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The final curtain

Richard Burton was born in a small village in South Wales, the son of a coal miner. From these humble beginnings, he rose to the highest pinnacles of fame. In a career spanning just over 30 years, he conquered all the main centres of the theatre and cinema world–the Old Vic in London, Stratford upon Avon, Hollywood and Broadway.

Af­ter his performances in the Shakespearian dramas – Henry V and Othello in the mid 1950’s there had never been any doubt, as Kenneth Hurren wrote in The Guardian, “that Burton was potentially the greatest actor of his generation.” His brilliant career was cut short on August 5, 1984, when he died of a cerebral haemorrhage in a Geneva hospital, at a relatively early age of 58.

He died with one cherished ambition unfulfilled. It had been his intention to play King Lear, a major Shakespearian role, in New York.

It had been his intention to play King Lear, a major Shakespearian role, in New York.

As he said in a BBC radio interview, he felt that this was a duty that he owed to Wales, his native land.

“I have to play Lear as a kind of obligation. I am, after all, the kind of authentic dark voice of my tortured part of the world, Wales and I have to play Lear because Lear is the only Welshman of any interest that Shakespeare wrote about. Lear, when he lets off steam, when he really lets go, is utterly Welsh. Hamlet is not. Hamlet is English but Lear is a Welshman.”

But, as Kenneth Hurren writes: “He had left it too late. Perhaps, given his state of health, even had he lived to play it, it would still have been too late.” (The Guardian Weekly, August 12, 1984)

This is true, not only of Richard Burton, but of all of us in this world. We enter the world from the most humble of beginnings. Dur­ing our lives, we rise to varying stages of power, wealth and fame. But, however much we achieve, there is always some cherished ambition that remains unfulfilled. The words of the Prophet Mohammad, may peace be upon him, ring entirely true in this regard: “If a person has two pits full of treasure, he will desire a third. The only thing that can ever fill him is earth. But God relents towards those who turn to Him.” (Bukhari) Only if we focus our ambitions on the world after death can our ambitions find fulfilment.


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