Jeremy Irons has just about done it all in his career.
He is one of only 23 people to complete the so-called “triple crown of acting,” winning a competitive Tony, Oscar and Emmy. He has voiced animated archetypes, from Scar in “The Lion King” to the bar rag at Moe’s Tavern on “The Simpsons.” And he has brought to life the words of creative giants from Shakespeare to Nabokov, from Lerner and Loewe to Leonard Bernstein.
One project that Irons has revisited repeatedly is the poetry of T.S. Eliot.
Irons was familiar with the poet — who today is perhaps best known for his whimsical “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” that inspired the musical “Cats” — but a more serious interest was sparked in June 2009, when he was asked to read part of Eliot’s masterpiece “The Waste Land” in London. In the audience that evening was Eliot’s widow, Valerie.
“She came up to me afterwards,” Irons told amNewYork, “and she said ‘I think you’re today’s voice for Eliot, I think you get him. I’d love you to read as much as you can of him.’”
And he has done exactly that for the past decade, culminating in the nearly 4-hour audiobook “The Poems of T.S. Eliot,” which will be released this week.
New Yorkers can hear the 69-year-old actor on Thursday at the 92nd Street Y, where he will read Eliot’s last great work, “Four Quartets.”
“I think they’re four extraordinary poems, trying to get to the center of himself, and therefore, as the reader, the center of us,” Irons said in a phone call from London, where he was finishing a run of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” which will come to BAM for three weeks in May.
“He realizes that it’s an imperfect method . . . words really cannot capture the place that he’s trying to describe,” Irons said, but “it’s the place I think that we try to get to through meditation, sometimes through religion, and I think it’s a very worthwhile journey for everybody.”
“Four Quartets” takes nearly an hour to read aloud but that investment is part of why the poems are so rewarding, Irons said, particularly today when “we’re surrounded by so much clutter, so much extraneous noise, distraction.”
His approach to Eliot is similar to his preparation for a play or a film.
“You look for clues as to why the character has been written at all,” Irons said, “why he’s been written as he is. You try to find what the writer was feeling as he put those words down.”
Eliot, who died in 1965, read his work in a low, uninflected drone which Irons says just doesn’t work for him today — “It’s too dry.”
Irons does not deliver the words as dramatically as he would say a soliloquy, but his mellifluous, trained intonation imparts subtle meanings and lends a cohesion that Eliot’s readings lack.
It’s a delicate balance, Irons said, between voicing what you feel the poem is saying without putting too much of yourself into it.
“Of course you know, who knows! You read it best you can,” he concluded. “You try to be honest to the writer. You try to do your best by him and not want yourself to shine. Because you are the instrument, not the thought.”
If you go: Jeremy Irons reads T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at the 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Ave., 92y.org, sold out.