"private lives"

Published May 8, 1983





It would have been impossible, in 1983, for a production of Private Lives starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton not to reflect the off-stage drama of Liz and Dick. One of Taylor’s biographers wrote that the director, Milton Katselas, told the cast: “The audience wants to see Elizabeth Taylor,” to which Taylor enquired: “Do you mean Richard and I should play Private Lives like the audience is looking into our bedroom?” “Yes,” Katselas replied.

The reviews were not kind. “It’s the Taylor & Burton Show,” “The Private Has Been Taken Out of Private Lives,” “Oh-So-Public-Lives,” screamed the headlines.

In The New York Times, Walter Kerr, in a particularly unkind review, wrote, “I’m not going to make a federal case of Miss Taylor’s present physical amplitude,” and then proceeded to do so. Douglas Watt, in The New York Daily News, also used the word “amplitude.” A few of the reviews were kinder to Burton, who had played Hamlet on that Lunt-Fontanne stage 20 years earlier.

Brendan Gill, writing in The New Yorker, was a bit more thoughtful: “Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, though obviously miscast, manage to carry out most of Coward’s intentions in a fairly creditable fashion; it is even possible to say that their age and our knowledge of their personal lives, both together and apart, add a note of pathos to lines that, as written, were expected to be batted smartly back and forth like shuttlecocks by a couple of sexually nimble, moonlight-besotted 30-year-olds.”

Despite their feelings about the production, the critics seemed unanimous in their respect for the play. John Simon wrote that “Noël Coward’s Private Lives was one of the most coruscating comedies in the English language, and will be so again starting July 18, or whenever Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor are through playing it.”

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