World Enough and Time

June 22, 1964, Lunt-Fontanne Theatre

'World Enough and Time' in 1964.

Elizabeth made her stage debut alongside husband Richard Burton in World Enough and Time, a $100 a ticket benefit for the American Musical and Dramatic Academy of New York (which was run by Burton’s mentor and adoptive father, Philip Burton). The evening of prose and poetry was held at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on June 22, 1964, where Burton was appearing onstage in Hamlet. Elizabeth was coached by Philip Burton for her stage debut for over two weeks, and although Elizabeth would use the aid of a microphone, Burton still taught her how to project her voice.

The title of the evening, World Enough and Time, came from the poem, “To His Coy Mistress,” by Andrew Marvell, which was recited by Burton—the first poem of the evening. Also recited were “The Snake” by D. H. Lawrence (Burton), “St. Crispin’s Day Speech” by Shakespeare (Burton), “The Ruined Maid” by Thomas Hardy (Taylor), “Three Bushes” by William Butler Yeats (Taylor), “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Taylor), “Twenty-third Psalm” (in English by Taylor and Welsh by Burton), and “My True Love Hath My Heart and I Have His” by Philip Sydney (Taylor). Also included were pieces by Edwin Markham, John Lennon, Eliot, Robert Frost, and Robert Browning.

Many of the poems, including Hardy’s “The Ruined Maid,” read by Elizabeth, were selected to poke fun at the Burtons public image:

And now you’ve gay bracelets and bright feathers three!
“Yes, that’s how we dress when we’re ruined,” said she.

Not to be left out of all the fun, Burton read T. S. Eliot’s “Portrait of a Lady,” which starts with:

Thou hast committed fornication,
but that was in another country…

Remembering the performance in her book, An Informal Memoir, Elizabeth recalled, “I found, after five minutes, that the adrenalin I’d heard about happened inside me. And all of sudden I became terribly daring, audacious, and I lifted my eyes from the page.” Elizabeth also wrote, “I’m not terribly proud of much that I’ve done as an actress, but I was proud of myself at that poetry reading. It was something I never thought I could do. I didn’t think I had the courage to face a live audience for the first time. I knew that eighty-five percent of them had come there and spent a great deal of money to see me fall flat on my face. Richard couldn’t really face practicing with me till the night before, because I think he thought I would not be able to make it.”

The evening proved to be a success, and the Burtons efforts were rewarded with a standing ovation from an audience that included Lauren Bacall, Dina Merrill, Hume Cronyn, Beatrice Lillie, Lee Remick, Montgomery Clift, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Alan Jay Lerner, Carol Channing, Patricia Kennedy Lawford, Jean Kennedy Smith, Anita Loos, Walter Wanger, Myrna Loy, Adolph Green, Mayor Lindsay, and Eunice Kennedy Shriver. World Enough and Time not only raised the needed funds for the academy, but Elizabeth was able to reach new heights as a performer. She also received praise in a number of backhanded compliments. “If she doesn’t get bad pretty soon people are going to start leaving,” Beatrice Lillie could be overheard saying. Even Burton said “I didn’t know she was going to be this good”. But she was, and she would be again many years later when she triumphed on Broadway in The Little Foxes.