Ideals Don’t Bend

Uta Hagen - New York, New York
As heard on the This I Believe podcast, March 15, 2015
Uta Hagen

Tony-award–winning actress Uta Hagen had been placed on the Hollywood blacklist in the 1950s, a time which she refers to as the "unreal" part of her life. In looking at the source of her strength and ideals, she found that the great artists and thinkers helped her be true to herself and "fight the good fight."

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I know that in an accidental sort of way, struggling through the unreal part of life, I haven’t always been able to live up to my ideal. But in my own real world, I’ve never done anything wrong, never denied my faith, never been untrue to myself. I’ve been threatened and blackmailed and insulted and starved, but I’ve played the game, I fought the good fight. And now it’s all over; there’s an indescribable peace.

“I believe in Michelangelo, Velazquez, and Rembrandt; and the might of design, the mystery of colour, the redemption of all things by Beauty everlasting, and the message of Art that has made these hands blessed. Amen. Amen.” These words were given to the dying painter Louis Dubedat in George Bernard Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma. It is the credo of an artist, a specific human being, and only a part of the author’s credo, whose beliefs are summed up in the entirety of his work.

Not being a writer, a prophet, or a philosopher, but an actress, I must again employ the help of a playwright to paraphrase my faith. I believe in the ancient Greeks, who initiated our theater 2,500 years ago, in the miracle of Eleanora Duse’s gifts, in the might of truth, the mystery of emotions, the redemption of all things by imagination everlasting, and the message of art that should make the untiring work and striving the inspiration and creation of all actors blessed. Amen. Amen.

In the other part of my life, I feel guilty about living up to my ideal, but not so much as poor Louis Dubedat and, of course, not for the same reasons. I have in my life to guide me the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and above all, the teachings of Jesus, and I believe in them to the letter, to the dismay of some. I, too, can get strength from Michelangelo and Rembrandt and Bach and Mozart and Shaw and Shakespeare and Plato and Aristotle. These great makers and shakers have helped me—do help me—to find reason, majesty, and greatness in this world. They have helped me to drown out the frenetic racket made by the compromisers who try to bend ideals to fit their practical needs and personal appetites and to deprive us of our spiritual salvation.

The knowledge that every day there is something more to learn, something higher to reach for, something new to make for others, makes each day infinitely precious, and I am grateful. One thing makes for another. Shaw wouldn’t be without Shakespeare. Bach without the words of Christ. Beethoven without Mozart. And we would be barren without all of them.

I was proud the day I first learned to make a good loaf of bread, to have learned a simple thing which others could enjoy, or to plant a bulb in the ground and tend it and help it grow, or to give birth to a child and help her reach her own individual freedom, or to make a character in a play come off the printed page and become a human being with a point of view, who can help others to understand a little more. All these things, and the effort to do them well, make it possible for me, while struggling through the unreal part of life and being threatened, blackmailed, insulted, and starved to be true to myself and to fight the good fight.

Uta Hagen (1919 – 2004) was a German-American actress and drama teacher. She originated the role of Martha in Edward Albee's "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf." She later became a highly influential acting teacher and authored best-selling acting texts. She twice won Tony Awards for Best Actress in a Play and received a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1999. She was elected to the Theater Hall of Fame in 1981.