Theater Review: Bill Irwin’s “On Beckett” — A Splendidly Literate Treat
By Bill Marx
In his virtuoso one-man show, Bill Irwin pays adroit homage to the language and vision of Samuel Beckett.
On Beckett, written and performed by Bill Irwin. Presented by Arts Emerson at the Emerson Paramount Center, Robert J. Orchard Stage, 559 Washington Street, Boston, through October 30.
According to Samuel Beckett biographer James Knowlson, in the early ’70s the renowned writer dropped into rehearsals at the BBC for a recording of all of his Texts for Nothing. The reader was actor Patrick Magee, the director Martin Esslin, who recalls:
Beckett sat in the back and said to me: “He’s still doing it too emphatically, it should be no more than a murmur.” So I stopped it and Pat came in and he told him too: “More of a murmur,” until finally the engineer said: “If it becomes any more of a murmur, there’s nothing there.”
Should an author famous for creating characters who are desperate to utter a final word, but can’t, be given the final word when it comes to how performers speak his words? Obviously not. Back in the late ’80s I had the great privilege to hear (at the Museum of Fine Arts) the renowned Beckett whisperer David Warrilow read Ohio Impromptu, That Time, A Piece of Monologue, and the world premiere of Stirrings Still. The actor’s uncannily mellifluous purr — gently steeped in passion — was propelled by a fateful cadence. His magnificent voicings were far from a murmur.
In his splendid one-man show On Beckett, Bill Irwin, another ace interpreter of work by the Nobel Laureate, pays homage to the master’s language. These words often emerge from the lips of attenuated consciousnesses, lost souls riffing, rocking, or stepping along the knife’s edge of oblivion. For me, what’s most important in a performer’s delivery is summed up by actress Lisa Dwan in her 2016 program notes to her evening of Beckett plays (performed at Arts Emerson): “Beckett has shown me that sentimentality isn’t truthful — it is the language of gangsters.” That is the challenge for the oh-so-likeable physical comedian as he delivers brief selections from Beckett’s texts (two from Texts for Nothing) and plays (a chunk of Lucky’s monologue in Waiting for Godot). Interspersed among the performances, Irwin talks about the mystery of the writer’s acerbic vision, and his significance to him as an actor. (He admires Beckett’s use of pronouns, for instance.) Irwin underlines the Irishness of Beckett’s speakers and the early influence of James Joyce, but he comes at these speeches with an American vitality, an energy driven by his belief that Beckett’s speakers may be trapped in some sort of hell but, in their contorted ways, they are struggling to escape, or at least verbally shape, the contours of their prison. Via their tongues, they are treading water. The delusive goal is to either glance at the stars or arrive at the peace of oblivion.
Irwin notes Beckett’s political side, pointing out the writer and his wife’s engagement in the French resistance against fascism in World War II. He points specifically to Pozzo’s tyrannical treatment of Lucky in Waiting for Godot, though that play’s desiccated landscape may well reflect the aftermath of a nuclear war, a barren world that resonates today with the catastrophic effects of climate breakdown. Irwin also makes some provocative points about betrayal in Waiting for Godot, wonders if Beckett’s characters suffer from mental illness, and finds some subtle suggestions of domestic abuse in the prose. He also mentions an online site that juxtaposes lines from Beckett’s work and pictures of cats.
The test for Irwin is to stay away from sentimentality, to not let his enormous skill at baggy pants foolery get in the way of the honesty of Beckett’s poetic angst. The performer admits (too often) that the texts might be difficult for audiences, and he tosses in some interludes of pure clowning to lighten things up. Irwin seems to fear that the writer’s strident truths might be too much for us, and he might well be right. Still, I could have used less business devoted to music hall and more performances of Beckett’s work. I would have loved to have heard Irvin tackle an excerpt from Krapp’s Last Tape or juice up a bit or two from the playwright’s mime skits Act Without Words I and II. Still, the evening is a literate treat, and these are becoming increasingly rare. I agree with the performer that Beckett is no longer stuck in off-off-Broadway productions but, outside of academia, his presence, at least in the theater, is waning. There doesn’t seem much of an appetite for his lyrical explorations of isolation in the musical-crazed/Disneyfied American theater scene, where fantasy and gangsters rule.
Arts Fuse interview with Bill Irwin about On Beckett.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of the Arts Fuse. For four decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and the Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created the Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.