Twenty-Five Years after Dead Poets Society

Feeling too much, seizing the day, and remembering the important stuff

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Twenty-Five Years after <i>Dead Poets Society</i>

I have little to contribute to the deluge of commentary and elegy for Robin Williams, but I’ve been revisiting a lot of the films and TV and books and music and performers that influenced me as a teenager. So I’m going to add a poet’s perspective on Romanticism, depression, Letting the Day Seize You, and one of my two favorite performances of Williams’ extensive, storied, really rather amazing career.

This article isn’t about Robin Williams. Not really.

It’s about unleashing your inner Romantic and living with passion. It hurts and it’s scary to be fully alive, and that’s why most people avoid it. You avoid it. I avoid it. (Sometimes, anyway.)

I believe people seeking help for suicidal ideation should have access to it. They absolutely should. That doesn’t mean I think every suicide is an act of mental illness, or even a tragedy. It’s just not that simple. There are people who are not psychotic, who are completely lucid, who are not going through a “phase,” who for reasons you might or might not understand do not want to live. People who desperately want to live are taken apart every day by things like cancer and poverty and violence. It’s not as simple as “depression is a disease and we can cure it.” And the tang of judgment and indictment around suicide (“Selfish.” “Weak.” “Crazy.” “Couldn’t ask for help.” “Senseless.” “Should have seen to it that it didn’t.”) is beyond unhelpful.

I learned this from the Big Crazy Obsessive teen love of my life, who made his final curtain call almost a quarter century ago, coincidentally a few months after Robert Sean Leonard played the brilliant, sparkling young thing who was bursting with potential and destined for the same appointment with the business end of a firearm in Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society.

The Maverick Mentor Who Changes Everything is a cinematic supertrope for a reason. It’s real. Many of us have had that teacher, and those who haven’t have missed a transcendent experience. In this case, the sorcerer is a rogue literature teacher named John “Keats” (ha ha) Keating, who has returned, in 1959, to his alma mater, an ultra-stodgy elite boys’ boarding school. His mission is to teach poetry to what must be the most poetry-resistant demographic on earth: adolescent males. And since there are no spoiler alerts on 25-year-old films, let me just say he succeeds.

It is an extraordinary performance by Williams. It harnessed his classic manic cokey verbal machine-gun-volleys and hilarious impersonations—restraining that impulse with the very control his character was urging his students to shake off. Granted, Williams had a long walk from the other end of the silent conformity spectrum, and Weir found the part of him that was quietly passionate and full of empathy (Gus Van Zant would find it again when Williams played Matt Damon’s shrink in Good Will Hunting) without descending to schmaltz. (Sentimentality was achieved a couple of times, but hey, sentiment is feeling, and that is what I am talking about.)

As John Keating, Williams exhorted his students to emulate Thoreau and “suck the marrow out of life.” He shook them up, demanding that they look at their ordinary environment from different perspectives (from the tops of their desks, for example) as he fed them Walt Whitman and Shelley and the Transcendentalists.

“You will turn cold and die,” he tells them. “Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”

Several of his students take that advice in whatever way they can—inspired by the ecstatic, the magical, the concentrated emotional intensity of poetry, they leap out of whatever constraints hold them: the conformist pressures of the school, the demands of wildly overbearing parents, the brick wall of lower socioeconomic status, the internal prison of extreme anxiety and shyness. They do things they never thought they’d do. They defy convention and authority. Marching orders. Personal demons. In a lot of ways, the punishment for that audacity is severe. Leonard’s character commits suicide after a peak experience playing Puck in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Williams’s character is held responsible and sacked. Some lives go back to “normal” but you know nothing’s ever going to be normal again. Everyone has been irrevocably changed. They understand the price of challenging the status quo, and they understand the price of never doing that.

Robin Williams probably knew better than a lot of people what it meant to be more emotionally alive than average—its privileges and its punishments—and that is doubtless part of what inspired his performance.

The first time I saw the movie, it was Robert Sean Leonard’s character, Neil Perry, who captivated me. Because he did a great job with the role but also because he was a doppelgänger for my suicidal high school boyfriend. Looked like him—the thick brows, the deep eyes, the thin angular shoulders. Had a nearly identical voice and manner. Flirted with acting. Had a really bad case of not-okay parents too. And shook, beneath a suave, perfectly mannered people-pleasing exterior, with a kind of seismic tension you knew would only end one way. The first time I looked at him, I had two immediate thoughts. That he was the most fascinating creature I had ever laid eyes on, and that he wouldn’t ever become an adult. I was thirteen. I saw it before I knew much of anything about him or what it would be like to be someone he called his girlfriend. There was a sense about him that he wasn’t all the way in his body, that something in him was trying to escape it.

When he succeeded, I mourned. But I never could bring myself to say I wished someone had stopped him. I wished he’d been equipped to live a longer life. He wasn’t. It was always going to go that way, and I think we all knew it.

Re-watching the film in the wake of a flood of commentary on Williams’s suicide, I was still spellbound by the way Leonard effectively suspended an image of my first love, now eternally 20, but of course I was watching, through new spectacles, the man who told his students to call him, “O Captain, My Captain,” after Whitman’s address to the liberator-President Lincoln. “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” he urges the class. The character’s passion for poetry and for inspiring others was palpable—Williams nearly always spoke on screen as if the words were boiling; he was like a human pressure-cooker, and this gave both serious weight and great levity to his performance in this role. He was believable. I believed him. There was always something hyper-alive about him, and I don’t think it was just his notorious affection for cocaine—he was like that clean and sober, too. In fact, it might very well have been the opposite—I didn’t know Robin Williams personally, but his public persona had all the hallmarks of a man struggling with the ecstasy and torture of feeling more keenly and deeply than other people. We are not all alike in the way we experience emotion—some of us feel more. Feel harder. Feel too much. Profound melancholy, intense giddy joy, bottomless grief. Some of us medicate ourselves to make it go away. Some of us write poetry. Some of us choose to die.

And it doesn’t mean you are giving up living a full life, necessarily. It can sometimes mean that you just burn hotter—and run out of fuel faster—than other people. Yes, Williams was depressed. He was dealing with addiction, heart problems and a Parkinson’s diagnosis. He was 63-years-old, older than a great many people who die of other causes than choice. I don’t think there is much question that he lived. And while I understand and share sorrow over his death, I have to confess I do not understand shock. “That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse,” he says from Eternal 1989-Land, quoting Whitman’s “Oh Me! Oh Life!”

Mission accomplished.

As for how the film holds up after a quarter-century—well, I still love it. We all need to be reminded that we have agency, choices, that we make our own worlds regardless of what tools or materials we’re given to make them with. That we don’t have to accept gray, mindless, forgettable lives. That we can each choose to be more alive even if that choice includes choosing death (and it sometimes does). As Dead Poet’s Society member Charlie Dalton, a supporting character played beautifully by Gale Hansen, intones one night to Beatnik drumming, “Laughing, crying, tumbling, mumbling / Gotta do more, gotta be more; Chaos screaming, Chaos dreaming, / Gotta do more, gotta be more.” The message of the movie is one of the eternal ones. Be the hero of your own play. Be the star. Carpe Diem, boys.

Amy Glynn lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her interests include pet psychiatry, Peter Gabriel, The New Yorker, Italian wine, Grant Achatz, the president of Paraguay, Federico Garcia Lorca, home beekeeping, and serendipity.