A young man from Pont-rhydyfen, Wales, blessed with a sonorous voice, rugged good looks, and talent, Richard Burton seemed destined to succeed Laurence Olivier as the greatest actor on the English-speaking stage. He won acclaim in 1951 as Prince Hal in Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part 1,’’ playing opposite Anthony Quayle’s Falstaff, and went on to star in “The Tempest,’’ “Hamlet,’’ “Henry V,’’ and “Othello.’’
Well before Burton died in 1984, at 58, however, critics concluded that he had sold out to Hollywood. Despite receiving six Oscar nominations for best actor and winning a Tony award for playing King Arthur in the musical “Camelot,’’ Burton is remembered, if at all, these days, for his alcohol-soaked, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’’-like love affair with actress Elizabeth Taylor, whom he met in the early 1950s, and married (twice).
With the publication of this volume, Burton’s surviving diaries appear for the first time in their entirety. They have been edited expertly and economically by Chris Williams, a professor of Welsh history at Swansea University and former director of the Richard Burton Centre for the Study of Wales. Faced with the daunting challenge of identifying thousands of references (some of them cryptic, misquoted, or misspelled) to individuals, movies, poems, and books, Williams can be forgiven for an occasional error (he does not realize, for example, that “Joe Alcott” is actually newspaper columnist Joseph Alsop).
Burton emerges in these pages as a charming, complex, smart, serious, ardent, and depressed man. His diaries are filled with acerbic assessments of his fellow actors — and his own passions and peccadilloes. And they demonstrate that, although he loved applause and hungered for recognition (an Academy Award, and even more important, a knighthood), Burton’s first love may well have been neither the stage nor the screen nor maybe even Elizabeth, but “a book with lovely words in it.”
Burton is especially adept at probing, playfully and plaintively, the mysteries — and manifest unfairness — of his profession. A handsome actor, with a resonant vocal instrument, “his ambition still burning,” Burton writes, cannot fail to be frustrated when the audience prefers that “pockmarked man with a cracked voice.” Paul Scofield, after all, “walks like a pimp, . . . he’s elephant-arsed and thin-chested and minute-shouldered.” No one really understands a word Marlon Brando mumbles.
Even more impressive is his intellectual curiosity, the breadth of his interests, and the way he grapples with literature. Burton compares the “diffuse, urban and empty” prose of Ian Fleming’s “You Only Live Twice’’ with the “taut, spare, and agonized” style of “Miss Lonelyhearts,’’ by Nathanael West. What critics describe as Hemingway’s “harsh realism,” he dismisses as “gross sentimentality.” And Burton decides that the best way to engage Proust’s “À La Recherche Du Temps Perdu’’ is to read English and French versions side by side.
Burton describes himself as “idiotically listenable” — and indeed he is. Even when he’s realizing that his fights with Elizabeth sound like the squabbles of a couple in a cheap hotel, “20 years married and bored witless by each other”; or lusting for a double ice-cold vodka martini, “the glass fogged with condensation,” and opting instead for a “[d]isgusting” Tab.
Throughout his life, Burton searched for — and did not often find — “an hour of sweetly melancholy euphoria.” He would say, no doubt, that he had no one to blame but himself. For that — and much more — you can’t help liking him.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American studies at Cornell University. He can be reached at gca1@cornell