As is true with many great comedians, Robin Williams brought levity to dramatic roles but also an unexpected and deep sincerity. This harmony translated well to his performance as the inspiring teacher Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society, a film in which he teaches students at a snobbish 1950s all-boys preparatory boarding school to be free-thinkers and live life to the fullest.
Mr. Keating’s English class includes a group of gawky, bright-eyed students played by an ensemble cast including a young Robert Sean Leonard and Ethan Hawke. For a group of young men whose lives have been so severely regimented by school administrations and strict parents (who, in their defense, were raised in the lean times of the Great Depression), the suggestion of breaking the mold and making their own choices is intoxicating. “Carpe Diem,” Mr. Keating encourages them, “seize the day.”
Beyond his unconventional classroom antics, Mr. Keating informs the boys about the so-called “Dead Poets Society” of which he was a member during his own time at the Welton Academy. The Dead Poets were dedicated to “sucking the marrow out of life” (inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or Life in the Woods). Afterward, the students regularly escape from their dorms late at night to meet in the woods and share poetry, pipes, and dreams.
Despite its Academy and multiple BAFTA awards (saying nothing of its myriad of other nominations), Dead Poets Society can be a divisive film. While many love this chapter in Williams’ drama portfolio as an inspiring classic, others decry it as a shallow or reductive advertisement of the arts which devalues the critical skills earned in humanities degrees. While some criticism accuses Dead Poets Society of deliberately plundering classic literature for pithy sound-bites rather than appreciating the context or true meaning of the works, the film is rarely given the same courtesy.
Despite being set in the late 1950s, the film never makes the obvious allusion to the contemporary Beat generation, that literary movement popularized in post-war America which included many famous works including William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Later referred to as “Beatniks,” this group was eventually incorporated into the larger hippie and counterculture movements, but it started in academia, as did the group in Dead Poets Society.
Both the film and the movement share specific inspiration from W.B. Yeats for a “New Vision,” which was counter to the strict, formulaic conservatism found entrenched in academic institutions at the time, and from Romantic poets including Blake, Shelley, and Keats (the latter almost certainly being the inspiration for the name of Williams’ character). Furthermore, both the Beat movement and Mr. Keating’s students draw inspiration from the Transcendentalists of the preceding century, most notably Walt Whitman, whose image literally looks down upon Mr. Keating’s classroom like a “sweaty-toothed madman.”
The Beats and the Dead Poets lived in uncertain times. After half a century of war, recession, and rapid industrial advances, Whitman’s reverence for the natural world resonated with such young men as these. Not only was traipsing to the woods to indulge in the Romantics an escape from the regimented structure of their school lives, but it was also an escape from the physical manifestations of materialism and societal structure that the Beats openly criticized in works such as On the Road or Gary Snyder’s Riprap. Although they are now recognized as American classics, these works expressed a need for a life outside of urban progress or martial prowess that was considered controversial at the time.
Beat literature included experimental poetry which leaned on spontaneity rather than calculated verse, emphasizing the value of individual thought. While it draws much inspiration from poetry, the heart of the film lies in the thirst to broaden their horizons that Mr. Keating inspires in his students in the face of suffocating authority. In a retrospective interview honoring the 30th anniversary of the film, Hawke touched upon what was the real magic of Dead Poets Society:
“It remains one of the most significant days of my life—professionally for sure. It was the first time I really felt the experience of being an actor, where I could lose myself inside a story, and lose myself inside a collective imagination. [. . .] And Robin is such an inventive, alive, and awake human being to be near, that you never knew what to expect.”
Other criticisms of Dead Poets Society also tie them to the Beats. Primarily a movement for white, often educated and upper-class men (barring a few exceptions,) the Beat generation faced the same criticism of privileged exclusion as Dead Poets Society. The only female characters in the film are love interests and mothers, few of whom are given names or more than token lines. The suggestion that women could be given access to the acclaimed academic establishment of Welton is played off as a joke (Ring. “Mr. Nolan, it’s for you. It’s God! He says we should have girls at Welton.”) Even the generally free-spirited Mr. Keating warns Charlie that such a joke took things too far. The original female poets of the Beat movement, mainly wives of the founding members, faced similar barriers.
Furthermore, in a panel at the 2015 Austin Film Festival, Dead Poets Society screenwriter Tom Schulman admitted that the dynamic of Neil’s suicide did not translate well from screenplay to film, mainly due to attempts to make his father less categorically cruel. Many see Neil’s death as a condemnation of Mr. Keating’s message, or at least his methods.
Despite these criticisms and the tragic ending to the film — made all the more heartbreaking by Williams’ own suicide in 2014 — Dead Poets Society inspired 30 years of teachers and students to “dare to be extraordinary.” Mr. Keating uses poetry and his class as a medium to teach his students to celebrate their youth and inexperience rather than be silenced for it, to have faith in themselves, that they had something to offer outside of the strict plan that had been laid at their feet since they were born.
This emphasis on free-thinking mirrored the paradigm shift that was taking place in post-war America as people started to, more and more, question the status quo. The Beat generation is just one example of that American renaissance, which defined the era when people began to push traditional boundaries in both life and art.
“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering—these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love—these are what we stay alive FOR.”
— Robin Williams as Mr. Keating