He’s regularly called a virtuoso, a master of his craft, and even a genius (per the MacArthur Foundation) and a clown prince (by no less than PBS). You’ve seen him in everything from TV shows like CSI and Sesame Street to his Tony Award®-winning stints in plays like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Fool Moon (roles he reprised with Center Theatre Group). Bill Irwin is a multi-hyphenate artist and creator—and also exactly the right guide into the world and work of playwright Samuel Beckett, for newbies and longtime aficionados alike.
Irwin, who created and performs On Beckett at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, has appeared in four different versions of Waiting for Godot (alongside Robin Williams, Steve Martin, and Nathan Lane), adapted Beckett’s Texts for Nothing prose pieces for the stage, and met Beckett in Paris in the 1980s.
But it’s his passion and playfulness above all that make On Beckett a pleasure for everyone in the theatre—himself included—for every single one of its 89 minutes.
“The part of the evening that I’ve perhaps thought most about is the first two and a half minutes,” said Irwin, “where it’s laid out what we’re up to— and I try to return to the question of why this stuff stays in my head, what kind of relationship I have to this language.” He added, “It’s all part of the mission when you step out and start one of these evenings: what does it feel like tonight, and what are they making of me tonight? And how can I connect with this audience, person to person, to start the evening off...?”
The impetus for creating On Beckett was fairly simple: “I found I had this repository of Beckett stuff in my head. It was important to me, it wouldn’t go away, and I didn’t want it to go away. And I was looking for a way to share the place that this language has had in my noggin and in my life,” he explained. “It’s a coping mechanism as well as a celebration and an investigation of the language. I’m looking for both. So I began to think about it as an evening, and an invitation to people to look at this language with me.”
On Beckett “bounces back and forth between passages from Samuel Beckett’s work and personal reflections on his language,” Irwin said. “It’s a personal evening. To do one of Beckett’s plays is a certain kind of adventure, and I’ve done that. To do solo delivery, or recitation, of some of his prose is another particular kind of adventure.” On Beckett is something entirely different, and it draws on all of Irwin’s varied talents, including those he picked up in his training as a master clown. “I’m sort of pulling on my whole bag of shtick,” he said of his extremely physical performance.
Although Irwin started out wondering if he had enough material, he soon ran into the opposite problem. “I like to look at new stuff. Sometimes I’ll think, ‘Oh, this should go in the evening’ because I’ll hit some stretch of Beckett’s writing—which by the way, is the most varied writing of any author I know,” he said, listing the many tones Beckett can take. Irwin’s enthusiasm is infectious. “But it needs to stay compact,” he added.
All this is why, if you see On Beckett, you can’t help agreeing with Irwin on the play’s basic premise: “This guy’s voice, this writer’s voice, is one that’s going to last way into the future. People are going to be reading Beckett’s stuff and performing Beckett’s stuff the way they have Shakespeare’s. It’s coming to the center of the culture.”