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  • Bill Irwin's Clowning:Zany Labor of the "Physical Intellect"
  • Dave Peterson (bio)

When Bill Irwin frantically rushes about stage, missing cues and looking lost, everything is going just as planned. His hapless clown character always seems to be working hard, and coming up just short. Irwin's work came to prominence in the 1980s and was welcomed by many as a mixture between the rediscovery of traditional clowning practices and the innovation of these practices through use of contemporary ideas and techniques. As Mel Gussow put it in a 1982 New York Times review, "Mr. Irwin is the inheritor of a grand comic tradition that stretches back past burlesque and silent-film comedies to commedia dell'arte, but he is also very contemporary—and unique."1 Was all this seemingly frantic work a brand new kind of comedy, or just a return to the basics? In the same review Gussow goes on to state that "his face is animated and his body is elastic," he notes that Irwin makes the theatre "a circus," and he concludes, finally, that Irwin is "priceless comedy."2 Whatever Irwin was (and is), critics consistently characterize him as both funny and frantic. [End Page 1]

It is indeed this combination of funny and frantic that lies at the heart of Irwin's theatrical practice. And in being so funny and so frantic, Irwin positions his body as a physical site of the mental labor needed to innovate in theatre, and ultimately to create theatre at all. While this theme can be seen in many of his works, it is perhaps clearest in his early clown show The Regard of Flight, which self-consciously mocks the aspirations of the avantgarde's theatrical innovations, primarily through Irwin's uses of the body to showcase the physical and mental work essential to create something new.3 In thus making intellectual work simultaneously physical, funny, and exhaustingly laborious, Irwin exemplifies Sianne Ngai's contention that "the zany" has become a key category of American aesthetic experience, wrestling, as the aesthetic does, with the cultural imperative to constantly work and create, and with the effects of this imperative on a stable sense of identity.

This paper will argue that Irwin's humorously staged mental and physical labor in The Regard of Flight performs the stress and anxieties centered on contemporary theatrical bodies, even as his performance ultimately finds comic joy in the limits of the overtaxed performer. Irwin's performance is narratively and historically situated as taking part in theatrical innovation, but he frames this labor of innovation as bodily exertion. The framing of innovation as actual labor further allows Irwin to playfully invert the ways theatre itself often engages in concealing the very bodily labor that makes the art form possible. Ngai's account of the zany aesthetic helps position Irwin's expose as a response, not just to the labor of theatre specifically, but also to larger social concerns regarding the relationship between art and labor. Ngai argues that this zany aesthetic wrestles with the threat to individual identity posed by the contemporary worker's ever-present desire to execute the demand to always be producing; Irwin's performance reveals the particularly zany nature of theatre, as well as an alternative response to the anxieties associated with the constant demands of theatrical production—namely, a reveling in the limitations of theatre and performance. This paper will first orient the reader to Irwin's work and training before moving on to the theatrical contexts of the American Avant-Garde and New Variety performers in the 1980s United States. These movements are clear aesthetic and intellectual influences on Irwin in his first major work, The Regard of Flight. [End Page 2] With this context established, I will then turn to Ngai's analysis of the zany aesthetic, and argue that theatre is uniquely zany, and therefore suited to negotiate the anxieties over stable identity under late capitalism's demands to constantly produce.4 Finally, I will analyze The Regard of Flight to make clear the ways in which Irwin physicalizes acts of mental labor in his comedy. Bodily labor is shown as both essential to theatre and as an...


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