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Irwin’s frenetic acting talents are well suited to Beckett

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

Actor Bill Irwin met Samuel Beckett once, when, as a young exchange student in Belfast, he journeyed to Paris and approached him.

"I’d written him a letter first, which is what you did if you wanted to see him," the lanky clown recalled. "What you did was, you eventually made a kind of agreement to meet in an ordinary little bar across the street from his apartment."

Irwin’s story adds to the growing impression that the great Beckett, born in the Foxrock section of Dublin but long a resident of the French capital, wasn’t nearly as unapproachable or reclusive as legend, not to mention some of his biographers, would have it.

Irwin’s early interest in Beckett has borne fruit often and abundantly. There was the Mike Nichols production of "Waiting for Godot" at Lincoln Center, with the actor playing Lucky in an all-star cast that included Steve Martin, Robin Williams and F. Murray Abraham.

That was in the late 1980s, and in 1991 Irwin did a version of Beckett’s "Texts for Nothing" at the Public Theater, with Joseph Chaikin directing his own adaptation of the work, which the dramatist wrote not long after completing "Godot."

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"Texts for Nothing," which he staged again a few months back at the Classic Stage Company on East 13th Street, is composed of 13 short prose pieces that are only minimally linked, if at all. Recently, Irwin completed what a lot of people feel is his greatest Beckett achievement to date, a complete, word-for-word performance of four of the 13 "Texts," Nos. 1, 9, 11, and 13, which he himself selected in a production in which he directed himself.

"Well," he commented, "I’m using No. 1, and No. 13 because they’re the beginning and the end of the work, and the other two mainly because I like them so much."

Irwin selected the first of Beckett’s "Texts for Nothing" for a second reason, one that might not be as baldly apparent as the fact that it is the fragment that opens the work. "No. 1 is the most concretely reminiscent of Ireland," he said. " It reminded me of things I remembered from going around Ireland a long time ago, when I was living in Belfast."

Irwin remembers a critic arguing that the opening pages of "Texts for Nothing" stand along as "the most rooted in any particular place of anything Beckett wrote, ever, because he works very hard to lead you to no specific place or landscape."

Indeed, Text No. 1 does refer to "black sopping peat, surge of giant ferns," and "heathery gulfs of quiet where the wind drowns, my life and its old jingles."

One evening during a recent run of "Texts for Nothing," a scholar from France approached Irwin with the theory that the material was really set in France, because Beckett had lived there so long, and because, when he wrote "Texts," the author had adopted the habit of writing in French and then doing his own translation into English.

Irwin quoted just one line from the first text, for the benefit of the visiting Frenchman. "’Quag, heath up to the knees, faint sheep-tracks, troughs scooped deep by the rains,’ I read him, and then I said, ‘I’m sorry, but that’s not France,’ " he recalled. "I see it as someplace where the Irish land meets the sea."

With his ambitious immersion in "Texts for Nothing," Bill Irwin, known until now mainly for his own shows, "The Regard of Flight," "Largely New York," and what is probably his most successful venture, the frequently revived "Fool Moon," steps into the ring with the extraordinary performers celebrated for their solo programs drawn from the works of Samuel Beckett.

Irwin is a richly gifted physical clown, lodged somewhere between being an acrobat and a mime. There is something vaguely frenetic about his talent, and Beckett would very probably have approved of that, since he notoriously admired the silent screen comics, Buster Keaton prominent among them, whom he saw growing up in Dublin.

The link between Beckett and the theater’s great "fools" is strengthened when you remember that Bert Lahr was the star of the first Broadway production of "Waiting for Godot."

When Irwin began rehearsals for "Texts for Nothing," it was just him and a stage manager in a room featuring a large mirror.

"I just did my best to say the words, read the words, remember a few words, and watch myself as I was saying them," Irwin said. "They asked me what I needed, and I asked for a music stand. I put the printed text on the stand and tried to read the words in a way that made them make sense, and then looking for the physical action that the text seemed to suggest, then trying to get everything moving in the same direction."

Irwin has tampered with Beckett’s words perhaps less than any performer who has ever tacked the master’s texts. Once in a while, the 50-year-old actor was tempted, he admits, to make an alteration in the name of clarity of intention, or perhaps ease of speaking. At one point, in the final paragraphs of the last segment, Beckett refers to a "galanty show." Irwin researched the term and learned that it referred to a form of shadow puppet show at one time popular in Ireland, and that the word itself was very probably a corruption from an archaic Italian expression.

For a time, Irwin considered changing the phrase to "old lantern show" or something similar, but then he thought better of it.

"Beckett knew what he wanted to say, and he knew what he meant and he certainly knew that the term was an unfamiliar one," Irwin said. "I decided to honor his intentions and leave his words alone."

Irwin, raised mainly in Southern California and Oklahoma, came to the attention of sharp-eyed moviegoers when, as a member of the San Francisco-based Pickle Family Circus, he appeared in the Robert Altman film "Popeye." In scenes set in a kind of cafe frequented by Popeye, Olive Oyl, Bluto, and the others, he was a handsome young man who possessed the ability to stretch his neck until he resembled a form of human giraffe.

He is something of an anomaly, resembling, as he does, a leading man, but given the sorts of skills normally associated with clowns, jugglers, acrobats and even contortionists. Certainly, Bill Irwin has appeared in conventional speaking roles in films such as John Sayles’s "Eight Men Out," John Turturro’s "Illuminata," and the "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," starring Jim Carrey and directed by Ron Howard.

And there have been appearances by Irwin in regular Broadway and off-Broadway productions, including Moliere’s "Scapin" at the Roundabout and Shakespeare’s "The Tempest" in a Public Theatre production directed by George Wolfe. Irwin is an actor, and a good one, and therefore he acts.

What Irwin does that even the best of his acting colleagues cannot do, or very certainly cannot do nearly as well as he does, is the unique clowning that has made him a star, and kept him at the top of the particular theatrical tree he decided early on to climb, for a couple of decades now, or nearly.

It could be argued that Irwin’s astonishing physical skills have made him somewhat hard to cast and have, in a sense, removed him from the pool of employable actors. Once in a while, however, his abilities blend with the works of one or another of the theater’s literary master. Such an instance is the happy meeting between the clown and Samuel Beckett’s "Texts for Nothing," which Irwin will certainly be reviving from time to time well into the foreseeable future.

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