The world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.
Horace Walpole (1717—1797) English writer and connoisseur.
Letters “To the Countess of Upper Ossory” [16 August 1776]
There is no dispute that the actor Peter O’Toole, as matinee idol Alan Swann in the movie My Favorite Year said, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” However, which actor initially said that line, or a close variant of it, is disputed. Some believe it was Edmund Gwenn. Others attribute it to Donald Crisp. Still others believe it was Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean. No matter who said it first, that is a true truism, comedy is hard.
The two headed mask signifying comedy and tragedy has its origin in the theater of Ancient Greece. Janus, a two-faced Greek god is associated with them and the masks today are known as Janus masks. In modern theater, the masks represent two of the nine Greek muses who inspire mankind’s efforts The masks also have their origin in the ancient Roman theater, the Commedia dell’Arte, where masks were used to portray human emotions.
The tragedy mask is typically referred to today as Melpomene, representing the muse of tragedy and, earlier, singing. Melpomene and her corresponding mask are often pictured along with cothurnuses, raised boots that gave the tragic actor a higher elevation on stage.
The comedy mask is typically referred to today as Thalia (Thaleia), the muse of comedy and idyllic poetry and sister of Melpomene. She and her mask are often represented with a thin shoe worn by comic actors to lower their stature on stage, or an ivy wreath, since ivy was emblematic of Dionysus and was usually given as an award during ancient Greek theater festivals.
While performing comedy is hard, the easiest form of comedy to do is physical, a/k/a slapstick. In the Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper, Rick Groen describes the three levels of slapstick comedy:
Level One: This would be the Three Stooges take.
Guy walks down the street, slips on a banana peel, falls down goes boom.
Level Two: Compare how Chaplin would handle the same shtick.
Guy walks down the street, spots the banana peel, delicately steps over it, only to fall into an open manhole.
Level Three: What Mel Brooks Would Add to the Chaplin Version.
At the bottom of the manhole, cut to the crumpled tramp who, in the steep plunge, has broken his leg. He’s not us – we laugh. Then, at the top of the manhole, cut to a well-dressed voyeur who, rushing to gawk, has broken his fingernail. He could be us – we don’t laugh.
Robin Williams is one of the rare comedic talents who could easily do levels one, two and three, often interchangeably, immediately and seamlessly. The extent of his talent was such that he could do Stand Up Comedy
Television Sitcom Comedy
And perform at the highest levels of all of them.
But what made Robin Williams so great was that Robin Williams did think and Robin Williams did feel, at speeds and levels beyond the comprehension of us mere mortals. He could go from being Thalia to Melpomene and back to Thalia in a nanu nanu second.
To me, it is this Robin Williams that shows the man at his finest – Robin Williams, the humanitarian.
It was Robin Williams the humanitarian that made the other four Robin Williams above possible. It is what made Robin Williams so special. It is also what helped kill him, in my opinion.
That he was manic-depressive was well known and a source of his humor. That he abused alcohol and drugs was well-known and a source of his humor. But it was the depth of his feelings that made him extraordinary and tragic, because he could not escape them, just as he could not escape being Robin Williams, star funnyman, the man who always made the world laugh.
In today’s Boston Globe, Arts and Entertainment critic, Ty Burr, tells the story of his meeting Williams.
Speaking personally, I met the man only once, years ago and not in a journalistic setting, just in passing, the sort of random street encounter one gets used to in New York. I came out of my apartment for a morning run and started stretching my legs next to another jogger. It was a strange metamoment: We acknowledged each other with a good-morning smile, then I realized he was Robin Williams, then he realized I realized he was Robin Williams, and his face went dead, as though a steel gate had rolled down over his celebrity.
I didn’t take it to heart; when you’re so famous that people stop you 100 times a day, this is how you handle it. Yet I also felt I’d glimpsed something of the blue-eyed bleakness that could leak through the actor’s performances, no matter the genre. The sense that his comic genius and dramatic angst were the tip of an iceberg of sizable psychic pain, one he negotiated on a daily basis, until, perhaps, he couldn’t. There is something horribly modern to be read in his death, even as we’ll probably never know (nor should we) what drove him to suicide. Robin Williams acted out the farce and the tragedy of the man who cannot stop being aware of himself. He may someday look like a Kafka hero stranded in Hollywood.
In a way, Robin Williams was Mork from Ork. He was in this world, but not of this world. It was the pain of humanity that led to his comedy. It was his humanity that showed when he made the little girl, the patient at St. Jude’s Hospital, laugh, and why she responded so openly to him. He wanted to help take away her pain and make it his.
Robin Williams was an empath. He was everyman and a woman: Garp, Mork, the teacher, the psychologist, the nanny and the psychopath in the movie Insomnia. All humor is based upon the human condition, the comedy and the tragedy. That is what makes the best comedy hard because it is intertwined with the pain and agony of the sins of the world. The last item in Pandora’s Box is why we have comedy – to be able to laugh together hopefully at this absurdity and heartaches of life.
I know you are finally resting in peace Robin Williams. You were finally able to stop the pain of your humanity. But you leave behind the little pieces of yourself in our laughs and tears.
To end this article about the man who made us all laugh on a happy note, this is one of my favorite bits of Robin Williams performing all three levels of slapstick. To see us laughing at his antics is how this man would want us to remember him.