March 16, 2022

Actor and Clown Bill Irwin Will Bring “On Beckett” to McCarter

“ON BECKETT”: Conceived and performed by Bill Irwin, “On Beckett” will be presented on March 18 at 8 p.m. at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre. Above: Irwin adopts a variety of poses as he explores whether the “Waiting for Godot” playwright’s work is “natural clown territory.” (Photomontage based on photos by Carol Rosegg; courtesy of McCarter Theatre)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

McCarter will present the tour premiere performance of On Beckett on Friday, March 18 at 8 p.m. In this solo production, award-winning actor, writer, director, and clown Bill Irwin offers an introduction to the playwright of Waiting for Godot, Endgame, and Happy Days. The monologue explores Irwin’s relationship, as a performer, to Beckett’s writing.

“Mine is an actor’s relationship to Beckett’s language; but it’s also a clown’s relationship,” Irwin explains. “The question put forward at the top of the evening is: ‘Is Samuel Beckett’s writing natural clown territory?’”

In search of an answer, Irwin draws on his “years of putting on baggy pants. Something happens when I put them on, and I’ll invite the audience to take a look at that whole question with me.” The actor explains that this consideration of the “clown” aspect is what inspires his costume, which is based on Vaudeville and fashions from the early 20th century.

The affable and enthusiastic Irwin emphasizes that audiences do not need to be familiar with any of Beckett’s works to enjoy On Beckett. “It’s an invitation on the part of somebody who, much to my surprise, has spent a lot of time in Beckett’s writing,” he says. “I’m hoping to welcome you in, and in doing so, re-welcome myself back in, because I am forever rediscovering this writing — the wit in it.”

Having acted in multiple productions of Waiting for Godot, including the 2009 Broadway production, Irwin hopes that audiences who come to see On Beckett “won’t come with intimidation.” He adds that the show, which is “88 minutes long,” is a “true immersion in Beckett’s writing, but it’s not a long evening.”

McCarter’s website states that On Beckett is produced by Octopus Theatricals, in partnership with the Lewis Center for the Arts. Irwin states that Irish Repertory Theatre also deserves credit; the show received its New York premiere there in 2018.

The promotional video on McCarter’s website includes a clip of Irwin saying, “It’s all in Mr. Beckett’s writing.” The actor elaborates, “The evening is a series of passages from Beckett’s writing.” For example, a segment devoted to Waiting For Godot will consider (among other aspects of the play) the correct pronunciation of “Godot.”

Irwin remarks, “The title of this play is so well known; it’s like a household term. But people say it differently: “GOD-oh” or “God-OH.” We take a look at that question, and my various decisions over the years.” The show also examines “what goes on in this play that everyone knows the title of. It’s a play that I just think about all the time.”

Just before he takes this writer’s telephone call, Irwin has been at work polishing the script for On Beckett. Asked about the passage in front of him at this moment, he quotes an excerpt:

“‘An actor’s job is hard to define. But part of it is to make clear what a character is saying — even if it’s not clear to the character. To present the character’s idea; make the character’s argument. But the most important part of all of that is to find, and live, the desire that the writer gives to characters. That is our usefulness.’”

Irwin continues, “The next line is: ‘And this writer, I think, is full of desire. It’s not a word that’s always associated with his name. It’s ironically framed; it’s full of contradictions and reversals. But I think the writing is full of useful desire.’”

He adds, “People think of Beckett as an austere philosopher-playwright not interested in emotion, but he was absolutely interested in emotion — I don’t think he was as ‘detached’ as people often imagined him to be.”

Asked where a clown fits into contemporary culture and the current performing arts landscape, Irwin replies, “No matter how high-tech our relationship with the world becomes, we’re going to need people who make jokes with the language of the body, and the comedy of the body.”

“Beckett is a fascinating writer in that way,” Irwin continues. “This is a stage direction from Waiting for Godot: ‘They stand motionless, arms dangling, heads sunk, sagging at the knees.’ He’s really specific; he’s not somebody who hasn’t thought much about the human body. There’s going to be a place for clowns, always, in human life. It’s just like breathing.”

Irwin’s original stage works include The Regard of Flight, The Happiness Lecture, and Old Hats. He won a Tony Award for Best Actor for his performances in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Fool Moon (the latter is created by Irwin and David Shiner). His television credits include Elmo’s World; film credits include Rachel Getting Married and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Irwin’s numerous awards include one of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grants.”

The actor says that at this point in his career, he is fully committed to On Beckett, even if this focus precludes television roles and other offers: “It’s just what I want to be doing.”

He concludes by describing the monologue as “both an evening of looking at big old questions; and a very lighthearted look at the craft of the clown.”