“Existentialism; that word puts us to sleep,” master clown Bill Irwin was saying on my computer screen, “even though true questions of existence…keep us awake at night.”
The word “Existentialism” did not put me to sleep; I was riveted whenever, in this 75-minute solo piece, Irwin offered his own words – his insights, his explanations — about the work of Samuel Beckett, whom he called “the famous Irish writer of famously difficult writing.” As he points out early on, “I’m not a Beckett scholar, nor am I a Beckett biographer. Mine is an actor’s relationship with this language.” Irwin is a serious actor as well as a clown, a Tony winner for his role in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and his two sides help us to see Beckett’s own tragicomic approach.
But, when he wasn’t lecturing, Irwin was performing some of that difficult writing. And, once, it did put me to sleep.
“Suddenly, no, at last, at long last, I couldn’t any more, I couldn’t go on,” Irwin read from Beckett’s “Texts for Nothing #1.” I identified too closely.
This is an embarrassing confession for somebody who took an entire course on Beckett in college, who has seen all 19 of his stage plays, on stage separately and all at once in a festival put on by the Gate Theater of Dublin; someone who owns the DVD collection, “Beckett on Film,” which includes films of all 19 of those plays.
Was it all youthful pretension, a disembodied voice from the irretrievable past like Krapp’s Last Tape?
I think the irony here is something Beckett might have appreciated.
It is precisely because Beckett seems so right for this apocalyptic moment that Irwin decided to turn his 2018 stage play into a digital presentation. At the beginning of the video, we see him wearing a face mask as he enters the Irish Repertory Theater, where he performed this show to packed audiences in 2018. Now the theater is empty – we can pack no more — except for him and the crew that is filming him. And it is exactly because of this apocalyptic moment that I cannot travel to the theater to see him, but must stay put in an overheated home, isolating from the second wave – or is it the third wave? – of COVID-19… as Irwin on screen portrays characters who are one way or another trapped — by their bodies, by their words, by the world.
Irwin wins us over with his clowning, which he considers a match for Beckett’s characters, whom he sees as archetypes of the “comic Irishman.” Indeed, the Irish-American comic says, they are “people I’ve known all my life.” He notes the irony that Beckett wrote much of his work initially in French.
Irwin also lessens the intimidation through his humility. “I hope this doesn’t sound arty or precious,” he prefaces his observation that the playwright’s pile-on of words offers “a bridge to big questions.”
It may seem odd that, for this theater piece, Irwin chooses to perform passages primarily from Beckett’s prose – selections from the 13 pieces that make up “Texts for Nothing,” and from his novels “The Unnameable” and “Watt.” But he demonstrates through his reading how dramatic even Beckett’s prose can sound, in the right hands, and voice, and goofy hat.
Irwin ends with passages from Waiting for Godot, and offers the final overwhelming, exasperating monologue by Lucky, who can’t stop talking, can’t say what he means clearly. When he’s done, Irwin explains that the other characters had made it their mission to get him to shut up.
The digital version of On Beckett which the Irish Rep has renamed On Beckett/In Screen, offers some changes from the stage production. The close-ups and the use of different camera angles drives the sharp shift in tone from comic to stark, perhaps profound. And Irwin no longer talks about how, for him, the language of Samuel Beckett “has gone viral.” It’s still surely true, but it would have a different meaning right now.