Theatre in Wales

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Book Review- Burton Biography Exhaustive and Exhausting

Actor Theatre Book

Tom Rubython , Myrtle Press , January 24, 2012
Actor Theatre Book by Tom Rubython “Of all the men that have ever walked the planet, it is probably true to say that Richard Burton between the years of 1948 and 1962, was the most attractive.” Author Tom Rubython’s monster of a biography has a flavour of hyperbole that is all its own. In these critical days a book's physical appearance is likely to be weighed up against the sameness of the e-book. “And God Created Burton” is a heavyweight. Seven centimetres thick it comes in at eight hundred pages. The publisher has not stinted on illustrations; one hundred and ninety-eight pictures follow the life from birth certificate to coffin.

Attitudes of biographers to their subjects vary. That curious writer Roger Lewis took on Anthony Burgess in 2002, despite having neither admiration nor affection for his subject. Tom Rubython adores Richard Burton. Or at least he adores one aspect. His book gives small hint of the Burton that Gwynne Edwards staged in 2010, the man whose most exalted moments were spent quietly at home in Celigny with his extensive library.

Previous biographers have done aspects of the life, such as acting. “And God Created Burton” does sex, and in detail. With one wife we learn that sex was over too quickly although the upside of the marriage is that she “added a great deal of value to him”. There is an unattributed tale of an act of infidelity on a wedding day- the book lacks any notes or sources. The author's laconic comment is “It was just how it was.”

Burton, along with Stanley Baker in early days, was no doubt a hell-raiser. In Rubython’s view “He could…use the ruthlessness of any a red-blooded male with absolutely no discrimination and zero emotion.” But this is speculation. No evidence is given as to whether he did or did not possess zero emotion.

“And God Created Burton” is a hymn to rampaging heterosexuality. “The 20-year flung herself into the arms of her 33-year-old lover. As she pressed her lips against his, Burton had no choice but to respond in kind.” No choice is to be had with all this sexy pulchritude on offer. One wife is “a very striking woman, who always made a brilliant first impression, particularly for those men who appreciated willowy, small-breasted blondes.” First wife Sybil meanwhile has a secret. “She was a very down-to-earth housewife in the best Welsh tradition.”

If the author stands to one side unmoralistically in the face of this sexual rampage he is not quite at home with gayness. The pre-eminent theatre producer of Burton’s first acting days is quickly sketched “a bisexual, his style was high camp…his personality was ideally suited to get on well with theatrical types”. Moss Hart, who married and had children, becomes “complicated.” Charles Dyer’s play “Staircase” (1966), a tale of two gays in middle-age, was of some significance in its time. Rubython selects a quotation from Rex Harrison damning the film. But he omits Burton's own view “This was one film I cared about...I loved its caustic wit.”

Rubython does not do sexual ambivalence and his characterisations do not do complicated. In Wales father is “a relatively worthless individual”, later “a 68-year old sozzled excuse for a man”. An early teacher is “a mediocre instructor who simply did his job and went home to his wife.” In Oxford Neville Coghill is “a very talented man”. In the jungle of the film world the poor director of “Sea Wife” is a “non-entity.” One producer is “a real duffer when it came to scheduling and logistics.” Walter Wagner, a number one Hollywood player, here is “absolutely hopeless and clueless.” Bond producer Harry Saltzman is Rubython’s kind of guy- “a rough and ready, shoot-first-aim-later Canadian.”

Rubython came to Burton via his 2010 biography of James Hunt with whom Burton shared third wife Suzy. The racing world is the author’s thing. “And God Created Burton” does not read as if he is much at home with theatre. “Look Back in Anger” is set in the Midlands but Jimmy Porter here is “heavily cockney-accented.” Theatre, a prelude to the film life, is for “culture-imbibers”. Christopher Fry gets a half-sentence. A young Joan Collins seeing “the Lady’s Not for Burning” gets paragraphs on end.

The dramatic virtues of Peter Shaffer's “Equus” can be debated. Here, it gets a single adjective “gruelling” and the narrative races on. Lee Strasberg gets a mention by virtue of being Susan’s father. But “where acting was concerned, the Strasbergs knew what they were about.” Angelo in “Measure for Measure” is “complicated [again] but the part was made for Burton who shared some of his characteristics- notably his sex drive!”

The research is prodigious and the details of childhood are treated at a length that no previous biographer has attempted. But there is small evidence that Rubython has seen a play or film. The judgements on the acting are cut-and-paste jobs from critics and former biographers. Just where the reader expects the authorial presence, there is a void.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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