give expression to his inexpressible "meaning of life".
Only weeks after playing my dissociated part in the students’ production of The Chairs, I traveled to Bath, where the Royal Theatre was staging their own production of the Ionescu’s play. “Perhaps it’s a sign,” I thought, “perhaps this play was brought to me for ‘A Reason’”. I bought a ticket.
When waiting for the curtain, I remembered my first experience of the The Chairs, sitting there in the London courtyard, approached in a peculiar way by a pair of strangers from a distance. I thought of the interpretation the students had chosen for their theatre project. Was there meaning in it? Their choice to select random people to read out fragmented sections seemed fitting to our age of the cult of information. In our present day twitter-induced culture, myriad strangers reading splintered sections of Ionescu's script enacts a kind of dissociated, post-postmodern delivery of script. Perhaps having those little snippets of text read by strangers collectively was an attempt to comment on the ways we communicate with one another digitally – so often in fragmented, in less-than-140 word updates. Perhaps it was an exegesis of the cult of broken dialogues in a broken world, flipping from disjointed association to association, with words and characters disappearing and reappearing via the screen. It suggests the sense not just of fleeting impermanence of each other to each other onscreen, but of the insubstantiality of human forms and of words themselves.
Ionescu died in 1994, just when the intentet was taking off. However, the way Ionescu toys in his 1952 play with the absurdity of language is at times dizzying, similar to the random plays of words and speech acts inherent in text chat. He writes with language play similar to that of Samuel Beckett, comprehensible if only one accepts its incomprehensibility, or made whole only in delight of its random associations and disassociations. The simultaneously flippant and profound seemingly random language acts of the Old Man and the Old Women in The Chairs bounce off each other like lightening .
"Could the Old Woman and Old Man be anyone of us?" I thought, "Any Adam and Eve, any man and woman, together trying desperately to communicate and create meaning in an apocalyptic post-Eden?"
Perhaps the questioning of the meaning of this play in my life stems from larger questions: “Does life have ultimate meaning?” “Has the life in the form I now inhabit exist for a predestined reason?” “Do plays and people enter my life for a purpose, or is it all one disassociated theatre of absurdity?” or "How do I construct meaning from this chaos?" "Or, is all meaning constructed?"
I couldn't help but laugh at myself. I have been asking some of those same questions since childhood. "Perhaps I should just sit back and enjoy the play?" After all, the play itself is farcical -- filled with the ridiculous puns. Is it necessary to construct meaning from it all? I sensed the possibility that on that darkened August night, in that darkened theatre in Bath, that perhaps no finality of meaning of The Chairs would ever arrive to me, and that the only finality of which any of us are certain is, like any performance, in any theatre, or like life itself, that it ends.
Sitting nearly invisible with the other guests that night - both the audience members of the Royal Theatre, the imagined audience members of the imagined theatre onstage -- I waited in anticipation for the arrival of the Orator. I was a guest among many, silent among the visible and invisible players. I sat among the invisible young woman, the invisible colonel, the photographer, the journalist, the ladies, the gentlemen, The Old Man, The Old Woman, Miss Lovely, and the Emperor. I sat with them all, suspended in time, waiting for the final message to arrive via this mysterious man.
The Orator arrives at the end of the play, but in a cruel twist of dramatic irony, the Old Woman and Old Man in Ionescu’s The Chairs do not to live hear the him speak the Old Man's message. The couple commit a double suicide at the end of the play, just before the man with the message opens his mouth. The old couple throw themselves into the water, saying in unison, “A street will bear our names”. The stage directions following their suicide read like the movement of Genesis to Apocalypse: “there is only the dim light there was at the beginning; the wide-open windows gape back the curtains flapping in the wind.”
The Orator, we are told, who has remained motionless and impassive during the suicide, then “faces the rows of empty chairs”, indicating to the crowd that he is "deaf and dumb". He uses sign language to communicate his message in a desperate attempt to make himself understood.
“He, Mme, mm, mm.” he says, “Ju, gou, hou, hou. Heu, heu, gu gou, gueu.”
Frustrated, he turns to the blackboard and pulls out a piece of chalk and writes in child-like capital letters:
(Or in English, ANGELBREAD)
Pointing the words, murmuring in child-like syllables, he yearns visibly to explain the message, but like any of us, the words never fully frame the meaning of it all. He rubs out the word he’s written on the chalkboard and writes a few characters them:
AADIEU ADIEU APA
"Is that the final message?" I thought, "Angepain, Adieu?" Perhaps 'ANGEPAIN' refers to the Eucharist, the body of Christ consumed and digested in mass, ADIEU translates of course in French to, "farewell” or possibly à Dieu, “to God.” Ionescu, like Beckett, was no nihilist. Whilst both playwrights explore the impossibility and futility of communication, with words gaining a life of their own, with language rarefied, through the absurdity of the life of those words, a quiet signficance arrives in the absence of their strained futility. In their adieu, a vast communicative silence arises - simplicity and nobility emerges in the quiet silence after the words have broken.
Ionescu himself has written about his own work, “Death is our main problem and all others are less important." he says, "It is the wall and the limit. It is the only inescapable alienation; it gives us a sense of our limits. (...) in all my work there is an element of hope and an appeal to others."
Angel bread. Adieu. That August morning in the London courtyard, the role of the Old Woman came to me, just “like life and death.” "Once you begin," she says in The Chairs to her husband urging him to speak his message, "things come easily enough, like life and death … you just have to make up your mind. It's as we speak that we find our ideas, our words, ourselves, too, in our own words, and the city, the garden, perhaps everything comes back and we're not orphans anymore.”
There is some truth in those words, some "meaning" in them. On a practical level, I need to accept the meaning of words, I need to construct meaning from my life - from my relationships, my work, my day - I need to have faith in the meaning of words to make sense of the seeming absurdity of life as it appears to me. Words can be a consolation, "in the city, the garden", with language, symbolic Edens can return; with language, I can feel "[I am] not [an] orphan[s] anymore." Through story-telling, poetry, song, and conscious speech, language can give life to those people I've loved and who have died, those far away, to my heroes and heroines, to the lives I've known that are now absent. I can come together with friends on my balcony and share the meanings I see in my life with words, and a sense of meaning, of purpose, delivers me, like birth, into the world. Words have the power to connect me to the world, however futile and inadequate they may seem at times. While at times bad words may act as spells, as weapons, and curses, the right words can offer, in what Buddhists call "right speech", communion, clarity and hope.
Like many people in my life - the many actors, the many characters that have passed through my 35 years - the Old Woman from Ionescu's The Chairs has come and gone. The Buddha taught that all moments, all things, like breathing, arise and fall back to where they came, “like life and death”. I have no final analysis of the meaning of the arrival of The Chairs and perhaps the words of the Orator’s are good as any for the final unspeakable message: Angepain, Adieu. Life, after all, is filled with a lot angel breads and adieus, a lot of greetings and goodbyes, with sacraments and partings, withthe simplest things - bread, songs, stories - with eucharists digested in what we take as mass - and the only finality we know in this form - that it will one day all end.
My curiosity in The Chairs continues. I still pick this work up a year later and see new things, new meanings, new clever play with words that are more than just word play - they help me understand my relationship to time and being, to life and to death, to myself and others. Today, as I finish this blog post - I leave it with an adieu, knowing I will come back one day, appreciative of the angel bread that comes in life through a presence and parting of words.