Theatre yesterday and today



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June 12th is the birthday of Uta Hagen, an American actress who would have been 97 today. She was born in Germany and emigrated to the United States. Raised in Madison, Wisconsin she went from high school productions almost directly to playing Ophelia opposite Eva La Gallienne as Hamlet. She was 18 years old.

Her swift rise was dazzling. Her Broadway debut was as Nina in Chekhov's The Seagull, not only one of the most challenging roles for any young actress, but her co-stars were Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, the reigning star team of the American theatre. Shortly thereafter she was George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan, Shakespeare's Desdemona (opposite Paul Robeson's Othello and her then-husband Jose Ferrer as Iago) and was the second actress to play Blanche DuBois in the Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire.

Her first of two Tony Awards came in 1951 in Clifford Odets's The Country Girl. Her second was 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 of these performances 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) for what Hagen might have brought to these screen versions.

And this is the problem. Uta Hagen's best work was all done on the stage. What little film and television work she did over the years (she didn't even have a significant role in a movie until 1972) meant by then all of her greatest roles were behind her. She had been blacklisted in the fifties, so she may have missed out on some opportunities that could have given her a chance to prove herself worthy of the screen. But we'll never know. By the time Hagen made her sporadic appearances in movies or on television, it was hard to understand what made her such a compelling stage actress. Whenever I saw her in films such as Burnt Offerings or Reversal of Fortune, she always seemed to be "acting." I always knew that seeing her onstage had to have been a very different experience.

Perhaps her greatest legacy are the students who came under her tutelage. Hagen taught for the better part of fifty years at the HB Studios in the West Village, alongside her husband, Herbert Berghof. She published two well-known books on acting and claimed Jason Robards, Jack Lemmon, Sigourney Weaver and Matthew Broderick among the many who sat in her classroom over the years.

But there is something she left behind that can never be taken away from her. In the fifties and sixties it was not uncommon to record entire Broadway shows 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 are fantastic ways to find out what made an actor like Uta Hagen soar on stage. A few years ago, the recording of the original cast in the 1962 production of Virginia Woolf was digitally cleaned up and is now available for downloads at iTunes or other such online stores. I highly recommend it.

I consider myself very fortunate that I did get the chance to see one of the very last things she ever did on stage. A one-time only performance on a bare stage of Virginia Woolf, which she performed when she was 80 years old. That's when I got the chance to see what made Uta Hagen one of the great ones.