Theatre yesterday and today



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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 Hagen (1919-2004).

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.

Alfred Lunt and Uta Hagen in The Seagull (1938).

Paul Robeson and Uta Hagen in Othello (1943).

Jose Ferrer and Uta Hagen in Angel Street (1948).

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."