Article Title

Bill Irwin's Clowning: Zany Labor of the "Physical Intellect"


Dave Peterson


Bill Irwin’s 1982 work, Regard of Flight, was greeted with critical adulation in New York, and marked the start of a long career as both a traditional actor and a clown/physical theatre performer. Critics praised both the innovation of the work and classic lineage of clowns from which it was born. Regard of Flight borrowed both language and performance-elements of the American avant-garde of the last thirty years, while also embracing some of the nostalgia often associated with the new variety and new circus movements that were coming to focus in the early 1980s. Irwin’s work innovatively combines elements of multiple traditions, and brings the often heady or theoretical concerns of the avant-garde into the comic body of the performer. Drawing on language from his early teacher, Herbert Blau, Irwin’s work is marked by a sort of “physical intellect” that uses the body as site to humorously expose mental tensions and labor. Irwin’s performance literally plays with the hard mental/physical labor of performing and innovating in the theatre. When this work is examined under the lens of Sianne Ngai’s theory of the zany aesthetic, it becomes clear that Irwin’s comedic clown show uses the mental/physical body to expose tensions not just around art making, but about working and innovating under late capitalism. Ultimately, Irwin finds humor in the unsettling threats to stable identity posed by social/economic conditions and expressed in post-modern theory.

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