THERE was an interesting
trajectory to the trailer that introduced William Ivory's big BBC4
drama, Burton and Taylor, this week. It was a story, the
announcer proclaimed, of devotion, divorce, destruction, and
That might be an effective
formula for drama, but it also tells us something about how love is
understood in contemporary culture.
The tempestuous on-off love
affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton was a celebrity
soap opera for more than two decades. She was "the most beautiful
woman in the world", commanding Hollywood's biggest salary. He was
one of the most celebrated Shakespearean actors of the day, with a
Welsh-burred voice like liquid gold. They were both married to
other people when they met on the set of the 1963 epic
Cleopatra, and became locked into an affair so scandalous
that the Vatican branded it "erotic vagrancy".
The fable was fed by the
extravagance of Burton's gifts of jewellery to Taylor - the Krupp
Diamond and the 50-carat La Peregrina pearl - as well as the excess
of their drinking and public cat-fighting, which, after ten years
of stormy marriage, ended in divorce in 1974. Notoriously, although
they couldn't live together, they couldn't live apart, either.
Later, they remarried, then re-divorced.
The BBC4 bio-pic joined the
story at their third reunion in New York, for a run of Noel
Coward's Private Lives, a play in which a divorced couple
meet by chance. Ivory's Burton and Taylor muse in an after-show
supper on the essential qualities of a marriage: passion, they
begin; then sex, they agree; then trust, Burton says. . . At which
point the conversation breaks down.
Taylor, in the play, offers
a masterclass in emotional manipulation. Burton is no match for a
woman whose skills range from little girl lost, through dumb broad,
to intuitive theatrical genius, woman wronged, and Machiavellian
schemer. Burton feels he can separate the personal and the
professional in Private Lives, but Taylor knows that the
audiences who bought $2 million-worth of seats before the play even
opened were hoping to see an on-stage reprise of the couple's most
famous film, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in which a
couple trade insults in front of their dinner guests. This was
theatre as freak show.
What is on offer here is a
view of love as something that never grows beyond romantic
infatuation. It is the default mode for love in popular culture,
where, once the rush of adrenalin fades, it is time to move on.
Taylor had eight marriages, one fewer than Zsa Zsa Gabor, who once
said to me in an interview: "People say I am promiscuous, darling,
but I never slept with anyone to whom I was not married. . ."
It is interesting to note
that Taylor and Burton had no children. Parental love is a window
into the many other kinds of love that develop when the thrill of
the chase is complete. "Where did my Anthony go?" Taylor asks in
the play, bringing fiction and fact into the confusion. "The
beginning of love", Thomas Merton, said "is the will to let those
we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them
to fit our own image."
Ivory's Burton concludes by
telling Taylor: "I love you and I always will. . . But, you and I,
we're addicts." To which she ripostes: "Love is not a drug." The
plays suggests that, to some people, it is. And that is a myth that
spreads far wider than one mad, bad pair of star-crossed
Paul Vallely's new
biography Pope Francis: Untying the knots is published by
Bloomsbury this week.