The Precise and the Indefinable: “On Beckett” 

Photo via https://artsemerson.org/events/on-beckett/

Presented by ArtsEmerson, with Irish Repertory Theatre 
Produced by Octopus Theatricals
Conceived and performed by Bill Irwin
Based on the writings of Samuel Beckett, Texts for Nothing, The Unnamable, Watt, and Waiting for Godot.

October 26 – 30, 2022
Open Captioning, Oct. 29, at 2:00 PM
Audio Description, Oct. 30, 2:00 PM
Emerson Paramount Center
559 Washington St
Boston, MA 02111

Beckittns on Instagram

90 minutes, no intermission

Critique by Kitty Drexel

ArtsEmerson isn’t asking you to turn your phone off for its health. Turn your damn phone off, you git. 

BOSTON, Mass — On Beckett is a masterclass taught by Bill Irwin on the works of playwright, novelist, Nobel Prize winner, and, among other things, WWII resistance fighter Samuel Beckett. Irwin’s dedicated performance, journalistic dramaturgy, and storytelling transcend the medium of the solo show. 

On Beckett isn’t merely a performance incorporating the works of the infamous playwright; it is a doctorate-level dissertation. Emerson, give Irwin his honorary Ph.D.    

Bill Irwin is a Tony Award-winning actor, director, writer, and clown known for his stage and screen works. His original theatre piece, On Beckett, examines Irwin’s personal relationship to Beckett’s works through an actor’s perspective. Irwin incorporates clown pedagogy, professional anecdotes, and grammar lessons to reveal the inherent theatricality of Beckett’s works. 

Irwin enters a black stage in a white button-down shirt, a black suit jacket, black trousers, and black dress shoes – no tie. His only companions are a black podium and black rehearsal cubes. From minimalism he reveals the worlds within worlds of Texts for Nothing, The Unnamable, Watt, and Waiting for Godot

Irwin stands in the center of a wide spotlight as he speaks his introduction directly to the audience. The house lights are up. He is personable. Informal despite his jacket. 

As 90-minutes fly by, Irwin teaches us about the political and philosophical traits of Beckett’s writing. He shares a historical biography of the writer peppered with personal intimacies. Irwin is sharing elements of his life story, but On Beckett isn’t a memoir. These intimate details are supporting evidence of his, the actor’s, perspective. 

Some might find Beckett exciting. Some might find Beckett boorish. The audience on Wednesday night found On Beckett enlightening because Irwin’s arguments were so compelling. 

On a personal note, as an actor, I felt like watching Bill Irwin perform made me a better actor. His physical strength, precision, and discipline are wonders to behold. His pacing and timing are ingenious. He is a clear and effective communicator with his words and his body. 

Photo via https://artsemerson.org/

His performance reminded me how much more learning I have to do, and that I still have time to do it. Many things are obtainable if we persist in doing them. For the rest of our lives (and Irwin’s – which will hopefully be a long while). 

On Beckett is performed with the explicit permission of the Estate of Samuel Beckett through special arrangement of George Borchardt, Inc. Irwin writes the significance of Beckett’s Estate’s permission into his production. A figurative dramatic license in retelling a story for friends differs greatly from a legal dramatic license to tell a story for money. 

Anyone wishing to use another artist’s work outside the public domain without first securing the right to do so is liable for damages. Artists, please secure rights legally so your money can continue to fund your career and not the careers of lawyers.

ArtsEmerson is hosting an On Beckett play reading book club. Registration is free. There are locations across Boston and online. HERE is the link to register. 

Theatre students who have seen Bill Irwin perform may find the book club particularly helpful. There is a lot to analyze in his performance. A book club outside of the college experience may provide new insights. 

Beckittns, still poignant.

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