One among eleven children born to a Welsh coal miner, Richard Walter Jenkins, Burton assumed the surname by which he was to become famous when, early in his teens, he became the adopted son of Philip Burton, a schoolteacher devoted to the theater. Richard’s mother had died when he was two; he was reared by his sister Cecilia until poverty, family tensions, and the boy’s intellectual potentiality argued for the change.
After some obstacles, Burton spent a short period at Oxford, then proceeded into professional theater, abetted and encouraged by such actors as Emlyn Williams and Anthony Quayle. His performance as Prince Hal in HENRY IV Part I in the 1951 Festival of Britain Shakespeare Season won national attention.
Much of Burton’s strength rested in his voice, enhanced by a deep love of poetry and arduously developed under Philip Burton’s tutelage. More instinctive than trained in performance, Burton was easily bored by repetition. His interests were broad and his reading intense. The author devotes a considerable amount of attention to these pursuits while equally occupied with details of the actor’s four marriages, other sexual liaisons, and drinking bouts.
Burton’s feats in both areas were awesome. Alternatively, Bragg describes Burton’s life with objectivity and annotates escapades with the adjectival detail of generic movie star biographers. He abjures psychological inference, limiting himself to locating macho drinking bouts and sexual adventurism in the values and milieu of the 1940’s and 1950’s.
Burton’s largely unrealized ambition was to develop prose skills; he kept extensive diaries. Bragg secured this material, as well as unpublished manuscripts from Philip Burton. The most insightful writing in this book is Richard Burton’s: He viewed himself with unemotional clarity, and his descriptive skills evoke Welsh storytelling charm. One exemplary passage describes a Rothschild ball, another Alexander Korda.
In the last years of his life, Burton suffered, largely uncomplaining, from crippling arthritis, pinched nerves, and constant fear of epileptic attacks. These, along with Burton’s generosities as performer and as breadwinner for his extended family, are emphasized; they mitigate whatever reservations the reader may maintain toward Hollywood ostentation.