An Exploration of the Works of Samuel Beckett
Conceived and Performed by Bill Irwin
By Ron Fassler
It is not hyperbole to claim Samuel Beckett as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. A poet, novelist and playwright, his most notable works include the existential dramas, Endgame, Happy Days and Waiting for Godot. When in 1969, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature, he was cited for his writing which “in new forms for the novel and drama—in the destitution of modern man—acquires its elevation.” Born to Irish parents in 1906, he grew up in Dublin, then later moved to France where, after the German occupation in 1940, he joined the Resistance as a courier. After World War II, he began to write all of his works in French, which allowed him to take his very original concepts of language into new and different directions: a dazzling feat.
Bill Irwin, is an actor and modernist-vaudeville clown (though also renowned for his interpretations of Edward Albee, first in The Goat, and then in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, for which he won a 2005 Tony Award for Best Actor). His new evening On Beckett, about his lifelong affection for Beckett, is currently playing at the Irish Repertory Theatre in Chelsea. It is a project he both conceived and stars in—and it, too, is a dazzling feat.
Performing just seven relatively short monologues during its eight-five-minute running time, the evening is more Irwin than Beckett, in the sense that he takes us on his very personal journey with the author’s writings, and what they mean to him most specifically. Or as specifically as Irwin can get, considering the complexity and density of Beckett’s prose. Irwin’s sense of wonder is that of a child, which dovetails nicely with his gifts as a clown. Now sixty-eight years old, his face (though lined) has retained its rubbery facility, and projects an amiable warmth that is infectious.
So much of what Beckett writes about is serious in nature, that he found it purposeful to put his words into the mouths of clowns, most famously Vladimir and Estragon, the tramps of Waiting for Godot, in order to highlight the absurdity of life. Or did he? Irwin’s not so sure, which is part of the charm of this performance, in that he is constantly questioning the duel purposes at play, asking the audience to think it through along with him. His travails into the works of Beckett is hardly over, nor has it just begun: it is evolving, and fully participating in Irwin’s process is what makes his show such a joy. Without talking to us, or pulling anybody out of their seat, he makes the audience very much a part of the action, which is one of the most satisfying things any theatre experience can provide (which is not something you cannot get from sitting passively in the dark with a film).
For the performance, Irwin draws from Beckett’s essays titled Texts for Nothing, the novel Watt, and the play Waiting for Godot. All are challenges for any reader, but especially for an actor. How do you make them palatable or, in some instances, even playable? For Irwin, one way is by utilizing his physically, for which he is well known, that allows him to get across some of Beckett’s more difficult points without using words at all. At the top of the show, he tells us: “This writing haunts me. I am not a Beckett scholar, I am an actor and this is about my relationship with his language.” He then proceeds to do so through a comedic lens, using his abilities as a fine comic actor. His expressivity in both body and voice expose graceful movements of immaculately-timed specificity. All that, along with the personal nature of Irwin’s insights, won my heart and moved me by the end of this wonderful evening.
Photos: Carol Rosegg
Limited engagement now through November 4th. www.irishrep.org 132 West 22 Street, NYC