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'Richard Burton Diaries' Unveil A Theatrical Life


Richard Burton was one of the most acclaimed actors of his time.


MARTIN: But during the heyday of his career it was the drama of his personal life, especially the years he shared with Elizabeth Taylor that captured the public's curiosity. For the first time, the complicated details of that personal life are being revealed by Richard Burton himself. Burton was a lifelong diary-keeper. And a new compilation of all of his surviving journal entries have now been published in a book, aptly titled "The Richard Burton Diaries."

Chris Williams edited the collection and he joins me now from the BBC Studios in Cardiff, Wales. Welcome to the program, Chris.

CHRIS WILLIAMS: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: So let's get right into it and talk through some of these entries, which are incredibly personal and quite revealing. I'd love if you could just read a bit from the entry dated January 10, 1969.

WILLIAMS: Yes, this is Sir Richard is in Paris at this point. And he writes, E., meaning Elizabeth.

(Reading) E. was astonishingly drunk even as I got to lunch. I don't recollect her before ever being incoherent from drink. I expect it from the drugs she's forced to take but not from the booze. Christ, I hope she's all right. It would be frightful to live the rest of our lives in an alcoholic haze, seeing the world through fumes of spirits and cigarette smoke, never quite sure what you did or said the day before; or what you read whether wise or foolish, tardy or too soon.

(Reading) Good. I'm going to have a whiskey and soda right now. There are few pleasures to match tipsiness in this murderous world. Especially if, like me, you believe in your bones that it - the world as we know it - is not going to last much longer.

MARTIN: There are two themes in this particular entry that you see again and again throughout the diaries: the role of alcohol in his life, his abuse of alcohol; and really, the sense of fatalistic doom about the world that he's living in. Very heavy stuff.

WILLIAMS: Yes, they often are very serious and there's a sense of foreboding, and this struggle that Richard has throughout his life with alcohol - the temptations alcohol and what it leads him into.

MARTIN: There has been so much written about his relationship with Elizabeth Taylor. The two famously appeared together in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf."


MARTIN: How do these journal entries do you think shed new light, if any, on their several marriages?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think it's clear to anybody who reads the diaries that Richard loved Elizabeth Taylor very much; that it was a great passion. You know, it was a remarkably tender and loving relationship. There are certainly tensions and it's a turbulent and a horrid relationship, but she meant an awful lot to him for a very long time.

And I think Elizabeth emerges from the diaries as a very warm, loving and funny person. I think the diaries will only enhance her reputation.

MARTIN: I mean, it is interesting. In a book, a compilation of Richard Burton's diary entries, there are writings from Elizabeth herself. She actually wrote in his journals?

WILLIAMS: She did, particularly in the diary for 1965. And that's a diary that I think Elizabeth gave to Richard as a present to encourage him to write. And they were enjoying some weeks and months together at that time before they started making "Virginia Woolf," a kind of a honeymoon.

MARTIN: There are also some interesting revelations about his relationship with acting.


MARTIN: He was an actor for the ages, an actor's actor. Yet he had some kind of ambivalence about that profession.

WILLIAMS: Yes. He was uncomfortable with the status of acting, the idea that he was simply speaking somebody else's words. He had this tremendous interest in writing and scholarship. I think he really wanted to be an author of some kind. So just being a voice wasn't enough for Richard.

He also was unsettled, I think, by what he felt was the slightly feminine nature of acting; dressing up, putting makeup on, all that kind of thing. And you have to remember that he was from an industrial, working-class background. His father was a coal miner. All of his older brothers had been coal miners at one point or another in their lives. So Richard really admired coal miners.


WILLIAMS: So the...

MARTIN: It's very different than donning a lot of eyeliner for "Cleopatra," for example.

WILLIAMS: Absolutely.


MARTIN: And finally, I wonder what you think Richard Burton would think of making his journals public this way.

WILLIAMS: Well, I appeared recently at a literature festival in England with the actor Robert Hardy, who was a great friend of Richard's. They were contemporaries at Oxford University. And Robert Hardy very generously said that he felt Richard had always had a great ambition to be a writer. He'd never been able to realize that ambition in his own old lifetime. But now, 27 years after his death, this had been realized with the publication of these diaries. And he felt that Richard would have been delighted.

MARTIN: Chris Williams, he edited a collection of journal entries by Richard Burton called "The Richard Burton Diaries." Chris joined us from the BBC Studios in Cardiff, Wales.

Thanks so much for being with us.

WILLIAMS: It's a great pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.