Tony-winner and master clown Bill Irwin finds joy in the notoriously bleak world of Samuel Beckett

By Bliss Bowen

MacArthur “Genius” Grant winner Bill Irwin channels the writings of Beckett through whimsical forays into the world of clowning
Photo by Craig Schwartz

Samuel Beckett, the literary Irish modernist who died in Paris in December 1989 at age 83, was about as lighthearted as a guillotine. Yet Tony Award-winning actor and master clown Bill Irwin manages to distill joy from Beckett’s wintry writing in “On Beckett,” running at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City through Oct. 27.

Drawn principally from Beckett’s classic tragicomedy “Waiting for Godot” and “Texts for Nothing,” the 90-minute show is essentially a one-man tour de force (the brief role of the Boy is performed in rotation by Carl Barber and Benjamin Taylor). With minimal props (who knew an oversized jacket could signify so much?), Irwin establishes Beckett’s work as a prism through which to assess humanity, and sometimes its displacement.

At one point he refers to “Waiting for Godot” as a “template for human relationship” — a truthful description, though on the surface more straightforward than the play. Mulling over “On Beckett” after Irwin had exited the stage, the thought occurred that it was akin to experimental jazz, with no hummable melody to immediately pull you in; you have to tune your ears differently. Yet in quicksilver moments when Irwin slips from riveting metaphysical drama into clown mode — donning oversized shoes and bouncing short pants to physically illuminate connective tissue between slapstick and sorrow — it is as if a beautiful melody suddenly bursts open.

“A musician friend said it’s not like Dixieland, where within the first measure you know where you are and you’re enjoying that groove,” Irwin says of Beckett’s language, during an interview after running morning errands. “It’s more like some other kind of music where you really have to listen to it for a while before it lets you in. Once you’re in, I think it’s amazing how accessible it starts to feel.”

The Santa Monica-born, New York-based actor is well positioned to comment on Beckett. He’s performed in several productions of “Waiting for Godot” — most notably a Mike Nichols-directed Lincoln Center production alongside Robin Williams, Steve Martin and F. Murray Abraham in 1988, and a 2009 Broadway revival with Nathan Lane, John Goodman and John Glover. In 1992, Irwin’s Off-Broadway performance of four of the 13 unedited prose pieces from Beckett’s “Texts for Nothing” earned him an Obie Award.

For “On Beckett,” the Beckett Estate granted permission for Irwin to use shorter passages from those texts, which he says are “easier to reach people with.” Onstage, his limber physicality and adoption of character voices animate Beckett’s notoriously chewy prose. He acknowledges that’s where he located the genesis of those voices.

“Take his rhythms, and that suggests to an Irish American character actor ways to approach it in the spoken form,” he explains. “It’s not immediately inviting writing. Once you’re in it, I think you can be in it for the rest of your life. But it is not immediately inviting.”

Surprisingly, he identifies a bridge from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” to William Styron’s “Darkness Visible” through Beckett in the show. Irwin weaves in other cultural references too, from Dante and Socrates to influential Open Theatre director Joseph Chaikin.

“On Beckett” sometimes feels like a way of reviving Beckett’s voice from the past to comment on our present “dystopian moment,” as Irwin refers to it from the stage. Our “weakness,” Irwin says in character, is “the way we treat each other.”

“It’s timeless writing in that way,” he allows. “Sometimes you get into trouble making things seem too exactly topical. But Samuel Beckett, for me — not for everybody, but for me — is a good lens on the way human beings work. And this is one complicated time to try to know where to look for that. … It seems to me that Samuel Beckett’s writing, among many other things, is a way to look at and reconnect with human intelligence as separate and different from artificial intelligence, which is more and more running our lives.”

Some actors forge an intense relationship with the work of certain writers, such as Joe Mantegna’s close identification with playwright David Mamet (or, for that matter, English actress Billie Whitelaw’s lengthy collaboration with Beckett). Such is Irwin’s relationship to Beckett, whose canon he has explored repeatedly.

“Your analogy to Joe Mantegna, of whom I’m a great admirer, is a really intriguing one. Because Joe’s from Chicago — I could get out ahead of myself here — but it seems to me the connection to some of Mamet’s work is really local. And in some ways that may be true for me, because as an Irish American I respond to this Irish writer even though a lot of his work he had to write in French first, for his own reasons. When I was a teenager I went to school in Belfast — this was before I had read anything of Samuel Beckett’s, or at least was aware that I had — I used to tramp around the hills surrounding Belfast. So many decades later when I read ‘Texts for Nothing,’ Beckett alludes to tramping around the hills around Dublin, which apparently he did almost maniacally for parts of his life, and there was an immediate connection. …

“I’m trying to figure out what this evening is to me, because it sort of forced itself upon me. It’s like a coping mechanism, in some ways. The writing has had
a hold on me for whatever reason for so long that I needed to figure out some channel, something to do with all this language, and the hold it had on me. So if you see some joy in there, I think it’s partly the joy of having found a way to take all this language and share the depth of feeling that I do have for it.

“Sometimes it’s joy. Sometimes,” he says with a laugh, “it’s something else.”

“On Beckett” is now playing at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 27 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Tickets are $30 to $75 at (213) 628-2772 or