Doctor Faustus

In early 1966, the Burtons appeared onstage together in nine performances of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus at the Oxford University Dramatic Society. The Burtons agreed to do the play without pay, alongside undergraduates, in order to raise money for the Oxford University Theatre Appeal Fund. It was also in honour of Richard’s former professor, Nevill Coghill, the man who gave him his start in the theatre. Coghill was set to direct the play in his final year at Oxford. “Since he started me off I think I should finish him off,” cracked Burton.

Elizabeth appeared as the non-speaking Helen of Troy; Burton’s temptress. “I have never acted on stage before, so I’m starting the easy way. It’s a marvellous opportunity.”

The run was a massive success. There were more requests for tickets for the sold out show in The Times than for anything prior. Critics drew parallels between Richard Burton and the character he played onstage. Burton said of the critics: “As long as I feel (and I did) that the main body of my performance is right, I don’t worry too much about the notices. In fact I thought the ones I saw were quite good, considering that I’d only rehearsed for eight days. But I do think some people missed the point we were trying to make—about Faustus being a fussy, pompous scholar. They didn’t see the humour in the part. I deliberately played certain scenes for laughs, and the critics expected a great gaunt devil-man.”

The following year, Burton and Coghill would direct a screen adaption of Doctor Faustus with much of the same cast, including Elizabeth.