The Great Actor Who Hated Acting

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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…

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