January 7th, 2013

Richard Burton: writer, Welshman

Actor and world celebrity, twice husband of Liz Taylor, Richard Burton was also a prolific diarist. His diaries were published this past fall, and I recently got the book out of the library. It makes for interesting intermittent (or intermittently interesting) reading—a combination gossip column (its largest portion), chronicle of the self-destructive downward spiral of a gifted and intelligent man, and well-expressed commentary on literature and life.

It’s easy to forget how incredibly big the Burtons were in their heyday. They were among the first worldwide jet-age media megastars, and certainly the biggest among their contemporaries (Brangelina are pikers compared to them). I never quite understood the enormity of it, although I was aware of their considerable charms.

Burton not only had one of the most sonorous voices ever, but if the diaries are any evidence (and they are) he was extremely well-read and loved words and the thoughts behind them. He despised acting—and, to a certain extent, himself:

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 [Burton was 45 at the time he wrote this].

And unless I go back to England or the National Theatre in Cardiff etc. and slog away at the classics for a decade, that is the reputation I shall die with. “Will you ever go back to your first love, the theatre?” they ask all the time. “It’s not my first love,” I snap. The theatre, apart from the meretricious excitement of the first night and the sometimes interesting rehearsals has always bored me and reading scripts has always bored me…I do not wish to compete with Olivier or Gielgud and Scofield and Redgrave etc. as they are too ‘actory’ for my liking. Apart from occasional performances, few and far between, I don’t believe a word they say…They have splendid presences and are very hard-working and genuinely love their jobs. I cannot match the two latter qualities. And do not wish to.

What was the source of his angst? I don’t think anyone knew; as this TNR article about the diaries points out:

As Lee Marvin, his co-star on the wretched The Klansman, said: “The man’s suffering. Who knows what it is.”

Burton himself certainly didn’t seem to know; he notes in his diaries that although he drinks too much, he doesn’t even like drinking and doesn’t know why he does it. One clue might be in the fact that his father—a Welsh miner after whom the son was named (Richard Burton’s birth name was Richard Walter Jenkins; Burton was the twelfth of thirteen children)—was an alcoholic. Here’s a photo of them together, in Wales:

burtons

It’s hard to believe that the taller Burton (who was very handsome in his younger years) came from the loins of that particular father, although I’m not suggesting otherwise. Burton himself noted a tremendous resemblance, although I don’t see one:

[Burton's] father, Richard Walter Jenkins, was a short, robust coal miner, a “twelve-pints-a-day man” who sometimes went off on drinking and gambling sprees for weeks. Burton later claimed, by family telling, that “He looked very much like me…That is, he was pockmarked, devious, and smiled a great deal when he was in trouble. He was, also, a man of extraordinary eloquence, tremendous passion, great violence.”

Perhaps Burton was right about the resemblance after all.

It was the music of Wales that people heard in Burton’s voice—that, and his love for language:

24 Responses to “Richard Burton: writer, Welshman”

  1. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    Being of a certain age, I remember Burton and Taylor well. Each was an ‘A’ list star and together the whole formed was greater than the sum of the parts.

    Elizabeth Taylor was arguably, the most beautiful woman of her time and while she was a fine actress, that inner quality was shadowed by her outward beauty. While handsome enough in his youth, it was Burton’s inner qualities; that voice and his undeniably natural acting talent, which resulted in his fame.

    So each provided completion for the other.

    Alcoholism is self-medication that assumes a life of its own and self-destructive angst is the outward evidence of a need to wipe the psychological slate clean, literally to “be born again” and live life anew. Only Christianity purports to offer that palliative and those unable to invest the necessary belief cannot avail themselves of that remedy.

    Burton’s pockmarked face was the result of severe acne as a teen and while there is definitely a genetic component, severe acne results from unusually strong hormonal imbalances and great and unrelenting emotional turmoil.

    A ‘functioning’ alcoholic parent does not exist in a bubble, their family is greatly affected and the spouse is invariably co-dependent. That is necessarily impactive upon any children and the psychological make-up of the individual child will determine their psychological survival strategies. Denial and projection or escape and inner condemnation are all common means adopted in the face of an inescapable and intolerable childhood environment.

    Burton’s pockmarked face perfectly encapsulated the beautiful but very troubled soul of the man and that, combined with his undeniable talent and remarkable voice created a public fascination with a figure right out of a ancient Greek tragedy.

  2. Rich Says:

    I thought Lee Marvin’s comment was interesting, mostly because I think Marvin is interesting. I remember seeing his commentary on the DVD of “The Man who Shot LIberty Valance”. I don’t remember what he said but I do remember the impression he made : “This guy is a LOT smarter than I thought he was”.

  3. Steve Says:

    neo, are you attracted to brooding men? Steve McQueen was one. Richard Burton? How about Sean Connery or Josh Brolin?

  4. neo-neocon Says:

    Steve: I plead the fifth.

    But if I am, I wouldn’t be the only one.

  5. vanderleun Says:

    To really, really hear the “music of Wales” in Burton’s voice follow on w hat he does with Hopkins’ The Leaden Echo here:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=WhQwFf6Qb9U

  6. Steve Says:

    geoffrey britain, the twelve step programs are another approach to being born anew.

  7. peter horne Says:

    Vanderleun, good but I think this is better:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gToj6SLWz8Q&list=FLaebISTiASi0-TruTv6AlBA

  8. vanderleun Says:

    I have to say you are correct, horne. Thanks.

  9. George Pal Says:

    This may not be in keeping with the thread, Mr Burton, but it is in keeping with his better half (not a reference to his voice).

    Had Ms. Taylor’s striking face with violet eyes, and curvaceous figure with feline energy been blessed with a voice that had been born in Wales, as was Burton’s, she would have been lethal – I mean like, instantly lethal.

  10. Mac Says:

    Anyone who likes espionage stories of the more realistic variety should see The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, in which Burton stars.

  11. Paul in Boston Says:

    Neo @11:20

    If I weren’t happily married I’d offer myself up. Some of the local kids, and their mothers, think I look like Sean Connery.

  12. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    Steve,

    Through a close friend, I’m familiar with AA and its twelve step program. It can certainly be argued that successful immersion within that program has essentially, the same effect as a Christian believer having been ‘born again’.

    But experience and intuition leads me to perceive important differences between the two. AA strongly maintains that the alcoholic continues in their addiction, that there is no cure. The AA alcoholic seeks to merely abstain for today, as each day comes… hopefully maintaining sobriety through a lifetime of avoidance. The twelve steps are a program for assisting in attaining the goal of day by day abstention from drinking any alcoholic beverages.

    Evangelical Christianity speaks to a much deeper cleansing of a person’s persona. Self-condemnation is a powerful and unforgiving taskmaster but sincere belief in and acceptance of, forgiveness and absolution by the creator of one’s very existence creates a new, ‘officially approved’ sense of self-worth. The actual existence of such a creator is irrelevant to the psychological relief experienced, in this case, belief is reality.

    IMO, despite his heavy drinking, Burton was not an alcoholic and thus AA would not have allowed him to excise his inner demons. I suspect that religion offered no particular attraction for him and either he did not avail himself of therapy or it proved inadequate as well.

    Thus, once the youthful attainment of fame and Taylor’s love proved inadequate, all he could hope for was to hold his demons at bay, until time and age brought the dissolution he sought.

  13. Steve Says:

    geoffrey britain, the steps in AA are basically identical to those you describe for evangelical Christianity. It is set up for people who do not like the way the concepts are presented by organized religion. The idea behind repeating the steps daily is that ‘practice makes perfect.’ Making a decision once does not mean you execute it only once. How do you know if someone is an alcoholic? By how drinking affects their life.

  14. blert Says:

    For a truly Young Richard Burton — catch the Court Scene early in Olivier’s Hamlet. Utterly without dialog, Burton can be seen standing as “human furniture” (his term) leaning up against a column as the camera pulls back.

    Burton once stated that without Olivier’s patronage he would’ve had to go back to the coal pits. Those schillings kept him off the streets.

    It was from his apprenticeship wit Olivier that his love of English really bloomed.

    ===========

    And, so too, for Sean Connery.

    Not Olivier, but other acting dons, imbued him with a thirst for self-study into English literature. Until then, he was a light-headed model, knowing not much about anything.

    ===========

    After meeting Burton, Taylor also felt utterly ignorant. For the rest of her days, she benchmarked her intellect against the top actor-intellects of her era.

    ===========

    For those whose paths have taken that turn a harsh introspection always occurs. It’s extremely deflating to realize that one has welled up out of a stew of family poverty in culture.

    A distancing of communal bonds must occur. It typically leads to chronic self-dissatisfaction — and a thirst for compensation.

    Perhaps a good read — and a stiff Scotch is in order!

    Thence to an alternate youth in a fictive realm — all the better for one who is, and must be, an actor.

  15. waltj Says:

    Whether an alcoholic or not, Burton could still function when he didn’t have any “blood in his alcohol system”. Burton’s co-star Peter O’Toole once noted that neither of them was sober for a moment during the filming of “Becket”, one of my all-time favorite movies. I find it sad that, despite his evident intelligence, Burton seems to have had no insight into his self-destructive tendencies, or any apparent desire to change them.

  16. neo-neocon Says:

    waltj and others:

    There is very little question about it: Burton was an alcoholic.

    He was certainly aware that he had a drinking problem (although, at least in this clip, he avoids saying he is an alcoholic), and he tried to dry out several times, by various means.

  17. James Says:

    Neo a little off topic, but I think the Richard Burton (may have taken the name of) of the 1800s was far mor interesting.

  18. beverly Says:

    Dick Cavett’s wife was an alcoholic. I don’t know if she got sober or not.

    Richard Burton was an alcoholic if anyone was one. (It’s classic that he resists saying so here.) Geoffrey, I have to disagree with you about the nature of AA. The book “Alcoholics Anonymous” states that the entire purpose of the book is to help the alcoholic make contact with God, the only One who can deliver the sufferer from the affliction.

    The sober alcoholic’s sobriety, say AA’s, is “contingent upon the maintenance of his spiritual condition,” as there is still no human power that can control or cure alcoholism — only God can do that. So it’s really analogous to the battle we fight against sins: a daily contest armed with prayer, faith, and fellow-travelers (this isn’t to say that alcoholism is a sin, but some have called it a “low-level search for God”).

    AA would have been ideal for Burton. It’s wide open to all, including atheists and agnostics, most of whom, if they stick around, have a spiritual awakening. Many go back to their childhood faith, but understanding it on a deep level for the first time.

    W.C. Fields was asked by a good friend, when Fields was on his deathbed in the sanitorium, what he would have done differently in his life if he had it to do over: “I’d like to see how I could have done without alcohol,” he answered seriously. (He actually did try to switch from hard liquor to wines for a year, but was miserable; also, he didn’t develop the disease until well into adulthood. He was a world-famous “tramp juggler” on the vaudeville circuit, and didn’t dare ruin his timing or his fine-motor coordination.)

  19. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    Steve,

    The twelve steps are not identical at all. Evangelical Christianity (that sect that most focuses upon the born again experience) does not advise us to admit our “powerlessness”, much less that “our lives are unmanageable” (the first step). Nor does it require that we make a “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves”. Nor admit “to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs”. Nor make “a list of all persons we have harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all and make “direct amends to such people wherever possible”.

    That said, I agree that the Twelve steps are entirely in keeping with the Christian experience.

  20. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    Neo,

    What a wonderful interview, thanks for sharing it.

    I must disagree however that Burton was simply avoiding the admission of his alcoholism. IMO, his intuition told him that while perhaps a fine distinction, it was a real one. A real alcoholic cannot control their alcoholism, yet Burton did with it right in front of him, willfully abstaining during his Equs stage play.

    Burton used alcohol as self-medication to assist him in holding his inner demons at bay. I strongly suspect that Burton intuitively knew ‘in his heart of hearts’ that freed from his inner demons, he could easily walk away from booze.

    There are a multitude of alcoholics without any inner demons, and the more self-aware will tell you that from their very first drink they were hooked.

  21. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    beverly,

    I did not mean to minimize the spiritual component of AA. That said, there are many in AA, perhaps a slight majority, who do and have successfully maintained their sobriety while ignoring the spiritual component of AA.

    Perhaps AA would have been of help to Burton but I think not, primarily because I suspect that Burton’s inner demons had a strong but particular spiritual component to them. AA requires that we take a leap of faith, that if we act a certain way, in time the ‘proof’ of inner conviction will appear.

    Burton could not intellectually accept the very thing his heart sought; unshakable faith. It’s notable that Burton considered the clergy as an avocation when young and, his role in “The Robe” IMO provides great insight into his inner struggle. If I’m right, Burton sought emotionally undeniable proof of Christ’s (and the God he witnessed to) not just existence but his very presence.

    A condition btw, that is endemic in today’s world.

    But like so many of today, Burton needed the proof before he could invest in faith. The exact circumstance of the apostle Thomas, who could not believe without undeniable proof but who once convinced, invested himself totally.

  22. neo-neocon Says:

    Geoffrey Britain: I don’t know your experience with alcoholism, but you are drawing distinctions that are irrelevant and meaningless in terms of who is an alcoholic and who is not.

    Of course, there are arguments about these definitions. And certainly there are differences among alcoholics as to whether they are driven by “inner demons” or not. But Burton was an alcoholic, whether he could at times stop drinking or not (this is NOT the distinction between alcoholics and non-alcoholics; many of the former can certainly stop for periods of time, and some can even stop permanently without groups such as AA or other help).

    Burton stopped for a while but never for long. Alcohol wreaked havoc in his life. It also destroyed his health. He drank a prodigious amount, absolutely astounding amount. If you read his diaries, you will see that page after page after page describes destructive bouts of drinking—there are many runs of pages where the days’ entries have a single word: “booze.”

    The man was a tremendous alcoholic by virtually all definitions except his—and perhaps yours.

  23. Occam's Beard Says:

    I second James’s observation re the 19th century Richard Burton, who made Indiana Jones look like an Emily Dickinson shut-in.

    Re the thespian Richard Burton, I note that Welsh culture generally runs strongly toward singing, poetry, storytelling, and drinking literally stupefying amounts of alcohol.

    Drinking heavily plays a significant role in British (i.e., English, Scots, and Welsh) culture generally, but the Welsh are in a dead heat with the Scots for power drinking. (Not that the English are any lightweights; I had an English colleague who used to sit down with a fifth of Scotch, unscrew the cap, and throw it over his shoulder, because he wasn’t going to need that cap again.)

    Americans are teetotal by comparison; anyone here who drank the way that is common in the UK would be considered an alcoholic.

    Scandinavians used to do the same, but the government, trying to change that, taxes alcohol so heavily that it’s cripplingly expensive, but that only slows them down a bit.

    And, of course, Russians are also notorious drinkers. Interestingly, and probably significantly, the populations of both the UK and Russia have a considerable component of Scandinavian heritage (from the Vikings).

  24. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    neo,

    Having spent 4 years in the USN I’ve seen many and personally engaged in more than a few nonstop drinking bouts, lasting for days on end and have also known a number of alcoholics in AA as well.

    I haven’t read Burton’s diaries, so clearly you are more knowledgeable in that regard. Certainly what you describe would lead many to conclude that he must have been an alcoholic.

    However, IMHO it is not the quantity or frequency of alcoholic consumption which determines whether one is an alcoholic or not. Thus in my view, two different individuals can consume prodigious and equal amounts with one being an actual alcoholic and yet, the other not.

    And I believe the inner motivation for the drinking to be highly relevant, as I judge it to be one of the primary determinants as to whether someone is an alcoholic or not.

    I’m not stating this as fact, just my view, which may or may not, be a bit more perceptive in this regard than your view. Until more conclusive evidence emerges, such as the discovery of an ‘alcoholism gene’ and studies demonstrating whether all who consume prodigious amounts of liquor possess that gene… or a more persuasive argument arrives, perhaps we shall have to agree to disagree.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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