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Bill Irwin On Samuel Beckett


When Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway are hurtling through space in the 2014 film "Interstellar," maybe you remember the breakout character on that spacecraft - a boxy sarcastic robot named TARS.


MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: (As Cooper) A giant, sarcastic robot - what a great idea.

BILL IRWIN: (As TARS) I have a cue light I can use when I'm joking, if you'd like.

MCCONAUGHEY: (As Cooper) That'd probably help.

IRWIN: (As TARS) Yeah, you can use it to find your way back into the ship after I blow you out the airlock.

MCCONAUGHEY: (As Cooper) What's your humor setting, TARS?

IRWIN: (As TARS) That's 100%.

MCCONAUGHEY: (As Cooper) Let's bring it on down to 75, please.

GREENE: The voice of TARS belongs to the actor Bill Irwin, whose name I kept seeing on a marquee every night I would drive to work here in Culver City. He's been doing this show just a few blocks from NPR West, where he is so much more than an inanimate space object. He does this crazy solo performance on stage as himself. And when I saw him perform, he reminded me of someone, that energy, the physicality, all those different characters. It was kind of like Robin Williams. And Irwin would be honored to hear that. They actually worked together. They met 40 years ago. They did improv. They once danced in Bobby McFerrin's music video for "Don't Worry Be Happy." And most relevant to today's conversation, they co-starred along with Steve Martin in a production of "Waiting For Godot."

In the show you did with Robin Williams, remind us who was playing whom in the whole show.

IRWIN: Steve Martin played Vladimir. Robin Williams played Estragon. And they were these two master alpha comedians we called them. And they really were like two sides of a human brain.


ROBIN WILLIAMS: (As Estragon) Well, what do we do now?

STEVE MARTIN: (As Vladimir) We could do our exercises.

WILLIAMS: (As Estragon) Our movements.

MARTIN: (As Vladimir) Our elevations.


GREENE: The burning question I had for you to start is, is it "Waiting For Gadoh (ph)" or "Waiting For Godoh (ph)?"

IRWIN: You have to start with the hard one, David.

GREENE: I'm sorry.

IRWIN: It's a big cultural divide. Americans tend to say "Waiting For Gadoh" and Brits and Irish people tend to say "Waiting For Godoh."

GREENE: And you don't want to be labeled as one side or the other, it sounds like.

IRWIN: I like to be ecumenical. I've come to pronounce it "Godoh." As Nathan Lane says, oh, no, the gags are better, the gags are better if you saw it in "Godoh."

GREENE: So "Waiting For Godot," or whatever it is, is by the late Irish writer Samuel Beckett. And I'm just going to put it out there. It's an acquired taste, and Irwin has acquired it. His show, "On Beckett," which he's put on here and in New York City, is an ode to the playwright. Irwin's fascination with Beckett, I mean, it's kind of contagious.

This is not accessible writing.

IRWIN: It isn't inviting.

GREENE: Inviting. OK. What's the difference, in your mind?

IRWIN: It is not inviting writing. I had a neighbor when we lived up in the suburbs north of New York, and he said, oh, you're doing - you're you're performing these works. I'd love to read that. I lent him the book. And within an hour, it was back in my mailbox with a little note that said, I can't read this. This is like a wall of words. That phrase has stuck with me ever since because it is a wall of words until you find your way into it. And then, it's very folksy. It's full of so many loaded questions, the kind of questions we put aside. And it's always hard to take this stuff out of context, but here - because it is seamless, and it's going on when he says, I say to the body, up with you now, and I can feel it struggling. And he says some more things. He says, I say to the head, leave it alone, stay quiet. You know, I should turn away from it all, away from the body, away from the head. Let them work it out between them.

It's like a comedian's punch line, you know? And it's just tucked in and amongst this very overall abstruse and, like you say, uninviting writing.

GREENE: Lucky is one of the characters in "Godoh" or "Gadoh" - I'll be diplomatic, too - doesn't speak at all except for one crucial, memorable monologue that you perform in your show.

IRWIN: I do parts of it, yeah.


IRWIN: Yeah, yeah.

GREENE: What does that monologue tell us, if anything, about Beckett and...

IRWIN: It's about entertainment, this speech, because that's - it feels so much about Mr. Beckett himself, whom I don't know. But through his writing, you know him. It's an attempt to be articulate and cogent, but it doesn't quite work. It's - something is broken.


IRWIN: (As Lucky) Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann of a personal God - quaquaquaqua - with white beard - quaqua.

GREENE: You know, there's some who describe Beckett as a playwright of desperation. Is - what do you say to that? Because you seem to think of him differently.

IRWIN: I think you find joy in Beckett's work. It's a joy from deep honesty. That's something Mike Nichols used to say. He said, you know, you read this stuff, and it can feel so heavy and dark. And then you realize, oh, someone told the truth and then, said Mike, I feel euphoric. And there are - you know, Beckett struggled with depression, and he was a very private man, so who knows what all else, but just continuing on is victory and is almost a joyful victory, just keeping going.

GREENE: Can I just ask you - and I don't want to get too, too deep, but, I mean, I just think back to Robin Williams' death. And there were people who said that his genius, whether it was the physicality or, I mean, the taking on different characters, the energy - I don't even know - it's indescribable - was also his undoing. Can you reflect on that at all? Since this is a kind of comedy that you do and that you knew him.

IRWIN: Well, his kind of comedy is a kind only he did. And you can reflect on it from some distance. And, you know, his death is huge. And what was his undoing and what wasn't? I don't know. But I did some improv things with him sometimes. And at the end of it, I just went (gasping) oh, God. I was just - you know, it was like I was painting with Picasso for a little bit. And, you know, of course, it's a complex thing. Some comics still say, oh, yeah, he was great, but he stole all the funny lines, you know? Don't try to share the stage with him. His genius was of a particular sort. He was hyper generous, but he was a comedy samurai.

When we were doing the play, which we then called "Waiting For Godot," it was a mix of people who'd been standing in line for hours to get a ticket. And New York subscribers to Lincoln Center, you know, you could hear them come in - what are we seeing this afternoon? And it was a wild mix of people. And sometimes people would fall asleep. It drove Robin crazy. He would start kicking sand toward, you know, people in the front row who were nodding off. He was the most incredible guy and the most generous guy. At the same time, he was just possessed with his own mission as he perceived it.

GREENE: Bill Irwin, thanks so much.

IRWIN: Thank you so much, David.

GREENE: That was Bill Irwin, who performs in and wrote the show "On Beckett." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.