Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Great Performances
HomeBroadcast ScheduleFeedbackNewsletter Great Performances Shop
Musical TheaterOpera on FilmClassical MusicDanceRegional PerformanceCinema
Multimedia PresentationsDialogueEducational ResourcesRegional Performance
Bill Irwin, Clown Prince banner
Multimedia Presentation
Send in the Clown
Related Web Sites
Signature Theatre Company: Bill Irwin
The International Buster Keaton Society
Buster Keaton Museum
TIME 100: Charlie Chaplin
ODC/San Francisco
Direct Cinema Limited

1: Intro2: Essay3: Essay4: Essay5: Profiles

The following is excerpted from Ron Jenkins' book ACROBATS OF THE SOUL.


In spite of these difficulties, Irwin continues to fight back. He shoots the piano player and stabs the journalistic vampire thorough the heart with a giant pencil. Irwin's resourcefulness does not give him a total victory, but it does provide him with a few short opportunities to dance. These moments never last much longer than a minute; it is precisely their fragmentary and elusive quality that makes them so evocative. Irwin's solo dances linger in the memory as unfinished visual poems, in which the spirit of freedom is personified by a bumbling clown in baggy pants who wants nothing more than a chance to dance his way to the clouds. Irwin's mastery of his body seems perfect enough to lift him into flight, and there is even a segment where he appears on a platform over the audience's heads, flapping his arms and threatening to jump into the void. It is an exhilarating moment, as Irwin almost convinces the audience that he can fly if he wants to, but the critic talks him out of it, clipping the clown's wings with intellectual jargon and specious logic. Their exchange epitomizes the ongoing tension between the clown who longs to break free from the restraints of reason and gravity, and the mundane forces that prevent him from taking flight.

It is Irwin's physical skills that give him the ability to meet each new threat with such remarkable resilience. No matter how many times the menacing proscenium pulls him off the stage, he always reemerges ready to perform another astonishing "feat of terpsichorean acrobatics." When the critic belittles his talents with derogatory questions about "hat tricks," Irwin responds by dropping his hat and executing a full front flip that miraculously finishes with the hat on his head. Following the stage manager's long-winded speech about the way in which "new theatre" demystifies drama by presenting costume changes in full view of the audience, Irwin puts his vest on backwards and upside down. He triumphs over both the vest and the tedious introduction with a dazzling double arm reversal that puts his vest right side up without his having to remove it.

Irwin's physical virtuosity wins the respect of the audience, but the attitude with which he presents his skills is what makes him funny. Undermining his talents with self-deprecating remarks about his insecurities, Irwin adds a modernizing twist of irony to old-fashioned slapstick routines. In "The Regard of Flight" the battle between the clown dancer and his wacky antagonists is set in the context of an avant-garde burlesque show. Irwin is not only trying to dance. He is trying to realize his vision of a "new theatre" that rejects the "cheap devices" and "empty polish" of the "bourgeois theatre." But at the same time that he is trying to create something new, he is sentimentally attached to the baggage of traditional clowning. He denounces the deceitful tricks of conventional theatre, but he can't resist the temptation to pull a rabbit out of a hat from his old trunk of props. As soon as the audience responds sentimentally to the furry creature, Irwin undercuts their reaction by revealing that the "bunny" is a fake. With episodes like this Irwin is shifting back and forth between two realms of theatre, getting visceral laughs with traditional gags and intellectual laughs by ironically dissecting them.

Source: Excerpted from ACROBATS OF THE SOUL by Ron Jenkins. Theatre Communications Group, © 1988.

Top banner photos: A close-up of Bill Irwin in white-face; Irwin in "Mr. Fox: A Rumination"; a scene from "Mr. Fox"; Irwin as one of his many personas.

Bill Irwin

Bill Irwin puts his broom to good use in "The Harlequin Studies."

Bill Irwin

In "Mr. Fox: A Rumination," Irwin inhabited the character of a celebrity clown who went insane.

Great Performances Shop

This program is not available on VHS or DVD.

Print this article
E-mail this page