He’s one comedian and actor who always let you know he was on the edge, that there was a dark sadness beneath the zaniness. In this memoir British comedian Alexi Sayle recounted how Williams had the ability to switch from comedy to pathos in a moment:
On top of that, there was another quality Robin used in his act which I had never seen deployed by a comedian before, but it was one that raised him way above the mainstream. That quality was poignancy. Poignancy and sadness. To see a comic who didn’t strive every second for laughs made me feel dizzy; I’d never imagined such a thing was possible.
Later, in Los Angeles in the early Nineties, when we were talking together about the technical business of comedy, he told me how this had come about. At the start of his career he found he could slay audiences with his manic energy, but 20 minutes later he felt they did not really remember him, that his act had not made a lasting impression.
…Robin had a character, an old man who would feed the pigeons and talk about what had happened before World War Three. They persuaded him to do some funny lines in this character, but then to play him for real: he shouldn’t worry about getting laughs, but instead should leave the stage during a quiet moment. It was an incredibly brave thing for a comic to do, to walk off in total silence. This sent audiences crazy and they did not forget him after that.
Later on, you could see in his movie career that he would employ the same switchback of emotions, slipping from crazed comedy to authentic sadness within a split second, to remarkable effect. But for me, his best performances were those where he accessed the gnarled, black little creature who lives in the guts of every comedian, the moments when he chose to play sinister: One Hour Photo and Insomnia are unparalleled studies in cinematic nastiness.
This article ponders the tension between joy and despair that seemed to drive all of Williams work–calling it a “tightrope dance over the abyss.”
Williams seemed aware of the dark forces that drove him on. Sayle writes, “Robin said of himself: “It is not a muse that drives you on…It is a demon!”
Oh, probably not a literal demon, but the dark inner forces that drive addiction, depression and despair operate on the soul like demons. They gnaw at the soul–worrying it as a hyena does a carcass. Those dark forces must have been the thing that drove Robin Williams to drink and drugs and finally into the darkness of despair and death.
Anyone who works with people has seen this same dark force eating away at people’s lives like a hideous unseen cancer, and anyone who has witnessed it can only have pity and offer prayers for deliverance for little else can shift the demon of depression and despair. When faced with a person suffering in this darkness there is no place for blame, attempts to “cheer someone up” or superficial efforts at explanations. When faced with real depression we are staring into the abyss.
In reading about Williams’ life I was glad to find a glimmer of hope. It turns out that as a child his favorite book was C.S.Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe,
He told how he would read the book to his own children:
“I would read the whole C.S. Lewis series out loud to my kids. I was once reading to Zelda, and she said ‘Don’t do any voices. Just read it as yourself.’ So I did, I just read it straight, and she said ‘That’s better.’”
Williams was the master of many masks and many voices. He said about his children, “They are the one thing in life that make me full of wonder.”
There in a moment of light his daughter said it all, “Don’t do any voices. Just read it as yourself”
Williams said, “So I did. I just read it straight, and she said, ‘That’s better’”
Let’s hope he has now become himself…become the little child that was always lurking beneath his playfulness, that he’s found his true voice, that his human failures and frailties might be forgiven, that the White Witch’s dark spell over him will be broken and that when he meets Aslan all will be gathered up into mercy.