Hagen, Uta Thyra

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Hagen, Uta Thyra

(b. 12 June 1919 in Göttingen, Germany; d. 14 January 2004 in New York City), stage actress celebrated for her dramatic roles, most notably, Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), and revered for her teaching at the famed HB Studio in New York City.

Named after a statue in a cathedral in Naumburg, Germany, Hagen was born into an artistic family. Her father, Oskar F. L. Hagen, started out in music but became an art historian. Her Danish mother, Thyra Leisner, was an opera singer and teacher. Her older brother, Holger, played the violin and later became an actor in Germany. Hagen herself played the piano and studied dance. Although Hagen’s father moved the family from Germany when he got a teaching post at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1926, the family took extended trips back to Europe.

Hagen decided to become an actor at age nine when she saw Elisabeth Bergner in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan (whose title role Hagen was to play on Broadway in 1951–1952). In her high school years she read plays by Anton Chekhov, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Shakespeare, and Molière. After graduating from University of Wisconsin High School in 1936, she studied acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London for a semester.

Hagen was enrolled at the University of Wisconsin for one semester in 1937 but decided that math and biology would not help her “predestined work in theater,” according to her memoir, Sources (1983). She wrote to Eva Le Gallienne, a pioneer in the American repertory theater movement, to ask for an audition. Later that year, in her professional stage debut, Hagen played Ophelia to Le Gallienne’s Hamlet in Dennis, Massachusetts.

Hagen then moved to New York City and went on to play Nina with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in a 1938 Broadway revival of Chekhov’s play The Sea Gull. She was Desdemona to Paul Robeson’s Othello in an acclaimed interracial production of Shakespeare’s play in 1942–1945. The prejudice Hagen witnessed and experienced when she was in this production inspired her to speak out for civil rights and other social causes. In 1948–1949 Hagen played Blanche DuBois, first in a national tour and then replacing Jessica Tandy on Broadway, in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, opposite such actors as Anthony Quinn and Marlon Brando.

In 1951 Hagen won her first Tony Award as Georgie Elgin, the long-suffering wife of an alcoholic actor, in Clifford Odets’s The Country Girl. But the rest of the 1950s were difficult for her. Her few commercial ventures on Broadway failed. Because of her leftist sympathies and political activism, she had trouble getting work during the era in which Senator Joseph McCarthy was accusing so many of subversive activity on behalf of the Communist Party.

Hagen made a triumphant return to Broadway in 1962. She was not the producers’ first choice to play Martha in the original production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Geraldine Page or Katharine Hepburn were preferred), but Hagen made it her signature role. Portrayed with a great emotional range, Hagen’s Martha—a woman who, deeply disappointed in her historian husband’s failure to advance his university career, battles it out with him on a booze-soaked night—was “a tormented harridan [made] horrifyingly believable,” according to Howard Taubman’s review in the New York Times. For this work Hagen won her second Tony. She made her only London stage appearance in a 1964 production of the play.

As highly regarded as she was on stage, Hagen was equally influential as an acting teacher. Her own approach to acting evolved over the years, with a turning point in 1947, when she met two people: the director Harold Clurman, who encouraged her to explore her character subjectively instead of relying on external acting techniques or theatrical effects, and Herbert Berghof, an actor and teacher from Austria who had founded the HB Studio in New York City in 1945. Hagen started teaching at the studio—a haven for actors, free from commercial pressures—and continued until just months before her death.

Hagen believed that acting required talent but was also a craft that needed training and developing. Rooted in Konstantin Stanislavsky’s theory of method acting, her naturalistic approach emphasized thorough preparation for a role and a fluid engagement with the role in performance. Actors should strive to be spontaneous, truthful, and aware of the physical environment. To help students achieve that goal, Hagen devised a series of exercises. One such exercise asked students to “endow” an object with personal significance; another had them try to imagine the day-to-day life of their characters in historical context.

Thanks to the longevity of her teaching career, Hagen’s students spanned several generations and included Jack Lemmon, Geraldine Page, Lily Tomlin, Whoopi Goldberg, Matthew Broderick, and Cynthia Nixon. Her two books on acting—Respect for Acting (1973) and A Challenge for the Actor (1991)—became standard texts for acting students and are filled with information about how she prepared for her roles. (In addition to these books and her memoir, Hagen also published Love for Cooking in 1976.) Uta Hagen’s Acting Class, a video recording of Hagen—almost always with a cigarette in hand—giving blunt, no-nonsense criticisms and advice to her students, was released in 2002.

Hagen’s first marriage, to the actor José Ferrer (who appeared in several productions with Hagen, including Othello), took place on December 8, 1938, and her only child, a daughter, was born in 1940. She and Ferrer divorced in 1948, and Hagan married Herbert Berghof on 25 January 1951. They lived in Greenwich Village in New York City and Montauk on Long Island. The couple founded the HB Playwrights Foundation in 1965. After Berghof died in 1990, Hagen took over the operation of their acting school.

Hagen won a third Tony Award, for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre, in 1999. In 2002 she received the National Medal of Arts. Hagen belonged to the last generation of actors for whom it was possible to achieve national prestige solely through stage work. Because of her ambivalence toward film, she made very few: Robert Mulligan’s The Other (1972), Franklin J. Schaffner’s The Boys from Brazil (1978), and Barbet Schroeder’s Reversal of Fortune (1990). She appeared on a number of television programs and in television films.

In her memoir Hagen wrote, “With every fiber of my being I want to act, and act until I die.” She continued to perform on Broadway, off Broadway, and elsewhere. With Berghof, she translated Peter Hacks’s Charlotte from German and appeared in a brief Broadway production in 1980. In 1999, at the age of eighty, Hagen reprised her role as Martha in a staged reading of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Her last stage performance was in a Los Angeles production of Richard Alfieri’s Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks in 2001. A stroke later that year prevented her from taking the play to Broadway, but she continued to teach even as her health declined. She died in her New York City home on 14 January 2004 and was cremated. In her honor, Broadway theaters dimmed their lights the night following her death.

As of 2005 Hagen’s papers were being organized for donation to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Hagen’s memoir Sources was published in 1983. There are no book-length biographies, but Susan Spector completed a doctoral dissertation, “Uta Hagen: The Early Years,” at New York University in 1982. There are numerous articles and interviews. Obituaries are in the New York Times (15 Jan. 2004), the San Francisco Chronicle (21 Jan. 2004), and the Times (London) (30 Jan. 2004).

Jeffrey H. Chen

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