Couldn't live with fame, couldn't live without it
Michael Colganreviews The Richard Burton Diaries Edited by Chris Williams Yale University Press, 693pp, £25
The American poet EE Cummings wrote, “Progress is a comfortable disease.” On reading The Richard Burton Diaries you quickly come to realise that so too is celebrity. Throughout the book Burton continuously, and unconvincingly, reminds us of his loathing of fame while littering his journals with the celebration of that fame.
“Tomorrow we go to Rome, to accept Golden Masks, or Silver Masks or whatever, for being rich and infamous, I suppose. That’s a splendid fracturing bore to look forward to.” But, of course, they went, and the next day’s entry lists all the beautiful and the damned who were there, and how he and Elizabeth Taylor ended up drinking at their expensive hotel with Franco Zefferelli.
The Richard Burton Diaries, edited by Chris Williams, weigh in at a hefty 693 pages. In his introduction the editor tells us that he has left out more than a quarter of Burton’s words. I could have done with an even slimmer, more refined edit, and would have been especially happy to see the back of almost all the seemingly endless footnotes.
I certainly didn’t need to have it explained that Sorrento is an Italian resort, that Jack the Ripper was a serial killer or that “de Gaulle” might refer to Charles de Gaulle, former president of France. (Reviewer’s note: France is a country in Europe.) These cavils aside, I was fascinated to learn of the complicated and tortured life of a man who should have been the greatest classical stage actor. At the same time I was easily lured into wanting to be his friend.
Richard Burton was born Richard Jenkins, the son of a Welsh coal miner, in 1925. His mother, Edith, was a barmaid who died soon after giving birth to her 13th child. Richard was not yet two. He had not quite the silver spoon in his mouth, but what he had been gifted with was far better: a golden voice and, in time, extraordinary good looks.
What he described as his “daily scribble” in his diary was in fact something, rather typically, of an on-off relationship. His first attempts were in 1939 and 1940, when he was but a teenager: “Started school today. Played football in the yard. Went to school in the afternoon. Had an easy day. Stayed in tonight and started to read Martin Chuzzlewit by Dickens.”
Then he had a brief flirtation with 1960, followed by the main event, the period from 1965 to 1975. Here we find it all: the drinking, the spending, the loving, the hating, the self-loathing and the sheer torment of being Richard Burton, the lad from the valleys who loved literature and reading but was led into a life of adulation and excess because of the accident of those twin gifts. The young actor excited by the stage, the tired actor bored with film and, finally, the celebrated actor who didn’t want to act. “I loathe loathe loathe acting . . . I shudder at the thought of going to work with the same horror as a bank-clerk must loathe that stinking tube-journey every morning. I loathe it, hate it, despise, despise, for Christ’s sake, it.”