ROBIN WILLIAMS: The Burden of Art

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Upon learning of Robin Williams’s death, most people on the web wrote posts and articles about that character they knew him for.  My comment on Twitter was how the person that was Robin Williams remained unknown to others, except in the characters he portrayed.  When someone of that stature dies unceremoniously and under unsavory circumstances, people bury themselves in the image even as they are constantly confronted with the fact that, when the lights go out and offstage, there is someone just like us who bears the burden of a life that is as large (or not so large) as our own.  “Thank God!  There is a break in the action.  I don’t need to be out there in Scene 2.  I can FINALLY use the restroom.”  I would like to write this post both for actor and audience, as homage to Robin Williams and all of us who assemble in the Arts for our learning and enjoyment.

I am a self-published author, who happened to produce a novel at a time when hard copy publishing was tanking and comic books became the basis of discourse.  And to my misfortune or fortune, depending on which direction the camera is pointed, I could not get anyone in the publishing field, agent or editor, to read past the first couple of pages.  It was fortunate because it toughened my skin, reminding me that I wrote that novel, A Feast Of Tears, because I thought it was a story that needed to be told.  The misfortune was that, however well it may have been written, unless an editor recognized it as something that could make money, it would never have the opportunity to find an audience.

Robin Williams found his audience relatively early.  The time was ripe for what he was doing and for someone with his talent.  Given his position in life, he placed himself well under the stars that lifted him to achieve his goals.  All very fortunate.  What he did not benefit from was what I learned from my misfortune, the durability of a thick skin and necessity to find other ways around.

I would like to tell you about the writing of my novel.  (This is a story that I have told many times before and is true.)  I could not take the writing seriously in the beginning because my early characters did not work, but additionally I did not completely understand the process of writing fiction.  I recall my main character, the damaged psychologist, constantly invading my consciousness and me constantly throwing him out of mind, until the moment when I thought, “What would happen if I used this character in the story I had been playing with, but had not thought I would ever write?”  What happened was that all the characters that had wandered through my head suddenly had a purpose.  They all had relations with him in various ways.  They all froze on the stage in my head and had important things to say to each other.  The interactions became so intense that I had to pay attention to them and little else.  It was also at this time that I explained to my wife, with whom I happily had had morning coffee with conversation for years, that I would not be able to talk in the morning, but that I could sit with her until the first draft was complete, which I estimated to be about nine months.  That’s how long it took by the way. When I was finished we resumed our old, happy morning ritual.

I am passing on this story to describe the level of intensity of most art, successful or not, in order to further reflect on the life of Mr. Williams.  Imagine what it was like for me creating and writing a story for nine months with all the characters taking residence in my head, where I normally would think about my daily experience, my problems, wishes, dreams, joys, and sorrows, an entire world of experience put on hold while I attended to their characters and situations that, until written, could not be seen or fully shared with others.  Most people would have to think you are a little nuts to even consider doing anything like that.  (Happily, my wife did not.)

Within this framework, I would like to present Robin Williams as I imagine him, in the verisimilitude of my mind.  You see, I had a cast of characters in my head that resolved themselves on a computer screen, electronic paper.  There was still a gap between me and them, however much I filled them with the force of my energy and effort.  Mr. Williams, on the other hand, would take a character, any one of his characters, each of which would resolve by entering him.  To entertain, he had to become them.  These were characters that didn’t just take over his mind, as they did with me.  They had to take over his feelings, his affect, his disposition, and his actions to achieve their resolution.  And at the end of this effort, when the character was fully realized on the stage or screen, the emptying has to be a lot greater because the actor becomes the lines and the action.  He would literally have to cast out the very thing he had worked so hard to turn himself into.  The emptiness would have to be profound, until another character in another world could be discovered and realized.  And let us not forget, this transitioning is to occur within the confines of a real life experience, that is, within the life of the real life Robin Williams who must be somehow suppressed to allow the character of invention to have a life of its own.

With this as a backdrop, I will respond to statements made in a couple of speeches that I heard when watching the Oscars over the years.  The statements were virtually identical and they were basically this: “We are the Stars, but without the writers there would be no story, no words for us to say, and it would sound like this.”  At this point, the presenter of the Best Screenplay Oscar would soundlessly move his mouth.  To which I answer now, if the actor can’t discover the character in the lines of the story and transform himself into that character, others will not be able to recognize that character either.  Most people need to see the drama these days because the effort of imagining the people and the situations they read about is too great or they don’t have the ability to recognize them on their own.  Even if they are able to imagine at this level, it is a wholly different experience to enter the story without effort by watching to more fully join with the drama.  To make that happen, people like Robin Williams make huge sacrifices of themselves, but somehow are required to snap back afterward to take on the trappings and burdens of their own lives again.  Under those circumstances, it has to be extremely difficult to have a personal compass to tell you who and where you are so that you can go back to being you.

In that spirit, I tip my hat to the Being and Soul of Robin Williams and to all actors who would put themselves through that transformation for our learning and enjoyment.

Cheers, Robin!  All the best wherever you are.

Your friend, Julian Lev, the psychsurvivalist.