The first page of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame is a lengthy stage direction for the character Clov. He is described as having a stiff, staggering walk. Among other tasks, he must carry a ladder between two high windows, then ascend it to look out.
There is a moment early in the Irish Rep’s current production of the play in which the audience seems to commune with the character. Clov struggles with the unwieldy ladder, climbs it with a limp, kicks one leg over the top to steady himself, opens the shutter, and looks out. Then the reverse down and on to the second window. There are chuckles throughout. When he gets to the second window, he again climbs the ladder, but due to where he’s placed it under the window, there is an additional move this time. As he opens the shutter inwards, he must duck to keep from hitting his head. It’s a liquid sequence—kick over, swing open, duck down, pop up, look out. The audience laughs together this time, almost knowingly. Almost as if to say, “Ah yes. This is what we came for.”
Clov is played by Bill Irwin, a Tony-winning actor, Beckett aficionado, and one of America’s foremost clowns.
Following the pandemic, Ciarán O'Reilly, co-founder and producing director at Irish Rep contacted Irwin for Endgame—its end-of-the-world setting seeming a perfect fit for audiences still emerging from a global event marked with loss. The play’s four characters are all trapped together in a dingy room, three of them trapped quite literally as their disabilities prevent them from even moving. Hamm is confined to a chair on wheels. His parents, Nell and Nagg, are legless and live in ashbins. Clov, who has been Hamm’s servant since he was a child, is the only one able to leave the room. One assumes he could leave the house if he wishes, but he stays. “Outside of here, it’s death,” says Hamm, after all.
Recently extended for an additional month, Endgame runs through April 9 at Irish Rep's Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage. Irwin is joined by Shakespearean stalwart John Douglas Thompson as Hamm. Joe Grifasi and Patrice Johnson Chevannes are Hamm's parents, Nagg and Nell. O'Reilly directs.
Irwin first encountered the absurdist playwright Beckett at age 18, as a freshman in college. He read Act Without Words, a mime play composed completely of stage directions. “I didn’t know what to make of it,” he says, “but I was compelled by the way he used stage direction.” A fitting fascination for a young man who would eventually bring three silent clown shows to Broadway (The Regard of Flight, Largely New York, and Fool Moon.)
He admits now that he doesn’t much care for Act Without Words, and there are big chunks of Beckett’s work that he says he’ll probably never read or finish. Yet there are other Beckett pieces that are constantly rolling about in his head—he guesses around 45 minutes of text. “It won’t leave me alone. I mean that. It’s not just a turn of phrase,” he insists. “I do need to brush it up when I take it out, but it won’t go away.” Those fragments consist mostly of Waiting for Godot and a collection of prose writings called Texts for Nothing.
Irwin has a long history with Godot, beginning at Cal Arts with theatre instructor and leading Beckett authority Ruby Cohn. His work with director Herbert Blau gave him the opportunity to attend rehearsals of the play at San Quentin State Penitentiary, where Blau had famously staged the work in 1957 with San Francisco Actors Workshop for a one-night-only performance for the prisoners. A group of those inmates eventually formed the San Quentin Drama Workshop, and continued returning to Godot.
In the ’80s, Irwin begged Joseph Papp to let him do the play at The Public. He was granted the Shiva Theatre for a week, so he mounted a small production with Chip Zien and the late Michael Jeter. (Fun fact: Irwin and Jeter were the first two clowns to perform Mr. Noodle on Sesame Street in the now ever-growing Noodle family.)
Back to Godot: Irwin has even done the show on Broadway, playing Didi opposite Nathan Lane as Gogo in a 2009 production, which also featured John Goodman and John Glover as Pozzo and Lucky, respectively.
Irwin has drawn largely from Texts for Nothing (those other bits swirling in his noggin) to create his solo show On Beckett. Originally developed at American Conservatory Theater, Irwin has performed the part-talk, part-performance piece at Irish Rep, The Old Globe, and Center Theatre Group, among others. In On Beckett, he takes a deep dive into the actor’s relationship to Beckett, in both movement and language. The actor handles Beckett’s staccato as nimbly as he does Endgame’s opening “ladder business.” He’s careful, though, to point out that the movement must serve the language, otherwise it’s just bits.
Although Beckett’s language is dense and difficult to parse meaning from, Irwin has found the story of an adopted family in the text of Endgame. His Clov deeply loves Hamm. They are father and son who bicker and threaten, but rely desperately upon one another. And in the end, when Clov is dressed to leave, still he does not.
Even though the company has found the family at the center of Endgame, Irwin doesn’t expound too much on any meaning in the play, but instead quotes a bit of poetry from Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet Archibald MacLeish. In a poem titled “Ars Poetica,” he wrote, “A poem should not mean/But be.” Irwin calls that his “watch word” for Endgame. “It’s giving me some faith and confidence,” he says. “Some plays really have what you could call a meaning or a narrative arc that you can play. Endgame, I think, is an object that I hope we deliver up in some compelling enough way for it to hold an audience. I think it’s more to contemplate than it is to understand.”
It’s funny, this continuing toying with Beckett, who so many find challenging, yet are drawn to. For Irwin, that draw is “a look at the divided nature of our consciousness.” Beckett—with all his stops and starts, with the hodgepodge of story and memory that are piled into a text—taps into the mystery of existence. He goes on: “Cultural and physical anthropologists, and philosophers, are talking more and more about human consciousness being a kind of agglomeration, from early mammals on. You just build all this stuff that makes a mind…not a brain, but a mind. And you feel that in Beckett.” He laughs adding, “And again, it’s not like he’s helping you, though, with any explanations.”
So, those are the things that constantly nag at Irwin, that are always noodling through his head. That will not leave him alone. A need to examine the mind, but in bits and pieces. But also, he is mesmerized by the language.
"I don't know what it means half the time. But it's just there, and it carries me forward."