In From the Cold?

On Richard Burton

He fascinates me, this Welshman. In interviews later in his life, after he was confronted by the destructive nature of his behavior, not the least of which was his dependence on alcohol, he mentioned that he hated being an actor. He didn’t want to be an actor, but he was an actor. The biographical documentary referenced in the title of this post included interviews from those who were close to him; Mike Nichols, the director of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, said that Burton struggled, as a man who was an actor who didn’t want to be an actor, with a life of “seeming” versus a life of “being.”

“To be or not to be,” the soliloquy he mastered above all modern actors, was essential to him, Nichols continued. The speech, as you know, features the concept of rest, or sleep. Sleep, Hamlet intones, yes sleep. “To sleep, and to dream.” But what dreams? If you sleep in death, “what dreams may come when we shuffle off this mortal coil?”

When you desire to be anything–but anything–else than what you are, you desire to shuffle off this mortal coil.

His daughter mentioned that he was lonely, insecure. Another of his kin added that he was haunted by guilt for leaving his first wife, Cybil, for Elizabeth Taylor, which, in essence, destroyed his character, his “being,” later to learn that his younger daughter was intellectually disabled. Thus, he began to tell stories as a substitute for conversation.

Storytelling is a wonderful way to punctuate feeling, emotion, opinion; it can relate historical narrative of some import, but, eventually, the storyteller must emote and opine. To do so, one must become vulnerable; it is the result of an active will, requiring the trust of the hearers. If your hearers cease to be trustworthy, as happens to actors and their audiences, then you are hurt, deeply hurt. An actor, you see, is dealing with raw human experience–actors of the caliber of Richard Burton–and raw human experience leaves the actor equally, if not more, vulnerable. Thus, an actor (and anyone whose living is made by applying the stories told to hearers whose trust is required) must, eventually, isolate himself. Alcohol is a beautiful tool for creating an isolation chamber.

Alcohol whets the tongue, making it wag one story after another, such that opinion and emotion serve to punctuate the story, which is a measure of distance, however small or large, between the storyteller and its application. Nevertheless, the one who is the instrument for application of story deeply desires human affection–not affection per se, but affection for validation. With alcohol as a numbing agent and the perversion of storytelling as an insulator, human affection is fleeting, immaterial.

So he cried out, and no one answered. Such is the experience of the human breast: it cries out “Loneliness!” and no one answers. He looked, and it was emptiness.

Sally brought him tenderness, and brought out of him tenderness, and he died.

Did he thereby come in from the cold? What dreams come to him now that he has shuffled off this mortal coil?