fb-pixel Skip to main content

Untangling the riddle of Samuel Beckett

Bill Irwin in his one-man show, "On Beckett."Craig Schwartz

On Jan. 18, 1937, Samuel Beckett wrote from Berlin to his friend Mary Manning Howe of Boston about his not-yet-published first novel, “Murphy,” whose opening line introduced an authorial voice unlike any other: “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”

As “Murphy” begins, its protagonist has tied himself naked with scarves to a rocking chair, where he rocks back and forth in the darkness. According to “The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1929-1940″ (Cambridge University Press), Beckett told Howe that he was discovering “new planes of justification for the bondage in the chair that were not present to me at the time [of the novel’s writing.] Or rather for the figure of the bondage in the chair.”


“If I am not careful,” Beckett dryly observed, “I shall become clear as to what I have written."

Good to know that clarity about his work sometimes eluded even the master himself.

Because, let’s face it, while Beckett is endlessly fascinating, he can also be heavy sledding. Bill Irwin’s acknowledgement of both of those facts is one of the many things to admire in his brilliant one-man show, “On Beckett," running now through Sunday at the Emerson Paramount Center.

When Irwin takes the Robert J. Orchard Stage, he begins with a disarming confession, acknowledging that the voice of the Irish playwright and novelist “pulls me strongly, but it sometimes repels me, too. It’s love and hate . . .”

It becomes clear over the next 90 minutes that love has the upper hand, however. Irwin examines his own relationship as an actor to Beckett and his language while trying to illuminate the questions, riddles, paradoxes, and general complexities Beckett poses for the rest of us.

During the analytical portion of “On Beckett," Irwin’s style is unassuming and conversational yet studded with insights, blessedly free of pedantry but also unafraid to challenge the audience to follow him through the intricate, Byzantine maze of Beckett’s prose and dramas.


Crucially, Irwin can reach into his toolbox and pull out an asset not available to most lecturers: his own prowess as a performer. Irwin is singularly gifted in that regard. How many could be acclaimed as one of the most virtuosic clowns of his generation while also boasting a 2005 Tony Award for his portrayal of George in Edward Albee’s scorching “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

So he’s able to not just explore but compellingly enact passages from the short prose pieces Beckett titled “Texts for Nothing"; his 1953 novel, “Watt"; and, of course, the centerpiece of the evening, one of the most influential dramas of the 20th century, “Waiting for Godot."

But Irwin takes his time getting there. “On Beckett" is astutely paced.

He delves into the “character energy” that comes through in prose pieces that on the surface aren’t about character at all, that seem to be about the workings of consciousness. He speaks of the traces he detects in Beckett of the “comic Irishman,” even though the writer left Ireland, settled in France, and wrote much of his work in French. He admits he is haunted by the pieces in “Texts for Nothing” — “It will not leave me alone” — and when reading one passage, Irwin tilts sideways and gives a mournful, owl’s-hoot tonality to “home” in “Another said, or the same, or the first, they all have the same voice, All you had to do was stay at home. Home. They wanted me to go home.”


Irwin’s credentials when it comes to “Godot" are pretty unimpeachable, and it’s eye-opening to hear him explain the interpretive choices he has had to make while performing that most knotty and mysterious of plays. (In a 1988 production of “Waiting for Godot” directed by Mike Nichols, Irwin starred with Robin Williams, Steve Martin, and F. Murray Abraham. Then, in 2009, he appeared in a Broadway production of “Godot" costarring Nathan Lane, John Goodman, and John Glover.)

Renowned for raising the craft of clowning to the level of theatrical artistry, Irwin is a modern exemplar of the performance traditions associated with vaudeville — traditions that Beckett drew on in creating Vladimir and Estragon in “Waiting for Godot.”

In “On Beckett,” Irwin demonstrates both the comic possibilities and storytelling significance of bowler hats (all four major characters in “Godot” wear bowlers), and in one marvelous sequence, illustrates the magnetic power of the bowler, pulling him across the stage against his will.

Bill Irwin in his solo performance of “On Beckett.”Craig Schwartz/All Uses © 2019 Craig Schwartz

He demonstrates the transformative power of a simple pair of baggy pants (Irwin’s loose-limbed mobility once he dons those pants is a marvel to behold) and an expertly wielded cane. A routine in which Irwin struggles to put on an oversized coat amounts to an exercise in comic wizardry. Irwin also delivers an insightful analysis, with quick change of headwear, into the variable meanings of different styles of hats. He asks, pointedly, that we consider whether or not Beckett was a political writer, using a scene from “Godot” to suggest that he was.


Central to the appeal of “On Beckett" is that beneath its artistic ambition (and achievement) lies a becoming modesty. Irwin clearly recognizes that there’s something ineffable about genius; that, fundamentally, it lies beyond the reach of explanation, however well-informed and dazzlingly presented.


Written, performed, and directed by Bill Irwin. Production by Octopus Theatricals presented by ArtsEmerson. At Robert J. Orchard Stage, Emerson Paramount Center. Through Oct. 30. Tickets start at $25. 617-824-8400, www.ArtsEmerson.org

Don Aucoin can be reached at donald.aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.