Uta Hagen, 1919-2004

Respect for a master actor and teacher who inspired others through the unmatched sublimity of her example

 Onstage or off, everything Uta Hagen did was complete. She came into the theater as a teenager, playing Ophelia to Eva Le Gallienne's Hamlet, and stayed for the remainder of her long life, acting, teaching, running a school and a theater, and writing books on acting that have become part of its permanent vocabulary. She carried on the theater's great tradition, devoting her life to it, demanding and giving only its best. She played new plays, American or German, measuring them by the greatness of the opportunities they offered her and testing them against the great plays that had nourished her: Shakespeare, Shaw, Chekhov, Turgenev, Brecht. Movies and television, by which foolish people think to evaluate acting, were only an incidental caprice to her, and her performances will be remembered when most such things have become industrial detritus.

I first saw Uta as Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The impression she left was so strong that years later, when the prospect of meeting her arose, I was terrified: Martha had existed for me so completely—I still remember the angle of her body in the doorway at the top of the show—that I assumed I was going to meet Martha. I was startled to find, instead, a quite different person with only hints of Martha. I found this to be true, subsequently, in every other role I saw her play: Each was a completely different person, a not-Uta who had some traits in common with Uta, but lived a complete and separate existence of her own.

Uta lived so completely in the present that, in the few brief times I spent with her, it never occurred to me to ask her about her illustrious past. Like her roles, it seemed to belong to another person. My rational mind thought of asking her about that Ophelia, or about her Nina to the Trigorin and Arkadina of Lunt and Fontanne, but it would have seemed absurd to inquire about these things; her vitality always made her seem decades younger than her calendar age, obviously too young to have been in that ancient past; a different Uta must have done all that.

Photo: Jack Mitchell

Writing about Uta's acting was and remains an impossible task. The sense of life she conveyed was so full, so complete and seamless, that one could never find a point from which to dissect it. She made everything she did onstage remarkable and individual, because it was part of the life of the character, yet she never did anything in a self-conscious way that could make you feel she had been directed to do it or was drawing your attention to it. It was simply what the person she played would do, brought to an intensity that made the most banal motions riveting. I would find myself explaining enthusiastically to people how important it was to watch Uta take off her coat, or tear up envelopes, or pour a cup of tea, and then, hearing myself, break off, feeling like an idiot at my inability to recapture the unrecapturable and explain the sublime.

Most remarkably, this sublimity came, in an almost Zen way, from her complete matter-of-factness. I have seen few artists so magical onstage; I have never met anyone so completely down to earth. I first met her when I staged a workshop of a small musical revue at HB Playwrights, involving one of her infinity of devoted students, the late Martha Schlamme. It seemed normal to me—because Uta made it seem normal—to come in to rehearse and find Uta cheerfully sweeping the stage to get it ready for us. ("Oh, please let me do that," I said. "It's my theater," she answered.) This, too, made it hard for me to ask about her past, though Uta would no doubt have been perfectly willing to discuss St. Joan or Othello while she swept. When I worked with her, much later, on a reading of a play I had translated from the German, we spent some time going over its dense and repetitive text; she never asked a question that was not completely sensible, and she never rejected any reasonable answer. At the reading itself, after only a few days' rehearsal, she delivered the role with an authority that suggested she had been working on it for months, perhaps years, and knew the life of the character—a life far different from her own—from so deep inside that there was no distance between them.

Michael Feingold

Uta Hagen was a great teacher, a great actress, and a great cook. Also, she was nobody's fool and I both admired her and cared for her deeply.

Edward Albee

"I love to act." That husky voice spoke the words like a lover confessing pleasure. It was primal and pure. Satisfaction connected to raw need. We were walking down Bank Street. It was 1992. I had just seen Uta perform an act from Charlotta, a one-character play about Goethe's mistress, at the HB Playwrights Foundation & Theatre. It's my least favorite kind of play, historical monodrama. But Uta had enthralled me. This irrepressible spontaneity, each moment seemed a discovery for her and for you the audience. Despite my critical predisposition I found myself intimately involved with and deeply moved by the human animal on stage. She was so alive you had no choice. If you looked away from her you were afraid you might get caught.

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