From The Sea Gull, her 1938 Broadway debut, to the 1995 off-Broadway hit Mrs. Klein, Uta Hagen (born 1919) keeps bringing down the house. Many critics consider her the first lady of theater.
Uta Hagen was born to Oskar Frank Leonard and Thyra A. (Leisner) Hagen in Gottingen, Germany, on June 12, 1919. Her brother, Holger Hagen, later became an actor in Germany. Hagen's father taught art history at the local university and also directed the Gottingen Handel festivals after World War I.
In 1924, as a Carl Schurz Foundation Professor, Hagen's father traveled to Wisconsin in the United States. He founded the art history department at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Offered the position as head of the department, he accepted and moved his family to the United States.
For many years during her childhood, Hagen had accompanied her parents to the theater both in the United States and abroad since the family made numerous trips back to Germany. It appeared that acting was already in her blood. In 1936, she graduated from the University of Wisconsin High School and entered the university itself, but she left after just one term. A semester of study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London convinced Hagen that acting was the right career choice and caused her to leave the University of Wisconsin for the uncertainties of the theater.
In 1937 she was on stage as Ophelia in a production in Dennis, Massachusetts. The title role of Hamlet was played by Eva Le Gallienne, one of Broadway's leading actresses. Le Gallienne, born in London in 1899, had founded the famed Civic Repertory Theatre in New York in 1926, becoming director and producer as well. With Le Gallienne's nurturing, Hagen skipped the usual route of small parts and made her stage debut on March 28, 1928. She was 19 when she made her debut as Nina in The Sea Gull at the Shubert Theatre.
In 1938, Hagen met the actor who would become her husband. They became acquainted in a rather unusual way. During a summer stock production of The Latitude of Love, in Ridgefield, Connecticut, Hagen was required to knock the leading man unconscious every night. However, José Ferrer survived, and they married on December 8, 1938. During their ten years of marriage, Hagen and Ferrer performed in many productions together, as well as separately. They became one of the very few teams of co-starring spouses to achieve stardom together. They had one daughter, Leticia.
Hagen kept busy over the next few years. She returned to Broadway in 1939, playing Edith in The Happiest Days and then appearing in Key Largo, the powerful Maxwell Anderson drama at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Audiences applauded her Desdemona in Othello in 1942. The cast featured Paul Robeson in the title role and Ferrer as Iago. Later that year, she and Ferrer played in Vickie, a comedy at the Plymouth Theatre. Perhaps the key performance of Hagen's career occurred in 1943, again as Desdemona in the Theatre Guild's production of Othello, and once again with Robeson and Ferrer. The show ran for 295 performances.
After World War II and fears of the Soviet Union and communism were running high. Because Hagen and Ferrer were so closely associated with Robeson, an African-American actor well-known for his leftist views, they were eventually called to Washington, D.C., to be questioned about their own beliefs. Ferrer denied any connection to leftist views, and Hagen was never asked to give her views at all. Despite that, Hagen ended up being blacklisted from television and Hollywood movie roles.
In 1947, Hagen co-founded an acting school with actor/director Herbert Berghof and began teaching acting classes. Early in 1948, Hagen starred with Ferrer again in a production of Angel Street, and that June, they divorced. She married Berghof in 1951.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Hagen truly came into her own as one of Broadway's most respected and admired stars. She replaced Jessica Tandy on Broadway as Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire. She received enthusiastic reviews from critics. She next portrayed Georgie, the dowdy wife in the Clifford Odets' play, The Country Girl. Hagen won her first Antoinette Perry Award (Tony Award) for best dramatic actress for this role.
Hagen kept busy in summer stock in 1954, touring in The Lady's Not for Burning and The Deep Blue Sea. After her appearance in Island of Goats at the Fulton Theatre in 1955, Hagen left Broadway for a period of seven years. She had decided to wait for the perfect part.
Hagen returned to Broadway on October 13, 1962. Playing the ruthless Martha, a college professor's wife, in Edward Albee's searing drama, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Hagen earned her second Tony Award as well as the critics award for best dramatic actress of the year. Her co-star, Arthur Hill, portraying the husband who cannot live up to his wife's expectations, also won a Tony Award and the critics award. The play, as well as the film (with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the lead roles) was a bit of a shock to audiences in the 1960s, not only for the way it laid open the ugly realities of a failed marriage, but also for its liberal use of obscenities.
Hagen has written two books, Respect for Acting in 1973 and A Challenge for the Actor in 1991. According to her biography on the Women's International Center website, the books "grew out of decades of collaboration and exploration of the actor's craft." She also continued to teach at the Herbert Bergof Studio, although her husband, the school's namesake, died in 1990. According to Marjorie Rosen of People, her students, who have included Academy Award winners Whoopi Goldberg, Jack Lemmon, and Geraldine Page, as well as Golden Globe winner Christine Lahti, "regard Hagen as the quintessential drama teacher." Lemmon commented that "Hagen taught him the 'truth about character behavior."' Hagen responded to Rosen, "I try to teach actors to bring a human being onstage, not an actor."
From the 1960s through the early 1990s, Hagen made television and film appearances, most notably The Boys from Brazil in 1978, an episode of The Twilight Zone television show in 1985, and Reversal of Fortune in 1990. She was also inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame in 1981. In 1995 at the age of 76, Hagen again received critical acclaim for her portrayal of psychoanalyst Melanie Klein in the off-Broadway production Mrs. Klein. Lloyd Rose of the Washington Post commented, "A legend is playing a legend when Uta Hagen appears in the title role of 'Mrs. Klein."'
Further Reading on Uta Thyra Hagen
Hagen, Uta, A Challenge for the Actor, Scribner, 1991.
Hagen, Uta, Respect for Acting, revised edition, Macmillan General, 1979.
Back Stage West, July 10, 1997.
People, February 5, 1996.
Time, November 20, 1995.
Washington Post, September 20, 1996.
"Uta Hagen, " Internet Movie Databank, http://us.imdb.com (May 18, 1998).
"WIC Biography -Uta Hagen, " Women's International Center, http://www.wic.org/bio/hagen.htm (May 18, 1998).