Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Burdening and Unburdening of the Burtons

The Burtons, Richard and Philip
The actor Richard Burton was neither the first nor the last young man to benefit from the presumably chaste devotion of a presumably gay older man.
Until he met his mentor, the upper limit of advancement for this Welsh coal miner’s son was some job where your neck stayed clean (Burton’s was in a clothing shop, and he absolutely loathed it).
A handsome lad with a steady gaze, rugby-mad, a troublemaker in love with language and life, the teenaged Burton needed someone who might broaden his horizons. He found him in Philip, another Welsh coal miner’s son who was 20 years his senior, but one whose mother had propelled him into the University of Wales, where he’d earned a double honours degree in History and Mathematics.
A teacher and playwright and church organist, Philip also worked as a freelance writer, producer and actor on BBC Radio in Cardiff.
“He read deeply and liked his own company,” wrote biographer Melvyn Bragg in Richard Burton: A Life. “He used to tell (his landlady) Mrs. Smith that ‘a cultured person is never lonely.’”
Perhaps not, but this austere, tidy man — “38, formidable and, locally, not a little feared” — was missing something that he found in a restless, fearless boy with smelly socks.
“You could see that the ‘rough and fearless’ young rugby player, the suspicious street boy now, despite his pock-fretten skin, coming into a youthful handsomeness which men and women alike would call ‘beauty,’ would break like a wave on the serenity of Philip’s rock of scholarship,” Bragg wrote.
“Scholarship and sport and money and poetry: four of the things that mattered to the young Welshman, and something else he needed more: opportunity. He had been given and had himself taken an immense amount out of that mining culture. But his was still a subject class. He and Philip … conducted what could be looked on as some kind of elaborate courtship ritual which would result in his hurtling onto a world stage.”
Philip worked ceaselessly and for years to provide Burton with acting training and opportunities. Burton moved out of his sister’s home into Philip’s “spotless bachelor” quarters at Ma Smith’s.
Philip and Richard with Elizabeth Taylor
“When he was in school I gave him every chance I could to play before an audience, both in the school and in the local YMCA,” Philip recalled in his memoirs. “He loved performing. When he first came to live with me, he showed some envy of his young brother Graham’s success at the local eisteddfodau, the Welsh competitive festivals. I pointed out that his voice had certainly ceased to be soprano, but he pestered me to teach him the solo for the next eisteddfodau. It was Sullivan’s ‘Orpheus with his lute.’ One evening I reluctantly agreed to go back to the school and attempt to teach him the solo. (I was the pianist in the school assembly which began the morning)… Richard faced the nonexistent audience and so couldn’t see my reaction as he gave vent to excruciating sounds. At last, I could contain my laughter no longer. He turned on me in dumbfounded fury. Then he stalked out angrily, exclaiming, ‘I’ll show you. Someday I’ll show you.’
“And he did. On the first night of ‘Camelot’ on Broadway, on Dec. 3, 1960, I went into his crowded dressing room after the performance and he greeted me with: ‘Well, I showed you, didn’t I?’ I didn’t know what he was talking about.”
When they met, Philip’s name was Burton, and Richard’s was Jenkins. To get Richard into a six-month program at Oxford while he was an air cadet, Philip adopted Richard as his ward as a way of resolving what he called the “question-raising ambiguity” of their relationship.
That relationship remained as complicated as it was intense. In an interview with the Telegraph, Rosemary Kingsland claimed she had an affair with Burton when she was 15 and he was 30. She said she believed Burton was referring to Philip when he told her, “There was someone [who had] been in love with me for ages and I knew it. I played him like a fish on a hook to get what I wanted.”
On another occasion, she said Burton called Philip “…a bloody arse-bandit. If I wasn't sitting on it, studying all those bloody books he set me, he would have stuffed himself up it.”
“Richard had built up a deep anger within himself and much of it was directed at Philip Burton,” Kingsland said. “He never mentioned him with affection. There was always a feeling of angst or regret.”
Whatever the relationship was, it remained deep.
“In later years, he always referred to me as his father,” Philip wrote. “He told me that, when he heard in 1957 that his father had died, his immediate reaction was, ‘Which?’” 

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