So, ensemble assembled, rehearsals began. Katselas told Taylor to hit the lines hard. “The audience wants to see Elizabeth Taylor,” he said. “Do you mean Richard and I should play Private Lives like the audience is looking into our bedroom?” she asked. “Yes,” Katselas said. Katselas is a heavy breather, his interpretation that of a voyeur. What he wanted didn’t work. By the time the comedy lurched into the Shubert, the cast was getting mutinous, and there were Taylor and Burton, at rehearsal, banging the lines. For example:
AMANDA: I feel rather scared of marriage really.
ELYOT: It is a frowsy business.
AMANDA: I believe it was just the fact of our being married, and clamped together publicly, that wrecked us before.
ELYOT: That, and not knowing how to manage each other.
Burton, as Elyot, held the final moment and stared deep into the Shubert, rows and rows of empty seats staring back. “Pause,” he said dryly, “for a fifteen-minute laugh.”
And then came opening night.
The word, as it always does, started drifting into Anthony’s Pier 4, where the party was being held, that this performance was staggering, the single greatest night so far, a sublime triumph for Taylor, and that the audience had responded, according to Charles Cinnamon, one of the three press agents attached to the show, but “hooting and stomping and giving Elizabeth and Richard at least five curtain calls.” Cinnamon was being aided by Chen Sam, an Egyption woman who is Taylor’s close friend and press rep. Trained as a pharmacologist, Chen Sam had been summoned to Botswana just before the second Taylor-Burton nuptials. Burton had gone on a long drunk, contracting malaria, and Chen Sam was flown in to save him. She did, and stayed on the payroll.
“Doesn’t anyone want to talk to Burton?” Cinnamon asked a knot of reporters. Nobody did, so Burton disappeared upstairs. Much later, the great squawk of walkie-talkies—“She’s coming, she’s coming”—began, the local anchorwoman began to crank up, the lights came on, and there was Elizabeth Taylor in a black chiffon caftan and thirties wig, absolutely terrified. She made the expected remarks about how much fun she was having, all the while clinging to Bufman, who looked as if he’d just gotten some dreadful news, and then she joined Burton who was drinking a cup of black coffee, his hand defensively atop his empty wineglass.
Anthony of Anthony’s Pier 4 had laid on seven courses, six wines, gold plates, and a band. Elizabeth danced, her cognac diamond earrings—“a very old gift from Richard Burton”—bobbling. Back at the table, she ate lobster, smiled into her butter dish, and talked for hour with Joan Kennedy and costars John Cullum and Kathryn Walker. Burton was very quiet, his new girl friend, Sally Hay, next to him. Zev Bufman looked grave.
“I don’t know,” Richard Burton said. “People thought I was mad when I did Hamlet, too.” It was 1:30 in the morning and Burton looked desperately bored, so tired his features began to run together. He was trying to analyze what he was doing in Private Lives. “I think there is some fun in it for me, especially when I start inventing my own lines. You remember that bit in the third act when I scream at Elizabeth, ‘Slattern!’ Well, I’ve enlarged that. So each night, I hurl a string of invectives at her—‘Slattern, yes, and vermin too, and fishwife, nightmare, horror’—and then Elizabeth will scream them all back at me. That gives me a great deal of amusement, although Noel must be spinning in his grave.
“Yes, I’m playing to the lines,” Burton said, “going for the laughs, the double entendres. There’s no doubt about it. You know, you can kill a laugh as quick as can be if you want to, by just coming in rapidly on the next line or moving fast.” As Burton spoke, he looked over as if magnetized, staring at Elizabeth Taylor, who was staring at herself in a compact mirror, applying a coral lipstick over and over to her bottom lip. It was hypnotic. Her face was as determined as a child’s, the cylinder moving across 22 times. “Elizabeth and I know each other so well by now,” Burton said. “We know how to play people.
Which meant, he said, “that we are beyond caring what people think of our motives.” Burton’s motive is the desire to work, to avoid the dissipation that hit Barrymore at the end, to simply stay onstage, rehearsing and overrehearsing until he drops. He badly needed this job, and Taylor will always help her former husband out of a jam. “It’s all purposeful, what we’re doing,” Burton said. “We’ve even discussed the strategy of what to say when the inevitable dull question crop up about our reunion becoming a reconciliation. The set piece is all organized. Elizabeth pretends she hasn’t heard, and I say ‘Next question’.”