The news of Robin Williams death came like a punch to the gut. The beloved comedian and Oscar winning actor died Monday of an apparent suicide. He was 63.
As with many highly creative people, Williams’ rushing river of comedic genius masked a troubled personal life. He had acknowledged drug and alcohol problems dating to the 1970s. Major depression was cited by those close to him as a contributing factor to his suicide.
According to the Associated Press, Williams announced in 2006 that he was drinking again but rebounded well enough to joke about it during his recent tour. “I went to rehab in wine country,” he said, “to keep my options open.” The following year, he told the AP that people were surprised he was no longer clean.
“I fell off the wagon after 20 years and people are like, ‘Really?’ Well, yeah. It only kicks in when you really want to change,” he said.
Like so many before him, the laughter stopped once the stage lights dimmed. Williams was among the last to see John Belushi before the Saturday Night Live star died of a drug overdose in 1982. In August 1966, a similar fate befell comedy legend and provocateur Lenny Bruce. Up and coming comedians Mitch Hedberg and Greg Giraldo both had promising careers that met drug-related ends in 2005 and 2010, respectively.
Of course this is hardly a recent phenomenon. In his 1892 magnum opus, Ruggero Leoncavallo, showed the world this darker side of funny with the opera Pagliacci.
“Pagliacci” is taken from the Italian words Il pagliaccio which literally translate to “the clown.” It’s the story of a comedic troop caught in a love triangle. The main character, Canio, finds out his wife, Nedda, is having an affair with another man, Silvio.
As tragedies tend to do, Pagliacci ends with Canio in the pit of despair and anger. During the final moments of the opera, an enraged Canio stabs Nedda to death and then turns the knife on Silvio.
The murders complete, Canio turns to the mortified audience and proclaims the show’s famous final line, “La commedia è finita! – The comedy is finished!”
Somehow this line seems to capture the simple essence of Williams’tormented life and the lives of the other comedians likewise ended. Perhaps it is because Williams was so good at making us laugh, this terrible end is much harder to digest. It is not as though we didn’t know he had problems. He clearly drew on the profound internal sadness in films such as The Fisher King, Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting. In retrospect we now wonder how much of those roles were just a straight channeling of his own demons.
All this begs a question for our own lives: How much success does it take to be happy? Will one more bump in income, one more promotion, one more deal be the tipping point? When one of those things happens can we then make our own proclamation “now I’m happy” or is it more likely that one more upward step will just beget an appetite for another?
None of this is to say that we shouldn’t strive to be better — to be the best we can be. Rather, it is an admonishment to remember Robin Williams’ trajectory. He had all the fame and material trappings one could ever want. He was loved and admired by legions of fans. Yet, none of this was enough to keep him with us.
We may not have his fame, fortune or talent, but we each face challenges capable of eating us alive. Lest we sink to the sad ends of Williams and Canio, our greatest triumph is not from the world, but within ourselves.