Robin Williams: the darkness and the light were indivisible

This great actor’s death challenges set notions about success and creativity

Share

Fly! Be free! Most Americans of my generation will recognise this line of Robin Williams’, from the first episode of Mork and Mindy. Mork, the alien who came to America in a giant egg-shaped spaceship, discovers eggs in a kitchen. “Little hatchling brothers, you must revolt against your oppressors,” he tells them. “You have nothing to lose but your shells. Fly! Be free!” he ends, tossing an egg into the air, which promptly smashes on the counter.

Recalling this scene a few hours after awakening to the dreadful news that Williams has died at 63, an apparent suicide, it strikes me as apt that these words should have introduced the world to a comic whose great genius was ad libbing.

Ad lib, after all, comes from ad libitum: to speak at pleasure, at liberty. And it was in his early stand-up routines that Williams really flew and was free, liberating his frenetic, irrepressible verbal gifts.

“Let’s improvise,” he whispers at the start of An Evening with Robin Williams (1982), before offering a masterclass in extempore. Like all great comedians Williams was a jazz musician with words, working through a set comprised of notes and themes around which he could jam and scat.

He jokes in An Evening about having attended Juilliard (which he did), and before long he was flexing his acting muscles in films that conjoined his trademark verbal riffs with serious themes: Good Morning, Vietnam; Dead Poets’ Society; Mrs Doubtfire. At times he would still let rip into pure comedy, as in his show-stopping turn as the genie in Aladdin, but it isn’t surprising that he couldn’t forever sustain the energy needed for such manic performances. He began to speak openly about his problems with addiction and depression, and for many years explored “straight” drama, making Awakenings with Robert De Niro, Insomnia with Al Pacino, and winning an Oscar for his performance as a psychiatrist in Good Will Hunting.

I was in my 20s when that film came out, and it struck many chords with me; writing a PhD thesis about Sylvia Plath at the time, I was constantly parrying questions about why I chose to study someone so “depressing” as Plath.

But I didn’t find Plath depressing. Her story was tragic, certainly, but her art was not: her poetry is by turns raging, touching, funny; her novel The Bell Jar is about depression and suicide, but it is also a blackly hilarious social satire. Watching Williams pull back his comedic showboating into a gentle, wise performance, I wondered why we keep trying to divide artistry into darkness and light.

The shock of Robin Williams’ death has prompted a great outpouring of tributes, too many of which fall back on the cliché of the tears of the clown. But this is a false, simplistic dichotomy. Seriousness, intelligence, wit, and joy are not mutually exclusive from pain. All of the best stand-ups know this: Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Andy Kauffmann, and yes, Williams, understood how surgically close good comedy must cut to the bone.

We don’t find it odd that there is humour in Hamlet; Mark Twain used laughter to expose the poison of American slavery; Nabokov’s Lolita is the story of a sexual predator who is also hilarious; the book is so unsettling in part because our laughter prompts us to sympathise with a monster.

I have been working as a judge on the Man Booker prize this year, and nearly all of the books we longlisted are funny. I am not among those who think that comedy is less artistic (or difficult) than tragedy: I loved Robin Williams for being seriously funny.

This is all apart from the fraught question of clinical depression. It is disheartening, to say the least, to read (one hopes well-meaning) comments on social media asking what Williams had to be depressed about, given his wealth and success. Such questions are symptomatic not only of a profound misunderstanding about the nature of mental illness, which does not arise from external causes, but also of our society’s crazy faith in anyone finding salvation in money or fame.

Video: The death of Robin Williams

Depression is an illness that descends upon people irrespective of whether they are funny or successful. From the crucible of personal distress some exceptional talents can forge art: that is all.

At the end of Awakenings Robin Williams delivers a speech that has now acquired a terrible resonance, as his character explains that what seemed a miracle cure was no less a miracle for proving temporary: “Now we have to adjust to the realities of miracles. We can hide behind the veil of science and say it was the drug that failed or that the illness itself had returned … The reality is we don’t know what went wrong anymore than we know what went right.”

Put another way, we might remember Lorrie Moore’s wonderful summation of German philosophy: “Terrible world. Great sky.” These statements are not incompatible: they are the human condition. Some of us may even exult in the greatness of the sky all the more for having seen how terrible the world is. “About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters,” wrote Auden in “Musée Des Beaux Arts,” his poem about the fall of Icarus. All masters understand suffering: without it, there is no mastery. But they also know the joy of flying freely, ad libitum, and close to the sun.

Sarah Churchwell is Professor of American Literature at the University of East Anglia

READ MORE:
Robin Williams dead: Fox news anchor Shepard Smith apologises for calling actor 'a coward' after apparent suicide

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
British Prime Minister Tony Blair (L) pictured shaking hands with Libyan leader Colonel Moamer Kadhafi on 25 March 2004.  

There's nothing wrong with Labour’s modernisers except how outdated they look

Mark Steel
 

Any chance the other parties will run their election campaigns without any deceit or nastiness?

Nigel Farage
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee