Freethought Almanac

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November 10: Richard Burton + Friedrich Schiller

Richard Burton (1925)

It was on this date, November 10, 1925, that Welsh actor Richard Burton was born Richard Walter Jenkins Jr. in Pontrydyfen, the twelfth of thirteen children, born to a hard-drinking miner. He took his stage and screen name from a schoolmaster who helped him enter Oxford, Philip Burton, and studied acting there.

Coming to the US in a stage role, Burton was "discovered" by Hollywood, and made a good impression in The Robe (1953). Back in England, he starred in Look Back in Anger (1959), then became a superstar as King Arthur in the Broadway musical Camelot in 1960 — winning a Tony Award — and as Marc Antony in the 1963 film version of Cleopatra.

Burton and his Cleopatra costar Elizabeth Taylor teamed for more films, such as The V.I.P.s (1963) and The Sandpiper (1965), Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and The Taming of the Shrew (1967). Later Burton films include Anne of the Thousand Days (1969), and Equus (1977 written by Peter Shaffer), and the title role in the 1983 TV mini-series Wagner. One of his most acclaimed stage performances was as Hamlet, which was preserved on film, and the title role in the film version of the play Becket — both in 1964.

Burton's reputation as a drinker and womanizer was well deserved and actually welcomed by the actor. He died 5 August 1984 before filming a sequel to The Wild Geese in Switzerland; Burton was buried with a copy of the Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas. He and Becket co-star Peter O'Toole hold the record for the most Oscar nominations... without a win.

On religion, Richard Burton wrote this in his diary in 1969:

"The more I read about man and his maniacal ruthlessness and his murderous envious scatological soul, the more I realize that he will never change. Our stupidity is immortal, nothing will change it. The same mistakes, the same prejudices, the same injustice, the same lusts wheel endlessly around the parade ground of the centuries. Immutable and ineluctable. I wish I could believe in a god of some kind but I simply cannot."*

* Citation missing

Friedrich von Schiller (1759)

It was also on this date, November 10, 1759, that Germany's second-greatest poet (after Goethe), Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller, was born in Marbach, Württemberg, of pious Lutheran parents. Rather than study theology, Schiller went to military school, but was dismissed for writing an essay critical of religion (On the Relation Between Man's Animal and Spiritual Nature).

His first play, The Robbers (Die Räuber, 1781), won admiration across Europe for its praise of liberty. The theme ran through most of his plays and poems, especially in William Tell (1803). Among Schiller's best-known works is the Ode to Joy, (An Die Freude), which was memorably set to music by Beethoven in his Choral Symphony (Symphony #9).

It was Schiller's Don Carlos (1787) that prompted an invitation from Goethe to visit him in Jena, where he adopted an aggressive Rationalism. In their Musenalmanach they created a series of penetrating epigrams in the style of Martial, called Die Xenien, which attacked the churches and all other "Philistines" — that is, critics generally.

Schiller died on May 9, 1805, at the age of 46 in Weimar. It was Friedrich von Schiller who said, "A healthy nature needs no God or immortality. There must be a morality which suffices without this faith."* And, in The Maid of Orleans, Schiller wrote, "Men show no mercy and expect no mercy, when honor calls, or when they fight for their idols or their gods."**

* Friedrich von Schiller, The Maid of Orleans (Die Jungfrau von Orleans, play), 1801. Tchaikovsky made the play into an opera, Orleanskaia deva (1878-79). ** Quoted in Rufus K. Noyes, Views of Religion, 1906.

Originally Published November 2003.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer




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