Review: ‘On Beckett’ at the Guthrie

Legendary actor and clown Bill Irwin finds meaning in Samuel Beckett's absurdity

a performer wears a black hat and a red tie
Performer Bill Irwin stars in the one-man show "On Beckett" at the Guthrie Theater through March 24.
Courtesy of Craig Schwartz

Samuel Beckett is notoriously thorny. The Irish playwright and author has managed to push his way into the canon of great 20th-century playwrights with plays — most famously 1949’s “Waiting for Godot” — that he inexplicably wrote in French and translated back into English.

These plays often presented broken, muttering characters in bizarre circumstances that defied conventional storytelling and produced neither satisfying conclusions nor easy interpretations.

Actor Bill Irwin is just now wrestling with Beckett onstage at the Guthrie Theater in a one-man show called “On Beckett,” which will play through March 24. The performance is mostly Irwin performing text from Beckett — including some of his prose work — and then puzzling about their meaning. It doesn't sound like much, but Irwin locates the drama in interpretation, creating a play about how actors perform text. He’s uniquely the right performer for the job.

Irwin demurs about the fact, but he is among America’s greatest and most consistent interpreters of Beckett. He has appeared in, directed and advised on the playwright’s works for much of his professional life, costarring in two legendary Broadway productions of “Waiting for Godot.” The first, in 1988, costarred Steve Martin and Robin Williams. The second, in 2009, had him appear opposite Nathan Lane, and also starred John Goodman and John Glover.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

Irwin is an unusually good match for Beckett, a playwright who seemed to draw equally from avant-garde literature (he worked for a while as James Joyce’s assistant) and vaudeville (he grew up watching clowns in variety shows and early silent films). In life, Irwin is tall and gentlemanly; onstage, he is rubber-limbed and given to magnificent facial gurning, befitting his education — he is a graduate of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College.

You’ve probably seen his clowning. He’s Mr. Noodle on “Sesame Street” and “Elmo’s World,” he goofs around with Robin Williams and Bobby McFerrin in the video for “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” and he’s appeared in an impressive number of films and television shows, often demonstrating his impressive slapstick skills.

There is a lot of this onstage at the Guthrie. One of Irwin’s most memorable encounters with Beckett was when legendary theatermaker Joseph Chaikin handed Irwin one of Beckett’s prose books and demanded he read it aloud. Irwin has been understanding Beckett through performance ever since, and through the unique skills his brings to Beckett as a trained clown. He clowns continuously during “On Beckett,” a dazzling (and startlingly funny) introduction to clowning as a craft.

a performer points up on stage
Actor and clown Bill Irwin.
Courtesy of Craig Schwartz

So “On Beckett” serves not only as an investigation of Beckett’s discursive, maddening, magnetic language, but also the way an actor approaches it, and how the tools of performance provide tools for interpreting.

And I say “interpreting” deliberately — Irwin is adamant that Beckett defies understanding, or, at least, glib understanding. There is no one meaning to Beckett, but many possible meanings, some contradictory. And he argues that this is a large part of Beckett’s appeal: you can never really pin the Irish playwright down, but his work is so rich and dense that you want to keep trying.

“On Beckett” does one last thing. It presents Beckett as a tremendously empathetic writer, one who, having witnessed some of the worst of the 20th century (he reminds us that Beckett was in the French Resistance during World War II), dedicated himself to both staging moments of despair, betrayal and cruelty — and giving us characters who seek ways to fight despair.

Right now, this feels especially pointed.