In 1967 Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were at the height of their shared fame following the success of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and The Taming of the Shrew (1967). Both films were well received by critics and audiences loved seeing the two actors on screen together in fictional marriages that many assumed resembled their real-life marriage. There’s no doubt that the two actors brought some of their real-world experience to their roles but it became increasingly hard for the public to separate fact from fiction. Elizabeth Taylor had also become a target for critics and gossip columnists who insisted on labeling her a wanton woman and wicked home-wrecker, who had destroyed Richard Burton’s previous marriage and was damning the critically acclaimed stage actor to a decadent Hollywood life spent making movies and drinking too much.
Of course this was only half the story but unfortunately many people still think of Elizabeth Taylor as the woman who brought about Richard Burton’s downfall. And it’s not uncommon for critics to blame her for the couple’s many problems. The truth is that Richard Burton was a notorious drinker and womanizer long before he ever met Elizabeth Taylor on the set of Cleopatra (1963) and even if he hadn’t fallen in love with her, there’s a high probability that his previous marriage wouldn’t have lasted much longer. Burton had also been making films long before he met Taylor and the talented actor had expressed his desire to move away from stage acting and focus more on film acting. His high profile relationship with an award-winning star like Elizabeth Taylor gave Burton the opportunity to appear in better films and be more selective about the roles he took. Far from being the wretched shrew that so many critics and gossip columnists saw her as, Taylor was actually supportive of Burton’s stage work and used her Hollywood clout to help Burton gain more creative control over his acting career. Burton also encouraged Taylor’s stage acting because he thought she had the makings of a great actress who was capable of handling the classic plays that Burton had appeared in and had a deep affection for.
One of Richard Burton’s favorite classic plays was Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, which tells the cautionary tale of a magician who sells his soul to the devil for more knowledge and power. For years Burton had longed to play Doctor Faustus and in 1966 he got the opportunity to in a Nevill Coghill directed production of the play that took place at the Oxford Playhouse in England. It also featured Elizabeth Taylor in the role of Helen of Troy. Taylor had previously appeared on stage in 1964 with Burton during a poetry reading where both actor’s read the work of various poets such as Robert Frost and Elizabeth Barrett Browning but Taylor’s non-speaking role as Helen of Troy in The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus would mark the first time that the actress would actually be acting on stage in front of a live audience.
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