Bill Irwin’s ON BECKETT — “Ever tried. Ever Failed. No Matter….”

by Ernest Kearney — What is the definitive symbolic icon of man’s crucible of flesh?

The precise embodiment of his indarba to the narrow vale of life?

Is it the Promethean Titan, Kafka’s Josef K, Joyce’s Leopold Bloom or Shakespeare’s melancholy Dane? Is it Faust or Ahab or Oedipus?

Or is Samuel Beckett’s appraisal the most faultless?

The clown.

That woeful, artless soul who confronts legions of adversity armored only with his awareness of life’s absurdity.

I confess, I am a sucker for clowns.

Slava Polunin, Keisuke Uchida & Hiroshi Yoshimi (Gamarjobat), Avner the Eccentric, the late great Flip Reed.

But Bill Irwin is America’s godfather of clowns, and I have been a devoted fan from Fool Moon (1993) when Irwin and his partner David Shiner enlightened me as to the heights that inspired clowning can obtain.

Irwin has periodically set aside his baggy pants, to participate in an assortment of film and television projects which are nothing if not eclectic; John Sayles’ Eight Men Out (1988), M. Night Shyamalan’s twisted, self-indulgent fairy tale Lady in the Water (2006), on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit he had a recurring role as the psychologist Dr. Peter Lindstrom, and fans of Sesame Street will remember him as Mr. Noodle.

But his devotion is to the stage. He re-joined with David Shiner in 2013 for Old Hats, and in 2005 he was George to Kathleen Turner’s Martha in a revival of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf which earned him a Tony Award for Best Actor.

Now Irwin has brought his one-man show On Beckett to the stage of the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.

Caution: This is niche entertainment, which may not be for everyone.

This is one man’s personal and discreetly passionate panegyric to the Irish Playwright, Novelist and Nobel Prize Laureate Samuel Beckett.

If you share a reverence for the author of Endgame, Krapp’s Last Tape, Waiting for Godot, and Murphy this could be an enlightening evening in the theater.

If, however, you’re unacquainted with the works of Beckett or the immense influence he exerted on the theatre of today, you might want to give some consideration to attending this production. Still you probably couldn’t ask for a better introduction to the artist or his art than that offered by Irwin.

Beckett was a watershed in the development of modern drama; who provided the rift dividing the naturalism and the realistic stage from that of the minimalistic and the absurd.

In the 1920s, Beckett was engrossed by the new emerging fields of psychoanalysis and neuroscience leading to a lifelong fixation with neuro-psychiatrics which is manifested in his writings.

A consistent questioning of the deictic center and shifting of endophoric referencing which shrouds the simplest of Beckett’s sentences in a sheen of surrealism enriching his prose so that experiencing them is rendered stimulating, puzzling and mesmerizing.

Beckett’s writing was an exploration of language from its infinite expanse for expressing the raw comic sensibility and pathos of life to its grim catacombs that confine our craving to communicate. He was painfully cognizant of language’s limitations but nevertheless celebrated and engaged its poetry and potential with the deterministic observation, “Words are all we have.”

Bill Irwin admits he has had a long involvement with the “words” of Beckett.

In 1988 he was the luckless Lucky at the beck and call of F. Murray Abraham’s Pozzo, in Mike Nichols’ staging of Waiting for Godot at Lincoln Center; which featured Steve Martin as Vladimir and Robin Williams as Estragon.

In the Broadway 2009 revival of the play, Irwin would undertake the role of Vladimir to Nathan Lane’s Estragon in a staging that also boasted the talents of John Goodman and Jon Glover in the roles of Pozzo and Lucky.

In 2012 at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater he tackled the role of Hamm in Endgame.

At the opening of On Beckett, Irwin shares with the audience in a straightforward and simple structure what he has in store for them in the 90 minutes which are to follow. He will first offer up certain selections from Beckett’s works then follow these with “some thoughts on having lived with this language, and performed it to audiences, over many years.”

The selections Irwin performs are drawn from two of the writer’s most recognizable works Endgame (1957) and his ground-breaking Waiting for Godot (1953),” as well as from a trio of lesser known works; the novels Watt (1953) and The Unnamable (1968), and the thirteen short enigmatic pieces that comprise Texts for Nothing (1967).

Irwin confesses to his audience, “This writing haunts me.”

The truth of that statement and proof of Irwin’s obsession with Beckett is aptly demonstrated in the production history of this show.

1992 Joseph Papp Public Theatre

2001 San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater (ACT)

2002 the Seattle Repertory Theatre

2014 back to Seattle for their Beckett Festival

2015 San Francisco’s ACT again

2015  Philadelphia Theatre Company

2017 San Francisco’s ACT again, again

2018 The Irish Repertory Theatre

First and foremost, because he is a consummate clown, Irwin’s performance of these pieces is unquestionably unique.

Each movement, every nuance of his physical presence is surfeit with definition and chiseled by a precise dynamic. The mastery over his bodily instrument is itself a revelation to behold, and even alone on stage, Irwin is an ensemble.

For some actors, Beckett’s language proves an elusive phantasm beyond their ability to come to grips with. And that challenge is exceedingly present in the thirteen short, untitled prose pieces that comprise “Texts for Nothing” which has been criticized as “rich in imagery but short on external coherence.”

Irwin however has managed to broaden outward the superb command he possesses over his physical instrument to encompass those of his vocal and internal mechanisms. The results are that the addition of dialogue, transforms Irwin’s craft from an “ensemble” to a “symphony” capable of infusing each word spoken into a coherent expression.

Reading this, perhaps one fails to appreciate exactly what Irwin is accomplishing on the stage of the Kirk Douglas.

“Well, yeah,” you might grunt dismissively. “That’s what actors are suppose to do,”

Generally you would be absolutely correct in thinking this, but remember we are talking Beckett here.

What follows is a passage from one of the couplets of Texts for Nothing:

“Whose voice, no one’s, there is no one, there’s a voice without a mouth,

and somewhere a kind of hearing, something compelled to hear, and

somewhere a hand, it calls that a hand, it wants to make a hand,

or if not a hand something somewhere that can leave a trace.”

Beckett’s prose brims with breaks, digressions, repetitions, retreats and with unmooring the deictic terms, words whose interpretation are qualified by their extralinguistic context. This results in what Beckettian Scholar Giorgio Agamben terms “de-subjectification,” the creation of a linguistic non-space.

Thus Beckett’s characters are unfettered from the norms of traditional narrative, where a protagonist strides to win true love or come to some illuminating truth. With words unchained from the straightjacket of “meaning,” Beckett utilizes the contradictory nature of language to indict the “problem of universals.”

“Don’t look for meaning in the words,” Beckett advised, “Listen to the silences.”

For Beckett there is no “illuminating truth.” There is only the unknowable void and inexpressible nothingness words serve to cloak. Perhaps for Beckett the only triumph possible for man is to grace the unsayable with the poetic.

What is extraordinary about Irwin’s performance is his ability to enter into those “linguistic non-spaces” Beckett supplies, appraise the silences present there and from those silences weave a relevance that he then conveys to the audience.

Irwin adds poetry to what is unsaid, and form to the emptiness of the void and in doing so shares with all those in the audience secrets of Beckett’s enigmatic elegance.

Some have disparaged On Beckett as more lecture than theatric experience, and they are not wrong in this. Irwin’s monologue speaks to the intellect rather than the heart. But if you admire the works of Beckett you will come away with a wider understanding of his genius and his craft.

If Beckett and his art are realms beyond your experience here is a chance to probe their depths with a stalwart guide.

But whichever category you may fall in, here is a chance to witness in Irwin artistry at its pinnacle.

 Author’s Note: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Perhaps as close to giving advice to hopeful playwrights as Samuel Beckett ever managed to come.

On Beckett

is on stage at

The Kirk Douglas Theatre

9820 Washington Blvd,

Culver City, CA 90232


 October 27, 2019

For Tickets and Information:


Written by

An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, "Among the Vipers" was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist, three times, in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. Kearney remains focused on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. His stage reviews and social essays can be found at and Follow him on Facebook.

No comments


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.