Maria Irene Fornes Fornes, Maria Irene (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Maria Irene Fornes 1930-

(Also rendered as Maria Irene Fornés) Cuban-born American playwright and librettist.

The following entry presents an overview of Fornes's career through 2001. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 39 and 61.

In a career spanning over forty years, Fornes has been celebrated as a groundbreaking playwright within the theatrical world, yet she has received scant attention from mainstream critical and popular audiences. Since the 1960s, Fornes has been at the forefront of avant-garde, off-off-Broadway experimental theater. As a director of her own plays, Fornes has achieved a level of artistic control over her work that emphasizes her inventive staging and nontraditional theatrical techniques. She has been widely praised for her use of postmodern theatrical forms, such as her “collage technique,” by which she draws from a multiplicity of cultural texts to formulate the content of her plays. Fornes has also attracted notice for the feminist perspective that informs much of her work, most notably her plays Fefu and Her Friends (1977), Mud (1983), and The Conduct of Life (1985). Her contribution to American theater has been recognized with an unprecedented eight Obie (Off-Broadway theater) awards as well as an Obie award for her overall sustained achievement.

Biographical Information

Fornes was born on May 14, 1930, in Havana, Cuba, to Carlos Luis and Carmen Hismenia Fornes. After her father died in 1945, she moved with her mother and sister to the United States, becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1951. From 1954 to 1957, Fornes lived in Paris, studying to become a painter. However, after attending a French production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Fornes decided to devote her creative energies toward playwriting. Upon returning to the United States, she worked for three years as a textile designer in New York City. The Widow, Fornes's first professionally produced play, was staged in 1961. Fornes acted as the director for many of her subsequent works, including There! You Died (1963; later retitled Tango Palace, 1964), The Successful Life of 3: A Skit in Vaudeville (1965), and Molly's Dream (1968), among others. In 1973 she founded the New York Theatre Strategy, which was devoted to the production of stylistically innovative theatrical works. Fornes has held teaching and advisory positions at several universities and theatrical festivals, such as the Theatre for the New City, the Padua Hills Festival, and the INTAR (International Arts Relations) program in New York City. She has received eight Obie awards—in such categories as distinguished playwriting and direction and best new play—for Promenade (1965), The Successful Life of 3, Fefu and Her Friends, The Danube (1982), Mud, Sarita (1984), The Conduct of Life, and Abingdon Square (1987). Fornes has also received numerous other awards and grants for her oeuvre, including Rockefeller Foundation Grants in 1971 and 1984, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1972, National Endowments for the Arts grants in 1974, 1984, and 1985, an American Academy and Institute of Letters and Arts Award in Literature in 1986, and a Playwrights U.S.A. Award in 1986. She has also produced several original translations and adaptations of such plays as Federico Garcia Lorca's Blood Wedding (1980), Pedro Calderon de la Barca's Life Is Dream (1981), Virgilio Pinera's Cold Air (1985), and Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya (1987).

Major Works

Fornes's early plays are characterized by allegorical qualities, such as nonspecific settings, archetypal characters, and absurd situations. Tango Palace concerns an allegorical power struggle between Isidore, “an androgynous clown,” and Leopold, “an earnest youth.” The symbolic interactions between Isidore and Leopold—whose relationship alters between father-son and teacher-student—include a tango lesson and a trip to a bullfight. The Successful Life of 3 features characters named He, She, and 3, who meet in a doctor's office and become involved in a love triangle. Their archetypal relationship is delineated through a series of short, unrelated sketches in which the sense of disconnection helps explain the dynamics of their love. Promenade, a musical comedy of manners, contains perhaps Fornes's strongest social criticism to date. The plot follows two guileless, lower-class prisoners—105 and 106—who escape from their jail cell in a quest to find the evil they know to exist in the world, but have never seen. Their flight leads them to direct confrontation with the wealthy for the first time, and 105 and 106 learn that the rich are cruel, while the poor are wealthy in spirit and kindness. In the conclusion, the prisoners willingly return to the “freedom” of their cell. Another of Fornes's favorite satirical targets is popular culture, and she often employs ironic reversal to illustrate the influence it has on the American psyche. In Molly's Dream, for example, a waitress falls asleep on the job and dreams herself into the melodramatic movies of the 1940s. Fornes parodies and mocks the romantic conventions of the era, as Molly refuses to break into song when music swells dramatically and interrupts a torch song about abusive love to explain the implausibility of the situation in her actual life.

Fefu and Her Friends, Fornes's most recognized and popular work, represents a new development in her playwriting, moving toward characters, settings, and situations that are more realist in nature. The play revolves around eight female friends who have gathered at a New England country home for a reunion weekend in 1935. However, the friends soon become wrought with tension, which eventually degenerates into a violent frenzy, culminating with murder. During the second half of the play, the audience is invited to step onto the set and move from room to room, in order to watch scenes that take place in different parts of the house. Through a blend of quick humor and stream-of-consciousness dialogue, Fefu and Her Friends illuminates the concerns and social ills of the Depression era from a female perspective. Mud, also grounded in realist theatrical techniques, is set on an Appalachian farm, where Mae, her husband Lloyd, and Henry, who becomes Mae's lover after Lloyd is accidentally crippled, live in a malaise of gloom and ignorance. After Mae realizes that knowledge and communication are the keys to personal power, she prepares to leave the stifling farm, but the inarticulate Lloyd kills her in a rage. A number of Fornes's plays treat themes of sexual politics and the failure of communication. The Danube centers upon Paul and Eve, whose difficultly communicating is punctuated by the broadcasting of a foreign language instruction tape following each argument. The title character in the musical Sarita is an adolescent Cuban girl from the South Bronx who harbors a self-destructive, unrequited love for a young man. Confused by contradicting Cuban and American values and unable to stay away from the boy, Sarita ultimately stabs him to death. The Conduct of Life focuses on the personal and sexual life of Orlando, a Latin American soldier whose duty is torturing prisoners for the military government. Rather than showing the audience the particulars of Orlando's job, Fornes conveys his heartless temperament by depicting his violent relationship with his wife, whom he harasses and ridicules, and his twelve-year-old female servant, whom he rapes and enslaves. Through the link between Orlando's private and public lives, Fornes comments on the brutality of political oppression.

Set in New York City in 1905, Abingdon Square imparts the sense of stagnation felt by Marion, a fifteen-year-old girl married to a middle-aged man. Marion escapes her confining world through sexual fantasies, and when a young man helps her discover her true self, Marion begins to acknowledge the importance of her own needs and desires. Oscar and Bertha (1991) is set in the home of an adult brother and sister who live together. Their lives are altered by the arrival of Eve, a woman who has answered their advertisement for a live-in housekeeper. The sibling rivalry between Oscar and Bertha, which has continued to develop and worsen since their childhood, is piqued by their competitive vying for Eve's affection. Offering a unique perspective on gender relations and gender identity, Enter the Night (1993) follows three characters—a nurse, a man whose lover has died of the AIDS virus, and a woman suffering from heart disease. In one scene, two of the characters reenact a moment from D. W. Griffith's 1919 silent film Broken Blossoms with the man taking on the role that was originally played by the famous actress Lillian Gish. Fornes utilized her personal experiences as a Cuban-American immigrant as the foundation for Letters from Cuba (1999). The protagonist, Fran—a Cuban immigrant living in New York—receives regular letters from her brother, Luis, who remained in Havana. Through their missives, Fornes examines the effect of both Fran and Luis's separate lives on their family and each other.

Critical Reception

Despite her accomplishments, Fornes has not received significant public attention. Critic Don Shewey has described her as “one of the best-kept secrets of the American theater.” Fornes has been widely celebrated by theater professionals and critics for her experimental techniques, postmodern form, feminist perspective, and blending of realism with elements of allegory. A number of scholars have discussed the allegorical qualities of Fornes's plays, which feature archetypal characters and address broad, universal themes. Sally Porterfield has asserted that, “[t]he universe of Fornes's artistic imagination seems to be formed by a distillation of universal experience … When we meet these archetypal characters and situations within the strange and exotic world of her drama, it becomes an eerily unexpected and moving encounter.” Fornes has also won praise for the effective realism of the emotional content of her plays and the various ways in which she combines theatrical form and dramatic content to present critical examinations of women's everyday experiences, especially within the domestic sphere. Feminist academics have particularly singled out Fefu and Her Friends for presenting a unique and often-lacking feminist perspective on an important era of world history. While some have lauded Conduct of Life for its avoidance of didacticism and strong theatrical impact, others have criticized the play for its brutal subject material and unsympathetic characters. Additionally, some reviewers have argued that Fornes's experimental narratives are often obtuse and merely exercises in style. However, critics have continued to regard Fornes as one of the most original voices in contemporary American theater.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Widow (play) 1961

There! You Died (play) 1963; retitled Tango Palace, 1964

Promenade (libretto) 1965

The Successful Life of 3: A Skit in Vaudeville (play) 1965

The Office (play) 1966

The Annunciation (play) 1967

A Vietnamese Wedding (play) 1967

Dr. Kheal (play) 1968

Molly's Dream (play) 1968

The Red Burning Light; or, Mission XQ3 (play) 1968

*Promenade and Other Plays (plays) 1971

The Curse of the Langston House (play) 1972...

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Maria Irene Fornes and Scott Cummings (interview date 23 May 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Fornes, Maria Irene, and Scott Cummings. “Seeing with Clarity: The Visions of Maria Irene Fornes.” Theater 17, no. 1 (winter 1985): 51-6.

[In the following interview, originally conducted on May 23, 1985, Fornes discusses the development of her career as a director and playwright, as well as the stylistic elements of her plays.]

1985 was a banner year for Maria Irene Fornes. She has, by her own admission, “been receiving a lot of praise lately … and awards.” To a small cadre of supporters and critics, the recognition is overdue. She is one of the few ‘first generation’ off-off-Broadway playwrights to remain consistently active there for the past...

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Lurana Donnels O'Malley (essay date 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: O'Malley, Lurana Donnels. “Pressing Clothes/Snapping Beans/Reading Books: Maria Irene Fornes's Women's Work.” Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present 4 (1989): 103-17.

[In the following essay, O'Malley explores Fornes's representation of women's attitudes toward housework in Fefu and Her Friends, Mud, and The Conduct of Life, concluding that Fornes views housekeeping as a positive, ritualized act of “self-knowledge and love.”]

Barbara Walker, in her autobiographical The Skeptical Feminist, explores women's predetermined roles in a patriarchal society. She writes that the slotting of women into the traditional modes of...

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Stacy Wolf (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wolf, Stacy. “Re/Presenting Gender, Re/Presenting Violence: Feminism, Form and the Plays of Maria Irene Fornes.” Theatre Studies 37 (1992): 17-31.

[In the following essay, Wolf argues that the form, as well as the content, of Fornes's plays make possible a feminist interpretation of the violence that pervades much of her work. Wolf asserts that Fornes's plays “re-present violence in order to point to its gendered construction.”]

In a recent article in The Women's Review of Books, Marilyn French writes:

We cannot prove that actual violence toward women is affected by its depiction in film, television,...

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Bonnie Marranca (essay date May 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Marranca, Bonnie. “The State of Grace: Maria Irene Fornes at Sixty-Two.” Performing Arts Journal 14, no. 2 (May 1992): 24-31.

[In the following essay, Marranca observes that Fornes's plays explore the spiritual lives of women and the consequences of their various life-choices.]

Early in Abingdon Square a young woman says to an inquisitive friend, “You have to know how to enter another person's life.” In many ways that rule of etiquette has shaped the theatre of Maria Irene Fornes whose profound theme has always been the conduct of life.

This is particularly true of Abingdon Square in which she creates a universe more...

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Christine Kiebuzinska (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kiebuzinska, Christine. “Traces of Brecht in Maria Irene Fornes' Mud.The Brecht Yearbook 18 (1993): 153-65.

[In the following essay, Kiebuzinska discusses the influence of playwright and dramatist Bertolt Brecht on the feminist elements of Mud.]

The plays of the Cuban-American playwright and director, Maria Irene Fornes, illustrate effectively Andrzej Wirth's observation of the paradoxical situation of “Brecht reception without Brecht.”1 Fornes comes to the theater with a background in the visual arts and traces her interest in the theater from the time she saw Roger Blin's production of Beckett's Waiting for Godot as an art...

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Scott T. Cummings (essay date spring 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cummings, Scott T. “Fornes's Odd Couple: Oscar and Bertha at the Magic Theatre.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 8, no. 2 (spring 1994): 147-56.

[In the following essay, Cummings critiques a 1992 Magic Theatre production of Oscar and Bertha, noting that Fornes's works “present some of the most poignant and painful aspects of being human in an abstract, almost pure, form.”]

Maria Irene Fornes calls her play, Oscar and Bertha, “an exaggerated close-up, in a way an almost microscopic view of an extremely basic emotional situation.” The basic situation is sibling rivalry and the particular exaggeration here, which works to...

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Sheila Rabillard (review date May 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rabillard, Sheila. Review of Enter the Night, by Maria Irene Fornes. Theatre Journal 46, no. 2 (May 1994): 283-84.

[In the following review, Rabillard praises a 1993 New City Theater production of Enter the Night, asserting that the central theme of the play is the characters' desire to “ease one another's pain.”]

Enter the Night, written and directed by Maria Irene Fornes, received its world premiere 16 April 1993 at Seattle's New City Theater. Commissioned by the resident company, Theater Zero, the drama, originally entitled Dreams, began as a series of monologues that came to Fornes between sleep and waking. As she assembled...

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Sheila Rabillard (essay date spring 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rabillard, Sheila. “Crossing Cultures and Kinds: Maria Irene Fornes and the Performance of a Post-Modern Sublime.” Journal of American Drama and Theatre 9, no. 2 (spring 1997): 33-43.

[In the following essay, Rabillard argues that Fornes's plays combine postmodern techniques of distancing the audience with dramatic scenes of emotional transcendence.]

Maria Irene Fornes' recent play, Enter the Night, is situated in the intersections between “high art” and “popular culture”; “mediatized” and “live” performance; cultural assimilation and nightmares of miscegenation. While such intersections have become familiar territory for post-modern...

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Cara Gargano (essay date August 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gargano, Cara. “The Starfish and the Strange Attractor: Myth, Science, and Theatre as Laboratory in Maria Irene Fornes's Mud.New Theatre Quarterly 13, no. 51 (August 1997): 214-20.

[In the following essay, Gargano comments that Fornes's theatrical technique in Mud is analogous to ground-breaking developments in scientific theory. Gargano asserts that Fornes “uses the paradigm of the theatre as potential to demonstrate the inevitable connection between our art, our learning, and our social artifice.”]

What we are discussing … is the relation between theory, experiment, and nature. … Nature is too big, too...

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Randi Koppen (essay date autumn 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Koppen, Randi. “Formalism and the Return to the Body: Stein's and Fornes's Aesthetic of Significant Form.” New Literary History 28, no. 4 (autumn 1997): 791-809.

[In the following essay, Koppen compares and contrasts the formal and aesthetic qualities of the dramatic works of Fornes and Gertrude Stein.]

“To open the question,” as Shoshana Felman once prefaced a famous volume, let me begin with a modernist text on form. In The Meaning of Art, the art critic Herbert Read writes: “Form, though it can be analyzed into intellectual terms like measure, balance, rhythm and harmony, is really intuitive in origin; it is not an intellectual product. It...

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Don Shewey (essay date 9 November 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Shewey, Don. “Her Championship Season.” Advocate (9 November 1999): 74-6.

[In the following essay, Shewey discusses the New York Signature Theatre Company's retrospective series on Fornes's plays, commenting that the playwright is “one of the best-kept secrets of the American theater.”]

Maria Irene Fornes is one of the best-kept secrets of the American theater. Hardcore musical theater buffs may recall her giddy 1969 collaboration with Al Carmines, Promenade, for which New York's prestigious Promenade Theater is named. Otherwise, the 69-year-old Cuban-born lesbian playwright is virtually unknown to the general public.


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Sally Porterfield (essay date summer 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Porterfield, Sally. “Black Cats and Green Trees: The Art of Maria Irene Fornes.” Modern Drama 43, no. 2 (summer 2000): 204-15.

[In the following essay, Porterfield discusses Fornes's theatrical technique and her work as a director of her own plays. Porterfield argues that Fornes's dominant thematic focus is “the search for truth, for wholeness, for understanding of our attempts to make sense out of a seemingly random existence.”]

“I didn't think I was a playwright before I started writing. I was a painter, but it's the same thing. You like so much the way that little tree looks beside that house and so you draw it.”1 Maria Irene Fornes...

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Steven Drukman (essay date September 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Drukman, Steven. “Notes on Fornes (with Apologies to Susan Sontag).” American Theatre 17, no. 7 (September 2000): 36-9, 85.

[In the following essay, Drukman critiques the unique stylistic qualities of Fornes's plays, which make them both critically acclaimed and difficult to analyze.]

Last year New York's Signature Theatre dedicated its season to the plays of Maria Irene Fornes. The roster included David Esbjornson's lapidary staging of Mud (and the curtain-closer Drowning); the New York premiere of the 1993 Enter the Night, confidently staged be newcomer Sonja Moser; and a world premiere of Letters from Cuba, directed by Fornes...

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Piper Murray (essay date winter 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Murray, Piper. “‘They are Well Together. Women are Not’: Productive Ambivalence and Female Hom(m)osociality in Fefu and Her Friends.Modern Drama 44, no. 4 (winter 2001): 398-415.

[In the following essay, Murray presents a critical discussion on the themes of female friendship and female desire in Fefu and Her Friends.]

Participating in your economy, I did not know what I could have desired. Made phallic, whether by procuration or by delegation, I forgot what my jouissance could have been.

—Luce Irigaray, Elemental Passions (61)

Maria Irene Fornes's Fefu and Her...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Delgado, Maria M., and Caridad Svich, editors. Conducting a Life: Reflections on the Theatre of Maria Irene Fornes. Lyme, N.H.: Smith and Kraus, 1999, 313 p.

Delgado and Svich offer a collection of tributes and essays focusing on Fornes, written by such noted figures as Terrence McNally, Susan Sontag, Tony Kushner, and Caryl Churchill.

Morales, Ed. “Steaming in Cuban.” American Theatre 17, no. 5 (May-June 2000): 28-30.

Morales examines three plays which explore the Cuban-American immigrant experience—Fornes's Letters from Cuba, Nilo Cruz's Two Sisters and a Piano, and Esther...

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