ME, RICHARD BURTON AND MEMORIES
When I was in high school in London, I had a big crush on the actor Richard Burton . (This was way before he betrayed my adoration by marrying Liz Taylor.) My best friend and I used to go across town to see him at the Old Vic Theatre; we did this for two years. Since this was Shakespeare in rep, he performed a number of roles -- everything from Hamlet to Sir Toby Belch. We saw all the plays multiple times, and lined up every night outside the stage door to get his autograph on the program. I credit this full-scale immersion in Shakespeare with getting me to choose a career in English literature. (No kidding, I could quote dozens of lines on the final exams!)
Sometime in my final year, the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas died, and our teacher told us there would be a memorial/homage performance of some of his work by Welsh actors and actresses at the Globe Theatre. I was not a fan of modern poetry at the time, but I'd go to anything that had Richard Burton on the bill. Burton recited "Fern Hill" that night, and although my friend and I couldn't understand its rich imagery at the time, we were brought to tears by the powerful emotion of the poem. (As Archibald MacLeish said, "A poem should not mean/But be.")
Fast forward too many years, and this week I bought a disk of Burton reading Thomas, including "Fern Hill." Wonderful, just as I remembered. But there was a bonus: To fill out the disk, the producers had included two prose readings from Thomas's work -- recorded at that concert. And somewhere in the audience laughter at Thomas's comic genius as rendered by Hugh Griffith and Emlyn Williams are the voices of two London schoolgirls. If I try hard enough, I think I can hear my younger self.