Can’t go home no more: An interview with Chris Williams, editor of The Richard Burton Diaries

BurtonForty-two years after Richard Burton played to Toronto audiences in John Gielgud’s Hamlet during its pre-Broadway run, Swansea professor of Welsh History and former director of the Richard Burton Centre for the Study of Wales Chris Williams was in town to promote The Richard Burton Diaries (Yale University Press, 2012). The book is his edition of the collection of Burton’s diaries spanning 1939 to 1983 that Sally Burton donated to Swansea University.

How does the image of Richard Burton presented in the diaries compare to how we tend to think of him?

I suppose even today, the dominant public image you get is of a womanizer, a drinker and someone who, although he was a great actor, sort of squandered his talent by too many rubbish films and alcoholism. And of course, there’s a fair bit of truth to all that. But there’s more to him I think. And you see that in the diaries. I think he is quite, intellectually, a deep person; he’s very interested in books, in reading literature and poetry and history and biography and politics. Acting is not really that interesting to himhe’s much more interested in other things.

How has your relationship to Burton changed through this process?

I came to respect him in the course of doing the work because I think he’s quite honest about his own failings and shortcomings, as well as about other people’s failings and shortcomings. And I don’t think he’s too pompous, given how celebrated he was, how rich he was. In the diaries he’s often quite self-deprecating. So I came to like him and respect him.

Of course I have to ask about the Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor romance. It was clearly passionate, yet tumultuousbut how would you describe it?

I think that’s right. I think it was a very deep and very real passion. Occasionally you’d come across the comment that Burton didn’t love Taylor, that he’d only married her for the money and the fame that it brought him. But I think it’s very clear in the diaries that he did love her very much. Alright, they used to drive each other mad, they used to fight a lot, and ultimately that kind of exhausted them. But it was a very genuine love, a deep love, and I think Elizabeth actually, probably, carried on loving him long after he’d finished deserving to be loved because of his behaviour.

Then there was that drinking problem they shared…

And Sally said to me, Sally Burton, that she got very cross [with Elizabeth] reading the diaries again… because at various times Richard was trying to stop drinking and Elizabeth wasn’t sharing in that venture. She was carrying on drinking and I suppose, well… they had a lifestyle that was somewhat destructive.

Do you have a favourite day in the diaries?

Well, I’ve got a favourite diary, which is actually the first diary, the schoolboy diary, because he’s not Richard Burton then, he’s Richard Jenkins. And he doesn’t know he’s going to become Richard Burton, he doesn’t know he’s going to marry Elizabeth Taylor, but you’ve still got this really interesting insight into the culture that he came out of.

In terms of a favourite day, one of my favourites—it’s in 1969—there’s a great passage where he’s writing about the idea that he could turn his back on it all. Could he go back to a kind of ordinary existence? And he ends by saying, “You can’t go back. You can’t go home no more.” And that’s, I think, quite a powerful piece of writing because of his ambiguity about the kind of life he ended up with.