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Richard Burton wore three hats on the 1967 film version of Christopher Marlowe's most famous play, Doctor Faustus, serving as star, producer and director. Although he didn't really enjoy the latter two roles, the project was a labor of love. It wasn't the chance to work with wife Elizabeth Taylor again. Her brief, non-speaking role as Helen of Troy is barely a footnote to her career. Rather, it was a chance to repay one of his first mentors, Oxford associate Nevill Coghill. Sadly, that act of largesse would ultimately tarnish his press image, as gossip columnists and critics began, possibly unjustly, calling him a real-life Faust who sold his artistic soul to the devil for money and fame.
The actor had only attended Oxford briefly in the '40s, but while there he had begged to try out for Coghill's production of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure even though all the roles were cast. The teacher would later call Burton's audition with Hamlet's famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy the finest performance of the speech he had ever seen next to John Gielgud's. Coghill was so impressed he cast Burton as understudy to the lead, who was soon called up for World War II service in the RAF. Burton went on before an audience of West End theatrical luminaries, including Gielgud and legendary producer Hugh "Binkie" Beaumont, and scored a triumph that would help launch his professional career.
Twenty years later, Coghill was planning to retire and asked Burton to star in a student production as a benefit for the Oxford Playhouse. At first, Burton considered either re-creating his performance in Coriolanus, hailed by many as his greatest role when he did it for the Old Vic's l953-54 season, or taking on his dream role, King Lear. But with the demands of his film career and his tangled personal life, Burton chose the shorter, though still demanding, title role in Marlowe's play, long one of his favorites.
Marlowe's The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus was first performed in 1594 by the Admiral's Men, with Edward Alleyn in the leading role. The play was both the first dramatization of the legends about a scholar who sells his soul to the devil for greater knowledge and the first play to deal extensively with demonic characters. As a result, it was soon the stuff of legend, with preachers claiming that actual devils materialized on stage during a performance. Stories also claimed that the production drove some actors and audience members mad and led Alleyn to devote his later years to charity to make up for his performing the play. Since then, the title role, with demanding soliloquies that open and close the play, has been considered a great acting challenge, with Orson Welles scoring a hit in a 1937 Broadway production.
For the Oxford production, Burton would be joining a cast of students that included future stage star Maria Aitken in the small role of Sloth. The only other professional at the time would be Taylor, who had agreed to appear as Helen of Troy, her first stage role (she had previously done a poetry reading with Burton, which marked her first time on stage). Although Taylor was then commanding a million dollars per film and Burton $500,000, both worked for free. They hoped that it would be the start of a new phase in their careers, with Taylor moving into stage work with her husband, who thought she had the makings of a great actress.
The Burtons stayed at the Randolph Hotel, a short walk from the theatre. That certainly helped him to focus on the play, as his busy schedule only allowed him ten days for rehearsals. The students were surprised at how accessible and down-to-earth the world-famous couple was. The press was less enthusiastic, delivering mixed notices for Burton's performance and denigrating his return to Oxford as a "spree." For some the comparisons between Burton, the acclaimed classical actor now devoting most of his time to film work, and Faustus, the man who sold his soul to the devil, were impossible to resist. Yet, for those who appreciated his performance, it was a chance to see a great actor, as John Crosby called him in the Observer, do wonders with a text worthy of his talents. The weeklong run certainly helped the Oxford Playhouse, bringing in $100,000 in grants. In gratitude, the school named the extension they built with that money The Burton-Taylor Rooms.
With the production sold out for its entire run, Burton and Taylor decided to film it, backing the production with their own money and funds they raised themselves. Burton would make his directing debut, with Coghill sharing the reins and adapting the script. Not only did he cut it to a more marketable length, but he added lines from other Marlowe plays like The Jew of Malta and Tamburlaine. Since the stars were already committed to film Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew (1967) in Rome, they decided to make the film there, importing most of the student cast and even giving a small role to Coghill. Burton enlisted Richard McWhorter, a production assistant on Beckett (1964) and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) to co-produce and assembled a team of designers who had previously worked on Cleopatra (1963) to give the film a rich look on a limited budget. Once again, they waived their fees, with all profits earmarked for the Oxford Playhouse.
When Doctor Faustus opened, however, most critics were not in the mood for charity. The film was derided as the Burtons' home movies, a personal indulgence for which they should not have charged theatrical admissions. Further, it fueled the popular misconception that Taylor was some kind of wanton woman who had seduced Burton away from a great stage career. Many critics gave their best reviews to the student actors, particularly Andreas Teuber, who delivered a memorable performance as Mephistopheles. Although the stars' presence had helped make their other classical adaptation, The Taming of the Shrew, a box-office hit, they could do nothing to interest audiences in a second excursion into the classics. The critics' negative view of the film prevailed as the team's later films, like Boom (1968) and Hammersmith Is Out (1972), proved to be among both stars' worst outings. Burton would never direct or produce again. In fact, he would not even return to the stage until asked to take on the leading role in the Broadway production of Equus prior to starring in the 1977 film version.
More recently, Doctor Faustus has begun to grow in reputation. The film's 2004 DVD release brought it a new, more appreciative audience. By that time, critics were ready to appreciate Burton's delivery of Marlowe's verse and the visual imagination of the production, which, as some pointed out, looked very similar to Roger Corman's Poe adaptations and Mario Bava's stylish Italian horror films, which critics were praising at the same time they hurled mud at Burton's film-directing debut.
Producer: Richard Burton, Richard McWhorter
Director: Burton, Nevill Coghill
Based on the play by Christopher Marlowe
Cinematography: Gabor Pogany
Art Direction: John DeCuir, Boris Juraga
Music: Mario Nascimbene
Cast: Richard Burton (Doctor Faustus), Elizabeth Taylor (Helen of Troy), Andreas Teuber (Mephistopheles), Ian Marter (Emperor), Elizabeth O'Donovan (Empress), David McIntosh (Lucifer), Nevill Coghill (Professor), Maria Aitken (Sloth).
by Frank Miller