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The Great Actor Who Hated Acting

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra, 1962

On the face of it, it is not much of a tragedy. A young classical actor promises greatness but is diverted from his path by the lure of easy money and vulgar fame. He ends up in unhappy affluence with his nervy, high-maintenance wife, his great voice now marinated in alcohol. Yet Eugene O’Neill made one of the great twentieth-century tragedies from such a figure: James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

Richard Burton would have made a great James Tyrone, and the public, which had become used to reading his private life into his performances, would have flocked to see him. Like O’Neill’s father James, the model for James Tyrone, Burton was a dark-haired beautiful boy with a wide face and a richly powerful voice.

Both came from obscure poverty and from the so-called Celtic fringes of the United Kingdom: Tyrone from Ireland, Burton from Wales. Both emerged suddenly and forcefully as actors with the vocal command and physical presence that would allow them to define the great Shakespeare roles for a new generation. Both succumbed to the lures of enormous wealth and inordinate fame. Tyrone’s trap was the endless money to be made from repeating his turn as Edmond Dantès in The Count of Monte Cristo, Burton’s the flood of Hollywood dollars that sprang from the equally long-running melodrama of his partnership with Elizabeth Taylor. For both men, critics developed an almost identical narrative, a secular version of the Garden of Eden. They ate the apple of temptation and were expelled from the paradise of great art.

Of James O’Neill, the real Tyrone, it was written that “he is reaping the pecuniary profit of his business sagacity, but it is at the cost of art.” Richard Burton noted in his intermittent but extensive diaries his weariness of the perennial question from hack journalists: “Have you sold your soul to the films for the sake of filthy lucre?” In June 1970, when he is forty-four, he writes:

Marvellous what the public and press will persuade themselves of. I have this marvellous reputation as an actor of incredible potential who has lazed his talent away. A reputation which I enjoy, but which I acquired even when I was at the Old Vic those many years ago.

The reference is to his hugely successful performances in Hamlet, Coriolanus, Henry V, and Othello in London between 1953 and 1956. Even when he was in his late twenties, he is suggesting, the mantle of James Tyrone was already being placed on his shoulders by critics and journalists. And as he writes elsewhere, “I wasn’t greatly taken with mantles.”

Burton noted in August 1971 that the moral tale of prostituted greatness is luridly attractive:

The press have been sounding the same note for many years—ever since I went to Hollywood in the early fifties, in fact—that I am or was potentially the greatest actor in the world and the successor to [John] Gielgud [Laurence] Olivier etc. but that I had dissipated my genius etc. and “sold out” to films and booze and women. An interesting reputation to have and by no means dull but by all means untrue.

By no means dull, indeed: in Burton’s case, the narrative of dissipated genius is a garish, Technicolor extravaganza, played out over two decades with Taylor as its ravishing costar; lit by a billion paparazzi flashes; diamonds, yachts, and private jets as its props and front-page headlines as its script. If Burton’s soul was sold, the price he got for it—a feast of sex with many of the world’s most beautiful women, torrents of money (in 1978, he wrote to his manager asking for details of how he and Taylor had managed to spend “something in the region of 30 million dollars”), and a long reign as half of the world’s most famous couple—makes Faust look like a sucker. Not for nothing, indeed, did Burton (in 1967) finance, star in, and codirect a film version of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.

There are three levels of fame. On the first, wherever you go, someone recognizes you. On the second, wherever you go, everyone recognizes you. On the third, someone recognizes you but no one can believe it’s really you. At one point, in September 1967, Burton wanders over to watch some locals playing soccer in a village in Corsica:

After about 1/2 hour somebody thought he recognized me and went excitedly to his friends. “Ca c’est Richard Burton c’est vrai, c’est vrai.” Fortunately nobody believed him and we were left undisturbed. There were many snarky remarks to the enthusiast on the general level of “What would Burton be doing in a shit-house like this?”

In fact, Burton knew a lot about excremental places. Twenty-seven years before this incident, we find, in the matter-of-fact diary of the fourteen-year-old Richard Jenkins (he later adopted the last name of his guardian and mentor Philip Burton) laconic entries: “Bucket of D.” “Went up Mountain and had a bucket of D.” “Fetched a bucket of D. There was another man up there but I was very keen today I could smell D. a mile off. This mountain is nothing but D.” “D.” is code for dung. The adolescent Richard earned money by climbing the mountains outside the industrial town of Port Talbot, scooping animal manure into his bucket, carrying it back down the mountain, and selling it to gardeners in the town.

The alchemy of Burton’s career is the transformation of dung into diamonds. There is a delicious moment in the diaries when he is reading in bed “and E. was around the corner of the room I asked: What are you doing lumpy? She said like a little girl and quite seriously: ‘Playing with my jewels.’” The innocence is as much his as hers: Burton’s idea of wealth—dressing your princess in diamonds—is a fantasy of childhood poverty.

He could never forget those origins. One of the more admirable aspects of Burton’s diaries is his refusal to relinquish his inherited detestation of the English ruling class whose entrenched privilege was the obverse side of Welsh working-class poverty. He appreciates the ironies of “Lord Millionaire Richard,” a tax exile in Switzerland, posing as an enemy of the Establishment, but the loathing and resentment are bred in the bone:

My hatred of Tories is unabated by long-term membership of the rich class, and I hope they howl in the wilderness for another five years…. No legislation they might enact…could ever make up for their intolerable air of superiority over us lot in the years and years gone by. I hope they grovel for evermore.

As well as the sex and the money, Burton’s Faustian bargain gave him the opportunity to reign over “those smug bastards” who had kept “us lot” (meaning both the Welsh and the workers) down for so many generations. Burton and Taylor were not just members (in some respects inventors) of the new aristocracy of celebrity—they were royalty. Burton, after his final separation from Taylor, almost married Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia. He had a thing for deposed royals. At one point, in May 1967, we find him with the duke of Windsor, formerly King Edward VIII, in Paris, sneering at the actual reigning monarch: “I referred disloyally to the Queen as ‘her dumpy majesty’ and neither the Duke or Duchess seemed to mind.” Burton and the duke get on so well together that they end up singing “the Welsh National Anthem in atrocious harmony.” The source of their rapport is obvious enough—both were monarchs without thrones.

In October 1967, Burton and Taylor went to England for the gala charity premiere of Doctor Faustus: “a nurse…presented E with a bouquet of flowers and if you please curtsied.” A curtsy is the gesture of homage and obeisance demanded of female subjects fortunate enough to be presented to a queen. “E and I,” Burton confesses, “were delighted.” The delight is not mere egotism. It is striking that the day after he records the incident in his diary, Burton lapses into memories of childhood. He remembers, for the only time in his adult diary, collecting dung and his “stinking green sweater”—stinking presumably of excrement and poverty.

That poverty was written on his face. One of the first entries in his adult diary, from January 1960, is “I hate myself and my face in particular.” Beneath the actor’s makeup, his skin was badly pockmarked from childhood disease. Kenneth Tynan, reviewing one of his best film performances in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, compares his face to “a bullet-chipped wall against which many executions have taken place.” Burton, in 1966, describes himself as “pocked, pimpled and carbuncled as a Hogarth.” Later, he calls himself “that thick graceless pockmarked man.” At a telling moment in 1970, Burton watches himself on television, playing Edwin Booth in Prince of Players, released in 1955. His Welsh friend Brook Williams remarks “that Ron Berkeley [Burton’s favorite makeup man] clearly didn’t do my make-up because my pock-marks were showing. E’s loyal little face tightened in defence.” Taylor’s defensiveness, and Burton’s gratitude for it, hint at a sensitivity that lies in this case not beneath the skin, but on it.

The very scale of the transformation from poverty to dazzling wealth and from obscurity to royalty makes the narrative of sold-out genius all but irresistible. It is not an unflattering narrative: to receive in return these rewards of women, wealth, and class revenge, he must have had a lot to sell. The corollary of the fabulous price paid for his soul is that it must have been a jewel as rare and precious as the notorious million-dollar diamond or the La Peregrina pearl he bought for Taylor at the height of their reign. He must have been, indeed, potentially the greatest actor in the world. This great genius ends up in the lucrative mediocrity of Raid on Rommel, The Wild Geese, and The Medusa Touch. It is, as Burton himself recognized, a great story. But could it be, as he protested, “by all means untrue”?

It is easy to suggest that this insistence is merely self-deluded. But his diaries are not those of a man afraid to take a harsh look at himself: “How dumb and boring I must have been for the greater part of my life”; “I am, I think, sublimely selfish”; “my acute sense of physical inferiority”; “I could have cut out my vile tongue with a blunt razor. From what twisted root did that bastard tree grow?”; “I do, of course, choose my moments well to shout at my wife, like after her father’s funeral.” He accuses himself of “savage ill humour,” “absolutely unstoppably filthy moods, insulting everybody left right and centre,” and “venomous malice.”

He writes of all the films he and Taylor had made: “a vast majority of them were rubbish and not worth anybody’s attention.” He is much more likely, in dealing with his fights with Taylor, to record his own bad behavior than hers. Conversely, the diaries are remarkably free of self-congratulation, either for his achievements as an actor or for his great generosity with money. There is enough self-criticism, even self-hatred, here for Burton’s dismissal of the narrative of sold-out genius to merit attention.

It is undeniable that there is, with Burton, some kind of void. The easiest way to make sense of him is to imagine that void in the most obvious way, as the great gap of unfulfillment between his fabulous beginnings as an actor and his ultimate destination in bad movies, alcoholism, and death at the age of just fifty-eight. But perhaps the empty space is a more profound darkness. Perhaps the point about Burton is not that he was a great actor who fell into a void. Perhaps the void was always there. Perhaps it was precisely the shadow, the darkness, the empty space around him, that made him such a potent presence.

There is a difficulty here: the idea of Burton’s potential greatness is based on his evanescent performances on stage, especially in Shakespeare. Raid on Rommel remains forever—Burton’s reportedly thrilling Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part I at Stratford-upon-Avon in the summer of 1951 is gone for good. We do, however, have some highly suggestive reviews and, remarkably, a “live” film of Burton’s Hamlet on Broadway in 1964. Both suggest not just that he was indeed an electrifying performer, but that the nature of his brilliance is utterly at odds with his extravagant public image.

The broad image of Burton the actor is one that fits well with the grand narrative of dissipated genius. It draws on another preexisting notion: the romantic Celt. As a cultural type, most famously constructed by Matthew Arnold, the Celt is everything the Anglo-Saxon is not: exuberant, imaginative, emotional, impulsive. The Celtic label is attached to Burton from reviews in 1951 right through to his posthumous official biography by Melvyn Bragg, who writes of his “Celtic lust for life,” his resemblance to a “Celtic hero,” and his “hammering his way through life like some Celtic demon.” Burton himself, in the diaries, refers to his own “sly Celtic charm” and “Celtic pessimism.” For journalists, of course, it was all too easy to bracket Burton with the Irishmen Peter O’Toole and Richard Harris as hard-drinking “Celtic” hellraisers, even though, in the diaries, Burton himself writes that he “despises” everything about the Irish in general: “their posturing, the silly soft accents, their literature…their genius for self-advertisement, their mock-belligerence, their obvious charm.”

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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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