In remembering the artistic genius of Robin Williams, who died this week at 63, many of us will rewind in our minds many of his most memorable roles. Among them most certainly would be Mork, the alien who lands on “Happy Days” from the planet Ork; Mrs. Doubtfire, the elderly and utterly zany cross-dressing British nanny and John Keating, the English teacher at a stuffy New England boarding school in “Dead Poets Society.”
But one role that Williams played in 1988 in New York City’s grand Lincoln Center stands out as a poignant metaphor of his life. It was then and there that Williams teamed up with fellow comedian Steve Martin in a production of avant-garde playwright Samuel Beckett’s absurdist tragicomedy, “Waiting for Godot.” As Estragon, one of two principal characters waiting endlessly and futilely for the arrival of someone or something named Godot, the comedic and tragic sides of the actor’s own complex life intertwined and took center stage.
As the befuddled Estragon, Williams waited and waited and waited to find meaning to end the gnawing depression and anxiety of life. For Estragon, the end never came.
For Williams, the end came Monday, when he hanged himself with a belt in a bedroom of his San Francisco Bay Area home. In Williams’ real-life drama, tragedy trumped comedy.
AN APPROPRIATE TRIBUTE
In rightly paying tribute to Williams’ life, we must therefore not only focus on his gift of humor but also on the often unseen tragic side of his persona.
As a nation, we can best do so by committing ourselves to paying closer attention to the demons of anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses that fought for control of Williams — and millions and millions of Americans like him — and commit ourselves toward understanding the disease and ending the stigma, stereotypes and discrimination that too often accompany it even more brutally for those who lack the star power of the late great funny man.
Ironically, on the same day that Williams’ body was discovered, a special day of awareness on mental illness and its despicable side effects played out in the Mahoning Valley. On Monday, the National Association on Mental Illness arrived in Youngstown in its massive 31-foot-long recreational vehicle as part of its 2014 Anti- Discrimination Against Mental Illness bus tour.
NAMI came to the Valley to call attention to discrimination against those with mental illnesses. Discrimination or perceived stigmatization often leads to despair, shame, hopelessness and a smaller likelihood that the afflicted person will seek help. Too often, it leads to suicide.
As a nation, then, let Williams’ death serve as a wake-up call to commit ourselves to ensuring adequate resources and funding to effectively treat mental illness. That commitment has been sorely lacking, as Ohio’s $57.7 million cut from its mental-health services budget in a recent two-year period illustrates.
In our personal lives, we should resist any urges to shun — or, worse yet, mock — the mentally ill. Instead, we must reach out and offer compassion, understanding and a sincere willingness to help.
In so doing, the legacy of Robin Williams will transcend the many laughs he brought to so many millions. In addition, it could mark a turning point in this nation’s duty to muster up all available talent to treat depression, addictions and mental illness with all due speed. Unlike Williams’ powerful portrayal of Estragon at Lincoln Center, there is no time or no reason to wait any longer.