Long ago, when monarchs ruled supreme, they often had a “fool’ around to keep them grounded. Under the guise of jest, the fools were free to speak truth to power as nobody else in the kingdom dared. It was a hazardous trade. Go too far and you might end up in chains – or beheaded.
The tradition of the fool is maintained today by comedians like the late Robin Williams. They kiddingly show us our feet of clay and we laugh with them while – hopefully – being enlightened. Yes, I know, he was more than a comic. I saw “Dead Poets Society” and “Good Will Hunting.” But it is for his comic genius that he will be remembered.
In America today, comics are desperately needed. As real life becomes more unfair, more absurd, more hypocritical, Americans need to find relief – and understanding – by laughing at themselves.
Robin Williams’ loss leaves a gaping hole. Who else could have given us “Good Morning Vietnam”? Who else could be so believable as Peter Pan? As Mrs. Doubtfire? As any of the myriad masks he donned to show us the reality behind society’s many masks?
He dared to skirt the far edges of comedy and this risky business took its toll. Like Richard Pryor, whose lines he once helped to write (and like Lenny Bruce and John Belushi and a few others), he ventured into uncharted emotional territory. And he paid the price. For great comedy is fueled by great rage, and rage ultimately consumes you.
Especially, as it was with Robin Williams, when the rage is buried under a gentle and empathic persona. In such cases it is manifested as deep and dark depression.
Here’s how he described it in an NPR radio interview:
Do I perform sometimes in a manic style? Yes. Am I manic all the time? No. Do I get sad? Oh yeah. Does it hit me hard? Oh yeah.
Oh yeah. It hits you hard when you glimpse the underlying truths of the human condition. The sad truths. The depressing truths. The enraging truths.
So you find relief by sharing the truths, pretending it’s all a big joke.
It’s an old story – the story of the sad clown.
But nobody is laughing now. The world weeps for the loss of this great talent. Perhaps his passing will make us -some of us, anyway – take a little time to ponder the human condition.
At such times, I am reminded of “The Fool’s Prayer” by Edward Rowland Sill. Here’s how it ends:
The room was hushed; in silence roseThe King, and sought his gardens cool,And walked apart, and murmured low,“Be merciful to me, a fool!”
Rest in peace, Sir Fool. The world is wiser for your time in it.