Most actors pay lip service to the all-important role of playwrights and screenwriters, saying something cliché to the effect of "I'm nothing without his/her words." But most actors are also great egotists who secretly refuse to think of themselves as vessels for someone else's words, but more as artists and interpreters without whom the words would have little meaning. Master clown and actor Bill Irwin, now 66, is not such an actor, and over the course of a career that's spanned five decades he's found in Samuel Beckett a spiritual father of sorts a poet who shares his Irish heritage as well as his love of language, absurdity, and clowning tropes. As a young man he met Beckett in Paris, shortly before the novelist and playwright died, around the time he was playing Lucky in a 1988 Lincoln Center production of Waiting for Godot alongside Robin Williams. And though he regrets not being well read enough or inquisitive at the time to ask all the questions he'd love to ask now of the writer, it's clear the two shared a bond as men of the physical stage, even if they only shared an hour or so together in life.
"Mr. Beckett was incredibly specific, always, about headware," Irwin explains in his self-crafted master class in Beckett, On Beckett, now in a limited run at ACT's Strand Theater. And most often in his character descriptions, Beckett specifies bowler hats, hats that are evocative of a certain brand of comic Irishman, as well as most men in a certain era when bowlers were in fashion, and of which Irwin brings a half dozen versions to the stage with him. But as more performer than writer or scholar, it's the hats the sizes of them, the various angles at which they can be cocked, when and how to take them off and gesture with them that fascinate Irwin almost equally as much as Beckett's linguistic rhythms and playfulness, and in this piece he dissects the visual language that any hat carries with it in a way that most Beckett scholars could not. And that stands to reason, since an actor who has been a student of Beckett from the stage, living within his characters for several decades, has a far different and more physical take on the work than someone who knows it primarily from the page.
Irwin got his start in clowning immediately after attending Oberlin College, enrolling in Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College in 1974, and then moving to San Francisco to join the fledgling Pickle Family Circus in 1975 as one of their first clowns, alongside founder Larry Pisoni and Geoff Hoyle. Irwin remains in fine form these days, after winning a Tony Award in the last decade for his portrayal of George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? alongside Kathleen Turner, and putting his clowning and movement skills to use in a Broadway revival of Beckett's Waiting for Godot in 2009 alongside Nathan Lane. He later brought Moliere's Scapin to ACT in 2010, played a forceful but tender Hamm in Endgame here in 2012, as well as bringing a brief early run of On Beckett in 2015.
He now opens On Beckett with the caveat that he is no scholar, and shockingly admits that he's never read Beckett's famous novels like Murphy and Molloy. His perspective on Beckett is steeped deeply in his two great plays, Godot and Endgame, as well as with his 1967 collection of prose experiments called "Texts for Nothing," and it's from these texts along with a short passage from the novel Watt that Irwin draws his examples.
On Beckett doesn't have a thesis or reason for being beyond Irwin's passion for the plays, and his desire to share several little-known pieces from "Texts for Nothing" that he adores all three of which include some nice wordplay and images, but which don't amount to much more than prose poems, even if the same could be said of many Beckettian monologues, like the famed 500-word doozy Lucky delivers in Waiting for Godot, a small portion of which Irwin launches into toward the end of On Beckett. But as a performer with immense talent for movement, and bodily control, there's no getting around how unique Irwin's perspective is on Beckett's writing and ACT artistic director Carey Perloff, a bit of a Beckett scholar herself, has been known to say that Beckett is a "playwright of the body," as Irwin relates, and Irwin clearly counts among the playwrights ideal interpreters.
The piece is, nonetheless, a bit unstructured and rambling, as if it were an impromptu workshop Irwin were giving to student clowns getting their first introduction to Beckett, which is as much about Irwin's thought process around speaking lines and adding movements as it is about the work itself.
Beckett's work is often cryptic and inscrutable, and as a reader and audience member it's easy to let it wash over you without parsing it too carefully. Here, Irwin asks us to listen to how he parses a few bits, and see how he thinks they should be performed, baggy pants, oversized shoes and all.
On Beckett plays through January 22 at The Strand. Find tickets here.