Maria Irene Fornes is a unique voice in American theater. Defying categorizations, she refuses to allow her work to be defined either by who she is or by any specific genre. She instead creates stunning and powerfully visual works of theater. In general, her writing attempts to blend nonrealistic staging with psychologically based dialogue. Fornes is not trapped by plot, however. In many of her plays, major plot moments are referred to obliquely through the use of dialogue and through throwaway references made during scenes. She writes with a clear poetic sense and creates strong verbal and visual imagery with both her words and the stage pictures that she paints. In addition, she is not afraid to break theatrical convention by making the audience aware of the theatrical frame with which she is working. She considers the audience to be an active participant in her plays, whether actually following the action throughout the theater (such as in Fefu and Her Friends) or forcing them to piece together the interlocking relationships of her characters (such as in Abingdon Square).
Her strong desire to create theatrical compositions onstage has been linked to her background as a painter, although her directing experience may also play a part. In all of her plays, she pays a great deal of attention to staging and stage directions. She provides detailed set descriptions as well as evocation descriptions of the movement in her plays. Yet her emphasis on theatricality in her works in no way diminishes the depth of her characterization. Fornes has a great ability to create fully realized and tremendously complex characters in all of her works. Even the minor characters in her plays are given their full due; one has only to look at the eight individual women she created in Fefu and Her Friends to realize how complex her characters are.
Fefu and Her Friends
In 1935 New England, eight women gather at Fefu’s house to discuss their upcoming presentation on education. Fefu greets the women, a collection of new acquaintances and old friends. Most notable among the old friends is Julia, a friend of Fefu’s who has been paralyzed ever since witnessing a deer being shot. Fefu shocks the newcomers by being “outrageous,” specifically by fixing toilets and playing a game with her husband wherein she fires a blank at him. After all the women are together, Fornes breaks the audience into four groups. The groups then proceed to four different areas, each within hearing and visual distance from the others. The cast then performs four separate scenes, and the audience shifts from scene to scene. For the third act the audience returns to their seats and the actors go back to the main living room set. The women plan their presentation, and then, as the other women participate in a water fight in the kitchen, Julia is encouraged by Fefu to fight against her paralysis. In an attempt to cheer her friend up, Fefu goes offstage to “shoot” her husband again. The shot is fired, and a spot of blood appears on Julia’s forehead as Fefu comes in holding the dead body of a rabbit she accidentally killed.
With Fefu and Her Friends , Fornes uses the gathering of women to demonstrate the transformation of roles of women and the advantage men have over them. Fefu is considered “outrageous” because her behavior is seen as too masculine, whereas Julia is seen as too helpless and empathetic to survive the new modern age. Some critics have suggested that the playwright’s disruption of the stage space and the traditional actor/audience relationship...
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in the second act forces the audience to question the dominant (masculine) theater paradigm.
Mud was another major triumph for Fornes. Set in a wooden room on top of an earth promontory, Mud tells of the interrelationship among Lloyd, Mae, and Henry. Lloyd and Mae are undereducated and in their mid-twenties, while Henry is slightly more educated but very philosophical. Henry is also much older than Mae. When Henry falls in love with Mae, she allows him to move into her and Lloyd’s world. When Henry moves in, Lloyd is very resentful and encourages Mae to leave him. Mae convinces Lloyd to become more educated and to cure himself of his illness. As Lloyd becomes more independent of Mae, Henry becomes more dependent, eventually having a stroke and needing to be spoon-fed. At the end of the play, as the two men are fighting, Mae leaves but is shot by Lloyd and dies.
In Mud, Fornes requires the actors to freeze in place for five seconds after each scene. Through the ever-present mud on the stage, she seems to be commenting on people’s desire to evolve out of the muck and to reinvent the self. Indeed, this is the theme that Mae constantly evokes, and when she dies, she dies “as a starfish,” having finally reinvented herself into something beautiful.
The Conduct of Life
Perhaps Fornes’s best-known play, The Conduct of Life partners violence against women with political violence. The play centers on the figure of Orlando, who is the head of his household and also an army officer involved in state-sponsored torture. Orlando mocks his wife, Leticia, and dominates his household, including Olympia, his housekeeper. He also beats and rapes Nena, a twelve-year-old girl whom he keeps in the basement for his sexual pleasures. As the action progresses, Fornes shows how violence breeds more violence: Leticia finally rebels and kills Orlando. She then gives the gun to Nena, and the play ends with her asking Nena to shoot her as well.
The Conduct of Life shows Fornes’s continuing concern with the intersections of gender, power, and violence. Olympia survives because she is able to dismiss Orlando despite his threats, and Nena survives her brutal ordeal through a Christ-like acceptance of others’ pain. Orlando is only able to perform sexually if violence is involved. He rapes Nena and forces himself on his wife at the end of the play. Leticia, who tries to endure this world, finally resorts to violence. With these characters, Fornes explores many different ways in which power and gender interact and shows the potential danger of how oppression breeds violence and hatred.
Fornes returns to the themes of sexuality, gender, and repression in Abingdon Square. Set in early twentieth century New York, the play tells the story of Marion, a young woman of fifteen married to Juster, a successful fifty-year-old widower who has fallen in love with her. As the play continues, the audience learns that Marion merely admires Juster and does not love him. As she defies convention and has an affair, Fornes shows the effects her scandalous behavior has on all members of the family. At the end, Juster suffers a stroke after debating whether to kill Marion or himself, and Marion leaves her lover to fulfill her obligation to her husband.
In many ways, Abingdon Square can be seen as an extension of many of the themes dealt with in Fornes’s earlier plays. She sets up the conflict between desire and duty, age and youth, and freedom and repression. She shows the emotional and psychic damage these issues cause all members of the family with the tense, emotion-loaded, staccato scenes of dialogue that she uses to construct the play.