A Complex Character Actress: In six decades of acting and teaching, Uta Hagen has performed with the Lunts, taught Whoopi Goldberg and learned a thing or two about the stage.


It's easy to tell that actress Uta Hagen is an excellent teacher.

She fervently imparts information and opinions on subjects ranging from theater as a religious vocation to blacklisting in the McCarthy era to psychoanalysis.

Described in People magazine earlier this year as "arguably America's greatest living stage actress" and listed in a recent issue of Theater Week as one of the top 10 female stars of the year, Hagen, 77, has never become a household name, probably because she has shunned movies and favored the stage.

Her stage credits read like pages of theater history. She made her Broadway debut at age 18 opposite the Lunts in a production of Chekhov's "The Seagull" (that tried out in Baltimore). She helped break the color barrier in theaters across the country (but not in Baltimore) playing Desdemona to Paul Robeson's Othello. She won one of her two Tony Awards when she created the role of Martha in Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

And, in 50 years as a teacher at New York's Herbert Berghof Studio founded by her late husband, Hagen has taught such actors as Jack Lemmon, Whoopi Goldberg, Matthew Broderick and the late Geraldine Page.

These days teaching and acting in plays at the HB Playwrights Foundation seem to be the main occupations of this actor's actor, who last performed on Broadway in 1986 and last toured in 1982. But now she's hit the road again, playing the title character in Nicholas Wright's "Mrs. Klein," which opens at Washington's Kennedy Center tomorrow as part of a five-city, post-New York tour.

The character she portrays is the groundbreaking and controversial child psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, which brings up the subject of psychoanalysis -- a subject Hagen claims she's wary of.

"To me it does not help an artist. That is the main reason I have balked at it," she says, objecting specifically to what she describes as "over-simplifications, ready, easy answers that make you stop asking questions."

Her resistance to psychology carried over to her research, which consisted solely of reading Phyllis Grosskurth's 1985 biography, "Melanie Klein," on which Wright based the play. She admits she'd never heard of Klein and says, "I jumped over most of the chapters that had to do with her theories and her work because I don't understand it."

There was a time, Hagen explains, when she would wallow in "theoretic, pedantic homework I remember when I did homework on 'Saint Joan,' by the time I was through I wanted to play all the roles that aren't in George Bernard Shaw. You can get so bogged down in research you can lose track of what will feed you in the role."

What was the attraction of "Mrs. Klein," a role Hagen sought ever since the play debuted in London in 1988? (It was also produced at Washington's Arena Stage in 1992.) "She's an unbelievably complex character," the actress says. "She exists on so many levels in that play, to explore that for me was an extraordinary, great adventure."

At the same time, Hagen describes Klein as a "monster" who used her own children as guinea pigs and was "power mad." The play -- which takes place on a night in 1934 when Klein, her grown daughter and a protege grapple over the circumstances of her son's death -- depicts her so negatively, Hagen was dismayed when many of her friends, and her late husband, said she was just right for the part.

In retrospect, this actress, whose credo is to find the humanity in a character, believes, "One reason they said this is because I have never been afraid, never balked, at playing negative things in human beings. The essence of that negativity is in everybody. The essence of unabated egomania is in everybody. I think we learn, or at least I hope I have learned, that my interest in someone else can become greater than my interest in myself."

One of the more painful areas in which she has learned this is her relationship with her daughter, Letty, who chose her mother's profession, as did Klein's daughter, who became a rival psychiatrist. "I would say there is no exact parallel, I hope to God, anywhere in this," prefaces Hagen, while acknowledging she was not a good mother. "My problems were similar to Melanie's in that I had a burning desire to function on my own, and I was terribly young when I had Letty and didn't understand. I literally didn't understand what the job of a mother was. I understood it theoretically, but her emotional needs I coped with very badly. My main fault -- I demanded too much. It took me until Letty was 20 to realize this was a major mistake."

This production of "Mrs. Klein" is somewhat of an HB Studio reunion. Both Amy Wright, who plays Klein's protege, and director William Carden, who is artistic director of the HB Playwrights Foundation, were Hagen's students at the studio. Laila Robins, who plays Klein's daughter and who Center Stage audiences may remember from "The Lady From the Sea," has been a member of the HB faculty.

"Some jerk said to me, 'Isn't it rather incestuous?' " Hagen says, with a growl in her naturally low-pitched voice. "I said, 'No, because when you work with people all of whom speak the same language, you're about six weeks ahead of rehearsal when you start, and you can get a true ensemble, which is what theater should be, not a star turn.' "

In keeping with that, Hagen adamantly defends the play against critics who "say I'm better than the play. This is not true. It couldn't work for me this long if it weren't a very good play."

Something in common

And, despite her personal feelings about Klein, Hagen has some other things in common with the psychoanalyst, besides a daughter who went into her mother's field. Like Klein, Hagen is a German refugee and a teacher. In Hagen's case, when she was 6, she moved with her family to Madison, Wis., where her father founded the art history department at the University of Wisconsin. By then, she had seen a production of "Saint Joan" in Berlin that changed her life. As she wrote in her memoir, "Sources," "I knew at once that some day I would act."

While still in her teens, Hagen wrote a letter to Eva Le Gallienne, asking for an audition. At age 18, she was cast as Ophelia in Le Gallienne's production of "Hamlet" in Dennis, Mass. That winter, she won the role of Nina in "The Seagull," starring Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. When the show tried out in Baltimore, The Sun called Hagen "the find of the year." Alexander Woollcott wrote that it received 28 curtain calls.

Hagen, however, doesn't remember any of that excitement. "My memory is very fogged because I had a bad cold and I remember playing in a haze of illness, and we were all very worried and I was just having a kind of strange euphoric ball there," she says.

She does remember that on Broadway, she was late for an entrance once, and Lunt, who was supposed to kiss her in the scene, bit her on the lip, instead. When the scene ended, the reprimand continued with Fontanne kicking her. Hagen learned her lesson and has nothing but praise for the Lunts. "If anybody missed an entrance on me today, I might do the same," she says. "It's the ultimate sin, and I learned that very early, and I'm very grateful for everything I learned from them. They were extraordinary artists."

Although Hagen says she performed in Baltimore many times, the Robeson "Othello" was not one of them. The city's theaters were segregated in the 1940s, and the cast refused to play for segregated audiences.

In addition, Hagen and her first husband, Jose Ferrer, who played Iago, insisted on staying in the same hotel as Robeson. "You know how many segregated theaters there were in the north where we broke the precedent?" she asks, giving Indianapolis and Detroit as prime examples. In Sacramento, Calif., "We lived in a brothel," she says. "That was the adventure of my life because I learned about this country."

The production had other repercussions for Hagen as well. Beginning in the McCarthy era, Hollywood blacklisted her for two decades, even though the witness who testified against her to the House Un-American Activities Committee was found to be a perjurer. Her lawyers believed the committee was hoping to get at Robeson through her.

Few movies

She credits the blacklist with keeping her from being tempted by the movies -- a form she enjoys as an audience member but describes as "dismal" for an actor. "Standing around and waiting and then throwing together something at the spur of the moment is the opposite of the way I work," says Hagen, whose sparse movie appearances include "Reversal of Fortune," "The Other" and "The Boys from Brazil."

Her dedication to her craft stems from her upbringing. "In our home, art and creativity were the religion, and God existed only insofar as He might be responsible for them," she wrote in "A Challenge for the Actor," one of her two books on acting.

Being an artist was regarded as a privilege in her family, and now, in her sixth decade as an actress, Hagen does indeed feel she has been privileged -- to an extent. "I haven't led as privileged a life as I should have because I haven't played all the parts I should have and haven't been a member of a company -- there isn't one, a real national theater, which we should have had long ago. I still say it's possible."

A national theater has been a dream of Hagen's ever since she was a child in Germany, attending the subsidized theaters. "We really don't understand here. We don't understand. I get crazy," she says with her passion as an actress, a teacher and a priestess of the stage rolled into one. "It's as though culture is a dirty word, not an obligation of a nation to bring that to its people."

Pub Date: 9/18/96

'Mrs. Klein'

Where: Kennedy Center, Washington

When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, with matinees at 2: 30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; through Oct. 20

Tickets: $25-$48

Call: (800) 444-1324

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