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Raising ‘Hell’ In Dramatic Richard Burton Style

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
June 29, 2011

The week that Elizabeth Taylor died I was a guest at a dinner party where the notorious gossip of her life swung around the table at a dizzying clip. When the talk, inevitably, turned to husband numbers five and six –- Richard Burton –- I pounced.

All night I’d been waiting, wanting, churning to talk about Burton, to share my private obsession, and talk I did. After 10 minutes, by which time I’d not even made it out of the Welsh coal mine with Burton’s father, one of the guests cut me to the quick: “why are you obsessed with Richard Burton?” The roast chicken on my plate was getting cold and my wife was kicking me under the table, so I offered the shortest answer I could think of: “read Hellraisers.”

I’d received Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole, and Oliver Reed a few months earlier as a birthday gift from an old friend and fellow Burtonologist, but had approached the new book with enormous reservations. You see, Burtonologists know that the definitive story was written by the man himself in his posthumously published diary (Richard Burton: A Life.) How could any author improve upon the private confessions the most brilliant, charming, conflicted, self-destructive rogue of the century made in his own hand?

Yet, as I read Robert Sellers’ rollicking Hellraisers, my guard softened into the pleasures of a perfect three-minute egg: incomparably thrilling, satisfying, and delicious on the way down.

Sellers delights in channeling the horse-choking episodes of drinking, carousing, fighting, cocksmanship, and occasionally acting, that burnished the hellraisers reputations. In my reading and rereading and howling over one outrageous tale after another, I became enthralled by the book and Sellers’ enthusiasm.

Conceptually, Sellers’ inspired step was to free Burton’s legacy from the burdened isolation of fallen idol and make him the leader of a clan. The scenes depicting their affection, hero worship, and competitive hellraising for the trailblazing Burton bind the book into more than simply a collection of great drunks (which would be satisfying enough). They connect the flashpoints on a map from a lost and covetously exciting world. The four hellraisers were creatures of an unapologetic age unlike our own, bent on blowing away the ashes of World War II.

The hellraisers had a hell of a good time, and so did I drinking in Sellers’ musically colloquial and blokey prose toasting lives so different from my own. When I was through devouring the book, it wasn’t enough for me to have read it: I wanted to live it.

My Guilty Pleasure is edited and produced by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Lacey Mason. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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