“Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” is a song from the musical “Les Miserables” based on the book of the same title by Victor Hugo.
In the show, one of the characters, Marius, has joined a student revolution to try to improve the quality of life for the poor in France. The revolution is a disaster. School boys prove no match for the French military. Marius is seriously wounded and his friends are killed.
When Marius is well enough to be up and around again, he returns to the bar where he and his friends planned the revolution. There, he mourns his losses.
The tune of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” is simple and mournful; the lyrics are direct. The song begins:
“There’s a grief that can’t be spoken
There’s a pain goes on and on.
Empty chairs at empty tables,
Now my friends are dead and gone.
Here they talked of revolution,
Here it was they lit the flame,
Here they sang about tomorrow.
But tomorrow never came.”
As the song continues, Marius realizes that the reasons for fighting that had once seemed so important to him no longer matter. “My friends, my friends! Don’t ask me what your sacrifice was for!” he cries out.
Marius’s grief is all the more sharp because all of his friends have died. The death of a lone loved one is hard enough to endure. But to lose several loved ones at once is agonizing.
Multiple deaths may occur as the result of an accident; an act of war as in Marius’s case; an act of terrorism; or an epidemic. Often, the people who get out alive suffer a condition known as survivor’s guilt. People with survivor’s guilt feel that they somehow did something wrong by staying alive while those around them perished.
One of the symptoms of survivor’s guilt is flashbacks. And in “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” Marius is clearly flashing back to how he and his friends planned the revolution, hoping to make the world a better place. Realizing that nothing changed in spite of their efforts and the sacrifice of so many lives makes his grief much more difficult to bear.
“Les Miserables” premiered at the height of the AIDS crisis. And so it was common to hear this song at fundraisers and funerals where the LGBTQ community mourned their dead.
The actor Michael Ball first performed the English version of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” when he debuted the role of Marius in London’s West End in 1985. Since then, many others, including Nick Jonas and Josh Groban, have sung the song. In the movie version of the “Les Miserables” it was performed by Eddie Redmayne.
“Les Miserables” is a beautiful tale of loss and redemption. If you get the chance to see the play, grab it! It’s well worth the price of a seat. In the meantime, watch Michael Ball sing “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” in the video below, and check out the full lyrics here.