Maria Irene Fornes (fawr-NAYS) was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1930. Her father did not believe in formal schooling, so she attended only the third through sixth grades. After her father’s death, she went to New York in 1945 with her widowed mother and became a naturalized American citizen in 1951. She worked at a variety of menial jobs. Her first artistic interest was painting, and in 1954 she began studying with Hans Hofmann. She spent three years in Europe in the mid-1950’s. During this time, she has said, she knew nothing about theater, but she did see the first production of Samuel Beckett’s En attendant Godot (1952; Waiting for Godot, 1954) in Paris, an experience that she has described as profound. She credits this performance and her reading of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (1890; English translation, 1891) with inspiring her to become a playwright several years later.
Fornes returned to New York in 1957 and worked as a textile designer. She developed a relationship with Susan Sontag, who at that time wanted to become a writer. According to Fornes, she started writing as a kind of game to encourage Sontag; both women found success fairly rapidly. Fornes’s play There, You Died! was produced by the Actors’ Workshop in San Francisco in 1963. That same year, Fornes joined the playwriting unit of the Actors Studio in New York, which produced the same play under the title Tango Palace in 1964. In 1965 she won her first Obie (Off-Broadway award) for Distinguished Plays, for Promenade and The Successful Life of Three.
Although she is not as acclaimed in mainstream theater as her fans would like her to be, Fornes has been a force in Off-and Off-Off-Broadway theater. She has written more than forty plays, has directed many of her own and other productions, and has been actively involved in supporting other women and Latino playwrights. She cofounded the Women’s Theater Council in 1972, with the purpose of supporting the writing and production of new plays by American women. In 1978 she began teaching Playwrights Workshop at INTAR (International Arts Relations), and in 1981 she became director of INTAR’s Hispanic Playwrights-in-Residence Laboratory, a national program to support Hispanic playwrights.
She won additional Obies in 1977 (Playwriting, for Fefu and Her Friends), 1979 (Direction, for Eyes on the Harem), 1982 (Sustained Achievement), 1984 (Playwriting and Direction, for The Danube, Sarita, and Mud), 1985 (Playwriting, for The Conduct of Life), and 1988 (Best New American Play, for Abingdon Square). She has also been awarded numerous grants and fellowships (Guggenheim, Rockefeller, and the National Endowment for the Arts among them) and is sought after as a teacher and lecturer, both in the United States and abroad. In 1999 the Signature Theater Company in New York did a season-long retrospective of Fornes’s work.
Critics and scholars find it impossible to compartmentalize the works of Fornes. Many regard her as a realistic playwright, but her plays also experiment with avant-garde techniques, expressionist and Cuban and American influences, and the influences of Ibsen, Beckett, and Bertolt Brecht. She eschews political and formal labels and emphasizes writing as a process of inventing, of always remaining on new ground. If the constant is her experimentation, the measure of her success is the number of contemporary playwrights who acknowledge her influence. Fellow dramatist Paula Vogel has noted that for these playwrights, there are only two stages—before and after reading Maria Irene Fornes.