June 15, 2018: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
It’s now been two years since I began writing these columns. I’m at #332 (and counting), which is roughly one every other day. That’s a lot of stories and subjects, so allow me today instead of offering something new to mark the occasion, by rerunning my very first entry; one which celebrated the actress, author and teacher, Uta Hagen. I’ve rewritten it, since I feel I’m now more proficient at these 1,000-word essays then when I started. The sheer practice every day is something I recommend to anyone in pursuit of how to improve at any given task, be it writing, or anything else you can dream up.
Uta Thyra Hagen was born June 12th, 1919, ninety-nine years ago, in Göttingen, Germany. Her mother was a former opera star, and her father was both a composer, conductor and art history professor, who named his daughter after a thirteenth-century statue he saw in a Naumburg cathedral on the day of her birth. When Uta was seven, her father was tasked with running the Art History Department at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, which brought the family to the United States. Throughout her childhood, excelling at acting in school plays, gave Hagen the experience (and fortitude) to play Ophelia to the Hamlet of Eva La Gallienne, one of the foremost actresses of her day — before she even turned eighteen.
And how did Hagen get the role? She wrote La Gallienne a letter, that got her an audition, which led to her landing the part. Simple, right?
Her swift rise was dazzling. Her Broadway debut was as Nina in Chekhov’s The Seagull, not only a huge challenge for any young actress, but her co-stars were Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, the reigning star team of the American theatre. Then came Desdemona (opposite Paul Robeson’s Othello, with her then-husband, Jose Ferrer, as Iago); as the second actress to play Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, first in the national tour, and then as Jessica Tandy’s replacement on Broadway. And in 1951, audiences saw her as both George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan and Georgie Elgin in Clifford Odets, The Country Girl, for which she won the first of her two Tony Awards.
1951 was also the year the Hollywood blacklist began in earnest, setting its sight on actors, writers and directors with any sort of leftish persuasion, of which Hagen was one (her personal championing of Paul Robeson, an Africa-American, when they toured Othello in the deep south was only one such contentious public stance she took in her lifetime. The two also had a much-publicized love affair). Politics aside, Hagen stayed away from films until 1972 for a myriad of reasons, confessing later in life that it might have been for the best: “It kept me pure. Commercially, I was hot in the early 1950s. I might have been tempted by Hollywood. I might have gotten lost in all that crap.”
Hagen’s second Tony came in 1963 for her searing creation of Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? She wasn’t offered the chance to recreate either her Georgie or Martha in their film versions. Grace Kelly won an Oscar for The Country Girl, as did Elizabeth Taylor for Virginia Woolf. Both were deglamorized as best as makeup would allow, but we missed out on the rawness (no makeup necessary) of what Hagen could have given us.
Perhaps her greatest legacy are the students who came under her tutelage. For the better part of fifty years, Hagen taught at HB Studios in the West Village, alongside her husband, Herbert Berghof. She published two well-known books on acting and, over the decades, devotees of her class came to include Maureen Stapleton, Jason Robards, Judd Hirsch, Mercedes Ruehl and Matthew Broderick. Hagen’s first book, Respect for Acting, published in 1973, was immediate required reading for nearly every young actor, though Hagen eventually came to reject it. In 1998, she told the New York Times: ‘’It was convenient and cute and superficial. But it sells and they won’t let it go. I was appalled when I learned it’s still selling better than the second and I can’t get them to discontinue it.’’ Hagen much preferred her second book, A Challenge for the Actor, published in 1991.
But there is something she left behind that can never be taken away from her. In the 1950s and 1960s it was not uncommon to record entire Broadway plays on what were usually three-record sets. These weren’t done live on stage, but in a recording studio with sound effects and sometimes music underscoring which didn’t exist on stage. For the most part, they give a tactile feel for what made an actor like Uta Hagen soar theatrically. A few years ago, the recording of the original cast in the 1962 production of Virginia Woolf was digitally cleaned up and made available for download on iTunes. I highly recommend it.
For whatever reason, I never got to see Hagen onstage until the very end of her career. I consider myself lucky to have been in the audience for a one-time only reading of Virginia Woolf, performed in Los Angeles on the bare stage of the enormous Ahmanson Theatre in 2000. Then eighty-years-old, I got the chance to experience what made Uta Hagen one of the great ones.
A short time after, in 2001, Hagen suffered a stroke. She passed away in 2004, at the age of eighty-four. In a side note, my daughter Charlotte shares the same birthdate. And in an odd coincidence, Hagen’s second-to-last Broadway appearance was in a play called … Charlotte.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway at Amazon.com, available in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.