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The Great Actor Who Hated Acting

Raymond Kleboe/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Richard Burton with his father, Richard Jenkins (center), at the Collier’s Arms pub in his native Pontrhydyfen, Wales, July 1953

The Celtic stereotype sustained a Romantic idea of Burton as a volcanic, instinctive, impulsive force of nature, a wild raider from the Welsh hills storming the citadel of well-mannered classical theater. The notion is a travesty: Burton’s genius is cold, intellectual, distant. In the review that marked Burton out as the coming man, Tynan wrote of his 1951 Prince Hal that he “is never a roaring boy; he sits, hunched or sprawled, with dark, unwinking eyes; he hopes to be amused by his bully companions, but the eyes constantly muse beyond them into the time when he must steady himself for the crown.”

Later, Tynan noted that when Burton alternated the roles with John Neville on successive nights at the Old Vic in 1956, he was vastly better as the calculating schemer Iago than as the fiery and emotional Othello:

The open expression of emotion is clearly alien to him: he is a pure anti-romantic, ingrowing rather than outgoing. Should a part call for emotional contact with another player, a contemptuous curl of the lip betrays him…. Within this actor there is always something reserved, a secret upon which trespassers will be prosecuted, a rooted solitude which his Welsh blood tinges with mystery.

That solitude was almost literal. He created a sense of being alone on stage, even when he was not. Burton’s image as a great lover is complicated by the rather startling fact that, according to Bragg, he “hated to be touched” and was “‘nerve-wracked’ and ‘full of the horrors’ on stage when he had to kiss someone.” In a television interview in 1967, Burton said that “I have to have space on the stage, a lot of space that I can move without being bothered by too many people.” This demand sounds arrogant and dismissive of his fellow actors, but it comes from something deeper—his ability to generate an inviolable ring of darkness around himself. He is vivid, active, commanding, but always slightly removed. It is the distance of an extraordinary self-awareness, of a man watching his own emotions, unimpressed. That “contemptuous curl of the lip” is for himself more than for others.

You can see it, literally, in the film of the 1964 Hamlet. The most breath-taking scene, an astounding passage of performance in which, even through the gauze of monochrome film, Burton’s greatness remains luminous, is actually about both self-contempt and the expression of emotion in theater. Hamlet has met the Players, who are to perform a play that will mimic the murder of his own father. The chief player has delivered a high-flown, emotional speech lamenting the fate of the mythic Trojan queen Hecuba. Hamlet reflects on the contrast between these manufactured emotions and his own inability to respond to the real-life murder, calling himself a “rogue and peasant slave.” How, he asks, can the actor simply switch on great torrents of feeling, “And all for nothing./For Hecuba!”

Burton’s enactment of this speech is mesmerizing, both in its self-hatred and its hatred for acting. He drags out that “Hecuba,” over a full five seconds, twisting it into a drama of utter disgust. He lifts it from the gutter with verbal tongs, and holds it up for us to see just how nauseating it is. He stops after “Hec” as if he can barely bring himself to speak the whole, revolting word, elongates the “u” into a terrifying sneer on which his lips turn down in that contemptuous curl, then lets the “baaa” out with a gesture of his mouth like the bursting of a bubble and the idiotic sound of a sheep. Look, Burton is saying, at what an absurd business this playacting is. And look, he is also saying, at how masterfully I am doing it.

Nor is this just a momentary trick—Burton carries it on to another word that is at the heart of the play. Hamlet, having decried the player’s ability to work himself up into high emotion, proceeds to work himself up into the same state with a recitation of his uncle’s iniquities culminating in the cry “O, vengeance!” At this point, Burton again does something extraordinary. He extends his right hand above him as though holding this vengeance in its open palm. Then he slowly turns his head to look at it, scrutinizing his own dramatic action with a look of wry amusement and cold disdain. With both hands, he waves it away dismissively as a ridiculous, pathetic charade. It is Burton’s own theater of the absurd, distilling not just the essence of Hamlet but the whole sense of futility that pervades postwar (and post-Holocaust) European theater.

The performance is riveting because it is self-destructive. It could only be done by a great actor who hates acting. Burton’s acting throughout the speech is physically and vocally stupendous. He barks and yelps and rides the words through vertiginous shifts of pitch and pace. His body twists and spins, now small and hunched, now large and open. Yet all the time he is looking at his own performance with pure derision. He is offering the audience a simultaneous demonstration on the power of heroic acting and commentary on its absurdity. What we see here is not a great actor who subsequently betrayed his art, it is an actor whose greatness is inextricable from his hatred of that art. It is a heart-stopping embodiment of the sentiment that Burton records in his diary: “I loathe loathe loathe acting.”

The most striking revelation of his diaries is that Burton’s sense of failure relates not to his unfulfilled potential as an actor, but to his thwarted desire to be a writer. It is literature, not theater or film, that truly absorbs him. He is intoxicated by language: “I am as thrilled by the English language as I am by a lovely woman or dreams.” He accepts a $1,000 bet in October 1966 that he will write a “publishable book of not less than 100 pages by Xmas this year.” Yet he knows that he probably will not do so: “I have so many books to write I will probably end up not writing one.” The voluminous diary itself demanded significant time and effort, and it is notable that failure to keep it up induces feelings of guilt: “If I didn’t do it I would feel guilty of something or other. So will slog away even though it is unreadable.” He never expresses the same feelings of guilt about not doing, say, King Lear or Macbeth.

Why does he hate acting? The answer Burton gives in the diaries is relatively simple: boredom. He was an intellectual, for whom the thought process behind it is much more exciting than the performance itself: “I have one disease that is incurable…I am easily bored. I am fascinated by the idea of something but its execution bores me.” Even with Hamlet, he is bored: “one’s soul staggers with tedium and one’s mind rejects the series of quotations that Hamlet now is.” He actually set about sabotaging his own performance. At one point, as he confessed in a subsequent article in Life, he began “To be or not to be” in German: “Sein oder nicht sein: das ist die Frage.” “This had little or no effect on the audience, perhaps just an uneasy stir, but all hell broke loose behind the clothes-rack, stage-left, where Hume Cronyn (Polonius) and Alfred Drake (Claudius) were eavesdropping on Hamlet.” According to Bragg, he inserted on different nights lines from Marlowe or played a “homosexual Hamlet” just to amuse himself.

Boredom, though, seems a small word for Burton’s affliction. For it seeped into much more than his acting. It is clear in the diaries that he genuinely loves the children of his and Taylor’s previous marriages, but he confesses too that he is bored by them. He is even bored of the sex he pursued so voraciously before his marriage to Taylor. “I myself have had in my time to make love in the dark to women by whom I was bored, desperately trying to imagine they were somebody else.”

Boredom is, in his own view, the cause of his prodigious drinking (this is a man whose idea of being on the wagon is that “I still allow myself a couple of drinks a day” and whose notion of a strict diet extends to a whiskey and soda before lunch, a few glasses of red wine with lunch, “two or three brandies after the cheese,” and “a couple more whiskies” before bed). His problem is that “I am fundamentally so bored with my job that only drink is capable of killing the pain.”

This pain is no ordinary ennui—it is that profound sense of futility that makes his Hamlet so gripping. Burton emerges from the diaries as, like Hamlet, a man who cannot shake off the idea of death—his own and the world’s. The void that surrounds him is the ultimate one: “Death is a son-of-a-bitch. The swinish unpredictable, uncharitable, thoughtless, fuck-pig enemy.” His motto might be the line of William Dunbar’s that he quotes more than once: timor mortis conturbat me (fear of death disturbs me). He writes that in his twenties he was convinced he would die at the age of thirty-three. He notes, at the age of forty-three, that “if I don’t watch myself I’ll be lucky to see my late forties.” But another entry suggests that he won’t be missing much: he believes in his bones that “the world as we know it, is not going to last much longer. This is the age of the abyss and any minute now or dark day we could tumble over the edge into primal chaos.”

Where this fatalism comes from is hard to say. Perhaps from what he calls the “murderous death-wish humour” of Welsh mining villages where the abyss was your place of work and death a constant threat. Perhaps from the experience of growing up with the mass destruction of the war, or from the apocalyptic strain of the Welsh Baptism that was his childhood faith.

Perhaps, simply and sadly, from the death of his own mother at the age of forty-four. Had Burton been as good a miner as his father and managed to hew from this huge seam of material the great autobiography he should have written, he might have discovered the source of the darkness out of which he drew performances of chilling power.

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