Commentary Magazine

The Devil & Mr. Burton

The Richard Burton Diaries
Edited by Chris Williams
Yale University Press, 
693 pages

The cable channel Lifetime recently aired a made-for-TV movie called Liz & Dick about the stormy marriage of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The focus of the publicity was on Lindsay Lohan, who played Taylor; the posters made no mention of her co-star, Grant Bowler, or of Burton himself, save in the film’s title. 

One would scarcely guess that Burton, far from being a mere appendage to his superstar wife, had in fact been a world-famous actor in his own right, known not merely for his Hollywood films but for his work on the legitimate stage. Born in 1925, he was considered the greatest acting talent of his generation by most of the cognoscenti of the day. But now he is probably most remembered for his once shocking marriage to Taylor, for whom he left his first wife while filming Cleopatra in 1963 and whom he married and divorced and remarried and re-divorced.

Comparatively few of his 60-odd films are familiar to contemporary audiences, while the details of his legendary stage career are now known only to scholars and specialists. It says much about the latter-day diminishment of his fame that The Richard Burton Diaries, a newly published 693-page volume whose entries were written for the most part between 1965 and 1972, the years of his greatest fame, was brought out not by a trade house but by Yale University Press.

While many of the entries are candid to the point of brusqueness, they are in no way salacious, which may explain the lack of interest from commercial publishers. Indeed, what proves to be most interesting about them is not what they have to say about Burton’s love life, but what they reveal about the formidable intelligence possessed by this singular performer—and how it may have contributed to his professional downfall.

The diaries show that Burton was, after Alec Guinness, the most accomplished writer ever to become a film star. They are stylishly written and sharply observed, so much so that it is not surprising to learn that he made at least one serious attempt to write a full-length novel. In a 1970 entry, he confesses to having once “contemplat[ed] retirement from acting and writing instead—not for a living, not for money….I wanted to write because I sought for some kind of permanence, a cover-bound shot at immortality.”

Moreover, he was a constant and omnivorous reader, and few pages of The Richard Burton Diaries go by without at least a passing mention of whatever he happened to be reading at the time. His tastes were eclectic but not random, and he had hard-headed, well-informed opinions about the books that he read, which ranged from Edmund Wilson’s Europe Without Baedeker (“He talks about the overwhelming American influence on English writing…and writes more like an Englishman than almost anyone I know”) to Anthony Powell’s Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant (“His canvas is large but he stands a long way off and paints with a remote brush only in the corners and only miniatures”).

These opinions are expressed without any of the characteristic ostentatiousness of the autodidact that Burton was. Save when he is reminiscing about his youth, one would never guess from the entries in The Richard Burton Diaries that their author had only a secondary-school education (plus a six-month stay at Oxford after his wartime service). He was wholly at ease with his homemade learning, even though it set him apart from most of the men and women with whom he worked in the film industry, a fact of which he was uncomfortably aware.

Burton’s preternaturally low regard for his colleagues is another singular feature of his diaries. It is so pronounced that he is even capable of condescending to Laurence Olivier: “I love Larry but he really is a shallow little man with a very mediocre intelligence but a splendid salesman.” What soon becomes clear is that he thought most actors, Olivier included, to be uncultivated and ignorant—unlike himself.


Not only did Burton have little use for actors, but he disliked acting itself. More than a few other movie stars have felt the same way: Humphrey Bogart is reported to have said that it was “a silly way to make a living.” But Burton’s negative attitude toward his profession appears to have had deeper roots, and to have been more thoroughgoing.

Part of the problem was that the quick-witted Burton was easily bored and so found it hard to stomach the day-to-day drudgery that is an inescapable part of making a film. His boredom, however, went beyond mere detestation of being forced to sit around doing nothing for hours at a stretch. “I have been accused, quite justly, of being bored by films and indeed about and by acting generally,” he confesses. On another occasion he goes so far as to admit he lost interest in the stage role with which he is now most identified:

After a month of a run in a play I become suicidally bored, even with parts of infinite variety like Hamlet….Has there ever been a more boring speech, after 400 years of constant repetition, than “To be or not to be”?

Unlike Burton, most of the great classical actors have found that close acquaintance with the plays of Shakespeare reveals them to be (as the pianist Artur Schnabel liked to say of the Austro-German classics in which he specialized) “better than [they] can be performed,” and thus infinitely renewable. Burton, however, felt otherwise—and if, as he claimed, he found Hamlet “tedious,” one shudders to imagine what he thought of the films in which he starred, nearly all of which were second-rate or worse.

Might Burton, then, have been too smart to be an actor? Perhaps—but it didn’t matter. The 12th of 13 children of a Welsh coal miner, he had uprooted himself by sheer force of will from the working class into which he was born, and no sooner did he start making serious money in Hollywood than he began spending on a scale so lavish that he had no choice but to turn his back on the stage to pay for his pleasures (as well as to support the members of his extended family, to whom he remained loyal throughout his life). It was for this reason that instead of grappling with Macbeth and King Lear, he wasted the fleeting years of his prime slogging through such exercises in well-paid cinematic hackwork as The Sandpiper (1965) and Where Eagles Dare (1968).

As Burton grew older, his roles, with few exceptions, grew tawdrier, and he became known, like Olivier, for his willingness to do anything for money. He stooped so low in 1981 as to appear in Jules Dassin’s Circle of Two, in which he plays a 60-year-old artist who falls for the 16-year-old Tatum O’Neal. By the time of his death three years later, his artistic reputation was in tatters.


What is most ironic about Burton’s career as a film actor is that his screen performances were “stagey” from the outset, and became more so as he grew older. No matter what part he played, his dark-brown, large-grained, bass-baritone voice and physically standoffish demeanor suggested nothing so much as a tunic-clad orator who looked awkward in any other garb.

This is often the case with classical actors, few of whom have managed to establish themselves as top-tier movie stars, misunderstanding as they do the essentially naturalistic nature of the newer medium. They are presentational actors, accustomed by training and experience to addressing live audiences rather than communing with one another in front of an invisible camera, and on the rare occasions when they achieve renown in films, as was the case with Alec Guinness, Charles Laughton, and John Gielgud in his later years, it is almost always in showy character roles rather than as bona fide leading men.

Not until the very end of his life did Burton essay such roles, and only one of them, the torturer O’Brien in Michael Radford’s screen adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984), was noteworthy. As a result, he was rarely memorable on screen save in such more or less faithfully adapted stage plays as John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1959, directed by Tony Richardson), Jean Anouilh’s Becket (1964, directed by Peter Glenville), and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966, directed by Mike Nichols).

All this suggests that he was probably at his best playing classical roles on stage. Kenneth Tynan, one of the shrewdest observers of the postwar British theatrical scene, saw him in 1951 as Prince Hal in Henry IV and was staggered: “What he has done to Shakespeare is to abolish the tradition of vocalized word music, replacing it with something more personal—the sullen poetry of the soil.” But Tynan, who disdained the refined classicism of Gielgud, undoubtedly saw the 25-year-old Burton as a hypermasculine “angry young man,” a breath of fresh working-class air. Might he have been seeing what he wanted to see rather than what was there?

Fortunately for posterity, a complete public performance of the Gielgud-directed Hamlet in which Burton appeared on Broadway in 1964 was filmed for closed-circuit broadcast in movie theaters. A print of the film survives and was released on DVD in 1999, and while it leaves no doubt of Burton’s star quality, the film also documents the rantingly monochromatic quality of his voice and the naiveté of his technique. A purely natural performer who lacked the classical training that would have allowed him to exploit his inborn gifts to the fullest, he was in over his head as Hamlet. Gielgud himself admitted as much:

I tried to show him how the more relaxed scenes were placed, so that for instance he need not tear himself to shreds in the ghost scene, or other passages between the big emotional climaxes. But he never seemed to want to work with me alone….I felt he was, finally, something of a “Shropshire Lad” as Hamlet, and I would rather have had the opportunity of working with him as either Macbeth or Coriolanus.

This gentle but devastating appraisal cuts straight to the heart of the matter: Burton’s Hamlet, for all its explosive force, is at bottom self-conscious and sentimental, in the same way that A.E. Housman’s brooding pessimism was essentially adolescent. One might almost say that it is the work of a ham actor, albeit one of genius. Had he continued to engage with the classics, his genius might in time have overcome his lack of training—but it was not to be. After Hamlet, Burton never played another Shakespearean role on stage.


Orson Welles, another magnetic but limited stage performer who ultimately found it impossible to come to terms with the unique challenges of film acting, made the following observation in a 1982 interview:

There used to be a division of actors in France in the Comédie Française who were called King Actors. They weren’t necessarily the best actors; they were the actors who played the king, you know. And I’m a king actor…I have to play authoritative roles, but [François] Truffaut is quite right when he says about me that I always show the fragility of the great authority and that that’s the thing I do.

Something very much like that was also true about Richard Burton. In The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965, directed by Martin Ritt), the film version of John le Carré’s novel, he is asked to impersonate Alec Leamas, a shabby, disillusioned espionage agent who describes himself as a “seedy, squalid bastard.” But it is not possible to see him in that light, any more than it was possible to see him as Martin Dysart, the sexually inhibited psychiatrist of Peter Shaffer’s Equus (1977, directed by Sidney Lumet). For better or worse, he was born to play the king, and Hollywood in the 1960s and 70s had precious few kings for him to play.

Small wonder that Burton, who had started drinking to excess in his youth, became an alcoholic in adulthood. The very first entry of the diary that he began keeping in 1965 reads as follows: “Recovered from crapulousness.” He would make many more such entries in years to come. Having sold both his talent and his intellect short in order to become (as he put it in 1963) “spuriously, speciously, meretriciously successful,” he grew to loathe himself. The time came, as it always does, when he was consumed by that self-loathing, and drank to dull it, insofar as he could.

To read The Richard Burton Diaries is to watch its author’s disintegration up close. It is a sad and pitiful spectacle, one that is all the sadder because he knew exactly what was happening to him, and why. Whether or not Richard Burton was too smart to be a movie star, he was far too smart not to understand that he had willingly struck a devil’s bargain—one that he paid in full.

About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.

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