Richard Burton: his place in an age confused about greatness

''You can't become a great actor nowadays; it's impossible. You aren't allowed to develop in peace. Public attention is too concentrated, too blazed, too lighted.''

One can almost hear the late Richard Burton, in the brooding and Hamlet-like intensity of the characters he so forcefully portrayed, speaking those lines. In fact, they come from a 1963 interview with Burton, recently requoted in Newsweek. Granted, he overstated the case: Great actors still arise. But he put his finger on a contemporary problem that goes far beyond the world of the theater: the uneasy relationship between greatness and fame, and the capacity of ''public attention,'' in its idolatry of fame, to destroy greatness.

The two are very different. Greatness, at bottom, is an inner quality, developed at the individual crossroads where talent and discipline meet high moral purpose and resolve. Fame is an outer thing, thrust upon those whose greatness achieves visible results. How one views Burton depends on which of these one chooses to emphasize. Focus on the fame, and one can dismiss him as a man who, missing some essential element of greatness, let his bouts with alcohol and his struggles with marriage take over his career. Emphasize the greatness, and one can see him, in Shakespeare's words, as ''a man/ More sinn'd against than sinning,'' whose undeniable potential for greatness was hounded by gossipmongers into mere notoriety.

How can we account for this loss? Given that fame has three elements - an individual, a public, and an information medium that brings the two together - the blame can be parceled out three ways:

* One can, of course, fault Burton himself for not resisting the self-destructive temptations of a life in the limelight. After all, some individuals, however great, manage to wear their fame lightly. But to stop at that sort of condemnation smacks of self-righteous tut-tutting - especially since the thirst for fame, like many other compulsive desires, seems almost to have an addictive quality about it that should call forth real compassion rather than cold criticism.

* The greater fault, it seems, must lie with the public's desire to intrude upon those who need to be ''allowed to develop in peace.'' History is freighted with examples of great men and women - authors, actors, painters, as well as thinkers, administrators, and statesmen - who were lionized by a public clamoring to see and know them personally. To acquiesce to that clamor can produce (as it did for Burton's hard-drinking countryman, Dylan Thomas) a kind of self-annihilating behavior that simply seeks to fulfill the public's expectations. Or it can produce (as it did for Ernest Hemingway) a long slide into self-parody, in which the artist re-creates imitations of earlier successes rather than building to new heights.

* Feeding this public fascination with personalities, however, are the media. The leftover element of the old-fashioned gutter press still hawks its tacky wares - probing into the gossipy detail of its subjects' lives while paying no attention to their ideas. The electronic media, especially in their talk-show formats, cater to a more upscale voyeurism. The latter, in fact, may be more damaging than the former. For where the written word lends itself to discussions of ideas, television focuses most naturally on outer appearance. Zeroing in on the bodily form - as though that were the essence of individuality - it can capture with great precision the offhand remark, the top-of-the-head analysis. But only through great effort can it penetrate to the structure of ideas - the inner thinking and feeling - that accounts for greatness. Result: The fame bubbles emphatically to the surface, while the greatness remains hidden.

And that, not surprisingly, hints at one of the characteristics of this age. The media treat us to an endless parade of people. We are asked to acknowledge their fame. But the reasons for their greatness often elude us. Small wonder, then, that those who would achieve excellence sometimes get sidetracked into mere notoriety. We don't really understand greatness. Nor do we respect its early signs enough to let it develop in peace.

Do we lack, as many believe, truly ''great'' leaders these days? ''The fault'' - and again, one can almost hear Burton reciting the Bard's familiar lines - may be ''not in our stars,/ But in ourselves.''

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