Hagen, Uta (1919—)

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Hagen, Uta (1919—)

German-born actress and teacher whose books, Respect for Acting (1973) and A Challenge for the Actor (1991), have become standard references for professionals . Pronunciation: OO-ta; Hagen rhymes with noggin. Born Uta Thyra Hagen on June 12, 1919, in Göttingen, Germany; only daughter and one of two children of Oskar Fran Leonard Hagen (a professor of art history) and Thyra A. (Leisner) Hagen; graduated from Wisconsin High School, 1936; attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London; attended the University of Wisconsin, 1936–1937; married José Ferrer (an actor), on December 8, 1938 (divorced 1948); married Herbert Berghof (an actor, director, and teacher), on January 25, 1951 (died 1990); children: one daughter, Leticia Ferrer , an actress.

Selected theater:

stage debut as Sorrel in Hay Fever (Bascom Hall, University of Wisconsin, July 1935); Ophelia in Hamlet (Cape Playhouse, Dennis, Massachusetts, August 1937); New York debut as Nina in The Seagull (Shubert Theatre, March 1938); Louka in Arms and the Man and the Ingenue in Mr. Pim Passes By (Ridgefield Summer Theatre, Connecticut, July 1938); Suzanne in Suzanna and the Elders (Westport Country Playhouse, Connecticut; Mt. Kisco Playhouse, New York, August 1938); toured as Nina in the national company of The Seagull (October 1938–January 1939); Edith in The Happiest Days (Vanderbilt Theatre, New York City, April 1939); a Chinese Girl in Flight into China and a Nurse in Men in White (Paper Mill Playhouse, Milburn, New Jersey, August 1939); Secretary in Topaze (Mt. Kisco Playhouse, New York, July 1940); Ella in Charley's Aunt (Ann Arbor Drama Festival, Michigan, May 1941);Ellen Turner in The Male Animal and the Woman in The Guardsman (Suffern County Playhouse, New York, July–August 1941); Wife in the pre-Broadway tryout of The Admiral Had a Wife (December 1941); toured as Desdemona in the Theatre Guild's production of Othello (July–August 1942); title role in Vicki (Plymouth, New York City, September 1942); Desdemona in Paul Robeson's Othello (Shubert Theatre, New York City, October 1943); Olga Vorontsov in The Whole World Over (Biltmore Theatre, New York City, March 1947); Mr. Manningham in Angel Street (Yardley Theatre, Pennsylvania, July 1947); toured as the leading lady in Dark Eyes (July–August 1947), and at the Barbizon Plaza Theatre, New York City; Gretchen in Faust (October 1947); Hilda in The Master Builder (January 1948); Mrs. Manningham in Angel Street (New York City Center, January 1948); succeeded (June 1948) Jessica Tandy as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York City, 1947); Georgie in The Country Girl (Lyceum Theatre, New York City, November 1950); title role in Saint Joan (Cort Theatre, New York City, 1951); Tatiana in Tovarich (New York City Center, May 1952); toured in a summer production of The Play's the Thing (July–August 1952); Hannah King in In Any Language (Cort Theatre, New York City, October 1952); toured as Jennet Jourdemayne in The Lady's Not for Burning and Georgie in The Country Girl (June–August 1953); Grace Wilson in The Magic and the Loss (Booth Theatre, New York City, April 1954); toured summer theaters in title role of Cyprienne (June–August 1954); played all the female characters in The Affairs of Anatol (Ann Arbor Drama Festival, Michigan, May 1955); Edgewater Beach Hotel, Chicago, Illinois, July 1955); Agata in Island of Goats (Fulton Theatre, New York City, October 1955); Natalie Petrovna in A Month in the Country (Phoenix Theatre, New York City, April 1956); Shen Te in The Good Woman of Setzuan (Phoenix Theatre, New York City, December 1956); Argia in The Queen and the Rebels (Bucks County Playhouse, New Hope, Pennsylvania, August 1959); Angelique in the American premiere of Port Royal (Grace Church Theatre, New York City, May 1960); Leah in Sodom and Gomorrah (Vancouver International Festival, Canada, August 1961); Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Billy Rose Theatre, New York City, October 1962), and also played this role in London (Piccadilly Theatre, February 1964); Madame Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard (Lyceum Theatre, New York City, March 1968); Melanie Klein in Mrs. Klein (1995); appeared in David Margulies' Collected Stories (off-Broadway, Lucille Lortel Theater, 1998).

One of America's first ladies of the theater and an inspired and devoted acting teacher, Uta Hagen was born in 1919 in Göttingen, Germany, where her father was an art history professor and her mother an opera singer. "In my parents' home, creative instincts and expression were considered worthy and noble," Hagen wrote in the introduction to Respect for Acting. When she was six, her father accepted a position at the University of Wisconsin and moved the family to Madison. While growing up, Hagen attended the theater regularly with her parents, both in the United States and on frequent trips to Europe. She made up her mind to become an actress at the age of nine after seeing Elisabeth Bergner in Saint Joan. At 16, newly graduated from high school, she enrolled at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, but left after one term because she found the classes too academic. Following a semester at the University of Wisconsin, she wrote to Eva Le Gallienne , asking to join her prestigious Civic Repertory Theatre company. She not only won an audition but, in 1937, played Ophelia in Le Gallienne's production of Hamlet at the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts. Bypassing the usual progression of bit parts, Hagen made her Broadway debut at age 19, in the role of Nina in the Theatre Guild's production of The Seagull. According to at least one New York critic, the fledgling actress stole a few scenes from her formidable co-stars Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne .

In December 1938, Hagen married actor José Ferrer, whom she met in summer stock. (According to one story, she knocked him unconscious one night during a fight scene.) Their daughter Letty was born when Hagen was just 20. "That's my excuse for what a rotten mother I was," she later told People magazine. "I was selfish with my career and expected too much of her." Hagen's marriage to Ferrer lasted ten years, during which time the couple co-starred in several successful plays, including the comedy Vickie (1942) and Shakespeare's Othello (1943), with Paul Robeson as Othello, Ferrer as Iago, and Hagen as Desdemona. The production, directed by Margaret Webster , had a run of 295 performances, a record at the time for a Shakespearean play. Burton Rascoe of the New York World-Telegram praised Hagen's performance as "glorious and heart-gripping," and Lewis Nichols of The New York Times called her death scene "the most moving of the play." After its Broadway run, the production enjoyed a successful tour.

In 1947, shortly after her separation from Ferrer (they divorced in 1948), Hagen was cast inThe Whole World Over, directed by Harold Clurman, whom she credits with introducing her to a new way of acting, a method that challenged the "tricks" that had come to shape her performances. "He never allowed the setting of line readings, mechanizing of stage positions or pieces of 'business,'" she writes in A Challenge for the Actor, "exploring instead the existence of the characters and their behavior as they came into conflict with each other in the action of the play. I was asked to work subjectively, to give birth to the new person I was to become rather than to present a preconceived, theatrical illustration of her on the stage." Hagen's co-star was actor Herbert Berghof, who had fled Vienna during World War II. The two fell in love during the run of the play although they did not marry until 1951. "He was something," she told People magazine. "He was the miracle of my life." Berghof helped Hagen to understand and apply the new acting technique she was testing and also recruited her to teach in his acting school, the HB Studio, which she has been associated with ever since.

The late 1940s also brought Hagen one of her juiciest roles, that of Blanche DuBois in Tennessee

Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). After receiving glowing reviews while touring the play with the National Company, she was called upon to replace Jessica Tandy in the original Broadway cast. On the heels of Streetcar came the role of Georgie, the dowdy wife of an alcoholic in Clifford Odets' stinging drama The Country Girl (1950), for which she won her first Tony Award as well as the Donaldson Award and the New York Drama Critics Award. With her career now in high gear, Hagen starred in a Theatre Guild production of Saint Joan (1951), directed again by Margaret Webster. Critics were particularly taken with her intensely controlled performance. Wrote William Hawkins, in the New York World-Telegram and Sun (October 5, 1951): "Miss Hagen has that rare gift of creating spiritual energy in the theater, then controlling it at will. She has the authority to compel an audience into silent attention like suspended animation. Unquestionably she is among the theater's greatest in her day."

During the 1950s, because of her liberal views and her earlier relationship with Paul Robeson, Hagen was blacklisted, making it impossible for her to work in movies or television. She wryly commented later that it might indeed have been for the best. "It was a time when I might've been tempted to do movies," she said. "The blacklist saved my integrity." Some 20 years later, Hagen finally did venture into films (only for the money, she insists), appearing in the thriller The Other (1972), followed by The Boys from Brazil (1978) and Reversal of Fortune (1990).

Hagen won a second Tony for her memorable portrayal of Martha, the embittered, vulnerable wife of a college professor in Edward Albee's first full-length play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962). Although critics expressed reservations about the play, particularly Albee's exploitation of obscenity, they were overwhelming in their praise of Hagen. "As the vulgar, scornful, desperate Martha, Miss Hagen makes a tormented harridan horrifyingly believable," reported Harold Taubman in The New York Times. Hagen made her London debut as Martha in February 1964, receiving the London Critics Award for Best Female Performance. "Martha is a superb creation," wrote British critic Hugh Leonard, "honey tongued, bawdy, obtuse, perceptive, tender, lustful, and—at any given moment—lethal. Miss Hagen and Mr. [Arthur] Hill wage total war on each other with the most exquisitely refined playing one could ever hope to see."

Hagen's personal integrity and her preference for roles of quality have led her to seek fulfillment in venues other than Broadway. "This whole standard of not being anything unless you're on Broadway is rotten," she said in a 1963 New York Post interview. Teaching has been an important component of her career since 1947, and the alumni list from the HB Studio (which she took over following her husband's death on November 5, 1990), reads like a who's who of American theater: Geraldine Page , Fritz Weaver, Jason Robards, Jack Lemmon, Whoopi Goldberg , and Matthew Broderick have all studied with Hagen. "I try to teach actors to bring a human being on-stage," she says, "not an actor." Her method is derived from Constantin Stanislavsky, although she is strongly opposed to the use of emotional memory, which she believes is self-indulgent and self-destructive. Her teaching style is marked by brevity; she uses technical code words, an actor's shorthand, which her students learn to interpret. Hagen set forth her theories in two books, Respect for Acting (1973) and A Challenge for the Actor (1991), both of which have become standard references for students and professionals. She also wrote Love for Cooking in 1976, and an autobiography, Sources, in 1983.

In 1995, at age 76, the now-legendary Hagen appeared off-Broadway, in Nicholas Wright's Mrs. Klein, a biographical drama about the Austrian-born pioneering child psychologist Melanie Klein , which also starred Laila Robins in the role of Klein's daughter. The play traces Klein's slow realization that the death of her son in a mysterious climbing accident, may indeed have been a suicide. "Pitiable and monstrous by turns," wrote Brad Leithauser, in Time (November 20, 1995), "Hagen brings to each new revelation a miraculous range of responses." For the actress, who has no intention of retiring and "sitting around," the role of Mrs. Klein was like a dream come true. "If I had my way, I'd be on-stage all the time."


Hagen, Uta. A Challenge for the Actor. NY: Scribner, 1991.

——, with Haskel Frankel. Respect for Acting. NY: Macmillan, 1973.

Leithauser, Brad. "Legends of the Fall," in Time. November 20, 1995, p. 121.

Moritz, Charles. Current Biography 1963. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1963.

Morley, Sheridan. The Great Stage Stars. London: Angus & Robertson, 1986.

Rosen, Marjorie, and Toby Kahn. "The Indomitable Miss Hagen," in People. February 5, 1996, pp. 93–94.

Wilmeth, Don B., and Tice L. Miller. Cambridge Guide to American Theatre. NY: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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