Uta Hagen

Commanding and versatile Broadway actress
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The Independent Online

Uta Thyra Hagen, actress: born Göttingen, Germany 12 June 1919; married 1939 José Ferrer (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1948), 1951 Herbert Berghof (died 1990); died New York 14 January 2004.

One of Broadway's most commanding and brilliantly versatile performers, Uta Hagen will always be remembered for her powerhouse performance as Martha, the waspish heroine of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? She created the role in New York, winning the Tony Award for her work, and had a similar triumph when she repeated the role in London, winning the Drama Critics Award as best actress of the year.

Her many memorable performances included Desdemona to the Othello of Paul Robeson, the title role in Clifford Odets' The Country Girl, and roles in plays by Chekhov, Ibsen, Shaw and Tennessee Williams. Her fame would be even greater had she not devoted much of her life to teaching others. The actor Jack Lemmon once said,

This extraordinary woman is one of the greatest actresses I have ever seen in my lifetime, yet she has deliberately made her acting career secondary to teaching and directing others so that they might benefit. Lord knows what exalted position she might have attained had she chosen to concentrate on her own acting career, but I guarantee that she has absolutely no regrets. Nor should she, because she has given so much to so many.

Among her triumphs was the role of Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire. She first played the role on tour opposite Anthony Quinn, then succeeded Jessica Tandy, who created the role, on Broadway. Her Blanche was radically different from Tandy's, a total reinvention, and she approved of actors changing their own performances over time. Unlike many performers, she welcomed long runs. "I could play 10 performances a week forever and thrive on it," she said. "I'm never bored. People who get bored don't know their craft."

She played Blanche opposite Quinn, Marlon Brando, Ralph Meeker, Richard Kiley and Jack Palance. "If you go on with another actor and your performance doesn't change, you're a bad actor," she stated. She recalled seeing Laurette Taylor's legendary performance as Amanda in The Glass Menagerie 10 times. "Ten different exciting performances - to me, that is the magic of the theatre."

The daughter of an art historian and an opera singer, Hagen was born in Göttingen, Germany, in 1919, and named by her father after a 13th-century statue he saw of Uta, the co-founder of Naumberg Cathedral. When she was seven her father accepted a job as head of the art history department at the University of Wisconsin and the family moved to the United States. "Reading was considered as important as eating in our house," recalled Hagen.

At the age of six she had vowed to become an actress after seeing Elisabeth Bergner as Shaw's Saint Joan. After studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London for one term, and the University of Wisconsin, where she made her first stage appearance as Sorrel in Noël Coward's Hay Fever, Hagen left college early - and left home - to become an actress.

Reading that Eva Le Gallienne was preparing to play Hamlet in Massachusetts but had not found a suitable Ophelia, Hagen wrote asking for an audition. Le Gallienne wrote later that Hagen had "the shy ungainly grace of a young colt" and that though she did not perform her initial reading well, "I sensed in her an inner truth that very occasionally filtered through in a word or look." Hagen was given the role, and made her professional stage début in 1937 as an Ophelia who was considerably taller than her Hamlet.

The following year she made her Broadway début as Nina in a production of The Seagull starring Alfred Lunt as Trigorin and Lynn Fontanne as Madame Arkadina. The production won fulsome praise as a brilliant interpretation of a masterpiece, and Hagen was hailed as a gifted newcomer. The critic Brooks Atkinson (New York Times) decribed her as "grace and aspiration incarnate", and Richard Lockridge (New York Sun) noted her "aching, utterly moving intensity".

Later that year, while appearing in a Connecticut production of The Latitude of Love, she fell in love with and later wed her leading man, José Ferrer. During their 10-year marriage they appeared together in several plays, including Maxwell Anderson's blank verse drama Key Largo (1939) with Paul Muni, a revival of Patrick Hamilton's Victorian melodrama Angel Street (1948) and, most notably, a record-breaking production of Othello (1943) with Paul Robeson in the title role and Ferrer as Iago.

It was the longest-running Shakespeare revival ever offered on the Broadway stage (295 performances), though the contract demands of the Ferrers resulted in the director Margaret Webster writing a letter describing them as "two conceited little asses". Hagen's Desdemona was praised for its poignancy, John Chapman writing in the New York Daily News, "She seems the true, unworldly wife that Shakespeare wrote - feminine, submissive, puzzled and, finally, more resigned to her violent end than terrified of it."

Hagen also appeared on Broadway in a German-language version of Goethe's Faust (1947) with Albert Basserman as Mephistopheles. She later described the period between 1938 and 1947 as "the transitional years of my career, during which I lost my way and a love of acting until I finally regained it to begin a true life in the theatre."

The turning point for her was a play The Whole World Over (1947), a Russian comedy directed by Harold Clurman, whom she admired. In the cast of the play was Herbert Berghof, who became her second husband in 1951 (she had divorced Ferrer in 1948) and with whom she co-founded the Berghof School of Acting in Greenwich Village (known as the HB Studio) in which Hagen taught.

In 1950 she created the role of Georgie Elgin, an actor's wife misperceived as a manipulative shrew in Clifford Odets' The Country Girl. It was another great triumph, winning her the Tony, the Donaldson Award and the New York Drama Critics Award. The following year she played Shaw's Saint Joan for the Theatre Guild, and subsequently appeared in summer theatres in Fry's The Lady's Not for Burning, Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea and Turgenev's A Month in the Country.

Work during this time was sporadic because, always outspoken about politics and human rights, Hagen had been blacklisted along with her husband during the McCarthy hearings and was unable to do films or television or tour plays throughout the US.

When she returned to the Broadway stage, it was in her incontestably greatest triumph, a play which on first reading she described as "like a great modern Bosch canvas". In October 1962 she opened in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in which a faculty couple engage in a night of verbal laceration, and her ferociously powerful performance as the vituperative Martha won her another Tony. "She was just that woman, all of her - the pathos, the beauty and vulgarity," said the actress Marian Seldes. "We were privy to something very special."

Reaction was the same when, in February 1964, the play opened in London with Hagen and Arthur Hill repeating their roles. From her opening words, "Jesus H. Christ", followed by her mimicry of Bette Davis delivering the line, "What a dump!", Hagen had the audience enthralled with her formidable blend of wit, venom and pathos.

Later stage performances included Mme Ranevaskaya in Eva Le Gallienne's production of The Cherry Orchard (1968), a revival of Shaw's You Never Can Tell and Nicholas Wright's off-Broadway hit Mrs Klein, but Hagen spent most of her time teaching. Among her pupils were Geraldine Page, Jason Robards and Matthew Broderick.

Like many stage performers, Hagen saw roles she created going to others when the plays were filmed - her parts in Key Largo, The Country Girl and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? went to Lauren Bacall, Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor - and she made only three films. Her first was Robert Mulligan's The Other (1972), an eerie horror movie in which she starred as the grandmother of a pair of twins, one good and one evil. She was also seen in The Boys from Brazil (1978) and Reversal of Fortune (1990).

On television she appeared in Macbeth (1950) and A Month in the Country (1959). She wrote two books, Respect for Acting (1973) and A Challenge for the Actor (1991), stating in the latter that she disagreed with Shaw's famed pronouncement, "He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches." For her, "Only he who can should teach." One of the things she taught her pupils was to look for the drama behind the comedy, or the comedy behind the drama. "Somebody with wit and a sense of humour sees the most tragic event without the sentimentality, sees in any life experience something ludicrous - which is probably why Chekhov is my favourite."

After her husband's death in 1990 she took over the chairmanship of the HB Studio and the theatre of the HB Playwrights Foundation, and for the latter she played Martha once more for a benefit staged reading in 1999, with Jonathan Pryce as her husband and Matthew Broderick and Mia Farrow as the couple's two guests.

"Its a terrible risk for me," she said. "People have such incredible memories of my performance. I don't see how anyone could live up to it, certainly not me, almost 40 years later." The event was reportedly a triumph for the actress, who was described by Albee as "a profoundly truthful actress and a dedicated and demanding teacher. I should also add that she was a great anti-hypocrite and a superb cook - not a bad friend to have."

In 1999 Hagen was awarded a third Tony in recognitiion of lifetime achievement.

Tom Vallance