Potentially the most glamorously chaotic relationship to appear on and off the stage and screen, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s multiple marriages and torrid affairs are an iconic aspect of theatre and how romance can dominate the performances of much loved icons. Whether you recognise them as Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra or George and Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the couple had undeniable chemistry, tragically trapped in a relentless cycle of love and hatred.
At their first meeting, Burton appeared drunk and it was Taylor who held his coffee cup in order to help him drink.
The couple’s friend Michael Thornton wrote in The Guardian (2013) how Taylor truly believed from that moment onwards that the couple had forged an unbreakable bond. Through two marriages, and a multitude of affairs, their relationship was termed an ‘erotic vagrancy’ by the Vatican.
One can see how the couple always found themselves returning to each other. Known for their opulent gifts – the Krupp Diamond and the 50-carat La Peregrina Pearl, to name a couple.
Despite this it is their words to each other over the decades that give a true insight into their unique relationship, specifically a letter Burton sent to Taylor just after they signed their first divorce papers in June 1973:
“Never forget that underneath that veneer of raucous language is a remarkable and puritanical LADY… I shall miss you with passion and wild regret….Try and look after yourself. Much love. Don’t forget that you are probably the greatest actress in the world. I wish I could borrow a minute portion of your passion and commitment, but there you are—cold is cold as ice is ice.”
However, this was not a perfect love and while they filmed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the strained relationship between George and Martha was sometimes too close to home for Taylor.
Reuniting in 1983 to play Elyot and Amanda in Noël Coward’s comedy of manners, Private Lives, there was no greater role for the exes: the play explores a divorced couple reuniting before inevitably returning to their abusive ways. Although nothing was ever confirmed, t
here was much speculation as to whether the couple ever reconciled during the play’s run on Broadway.
Both married several times, Taylor seven times, and Burton five. However, their fiery relationship on screen and stage has gone down in theatrical history. Watching that compelling chemistry in the likes of The Taming of the Shrew and Antony and Cleopatra, their warring love undoubtedly brought a magnetism to their performances that some actors could only wish for.
Both beautiful, beloved and undoubtedly talented, their romance was one that influenced any production they touched and despite the brutality behind the public image, Taylor was buried with a love letter Burton sent her three days before he passed away.
Image: Kat Cassidy