By Helen Dudar
The New York Times, December 15, 1985
Uta Hagen Acting, Acting, in ‘Mrs. Warren’s Profeesion’…
Since Uta Hagen is one of the glories of the American theater and since she turns up infrequently in large public performance spaces, she is subject to a tiresome litany of questions. “Uta, her friends demand, “why are you so choosy? Even worse are colleagues who will watch her do a finely wrought workshop job of acting at the school she runs with her husband and then stun her with, “Uta, isn’t it a shame you’re not working?” Mention the need for “high visibility” at your peril; the Hagen idea of theater is at odds with convention. Forty-eight years after she first walked on stage, she still sees that actor’s art as a sacred gift, one that can, if need be, shed a pure light in the corner of a small room before an audience of two, neither of whom paid for the seat.
Miss Hagen opens today in the Roundabout Theater Company production of Mrs. Warren’s Profession, an early George Bernard Shaw piece that once caused great scandal. She plays Kitty Warren, the canny businesswoman who made it up from poverty on a string of European brothels; Pamela Reed is her daughter, Vivie, a Shavian “new woman,” educated, independent and scarily incorruptible. The play is a cool, witty exploration of social hypocrisy, punctuated by two powerful mother-daughter confrontations—reminders of the anger that fueled a formidable intellect.
The last major Hagen appearance in a Shaw work was a memorable St. Joan in 1951. Once, she longed to play Major Barbara and Eliza Doolittle, but at 66, she knows the chance will not come her way. She is not inclined to brood about lost opportunities or, for that matter, about old times. “People talk about the good old days; there were no good old days. They were rotten. There were 60 theaters and 40 of them played what is now television sitcom.”
Handsome, energetic, vibrant and cheerfully opinionated, Miss Hagen is dedicated to worrying about the future of her profession. “My standard for a performance is that I forget I’m seeing an actor and think I’m watching a human being. I believe this in my bones. We haven’t begun to show how we can make the theater a meaningful communicative art. We’re just beginning. We make some progress, then we backtrack and we get rave reviews for strutting around worse than in old silent movies.”
Some of her efforts in behalf of these standards are theater history: a luminous Desdemona in the Paul Robeson Othello; an unmatchable Blanche Du Bois in the national company of A Streetcar Named Desire; Georgie in Clifford Odets’s Country Girl; tough, foul-mouthed Martha in 1962 in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—the portrayal that won her awards on both sides of the Atlantic.
The last time Broadway saw her was nearly six years ago in Peter Hacks’s Charlotte, a two-character play about the woman who was Goethe’s lover for 10 years. It closed after five performances. Her husband, Herbert Berghof, redirected the play as a one-woman show and she toured with it in 1981 and 1982.
Her voice a warm blend of honey and nicotine, Miss Hagen smoked without pause and confided, “Now I’m going to tell you the things that make me mad.”
The Berghof-Hagen HB Studio in Greenwich Village, which has an enrollment of 5,000 students, also stages works in progress in its 80-seat theater. There in 1983 and 1984, each time after months of work, she appeared in two versions of The Silver Fox by Donna De Matteo, a studio playwright. This year, Miss Hagen and Mr. Berghof performed a piece they have been developing on Adolph Eichmann and Hannah Arendt.
“I have been functioning like crazy. I am acting. I am acting,” she said forcefully not long ago. It was the late afternoon of her day off, six hours of which had been spent in classwork at the studio. In the book-filled living room of her Washington Square apartment, an ancient toy poodle curled up on the couch and coughed fitfully. Her voice a warm blend of honey and nicotine, Miss Hagen smoked without pause and confided, “Now I’m going to tell you the things that make me mad.
“A friend of mine came backstage and said, ‘Oh, it’s so wonderful to see you in this part. I can’t wait to see what you’re going to do next.’ I thought, ‘I haven’t opened in this yet and she’s waiting for what I’m going to do next?’ I did one performance of Charlotte for Joe Papp at the Public Theater, and he came running backstage and said, ‘Oh, it’s just criminal, you’re not working.’ I said, ‘What the hell did I just do up there?’”
When the Roundabout proposed Mrs. Warren to her, she was cautiously interested. A compulsive and wide-ranging reader, she knew the play, its period and its history. “I said I’d have to re-read it and then I said something very selfish but I still think I have the right. I wanted to know who’s directing and who’s going to be in it. We’re not going to do Gilbert and Sullivan or something cutesy. I don’t want to play style; I want to play content. My passion, and I sound pompous when I say it, is my belief that style is always the result of the correct exploration of content.”
“We fight like crazy to keep the school’s purity,” Miss Hagen says.
Miss Hagen made her decision after 10 minutes of talk with the director, John Madden. She did not know his work except by high reputation. Mr. Madden, a 36-year-old Englishman with a trans-Atlantic career, had never seen her on stage, but he was one of an army of ardent admirers of Respect for Acting, her small, highly readable text on the art and craft of performing.
Published by Macmillan in 1973, the book is now in its 17th edition, with 168,500 copies in print, and it is a religious text of the theater world. Mr. Madden discovered it early in his career to his gain. “When you first read it you think to yourself, ‘So that’s what this is; so that’s how you do it.’” Miss Hagen brings her principles to work with her, he says. “I’ve never learned so much in a rehearsal period.”
Midway through rehearsals on Mrs. Warren, Miss Hagen suddenly realized with horror that, in her mind, she had mistakenly located Mrs. Warren’s childhood in a rural slum instead of a poverty-blighted London street. The error directly involved one line, but obviously embraced a train of imagery crucial to the way she thought about the character. Mr. Madden recalls that it took a day and a half, including a sleepless night, before she could locate a new emotional and biographical spine for Mrs. Warren’s laconic report that her mother “had a fried-fish shop down by the Mint.”
Director and actors went to work this fall on a play that, at first rereading, seems antique, a piece that deals with the social and moral issues of selling sex without once using the word “prostitution.” Shaw’s third play was written in 1893-94, and would wait more than 30 years for public performance in London. Not only was the playwright attacking a social order in which “the only way for a woman to provide for herself decently is for her to be good to some man that can afford to be good to her”; he had actually given center stage to a character who flourished in her business without punishment or woe.
When the first American production was staged in 1905, the New Haven authorities closed it down after one performance. It came into the old Garrick Theater here on a wave of publicity that filled the house and brought out mobs of disappointed first-night ticket-buyers. Most of them were women who had somehow gotten the word that the play spoke to them of more than the issue of prostitution.
The New York police also banned Mrs. Warren and arrested the company. In the days and weeks that followed, newspapers and magazines self-righteously uncapped geysers of steaming ink. The New York American said it was “pestilential,” The Tribune found it “an affront to decency” and The New York Times condemned its “vicious tendency.” Times could change then as swiftly as they do now. Two years later, in 1907, when the star, Mary Shaw, revived the play in New York, she couldn’t fill the house, and the critics wondered what all the fuss had been about.
For Mr. Madden, the play is streaked with Shavian biography, the buried passions of a man who had reason to question his paternity, who had grown up with a bizarre menage a trois: a drunken father, a remote and distant mother and her adored music teacher. In this early play, the character invested with a child’s sense of emotional desolation is Vivie, reared by paid strangers and uncertain of her father. As much as anything, Mr. Madden believes, Mrs. Warren’s Profession is about an abandoned child.
“Oh,” she says, “do I love to act.”
Pondering the play, Miss Hagen wondered why, in her youth, she never coveted the “fabulous” role of Vivie. “I must have been crazy,” she says. It is tempting to imagine how many more roles she might have had if a stint as a student in England had given her entree into the British stage community. Born in Germany, reared in Madison, Wis., Miss Hagen got to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art while her father, an art historian, was working on a project in London.
“Oh, I hated it,” she says. “I would have been a terrible actress if I’d stayed. I was 16 and I knew it was bad. We stood in a line, 30 Rosalinds against the dance bars reciting from As You Like it in unison with the same gestures and the same intonations. Honest to God.”
So she came home, and won the role of Ophelia in an Eva Le Gallienne summer theater production of Hamlet. A year later, at 19, Miss Hagen made her Broadway debut playing Nina with the fabled Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in The Seagull, an experience that marked her forever. “I was terrified of them. If I had a hairpin sticking out of my hair, I got a calling down. They were fanatics. After a performance, they’d go home with an actress who was also their secretary and rehearse with her until they fell asleep. On closing night of a production, they were still giving notes to the actors. I never got it out of my bones.”
This ferocious sense of discipline has been imparted to generations of new actors. Miss Hagen began teaching in 1947, when, her marriage to Jose Ferrar having foundered, she and Mr. Berghof discovered one another. The HB Studio, which he had started two years earlier, has grown from one room to three buildings, not without superhuman effort. Banks have refused loans for expansion projects because, having never borrowed money, they had no credit rating; foundations have withheld grants because this frugal couple could not bear the idea of operating at a deficit. Workshop shows at the studio are free, and they have never charged more than $5 a class, a policy that has earned them more scorn than gratitude. “We fight like crazy to keep the school’s purity,” Miss Hagen says.
The $5 fees are split evenly between teachers and school. It’s not the kind of money that sustains a thirst for champagne, but then Miss Hagen says that from the start she vowed never to succumb to a lifestyle that could only be supported by big hits. The Berghofs live in a roomy rent-controlled apartment so primitively wired it cannot deal with an air-conditioner. A cleaning woman comes twice a week for three hours. Neither she nor her husband are interested in clothes and, since she is a gifted cook, they seldom eat in restaurants. Major wages are invested in permanence. Her earnings from Virginia Woolf built a small summer place in Montauk, L.I. His eight days of work—and eight months of salary—from the Taylor-Burton film of Cleopatra paid for the theater at the HB Studio.
Miss Hagen figures that in a year she refuses about 10 offers of plays, most of which never make it into production. “That’s why I say I’m not choosy.” All she asks of the theater is a wonderful play, a good part, people she wants to work with and a long run; a long run offers the time to really nurture a character. “Oh,” she says, as if the discovery were sudden and fresh, “do I love to act.”