The New York Critic: Book Reviews

by Uta Hagen
Performing Arts Journals

I’ve just finished reading Sources: A Memoir, Uta Hagen’s memoirs, published in 1983. Mdme Hagen, the reader will recall, wrote Respect for Acting and A Challenge for the Actor, arguably the definitive books on acting from the 20th century. Her authority is beyond question – she was an actress of monumental power. Watching her on stage was like being struck by lightning. Of her two books, the first is the more practical guide for the teacher. However, A Challenge for the Actor, which is a demanding read, examines the nature of acting with greater insight. UH understands the moment-to-moment life of the actor so well that she gives us insight into our moment-to-moment life in reality.

And so I was keen to learn about her personal/artistic development in the memoirs. But the book gives us little insight. It’s largely a simple reflection of her love of nature. She revealed herself so honestly on stage; she has little of importance to say when she addresses us directly as herself.

However, we do get only a few indications of how her work developed. When she was young, she tells us:
…Papa, doing his research in London, left me alone to study acting at the Royal Academy. It didn’t matter that the training wasn’t great.
Later in life, she writes:
I also had to rid myself of preconceived notions of “classic style” that I’d acquired back at the Royal Academy.

I once asked the principal of RADA what books he recommended to his students. He named Mdme Hagen's two books.

She tells us as well:
He [her second husband] drew me in and forced me to examine my techniques in a new light. I started on the road to “modern” acting…. The work was more subjective, not mechanical, the form evolved instead of being determined.

So her acting technique (honest, emotionally grounded) wasn’t intuitive. It was learned. And what’s more, it changed direction.

But her talent was obviously in her nature. She first appeared professionally in Eva Le Gallienne’s Broadway production of The Seagull. Le Gallienne’s discovery of the young Uta involved some of the most intriguing correspondence in twentieth century theatre. Some time around college age, she tells us:
I wrote a letter to Le Gallienne and asked if one day she would watch my work to see if I was worthy of her company. To everyone’s amazement, she wrote back and said the next time I was in the east, I should audition for her; my letter had persuaded her I was not another stage-struck kid, but that my passion for the arts seemed genuine….
And some time thereafter:
Then came a glorious day when Miss Gallienne summoned me.

And this is all we know of the two extraordinary letters. They’re not in Mdme Le Gallienne’s papers.

Sources has some characteristics unusual for an autobiography. UH gives us no dates, and never tells us her age when events occurred. She never tells us her husband names, referring to them rather as “my husband” or “my lover”. (They were Mel Ferrer and Herbert Berghof).

I interviewed UH in 1994. She granted me an audience during one of her classes at HB Studio here in New York. I crouched next to her desk and asked her questions between her students’ scenes. I’ve never interviewed anyone who was so uninterested in talking to me. Indeed, she barely answered my questions, and the text of the interview is brief.

Mdme Hagen died in 2004.

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