By Robert Heide
2019 is the year that both Uta Hagen and Ellen Stewart, two great ladies of the theater, have been honored and celebrated when each would have turned 100. In the world of dates, Uta Thyra Hagen, actress and teacher, was born June 12th, 1919, in Göttingen, Germany, and died in Manhattan January 14th, 2004. Ellen Stewart was the head of the famous La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club at 74A East 4th Street in The East Village, which she co-founded with the prolific playwright Paul Foster. She was an African-American woman who was born November 7th, 1919, and died January 13th, 2011.
Part I – Uta Hagen
Uta Hagen’s acting career began when she was cast at a very young age by the legendary Eva Le Galliene as Ophelia, with Le Galliene taking on the top role of Hamlet. When she turned 18 she was cast in a Broadway production as Nina in Chekhov’s masterwork The Seagull opposite the great stage couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, both of whom took her under their wing.
In 1951 Hagen received rave reviews for her performance in Clifford Odets’s Broadway play The Country Girl, for which she took home a Tony Award. Another major highlight was in 1962 when she was cast by producer Richard Barr as Martha in Edward Albee’s first Broadway play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for which Albee provided her with lines like “I wear the pants in this family because somebody’s got to!” At the time, in a news interview, Albee stated that “Uta Hagen is a profoundly truthful actress!” The well-known director Austin Pendleton stated, “The most exciting evening I’ve had in the theater was a preview of the original production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”
Another of her starring roles on Broadway not to be forgotten was the title role in Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. Her performance in Othello opposite Paul Robeson and Hagen’s then husband, Jose Ferrer (as Iago), was a sensation. She and Ferrer were married from 1938 to 1948, and their daughter, Letitia, was born October 15th, 1940. In 1947 Hagen began teaching acting at the Herbert Berghof Studio, which still functions as an important school for actors in two buildings on Bank Street in Greenwich Village.
Following my own theater studies—first at Northwestern University under the great teacher Alvina Krause, who had studied with Konstantin Stanislavski in Russia, and then in New York where I took a two-year course under Stella Adler, who had also worked directly with Stanislavski—it was Adler who sent me up to Stratford, Connecticut, along with another “apprentice,” Peter Bogdanovich, where I met actors like James Earl Jones, Nina Foch, Katherine Hepburn, and Fritz Weaver, and primarily got to work with the great director John Houseman who began his incomparable career with Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre. Following that summer I auditioned for Uta Hagen’s acting class, where I received favorable critiques from her in her scene-study class when I acted in William Saroyan’s Hello Out There! and when I attacked the role of Archie Lee in The Long Stay Cut Short, or The Unsatisfactory Supper, a one-act play that Tennessee Williams later developed as the screenplay for the brilliant film Baby Doll, which was directed by Elia Kazan and starred Eli Wallach, Karl Malden and the great Carol Baker.
Harold Clurman directed Hagen in the national tour of Streetcar Named Desire in 1947-1949 opposite Anthony Quinn, and Hagen said it was Clurman who changed her direction in acting at that time. He refused to accept her hiding behind a mask of mannerisms and brought her into the deeper, more emotionally directed method of acting taught by the great Stanislavski. In 1957 she married the director-teacher and founder of HB Studio, Herbert Berghof.
In later years Hagen wrote her own books on acting entitled Respect for Acting and Challenge for the Actor. A passion for cooking up great dishes led her to write a cookbook called Love for Cooking. Some of her illustrious students over the years have included Matthew Broderick, Faye Dunaway, Liza Minnelli, Jason Robards and Al Pacino, and she also coached Judy Garland for her role in the film Judgment at Nuremberg, which earned Garland a Best Actress in a Supporting Role nomination.
Following many accolades, Hagen was elected to the Theatre Hall of Fame in 1981, and in 1999 she received a Lifetime Achievement Tony Award. In 2002, two years before her death, she was given the National Medal of Freedom Award by George W. Bush.
Hagen was a lifelong Village resident and for many years lived in an apartment building on Washington Square. A friend of mine, Rochelle Oliver, an actress and teacher at HB Studio, lived in the same building with her son John Patterson. She had acted with Hagen on Broadway as Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Every Christmas Eve Rochelle had a party in her spacious apartment decorated with a big tree, which I attended along with Hagen and other acting teachers from HB, Carol Goodheart (Carol starred in my Caffe Cino play Moon at the Actor’s Studio West in Hollywood alongside John Garfield Jr.) and Amy Wright, as well as the actor James Broderick; his wife, Patsy; their son, Matthew (they lived in the building too!); and actors like Fritz Weaver and Hallie Foote, and her father, the playwright Horton Foote, who later taught theater at the Playwright’s/Director’s Unit at The Actors Studio where I was a member.
Tune in to WestView’s December issue for Part II of this 100th anniversary account, which will focus on the career of Ellen Stewart and her La MaMa Experimental Theater as well as the La MaMa Coffeehouse Chronicles celebrating Stewart’s life.
Robert Heide’s plays and essays were recently published in a volume entitled Robert Heide 25 Plays, which can be purchased at Amazon.