Maria Irene Fornes

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

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4220

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 25 years. In that time, she has gone through several ‘styles’ and one prolonged drought. In 1977, Fefu and Her Friends signalled an important breakthrough. Five years later, the Village Voice awarded her an Obie for Sustained Achievement, but not until the past year has attention begun to spread beyond the downtown coterie to the regional theaters, the foundations, the academy; if she was not earlier, Irene Fornes is now a major voice in American drama. The following interview was conducted by Scott Cummings, along with Edit Villarreal, a former student of Fornes, at the Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village on May 23, 1985.

[Cummings]: You set out to become a painter initially. How did you come to write your first play?

[Fornes]: It didn't happen because I thought I wanted to be a playwright. I just got this obsessive idea, as if you have a nightmare and for a while you can't shake it. It's something so strong that it's in front of you all the time. You are obsessed with it. Only it was not a nightmare. It was an obsession that took the form of a play and I felt I had to write it. It was like that. That was Tango Palace. One day I started writing it. It was a weekend and I worked all day Saturday and all day Sunday. Monday I called my job and said I was sick. I didn't go to work for nineteen days. I only went out to buy groceries. I didn't want to do anything but write. It was beautiful … incredible.

Do you see any relationship between your painting and your playwriting?

No, because my painting had never really reached a personal depth for me. Painting, I always had to force myself to work. I never found that place where you're touching on something vital to your own survival, to your own life.

What was your exposure to drama before the first playwriting experience?

The first thing that I saw that stirred me deeply was in Paris: Waiting for Godot—in French—Roger Blin's original production in 1954. I didn't know a word of French. I had not read the play in English. But what was happening in front of me had a profound impact without even understanding a word. Imagine a writer whose theatricality is so amazing and so important that you could see a play of his, not understand one word, and be shook up. When I left that theater I felt that my life was changed, that I was seeing everything with a different clarity.

What was it like the first time you heard actors read your material?

The first time was at the Actor's Studio in a director's workshop. The actress was standing and she said a few lines, looked around, and then she walked and stood behind a chair. And I said, “That is wonderful! That is wonderful!” and...

(This entire section contains 4220 words.)

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I stood up and walked around the way she had gone and I said, “but instead of stopping here, you can continue on …” Everybody was looking at me and I thought, ‘I must be doing something wrong.’ But I couldn't figure out what it was. Then the director came to me very politely and he said, “Please, Irene, any kind of comment that you want to make I am happy to hear. You make a note of it and then, after rehearsal, we go and have a cup of coffee and talk about it.”

This seemed to me like the most absurd thing in the world. It's as if you have a child, your own baby, and you take the baby to school and the baby is crying and the teacher says, “Please I'll take care of it. Make a note; at the end of the day you and I can talk about it.” You'd think, ‘this woman is crazy. I'm not going to leave my kid here with this insane person.’ I felt that way but actors were in agreement with the director. And I though when you are with insane people, you might as well just accept it. I thought, ‘Well, maybe this will work.’ Of course, it didn't. We had some very frustrating discussions in the cafeteria on Eight Avenue near the Actor's Studio.

So, in a sense, you began directing your own plays right from the very beginning.

I never saw any difference between writing and directing. I think you have to learn that there's a difference. I don't think the difference is natural. Because I didn't know anything about theater it was like: ‘you cook a meal and then you sit down and eat it.’ Of course, they are different things, but they are sequentially and directly connected. So that to me rehearsing was just the next step. To continue working on it was natural.

I didn't direct my own play for what seemed to me like an eternity. It was 1968, five years from my first production. But it did seem like a whole life, a whole career. Like at the end of my career I started directing.

How did you learn to work with actors?

I was a member of the Actor's Studio Playwrights Unit. That meant that I could observe the acting and directing classes. I saw scenes being worked on and commented on. Strasberg didn't actually teach technique there. He taught technique at his institute. There he criticized scenes or maybe referred to certain exercises. I went to Gene Frankel's school and took a course, a beginning acting course where we did sensory exercises. Also, I took a three-month directing class, which just means you get the experience of not knowing what to say to an actor. You're going to go through that anyway, you might as well go through it at school.

I went to the Actor's Studio with the interest of somebody who wants to find out what is an actor. I was very impressed with Strasberg's work as an actor's technician or a director's technician but I would completely ignore anything he would say about aesthetics. My own personal taste was already quite developed. I was an artist, I lived in an artistic world, my artistic taste was already extremely sophisticated. In the theater I was green but not artistically. Two productions had this great impact on me. One was Waiting for Godot and the other was the adaptation of Ulysses in Nighttown directed by Burgess Meredith with Zero Mostel.

How did your work at the Actor's Studio affect your playwriting?

My writing changed when I first found out what the principle of Method is. My writing became organic. I stopped being so manipulative. In Tango Palace I felt I knew what needed to happen in a scene and that the writing was serving me. You can see the moments when a character is speaking for my benefit rather than from their own need. The first play that I wrote that was influenced by my understanding of Method was The Successful Life of Three. What one character says to another comes completely out of his own impulse and so does the other character's reply. The other character's reply never comes from some sort of premeditation on my part or even the part of the character. The characters have no mind. They are simply doing what Strasberg always called “moment to moment.” There I was applying the Method technique for the actor to my writing and it was bringing something very interesting to my writing.

Your formal theater training was in the American Method but the off-Broadway theater that excited you at the time was not at all in that tradition. Wasn't there a conflict?

Not at all. The question of aesthetics has nothing to do with Method. A Method actor should be able to work in a play of O'Neill as well as Ionesco as well as Shakespeare. You don't need any special training to do Ionesco. What you need is to be aesthetically aware, and to understand that imagination is a part of natural life, of everyday life. There were many people whose acting career really suffered because they had the same feeling as Strasberg: that these exercises were only to do naturalistic plays.

What is the difference in the theater scene between 1985 and 1965?

For me it's not that different. Because I work at the Theater for the New City. Which in New York is probably the place that most resembles the original off-off-Broadway. You have to do everything yourself. There's a lot of madness around. And wonderful people who are very unpretentious and working very hard. They're very generous. It's a kind of place where anybody looking for any order would go crazy. I love working there.

The original off-off-Broadway situation centered very much around the playwrights. The exciting thing was when Sam Shepard was going to do a new play, or Murray Mednick, Megan Terry, Rochelle Owens, Ronnie Tavel. Everybody got excited about the idea. That didn't last very long.

By '68 already the directors had taken over. Most of the playwrights who were very active in the early years of the off-off-Broadway movement became sort of outcasts. So we started the New York Theater Strategy which was a production organization to produce the plays of these people. I was the office, the fundraiser, the production coordinator, the bookkeeper, the secretary, the everything. I did everything. We started in 1972 and went until 1979. In 1977 I did Fefu.Fefu was such a breakthrough for me. I had the feeling I didn't want to do managerial work. I wanted to write. From then I didn't supervise the whole thing. I had other people to help me.

What kind of a breakthrough was it?

My style of work in Fefu was very different from my work before. I hadn't been writing for a few years. When you start again something different is likely to happen.

The style of Fefu dealt more with characters as real persons rather than voices that are the expression of the mind of the play. In Fefu the characters became more three-dimensional. What I think happened is that my approach to the work was different. Instead of writing in a linear manner, moving forward—I don't mean linear in terms of what the feminists claim about the way the male mind works—I started doing what you might call ‘research,’ work where you just examine the characters. I would write a scene and see what came out and then I would write another as if I were practicing calligraphy. You write whatever happens. You don't say, “I'm not going to waste my time writing a scene with five characters that are not going to be in the play.”

That's one thing that is wonderful about writing this way: you realize how much you learn about the characters when you put them in situations that are not going to be in the play. That's one thing we haven't learned from the rehearsing process. Can you imagine if a director asked an actor to do an improvisation and he said, “Why should I do this scene? This scene is not going to be in the play.” They do it gladly. They're thrilled. They know they're going to gain an enormous depth by going to the past, to the future, to other times that are in between scenes. They do it all the time, but we writers don't do it.

It's very difficult to change your style of writing. It's the hardest thing for a writer to do and the most important thing for a writer to do. I feel like we set our style of work very early for no reason at all. It's totally arbitrary. I think that any style you write in you dry up. You get exhausted and you get bored.

Your recent plays are deceptively realistic in style. Do you think they're diminished by a straightforward realistic approach?

I don't know what straight realism means. Realism is just behavior. I like acting that is true, that I can see and believe something is happening to that character. I've always considered that a necessity. It's a basic thing—A … B … C—that's the A. You have to suffer that; if you don't you are in trouble. You have to be well grounded, grounded not with your intellect but with your humanity, your body, your carnality. As long as your feet are always on the ground, you can go incredible distances. To me, that is realism. But the moment you are separated from the ground and you start with conceptual things, it is completely dull and very pushy.

To a lot of people realism means mildness and plainness. Some people think that realism has to concern itself with practical matters like your job or your marriage, but even marriage from the point of view of the practical matters. They don't realize they consider that realism because that happens to be their concern. If you deal with the same marriage or the same job but not with the practical part but with something much more complex—as realistic as the other because it's as abundant as the other—they are not as concerned with it so they think it doesn't exist. They think you are fantasizing. They don't notice that it is all over, that it is right in front of their eyes.

It sounds like your plays talk to you as much as you talk to them.

What I teach in my workshop is simply to learn how to listen to the characters, not only how to listen to the characters you have planted there but even how to have a character appear in front of you. You don't know where that person came from or what that person is doing there, but you follow that vision and follow it through.

What sort of techniques do you use to do that?

We do half an hour of yoga. After the yoga we go to our tables and I give an exercise that comes out of meditation, visualization mostly, with eyes closed, often a memory that is very specifically visualized.

What kind of instruction do you give them to trigger the memory?

It could be anything. I might say something like, “Transport yourself towards a moment between the ages of 7 and 10, for example, and remember something in connection with water.” Now water may be anything from a glass of water to a river to an ocean to being on a boat or at the beach or in the shower. Each person goes their own direction. I ask them to visualize the place. And I guide the visualization. If it's a room, I ask them to visualize the floor, whether it's wood or carpet, the walls, the windows. I go through a whole list of things. After this I ask them to make a drawing. If the place is empty, I might say, “Let somebody come into that place.” It may be a familiar character you've already worked with or somebody you've never seen before. Watch the person for awhile and see what they do. You're really just watching. You are completely passive. You begin to distinguish the difference between when you're manipulating and when you're not. When you start manipulating, everything gets brittle and fake.

Usually if the visualization is personal, I give them an element that takes it into the imaginary. I throw in lines of dialogue, which brings in the fictional. It intrudes upon it but at the same time it triggers something else. The line I pick from anything. A newspaper or a book. I like having to do a new exercise every day so I don't get lazy. If I'm really into it, everybody else is inspired. Then, as they start writing I become more inspired, too. That's where I get my writing done. That's why I've been writing so much lately. The workshop is a discipline for writing that I don't have.

So the last thing to come is language or speech. It comes after you establish an environment, trigger a memory, and put a person in that environment.

Yes. I wrote a play called Dr. Kheal. Dr. Kheal is talking about the will and he says, “In the beginning was the word—the work of the devil, son of a bitch.” What he means is that the devil passed the word around that in the beginning was the word and that it's sinister to think that. Can you imagine? I don't know why words want to become authoritarian.

You also wrote in Dr. Kheal: “Words change the nature of things. A thing not named and the same thing named are two different things.”

The experience of drinking a glass of water is one thing and you say, “I just drank a glass of water” and you immediately alter that experience. Words do not have the scope that the experience of drinking a glass of water encompasses. You may be lucky and evoke practically everything that was experienced. That's what makes a writer, of course. But you're always being lucky that you're evoking. Already you're conceding that all the words can do is try to accomplish in terms of evocation rather than—I don't know what—words fail.

What is your characters' relationship to language?

What I want language to be is an expression of the characters, but a very careful expression so that they or the words don't get carried away and become their own expression. The action of the words coming out or forming in the brain is a delicate one. It is as if words are dampness in a porous substance—a dampness which becomes liquid and condenses. As if there is a condensation that is really the forming of words. I want to catch the process of the forming of thought into words.

How does music and song figure in your work? How do you know when to turn from prose dialogue to song or music?

I think that has to do with a taste for lyricism. I'm a romantic. I have a very feminine nature. I'm very tough in some ways but I have a taste for the feminine. Lyricism is romantic. I remember having what became almost an argument with a friend of mine who is very political. It was about my play Molly's Dream. She said it was romantic and meant it as a criticism and I said, “yes, isn't it?” and meant it as a high compliment. I remember we were in a bar, we were drinking beer, and I said, “Have you ever been with a person when just being with them makes you see everything in a different light. A glass of beer has an amber, a yellow that you've never seen before and it seems to shine in a manner that is—” and she said, “Yes!” and I said, “That is romantic! That is romance!” and she said, “Well, in that case …” I said, “It is more beautiful. It isn't that you want it to be more beautiful or that you are lying to yourself. It is. Your senses are sharpened.”

There is a power in that feeling that can make a character do things that are not in his or her own best interest. I'm thinking of Sarita now.

Romance is romance. It's like intelligence. Now you can say that some people are so intelligent that sometimes they become too mental and brainy and it leads to their destruction. Well, of course anything can go wrong, but you cannot criticize intelligence for that. In some cases it does happen that people want it so much that they start deceiving themselves but there is no deceit in romance. There should not be. It's only when it goes wrong that you start fooling yourself. Why blame the feeling? When the glass of beer looks like the most beautiful amber, there's no deception, because it is actually. Everything is very beautiful. We get grey and we don't see anything as being beautiful because we are grey, we are dull, nothing shines for us. To respond to the beauty that's around you, there's no deception in that. That's why I like lyricism.

Is there a tension between being feminine and being a feminist?

To be a feminist I think means that you follow a political process that has a development and you are part of the development and you adhere to it. I am a feminist in that I am very concerned and I suffer when women are treated in a discriminatory manner and when I am treated in a discriminatory manner because I am a woman. But I never thought that I should not do certain work because I'm a woman nor did I think I should do certain work because I'm a woman.

What sort of discrimination have you encountered in your career as a playwright and a director?

It's hard to tell because when your work is rejected you don't know if the reason for rejection is that they don't like your work. You have to allow for that. Since you cannot tell for sure, I prefer not to be suspicious and not to give it too much thought. I have other reasons to suspect why doors are closed to me. One is just that my work is avant-garde. By that I mean I am always experimenting on something. Another reason is that I am not even consistently avant-garde. My work really varies a lot. There are certain things that it always has. There is a certain spirit, but I think that my form changes too much for me to have a real following. Or I could imagine that people feel a little suspicious of my writing because my mother tongue is not English. I'm the last person to know.

When did you learn English?

I was fifteen when I came here. I knew some English before.

Do you have any desire to write anything in Spanish?

I want to write English and Spanish which I have been doing. In The Conduct of Life, when Crystal Field was memorizing some of her speeches she found it very difficult. I say, “Why?” She said, “The language, the language!!!” In English, you have short sentences that add up to a thought. In Spanish, many sentences are linked, so you could have a whole paragraph that is one sentence, a lot of commas and one period. I was doing that in English. And that was what Crystal felt. When she started memorizing, it was hard, but once she would get going she just loved it. She said it was like taking a flight. You'd start a sentence and you knew it was going to take you around and around and around until you land. That's even more important than writing in Spanish and writing in English: what you bring from one language into the other.

What are your plans for the immediate future? How do you balance your work now between writing and directing, teaching and translating? What are your priorities for the next stretch of time?

I have been receiving a great deal of praise lately. And awards. But the world is very fickle. They pick you up one day and then—zoom!—they drop you down. Miles down. They don't care, there's no niceness. My feeling is that if I thought I had to work hard before, I really have to work hard now. I know that this kind of praise that I've been getting is not going to last. It can't last. It's been very intense. I got an NEA grant for two years. I got a Rockefeller Foundation grant. I've been getting Obie Awards regularly in the last few years. The first one was in 1965. Then I didn't get one for 12 years. Now I've gotten five since 1977. Erika Munk said I was “the truest poet of the theater.” Susan Sontag said I was one of the best American writers. I just received a letter from the American National Theater at the Kennedy Center commissioning me to write a play, saying that they feel that whatever I write would be a necessity for the National Theater, that I am a “national treasure.” What else? I received an award from the American Academy of Letters. All this since January. The last six months. It's like every time I open my mailbox there's some award or something. It's too strange. I love it but I have to be very careful. There are times when I have the feeling that somebody messed up with the computers and I'm going to return one of these calls and they'll say, “What?!? Who?!?”


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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.

Lurana Donnels O'Malley (essay date 1989)

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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 mother/homemaker/wife is an insidious form of enslavement by the male wishing to assert a false dominance. This enslavement includes a steady schedule of repetitive and unrewarding tasks or jobs, commonly called “women's work.” Walker states that although men have traditionally regarded such duties as natural pleasures of the woman,

the real reason women undertake the demanding and demeaning tasks in a violent, nightmarish household is hardly that they find it natural, but rather that they feel trapped. The average woman's socialization in patriarchal society points her toward wifehood as the only job she is fit to do.


In the more recent work of playwright Maria Irene Fornes, we find a somewhat contrary, though not antifeminist, representation of the female attitude toward this lifestyle. Maria Irene Fornes's women do not necessarily want to be women—Fefu, the heroine of Fefu and Her Friends (1977), envies men for their strength and ease (13)—but, nonetheless, Fornes's women are women, constantly asserting their spiritual and physical separateness from men. Although they seem trapped in a comforting but deadening cycle of repetitive “women's work,” they transform this work into a holy rite, related to their senses of self. As Walker stated, such pleasure in meniality is not natural, but is undoubtedly the adaptation of these women to oppressive situations, a survival tactic. Fornés's depiction of women's work, however, is unashamedly positive. Although her style and characters have varied greatly over the years, one can find evidence of this affirmation of women's actions, their “doing,” in several of Fornés's more recent realistically oriented plays: Fefu,Mud (1983), and The Conduct of Life (1985).

This article explores the notion of Fornés's women's work in several ways: through an analysis of ritual action in the above plays, a discussion of Fornés's own perspective on ritual, a comparison to women's work in Marilynne Robinson's novel Housekeeping, and analogy between “doing” and the actions of learning. Although Fornés is not always perceived as a feminist playwright, her plays are grounded in a deep understanding of what Elizabeth A. Meese calls the state of feminist existence: “never to be discovered except in the self as it becomes the self” (96).

As feminist critics begin to revise our perceptions of the ways in which female identity is constructed, new attention is devoted to assessing the significance of even the most ordinary of woman's experiences. Although housekeeping may seem too closely woven into the fabric of our daily lives to yield revelations, critics such as Katherine Rabuzzi (author of The Sacred and the Feminine: Toward a Theology of Housework) have come to see in housework a powerful image of the ways in which a woman creates herself, as she creates order.

It is commonplace to refer to housekeeping as a ritual experience, but the fuller implications of this term must be addressed. A ritual can be defined as the careful repetition of a series of detailed actions, as a preventive measure against the intrusions of the natural world. What, then, are polishing silver or folding dishtowels but ritualized ceremonies which are stopgaps against decay? Yet true rituals also require devotion, an authentic commitment of the will. Only through such wholehearted application of the self can the rituals of “doing” become truly life-giving.

The constant “doing” we see on Fornés's stages is performed by women. Men are unemployed like Lloyd in Mud; outdoors working, like the men in Fefu; or off advancing in a seedy militarized world, as is the sadistic Orlando in Conduct. Fornés's setting is the house, the domain of the woman. Fefu describes the difference between men and women in relation to houses:

Look at them [the men]. They are checking the new grass mower. … Out in the fresh air and the sun, while we sit here in the dark …


In her domain, woman has a certain unstated control and power. Orlando sees his wife Leticia solely as someone to keep house, and even though Olimpia does the actual physical work associated with this function, Leticia is the force behind this household. When she leaves on a trip, the house is literally turned inside out—Nena the waif from the cellar comes up into the living room.

Significantly, the association of women with household tasks did not formulate itself until Fornés's later plays, mirroring a growing realism in characterization. The 1965 The Successful Life of 3, for instance, can be read as a comic outline of the later Mud, and displays an ambivalence about gender's relation to menial work. The stage directions reveal a randomness in this relation. At the top of scene three, the three main characters (He, She and 3) are in a comfortable domestic situation: “He dozes, She peels potatoes, 3 sews” (53). But in scene four, She has left (much as Mae will attempt to do in Mud). We see a prophetic vision of Mud's Lloyd and Henry at home: “He peels potatoes, 3 sews” (56). The ease of this transformation is prevented in Mud by the murder of Mae; the more fully drawn-out characters of the later play cannot accept this upset of traditional male/female relations. The Conduct of Life, set in an unspecified, machismo-dominated Latin American country, maintains an even harsher division of men's and women's work.

The women of these later plays do fall into fairly traditional behavior patterns. Nancy Chodorow describes the conventional perception of women's work:

Women's activities in the home involve continuous connections to and concern about children and attunement to adult masculine needs. … The work of maintenance and reproduction is characterized by its repetitive and routine continuity.


In Mud, Mae is a typical woman/nurturer. She spends three scenes at the ironing board, a symbol of oppression familiar from plays such as Osborne's Look Back in Anger. But in Fornés's work such actions take on a ritualistic quality which is not completely unappealing, especially in contrast with the actions of other characters. Mae is fiercely proud to distinguish herself from Lloyd:

She continues ironing. I work. See, I work. I'm working. I learned to work. I wake up and I work. Open my eyes and I work. I work. What do you do! … I work, jerk.


Mae also snaps beans, and packs and unpacks boxes; she is surrounded by two nonbeings, two deformed men who cannot do for themselves. In such a world, the woman is the life force. When Lloyd murders her, he kills himself and Henry as well.

In Conduct, both Olimpia and Nena speak of the ritual of simple everyday tasks. Olimpia's speech in scene 4 is fascinating in its detail, but is not merely a list—it is both a cry for attention and a proud boast. Her existence, like that of many women and working class people, is made up of tasks which go unnoticed:

I put the pan on the stove, light the stove. I put the coffee in the thing. I know how much. I light the oven and put bread in it. I come here, get the tablecloth and I lay it on the table. I shout “Breakfast.”


Olimpia and Nena have a natural affinity for each other, perhaps related to their pride in menial tasks. As they sit separating stones from beans, Nena tells Olimpia of her love for ironing.

… they showed me how to press. I like to press because my mind wanders and I find satisfaction. I can iron all day. I like the way the wrinkles come out and things look nice. It's a miracle, isn't it?


The plea for recognition of not only the work involved in housekeeping, but its aesthetic value, signals a ritual action which is deeply meaningful, even life-giving, for its participants.

Not only Nena and Mae, but Fornés herself finds satisfaction in ironing. In a delightfully eccentric interview with Robb Creese in The Drama Review (1977), Fornés speaks of pressing clothes as a way to avoid her writing.

And then there is starching my clothes. That is something I started this summer. It is a very lovely thing. I make my own starch. I have to wash my clothes. I have to let them dry, then starch them. They are hard to iron. … But now that I am writing, all my jeans are starched and pressed and all my shirts are starched and pressed. Anything is better than writing.


Although menial tasks are usually seen as actions which obliterate thought, Fornés's words suggest that they are perhaps meditational, related to her own processes of creation and inspiration. Twelve years later, Fornés has incorporated a meditational ritual into her writing process. She tells David Savran of the playwriting classes she teaches at INTAR:

First thing, we do half an hour of yoga. Then I give them a writing exercise. I have invented exercises that are very effective and very profound. They take you to the place where creativity is, where personal experience and personal knowledge are used.


Her INTAR workshops, Fornés says, are all about “inducing inspiration” (Betsko 156). Rather than teaching by criticism, Fornés instead turns her classes into periods of intense inner concentration and connection. She stresses the importance of writing every day.

If you write every day, it's like another kind of existence. There's something in you that changes. You're in a different state.

(Savran, 59)

The writing process is, like the housework Fornés depicts onstage, comforting in its repetition and uplifting in its transcendence of the ordinary state of consciousness.

Such transcendence elevates household tasks to a quasi-religious status in Fornés's plays. When Mae reads aloud in scene 6, she speaks in a reverent way of the animal called the starfish: “They keep the water clean” (27). Her words raise her own quotidian tasks to the level of the actions of a high priestess, purifying her house and those in it of mud and dirt. To keep something clean is to keep it alive. But as technology advances and starched clothes are replaced by permanent press, the woman begins to lose her tasks and her identity. Henry in Mud speaks of the machine-like ease of life in a such a world, which will use things only once.

We will need to do that as our time will be of value and it will not be feasible to spend it caring for things: washing them, mending them, repairing them.


When Mae says that she will not be wanted in such a world, we see how intrinsic the starfish part of her is to her sense of self. In order to adapt to a new high-tech world, Mae must go beyond the things she does best, and learn to make herself valuable in a different way; as I will show later, she sees reading as the means to this end.

The earlier Fefu and Her Friends poses a special problem for this conception of women's work. In Fefu, the rituals of doing are less central to these characters' lives; they are learned and sophisticated, and do not occupy themselves by snapping beans or ironing. Yet Fefu's love of plumbing seems to stem from the same sort of desire—the desire to make things run smoothly—that dominates Olimpia's and Mae's existences. Her wish to “make sure it all works” (11) indicates that she is also a starfish, keeping her domain clean and perfect.

Although not many physical tasks are accomplished onstage in Fefu (instead characters lounge, play croquet, and talk), several actions involve a kind of liquid nourishment, such as “In the Kitchen” where Sue pours soup and water, or Part I when Cindy mixes drinks. One of the more charming “tasks” in the play occurs offstage: Fefu makes a tray of ice cubes with sticks in it, so that her new friend Christina can have popsicles to dip in bourbon. Such a frivolous task does not have much to do with daily survival (as do ironing or cooking in the later plays); nevertheless putting sticks in ice cubes displays Fefu's high degree of caring. Although the use of nonnutritional liquids problematizes the model of woman as nurturer, the common element of all these actions is the sense of self invested in them and the motive of caring and love behind them.

In a Plays and Players review of Fefu, Ross Wetzsteon attempts to link the most fascinating structural feature of the play (the four-time repetition of the four scenes in Part II) to the idea of repetitive tasks:

The meaning here, of course, and the action and its meaning interrelate appropriately, is that women's lives in a chauvinist society are to a large degree random and repetitive and can be seen in any sequence. A familiar image came to mind—‘women's work’ is like washing dishes, for they're only washed in order to be used and then washed again, an endless stultifying cycle.


In his view, the dramatic structure of the play duplicates the patriarchal system of values. But by concentrating, as does Barbara Walker, on the deadness of this cycle, Wetzsteon ignores the implications of it as a rejuvenating and creative experience, as it seems to be for Fornés. Fefu and her friends are not oppressed by their invisible male counterparts. Their logic is merely different; cyclical and not linear, born from patience, not the obsessive drive to move forward that is characteristic of most dramatic structures.

In 1981 Marilynne Robinson's first novel, Housekeeping, stunned the literary world with the extraordinary lyricism of its prose and with its unorthodox cast of characters. Like Fefu and Her Friends,Housekeeping concerns an array of women only; the men are merely “offstage” reference points, themselves marginalized characters with little effect on the interrelationships of the main (female) characters. Because the novel sets aside issues of male/female sexuality and power dynamics, Robinson is free to “[strip] things to the reality of a female essence—to matters of caregiving and ‘housekeeping’” (Meese 58). The novel, much-discussed in feminist criticism, has served to redefine and reexamine standard notions of women's work, and as such provides a useful comparison to the representation of women in Fornés. In particular, Robinson's notion of the woman in relation to the structure of the house is relevant to the study of Fefu in the context of housekeeping.

The novel's primary concern is loss; housekeeping, in all its forms, serves to stem that loss. The older generation in the book, represented by the narrator's grandmother Sylvia Foster, maintains a meticulous household; her scrubbing and cleaning take on religious signification. Hanging out sheets to dry in her black widow's garment, she is described as “performing the rituals of the ordinary as an act of faith” (16). Later in the novel, after her three daughters have left her, her house work becomes more obsessive.

She whited shoes and braided hair and fried chicken and turned back bedclothes, and then suddenly feared and remembered that the children had somehow disappeared, every one. How had it happened? How might she have known? And she whited shoes and braided hair and turned back bedclothes as if re-enacting the commonplace would make it merely commonplace again …


This structure of repetition, as a struggle against loss, is mirrored in Part II of Fefu. The actresses must set and reset their props, enacting and re-enacting the everyday events of making soup or reading, but never advancing to a further understanding, a further confrontation. Cecilia and Paula spend their 10 minutes in the kitchen four times in a row, but the gap of their longing never closes.

Sylvie Fisher, the narrator's aunt, is the primary focus of Housekeeping's attention, and through her character, housekeeping is redefined. Roberta Rubenstein writes that

… while “housekeeping” is for most people the effort of resisting dust, disorder, and deterioration, for [Sylvie] housekeeping is the opportunity to commune with the absolute, to merge boundaries, to meld the human and the natural world by accumulation rather than resistance to nature's encroachments.


Thus, her house becomes not a structure of resistance, but a membrane through which nature flows in and out, easily, as in this passage about leaves:

… leaves began to gather in the corners. They were leaves that had been through the winter, some of them worn to a net of veins. There were scraps of paper among them. … Perhaps Sylvie when she swept took care not to molest them. Perhaps she sensed a Delphic niceness in the scattering of these leaves and paper, here and not elsewhere, thus and not otherwise.


A similar image is presented in the bedroom scene of Fefu. Fornés's stage directions indicate a plain, unpainted room, perhaps used for storage. She writes that

There is a mattress on the floor. … There is a sink on the wall. There are dry leaves on the floor though the time is not fall.


The poetic simplicity of this description (note the rhyme pattern) reveals the underlying rules of Fefu's housekeeping. Like Sylvie, Fefu invites the outside element (leaves, friends, strangers) into her house, and permits them to stay “here and not elsewhere” until they must go. Although the house and interiority are foregrounded in any production. Fefu consistently serves as a link to the natural world outside. In Part I, she shoots from inside the house at her husband who is outdoors with the lawnmower. In Part II, after her own game of croquet, she makes the rounds to invite women in the kitchen and the study to play on the lawn with her: “Come,” she says to the tense former lovers Paula and Cecilia (28). In my own production of this play in 1988, performed in an actual house in Austin, Texas, the lawn scene did indeed take place outside. Thus, spectators, in small groups of seven or eight people, also indirectly accepted Fefu's invitation as they left the house for their new positions on the grass.

In Part III, which takes place in the living room, Fefu leaves during Paula's breakdown; when she returns she is a messenger from the natural world: “Have you been out? The sky is full of stars” (30). Fornés, like Robinson, has disassociated housekeeping from its mundane connotations, elevating the woman who keeps house to the status of priestess/magician, who works to keep the proper balance of inner and outer in the framework of her house.

The act of learning can be seen as a subset of the repetitive tasks which constitute housekeeping, and is as equally self-affirmative. Learning about one's own freedom (symbolized by written and spoken language) is another religious action for Fornés's women. In Mud and Conduct, the characters operate on an elemental level of action, as if Fornés were deliberately moving from the articulate social interactions of the earlier Fefu to a more passionate and primitive emotional state. Action and language transform accordingly: Fefu's behavior and speech are those of the privileged being: Mae, Leticia and Olimpia must struggle harder to assert themselves in language. But a basic pattern emerges from these three plays: whereas the repetitive tasks are the expression of a particularly feminine brand of creativity, learning is perceived as “men's work,” and is therefore a forbidden means of self-discovery.

In Fefu, all of the women are well educated, and moreover, appear to be educators themselves. Emma's speech is an inspirational urging to enlist one's own life forces in order to “awaken life dormant” (32). Even in this play, however, there is the sense that getting smarter is man's work, that to improve one's mind is to reject the cycle of female work. Julia, the hallucinating cripple, speaks of imaginary judges who hurt her if she does not cooperate with their demands: to smile, to repent, and to recite a prayer about women's evil essence. As mysterious as these judges are, their message is clearly antiwoman—they wish to deny the beauty and intelligence in Julia. Once, after they try to hit her, she tells why:

He said that I had to be punished because I was getting too smart. I'm not smart. I never was. Neither is Fefu smart. They are after her too.


Christina also links knowledge with danger, speaking of Fefu's nonconformity:

Her mind is adventurous. … But in adventure there is taking chances and risks, and then one has to somehow, have less regard or respect for things as they are.


Somehow Fefu's questing mind, symbolic of that of a new woman, upsets the status quo—it even leads to Julia's death. Thus, despite the apparent freedom of these elegant women, they, like the less fortunate Mae and Olimpia, must gain knowledge at their own risk.

Learning is central to the character of Mae in Mud, but is also extremely difficult for her. She is fiercely devoted to her studies as a means of escaping the confines of her situation. But learning does not come as easily as do the more repetitive chores of her day, perhaps because it involves a more masculine and linear approach.

It's hard for me to do the work at school. I can work on my feet all day at the ironing board. I can make myself do it, even if I am tired. But I cannot make myself retain what I learn.


The ability to read is similarly desirable and unattainable for Olimpia in Conduct. She can only pretend, mumbling imaginary words for her employer Leticia. Leticia also seems to have difficulty, as her recitation of memorized economic jibberish reveals. But, like Mae, she has dreams of a new and better life. Her goal is to prove her own value, not just as a keeper of houses, but as a force in the world outside the house. She tells Alejo,

I want you to educate me. I want to study. I want to study so that I am not an ignorant person. … I would like to be a woman who speaks in a group and have others listen.


In essence, she desires to be Fefu and her entourage, self-assured women who speak in a group and have others listen.

In another Fornés play, Sarita (1984), the heroine is a girl, who in scene 3 is 14 years old and pregnant. She refuses to accept an arranged marriage because she is going to law school. In Sarita's case, learning is a dream which is too far off to reach for; the pleasures of her lover's body engulf her. As we see in several scenes in which Sarita composes ineffectual farewell letters to Julio, the flesh is stronger than the written word for Sarita. But to Mae and Olimpia, reading and writing are another type of holy rite. Mae sees knowledge as only a starfish can—as the means to a kind of ultimate cleanness, knowledge as purification:

I'm going to die clean. I'm going to school and I'm learning things. You're stupid. I'm not. When I finish school I'm leaving. … You can stay in the mud.


Fefu, perhaps because she does not come from a background of domestic tasks like cleaning, conceives of knowledge in radically different terms, but with the same type of religious fervor. In Part I, she describes her fascination with an overturned stone.

You see, that which is exposed to the exterior … is smooth and dry and clean. That which is not … underneath, is slimy and filled with fungus and crawling with worms. It is another life that is parallel to the one we manifest. … If you don't recognize it … (Whispering.) It eats you.


Knowledge means vastly different things to these women—to Mae, it is reading and writing and escape, to Fefu a dangerous look at life's underside. But for each woman it is the only path to the self. Bonnie Marranca writes of Mud, “Mae through her desire to read and acquire knowledge realizes that knowledge is the beginning of will and power and personal freedom” (“Real Life” 30).

Before moving to a conclusion about Fornés's statements on the subject of women and their work, it is important to address her connection to feminist criticism. Fornés's plays have consistently stood in a problematic relationship to feminist theory. Her woman-centered plays are routinely associated with the feminist movement—Bonnie Marranca called her work “deeply feminist” in 1981 (“Maria Irene Fornés” 61). Yet Fornés has never joined the ranks of the more mainstream female playwrights such as Marsha Norman or Pam Gems, whose plays are regularly appropriated for the feminist cause. In Sue-Ellen Case's Feminism and the Theatre, for example, Fornés and her plays are not even indexed. Fornés herself may be partly responsible for this exclusion, due to a certain reluctance to categorize her own work as feminist. In a 1978 interview, Fornés answered Marranca's question about Fefu “Is it a feminist play?” with her own question: “Is it a feminist play? …” In a 1988 interview with David Savran, on the question of Mud's shocking conclusion, Fornés says that

I think usually the people who have expressed to me their dismay at Mae's being killed are feminist women who are having a hard time in their life. They hang onto feminism because they feel oppressed and believe it will save them. They see me as a feminist and when they see Mae die, they feel betrayed.


Fornés's response to such criticism is that although Mud is “not a feminist message play” (Betsko 165), Mae's position as subjective center of the play, as the mind of the play, is a stronger feminist statement than showing her as the victor over her oppressors (Betsko 166).

But the search for a feminist aesthetic in Fornés's work is not without foundation or value. In 1983 she wrote that “it is natural for a woman to write a play where the protagonist is a woman” (“‘Woman’ Playwright” 91). So we must take Fornés at her word that she writes about women because of her strong sense of commonality and identification with them. Her ambivalence about her plays' ideological stances should not lessen their impact as deeply meaningful statements.

At the heart of Fornés's work is a heartfelt respect and caring for her characters; because of this caring, she seems unable to force her characters to serve larger ideological statements. And along with respect for her characters comes respect for her spectators, a belief that they can learn from her plays and change their own situations, without taking her narratives as definitive statements of the female condition. Fornés tells Savran

I don't believe in role models because I don't believe in that expression. I've never played a role in my life. … You have to be yourself and you have to find enlightenment within yourself.


The repetitive tasks in Fornés's plays may be seen as meditational, as much paths to self-knowledge as are reading and writing. The reason these tasks seem valuable, and this search for knowledge honorable, is related to the great amount of personal care invested by the characters into their actions, their “doing,” their learning. Susan Sontag writes of Fornés that “the plays have always been about wisdom: what it means to be wise” (9). The actions performed by the women of Fornés's plays are women's work because they are actions of self-knowledge and love—for the self.

Works Cited

Betsko, Kathleen and Rachel Koenig. “Interview with Maria Irene Fornés.” Contemporary Women Playwrights. New York: Beech Tree Books, 1987. 154-67.

Case, Sue-Ellen. Feminism and Theatre. New York: Methuen, 1988.

Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psycho-analysis and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley, CA: U of California Press, 1978.

Fornés, Maria Irene. The Conduct of Life.Plays. New York: Performing Arts Journal, 1986. 65-88.

———. Fefu and Her Friends.Word Plays. New York: Performing Arts Journal, 1980.

———. “I Write These Messages That Come.” Interview with Robb Creese. Drama Review 21 (1977): 25-40.

———. Mud.Plays 13-40.

———. Plays. New York: Performing Arts Journal, 1986.

———. Sarita.Plays 89-145.

———. The Successful Life of 3.Promenade and Other Plays. New York: Performing Arts Journal, 1987.

———. “The ‘Woman’ Playwright Issue.” Ed. Gayle Austin. Performing Arts Journal 7 (1983): 90-91.

Marranca, Bonnie. “Interview: Maria Irene Fornés.” Performing Arts Journal 2 (1978): 106-11.

———. “Maria Irene Fornés.” American Playwrights: A Critical Survey. Ed. Bonnie Marranca and Gautam Dasgupta. New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1981 1:53-63.

———. “The Real Life of Maria Irene Fornés.” Performing Arts Journal 8 (1984): 29-34.

Meese, Elizabeth A. Crossing the Double-Cross: The Practice of Feminist Criticism. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina Press, 1986.

Rabuzzi, Kathryn Allen. The Sacred and the Feminine: Toward a Theology of Housework. New York: Seabury Press, 1982.

Robinson, Marilynne. Housekeeping. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1980.

Rubenstein, Roberta. Boundaries of the Self: Gender, Culture, Fiction. Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois Press, 1987.

Savran, David. “Maria Irene Fornés.” In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights. New York: TCG, 1988. 51-69.

Sontag, Susan. Preface. Plays 7-10.

Walker, Barbara G. The Skeptical Feminist. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987.

Wetzsteon, Ross. Fefu and Her Friends, by Maria Irene Fornés. New York. Plays and Players 24 (1977): 36-37.

Principal Works

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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

Dance [with Remy Charlip] (play) 1972

Aurora (play) 1974

Cap-a-Pie (play) 1975

Washing (play) 1976

Fefu and Her Friends (play) 1977

Lolita in the Garden (play) 1977

In Service (play) 1978

Eyes on the Harem (play) 1979

Evelyn Brown: A Diary (play) 1980

A Visit (play) 1981

The Danube (play) 1982

Mud (play) 1983

No Time (play) 1984

Sarita (libretto) 1984

The Conduct of Life (play) 1985

Drowning [adaptor; from the short story by Anton Chekhov] (play) 1985

Art (play) 1986

Lovers and Keepers (libretto) 1986

Maria Irene Fornes: Plays (plays) 1986

The Mothers (play) 1986

The Trial of Joan of Arc on a Matter of Faith (play) 1986

Abingdon Square (play) 1987

§And What of the Night? (plays) 1989

Oscar and Bertha (play) 1991

Terra Incognita (play) 1992

Enter the Night (play) 1993

Summer in Gossensass (play) 1998

Letters from Cuba (play) 1999

*Includes Dr. Kheal,Molly's Dream,Promenade,The Successful Life of 3,Tango Palace, and A Vietnamese Wedding.

Drowning is a one-act play that was produced with six other one-acts based on Chekhov's short stories under the collective title Orchards.

‡Includes The Conduct of Life,The Danube,Mud, and Sarita.

§And What of the Night? consists of four separate one-act plays—Hunger,Springtime,Lust, and Charlie.

Stacy Wolf (essay date 1992)

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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, advertisements, comic books, and literature. … But widespread fictional presentation of male violence toward women does legitimate it, reasserting through art a right held by law until the twentieth century—the right to beat, torture, and kill the women they ‘owned’—wives, daughters, slaves and concubines.1

French's argument places itself on the cusp between effect and legitimation: between the notions that art convinces men that they should do violence to women, and tells them that what they do is already acceptable. Although she says that we ‘cannot prove’ a causal relationship between the depiction and commission of violence, she envisions a passive spectator, a receptor of the images who identifies with the male perpetrator.2

While French, like many feminist theorists in theatre and film, correctly identifies the tendency in mainstream media to position the viewer with the active male, her focus on images (i.e., content) rather than form belies the possibility that images of violence against women could make a progressive rather than regressive critique. The plays of the Cuban-American playwright Maria Irene Fornes, pervaded by images of violence, suggest a locus for such an investigation. In two of her plays, Fefu and Her Friends (1977) and The Conduct of Life (1985), both directed by Fornes, characters endure dreams and hallucinations of physical and mental torture, abuse each other verbally, rape and are raped, kill and are killed. Yet Fornes has been praised as a feminist playwright, and various aspects of her work have been discussed positively by feminist critics.

Gayle Austin explores how “madwomen figures” are portrayed as “speaking, acting subjects” in three of Fornes' plays;3 Lurana Donnels O'Malley discusses how Fornes' “unabashedly positive … depiction of women's work” raises repetitive tasks to an near epiphany;4 Stephanie K. Arnold praises the “development of intimacy” in Fefu;5 and Helene Keyssar describes how Fefu allows many different women's voices and desires.6

Catherine A. Schuler also commends Fornes' realistic portrayal of women's lives in her comparison of the relative popularity of Fornes and San Shepard and each playwright's depiction of violence and gender.7 While other feminist critics approve of Fornes' positive images of women, Schuler notes the feminist task of a realistic portrayal of negative images. She argues that Shepard's success in mainstream theatre is at least due in part to his misogynist portrayal of female victims of male violence. Fornes, in contrast to Shepard, shows violence “through women's eyes”; such violence is condemned in Fornes' plays but excused, romanticized and authorized in Shepard's.8 Schuler quotes Fornes as saying that her form is more radical than her content, but Schuler disagrees, asserting that it is Fornes' characterizations that offend mainstream, and especially male, spectators.9

While I don't disagree with Schuler's reading, I would suggest that it is Fornes' form as much as her content that enables a productive, feminist reading of the violence in the plays. The argument of this paper is that in Fefu and Her Friends and The Conduct of Life, Fornes' formal devices (including the delineation of active and shifting spectatorial positions, the foregrounding of theatrical apparatuses,10 and the excessive, non-realistic imagery) allow spectators to perceive the manner in which acts of violence position each character as perpetrator or victim, as empowered or disempowered, and to see how each character's relationship to violence signifies her or his power in terms of gender. Furthermore, I suggest that, in Fornes' plays, the uneven circulation of power between genders is made explicit through violence: Fornes' form contextualizes violence in order to deconstruct it. Her plays do not reproduce the deluge of violence images of mainstream culture but, rather, re-present violence in order to point to its gendered construction.

The issue of form and spectators' complicity with or critique of representations of violence hinges on a discussion of realism. Feminist and Marxist theorists have developed an extensive assessment of what Catherine Belsey calls “classic realism,” that form of literature developed at the end of the nineteenth century. “Classic realism,” featuring texts which carry “the authority of an apparent familiarity” and which “tend to efface their own textuality,” now dominates all representational forms.11 As Belsey, Eagleton and others have noted, realism is ideologically reactionary, covertly enforcing the status quo.12 Not surprisingly, then, when feminists like French critique images of women as victims of violence, they assume realism as the representational form.

In the ideologically fraught realist frame, the tendency is toward what dominant ideology recognizes as familiar and ‘natural’—the nuclear family as topic, the active male as subject, the passive female as object.13 Since the images onstage appear as ‘real,’ realism “displays transparently and from the outside how people speak and behave,” apparently reenforcing the status quo through a repetition of the familiar.14

While many feminist critics engage in resistant readings of realist texts to expose the misogyny of their representations, other critics problematize the entire realist form; the playwright supposedly reproduces ‘normal’ life on stage, masking the ideological assumptions about ‘normality’ and ‘reality.’ Not surprisingly then, in Strindberg's “Forward to Miss Julie”—his canonized discussion of the realist form—he notes the play's ‘real life’ conversations, “a theme … which will be of lasting interest,” and scenery that strengthens the illusion.15 The naturalized form allows him to state, “It is not because Jean is now rising that he has the upper hand of Miss Julie, but because he is a man. Sexually he is the aristocrat because of his virility. …”16 While his reasoning is based on what is, to him, natural inevitable and obvious, post-structuralist feminist Chris Weedon points out that the playwright actually makes choices, conscious and unconscious, about “what is to be represented as normal or deviant,” as well as choosing among “a range of technical devices [which] help to realize a hierarchy of values within the narrative.”17 Realism denies that these choices are located in a social context already circumscribed by ideologically determined ‘normality.’

Many feminists have also examined the problem of the female position in realist spectatorship.18 The generic spectator in realism is encouraged to identify with the active male and move through the narrative with him; the spectator's position is overdetermined by ‘real’ details and psychologically developed characters, and thus works in complicity with the linear progression of the play. Again, the spectator's identification is presumed to be ‘natural.’19 As Elin Diamond states, “Realism is more than an interpretation of reality passing as reality; it produces ‘reality’ by positioning the spectator to recognize and verify its truths.”20 Staged violence in realism, then, reads as an unmediated reflection of reality, condoned as inevitable. In realism, violence becomes another site at which spectatorial and social locations are ‘naturalized.’

While many feminists aim to deconstruct the pernicious effects of realism through foregrounding and Brechtian devices, they also support a located referentiality. Weedon, for example, asserts that both realism and deconstructive writing are necessary for a complete feminist representational project.21 Robert Stam and Louise Spence also reject realism as “a style or constellation of strategies aimed at producing an illusionistic ‘reality effect,’” but support “realism as a goal—Brecht's ‘laying bare the causal network.’”22 Diamond agrees that Brecht “never denied referentiality; he aimed rather to expunge the psychologized ahistorical referent.”23 These theorists remind us that Brecht wanted spectators to understand a play, to see its connection with their lives; what he objected to was the mystification involved in realism's masked assertion of one particular, ideologically dominant point of view as truth. Fornes' representations of violence in her ‘tempered realism’ succeed in asserting referentiality to experienced reality while demystifying it through a shocking Alienation-effect.

Many critics see Fornes' plays as realist; Bonnie Marranca, for example, calls her work “the new realism,” one that is “more open cosmologically, its characters iconic.” She explains, “Here realism is quotational, theatre in close-up freeze frame.”24 O'Malley refers to Fefu,The Conduct of Life and Mud (1983) as her “more realistically oriented plays,”25 and Schuler identifies them as being “quite straightforward.”26 Fornes does employ some conventions of realism: her plays follow a loose narrative structure in which emotions intensify and reach a climax; the actors do not address the audience, and they impersonate their characters; each play occupies a self-defined world and focuses on a nuclear family, representing the pervasive concern of realism with domesticity.

But Fornes' plays do not qualify as strict realism. She eschews the details of both the realistic box set and psychologically ‘believable’ characters, creating instead locations and characters identifiable by their iconicity. She refuses to emplot the plays fully: there is no central conflict, no linear rising action, no denouement. Relationships between the characters structure the plays in short, pictorial scenes, with language extremely spare, focused and poetic. The blatantly non-realistic devices in Fornes' plays disallow both spectators' identification with the characters and the emotional loss of self. Dolan says that in Fornes' plays, “the flow of image and the seduction of the text is broken.”27 Fornes creates what Brecht called a “representation that alienates … one which allows us to recognize its subject, but at the same time makes it seem unfamiliar.”28

Fornes' form “frames ‘realism’ in an alienating, critical mise-en-scène,” in which violence refers to experience.29 Employing what might be called the ‘guideposts’ of realism, Fornes constructs a referential system, one whose coherence points to the experience of many women and to the construction of the realist form itself. On the other hand, Fornes' work is distinctively non-realistic; by foregrounding theatrical apparatuses through set, scenic breaks and language, Fornes creates a theatricality that also foregrounds the construction of women in culture.

Fornes' form, by pointing to the conventions of realism without using them to mask ideology, enunciates a materialist feminist performance practice. Materialist feminism, which grew out of Marxist feminism, critiques realism from an ideological perspective through troubling the naturalization of the Aristotelean form, thus focusing on the specific power structures that profit from identifying this form as ‘natural’ or ‘normal.’ Materialist feminists see realism and all other theatrical forms as constructions, “ideologically significant” and “ideologically circumscribed,” and work to foreground their very constructedness.30 Since, for materialist feminists, subjectivity is constructed by one's specific location in history and culture, the spectator also emerges as a constructed subject, occupying an unstable position in relation to the performance text.31

At the same time, materialist feminist performance practice is committed to representing women's lives and women's issues. However it might trouble the term ‘women,’ and however it aims to de-naturalize representation, materialist feminism theatre employs representational strategies. In an article that deals specifically with the connection between violence and gender in representation, de Lauretis points out that, “a feminist theory exists as such only insofar as it refers back to … experience.”32 In a materialist feminist performance practice such as Fornes', violence is not represented as ‘truth,’ but rather as a culturally constructed behavior.

In Fornes' plays, violence functions mimetically to imply its location in representation, referentially, pointing to its location in lived experience and, contextually, to construct and be constructed by gender. As de Lauretis points out, “The representation of violence is inseparable from the notion of gender.”33 She goes on to explain that “violence is engendered” both in language and practice; that is, the complex means by which subjectivity is constructed by gender operate similarly to construct the meaning of violence.34

Every act of violence is constructed by both its subject and object, and the subject is always perceived as masculine. Only men can act, de Lauretis explains: “‘Man’ is by definition the subject of culture and of any social act.”35 The other side of the formula, the object upon which violence is done, can be either masculine or feminine. Objects acted upon, taken over, beaten, or raped are invariably perceived as feminine.36

Significantly, de Lauretis' picture is descriptive, not prescriptive, indicating the apparently undissolvable binary formulae of gender = male/female and violence = perpetrator/victim in representation. Acts of violence in The Conduct of Life and Fefu and Her Friends are, indeed, particularized as de Lauretis describes; each character who rapes or violates another—Orlando, and, at times, Fefu—is portrayed as masculine, regardless of biological sex, and those who are ‘raped’—Nena, Leticia, Julia—are feminine. Similarly, each of the characters who kills another—Leticia and Fefu, perhaps—is first feminized in some way and then, by taking action, occupies a male subject position. And, as de Lauretis points out, sexuality is always and only male: violent acts often emerge from displaced female desire—that of Leticia and Fefu—gone awry. In specifying the position of each character within the culture, the economic system, and his or her system of familial relations, whether perpetrator or victim, Fornes delineates the terrain of power within cultural space. Violence signifies power or the lack thereof; as Dolan points out, “Brutality becomes not only a metaphor, but a visual sign of the power dynamics in the gendered social relations Fornes represents in her plays.”37

Fefu and Her Friends takes place in 1935 at Fefu's country house, where eight women gather to rehearse a series of talks aimed at raising money for an educational organization. The rehearsal itself occupies only a small portion of the play's action, which is made up of conversations among various groupings of the women and which reveal the different relationships among them; several of the women are old college friends and two are lovers. They discuss their lives, fears, experiences and each other; many conversations focus on Fefu or Julia, who has recently been confined to a wheelchair because of a mysterious hunting accident that has left her paralyzed, although she was not physically wounded. At the end of the play, Fefu leaves the stage to clean a gun, a shot is heard, and Fefu returns, carrying a dead rabbit; Julia is dead too, with blood on her forehead, perhaps shot (actually? metaphorically?) by Fefu.

Fornes disallows a stable, psychological identification with the characters in several ways. Little is revealed about the women through their sketchy characterizations, and no linear narrative invites spectators to favor one over another. Keyssar emphasizes Fefu's heteroglossia in her Bahktinian analysis of the play, noting Fornes' “resistance to linearity.”38 The structure of the second part of the play constantly reminds the spectator of his or her own instability of subject position as regards representation and, by extension, all of culture. While Parts One and Three of Fefu take place in Fefu's living room, Part Two requires that the audience be divided into four groups that move from room to room, where they witness four different scenes that are repeated four times. Fefu's narrative differs for each spectator, who constructs it from her or his own subjective position; in this way, “Fornes has created a dramatic correlative for the multiple point-of-view narrations of the modern novel.”39 Further, the very act of getting up and moving from room to room breaks the passivity of conventional realism and reminds the spectator of her or his presence at a constructed theatrical event.40

Although the play's physical stage space is occupied only by female bodies, Worthen notes that through language, “the authority of the absent male is everywhere evident.”41 I would add that the authority of the ‘violent male’ is everywhere evident. When, for example, the women reminisce about college, each of their stories concerns a woman who was psychologically violated by a nameless authority because of her gender; they remember “Julie Brooks … a beautiful girl,” who was reprimanded because “she went out for coffee with 28 men,” and “Gloria Schuman,” whose work was so good that the faculty decided that it could not possibly be hers.42 The male authority refuses to see women as anything other than sexual objects.

While the characters in Fefu do have agency within the play to speak and tell these stories about women, they portray themselves as victims of violence in their own stories, as each describes a different violent experience relates to her gender. Cindy, for example, recalls a dream in which a policeman “grabbed me and felt my throat from behind with his thumbs while he rubbed my nipples with his pinkies” (23). Each story offers a different example of women as victims of male violence.

However, unlike a realist play in which a violent act would be woven into a character's psychological history and allow growth or eventual realization, Fornes' spare characterizations prevent the spectator from placing each woman's violent story within the context of her life. Her story not only emblematizes her character—it is her character, with her entire subjectivity signified by this one violent act, wherein it remains unanalyzed. Further, the play's multiple points-of-view endows a Brechtian distancing, while the evocation of the connection between female sexuality and victimization extends beyond a mimetic frame and spills over into mimicry. These “endless repetitions and reflections,” which Diamond calls “mimesis-mimicry,” work as “an alienation-effect, framing the gender behavior dictated by patriarchal models” and allowing their critique.43

Julia is repeatedly signified as female: that is, as lack, as hysteric. She lacks power entirely, and her victimization is particularly female. Her punishment focuses on issues of gender and sexuality, on women's ‘evil and mysterious nature.’ Her hallucinated torturers systematically brutalize her into an admission that “the human being is of the masculine gender” (25). Fornes characterizes Julia as one who is victimized and powerless only and completely because of her gender; for Fornes, there is nothing in Julia's ‘character’ that explains her situation. “To some extent,” writes Deborah Geis, “Julia's condition is a representation of the oppression suffered by all of the women in the play; in this sense, her paralysis has a ‘gestic’ quality.”44 Through Julia, Fornes highlights the prevalence of misogyny in our culture. The stage directions indicate the repetition of unseen acts of violence during her hallucinations: “Her head moves as if slapped” (25), “She guards from a blow” (24). The audience witnesses the effect but not the cause of the violence. By distancing the violence through Julia's imagination, Fornes dislocates the act from its perpetrator and denaturalizes the violence, rendering it discursive and referential rather than real.45

The symbiotic relationship between Julia and Fefu dismantles the female/victim, male/perpetrator equation, while it going on to reveal the manner in which violent acts themselves are gendered. While Julia embodies a passive female subjectivity, Fefu is constructed as masculine throughout much of the play. She fixes toilets, complains about women, flirts with other women, shoots a gun and is often in control; several conversations reveal that Julia was once much like Fefu, strong, smart and male-identified, and that their roles may once again reverse. Early in the play, Fefu remembers Julia “as she was” before the accident: “She was afraid of nothing. … She knew so much” (15). Fefu sees Julia as active until the torturers, figments of Julia's imagination as representatives of dominant ideology, immobilized her body both sexually and physically. Austin sees “the ‘madwoman’” Julia as Fefu's double46, and Fefu aligns herself with Julia: her demise is potentially Fefu's, and Julia, too, sees Fefu as the next victim of her torturers. Indeed, Fefu's participation in ‘the game,’ a perverse literalization of female powerlessness and the motif of her relationship with her husband, Philip, signals her complicity in the construction of her own passivity. The two enact a violent game in which Fefu shoots Philip with a blank-loaded gun and he falls; Fefu seems to control Philip (for she decides when to shoot), but he actually controls the game (he loads the blanks—threatening to use real bullets—willingly falls and decides when and how to get up). In de Lauretis' typology of gender and violence, a masculine object of violence refigures the violent act as rivalry: a game.47 But Fefu confesses that he scares her when “he looked like he was really hurt,” for she wants Philip; she needs him and knows that he despises her (11). Fefu's desire for Philip—unanswered, uncontrollable, unexpressable—disempowers her as soon as she shoots the gun, and she slips into a feminized gender location. Her desire turns to rage, which she sublimates; this allows her to function in her marriage and provides her with an illusion of power. For Fornes, the game underlines the fluidity of power and its gendered quality.

Fefu's gendered identity, shifting in her relations with Philip, remain masculine with Julia. The text constructs her as masculine in the final scene, in which she does violence, appearing to have killed Julia. Yet this moment of extreme gendering and violence is disrupted as the dramatic, surreal and highly ambiguous ending render the final image of Julia (and so, of violence) imitative: mimetic, not real. Some critics see the ending of the play as sacrificial, others as utopian; some emphasize how Julia's ‘death’ affects all of the women, others focus concern on just Julia and Fefu. Austin reviews several readings of the ending of Fefu, including one by Keyssar in which she argues that Fefu kills Julia symbolically “to ignite the explosion of a community of women.”48 Pevitts says that Julia is “symbolically killed … so that the new image of herself can emerge”49; Worthen sees the final moments of the play as Fefu's effort “to defend herself—and free Julia—from [man's] oppressive view.”50

Still, after tracing Fefu's multivocality, Keyssar says that, “To deliberately sustain this heteroglossia is dangerous, however; it is dangerous to the living of daily life and to drama itself.”51 She asserts that the play is ultimately monologic of Fefu's point-of-view, conflating the playtext with its multiple voices with the voice of Fefu, and declaring that Fefu's “last, desperate effort” to maintain her sense of self is also the play's effort to maintain a single voice.52 It is interesting to note, in passing, that Keyssar feels that Fefu is difficult for all spectators (99), while Schuler claims that the play can be easily understood even “unsophisticated” spectators (219). I would suggest that Keyssar's discomfiture with the ending reveals a desire for a realist structure that would offer a cathartic, positive closure; although, as Keyssar notes, the motif of a sudden murder at the end of a play is not uncommon in modern drama, the ultimate ambiguity of Fefu's final moment suggests a polyvocality that classic realistic narrative prohibits.

In contrast to Fefu and Her Friends, no one bleeds on stage in The Conduct of Life; yet, the violence is palpable, both verbally and physically. While the characters in Fefu express emotional conflicts quietly and poetically, the characters in Conduct shout and curse at each other. Their frank hostility creates an atmosphere of barely contained explosiveness.

The play is set in an unnamed Latin American state, in the home of Orlando, a military officer. Near the beginning of the play Orlando kidnaps Nena, a twelve year old girl, whom he keeps locked in the basement of his house and repeatedly rapes. As his brutal treatment of the girl intensifies, so does his wife Leticia's jealousy; finally, Leticia shoots Orlando and hands the gun to Nena, pressing the child to take the blame for the crime.

Although this play offers a more coherent plot than does Fefu, its mise-en-scène and dramaturgical structure still foreground the representational apparatus. The set, a mere series of platforms that represent various rooms in the house, echoes the levels of power and control evident in the play, “a visual emblem of the hierarchy of power.”53 The absence of walls forces spectators to see the frequent exchanges of power in the house. Moreover, Fornes grounds the play's staged violence in what art historian Griselda Pollock defines as “dis-identificatory practices.”54 Each rape scene, for example, is extremely short, disrupted and framed by domestic scenes. Employing a Brechtian alienation-effect, Fornes draws spectators' sympathies only to disrupt the emotion with other scenes.

Like Julia, Nena is excessively feminized through her victimization. She lacks power, is reactive and appears on stage only as the object of Orlando's violent sexuality. When she finally does speak near the end of the play, however, she defines a self-perception as worker and her grandfather's caretaker, her speech revealing the material details of life in a simple and dispassionate voice. The contrast between what is seen of Nena and what is heard from her is an alienating moment and disrupts the realist effect of her portrayal as pure victim. Geis sees Nena's speech as gestic in that is provides a “disjunction of logos (Nena's word's) and gesturality (the physical moment of her enunciation).”55

In this play, violence, power and desire circulate continuously on various levels to construct and reconstruct characters as masculine and feminine. Fornes' consistent repositioning of the characters emphasizes de Lauretis' notion of decentered subjectivity and of engendered violence. Orlando, for example, rapes Nena in an attempt to assert masculine subjectivity from his feminized subject position as tool of the military state; at first, he tries to sublimate his sexual desire through exercise, feeling that his desires will disrupt his military career ambitions. Alejo, his friend, a lieutenant commander, is impotent and gendered female in the text; Fornes implies that the more power these men appear to have, the less power they possess in actuality, since the military state ultimately disempowers them.

The nuclear family provides Orlando with a place in which he maintains a control that becomes grotesquely exaggerated when he maltreats Nena. He also verbally and psychologically abuses Leticia. Like Julia's victimization in Fefu, Orlando's obsession with sex and power—his numerous acts of rape, his repeated conversations revealing increasing paranoia about his job, his frequent questioning of Leticia—is portrayed as singular, repetitive and excessive.

Fornes clarifies the connection between a military state and rape, power and control. As Worthen points out, “Rape is … the defining metaphor of social action in the play,” and the rape scenes “emblematize the play's fusion of sexual and political relations.”56 But unfulfilled female desire works as a potent force as well; in the last scene of the play, Orlando tortures Leticia as he would a political prisoner, in an attempt to extract information about her newly acquired lover. At that moment, he perceives her as sexual/male, since her autonomy and sexual activity threaten to re-position him as feminized. In an attempt to reassert his own sexuality he puts his hand in her blouse; refusing to be feminized, Leticia shoots him, temporarily positioning herself as active/male. That she forces Nena to accept responsibility for the crime reinforces the circulation of power along lines of class as well as gender.

In the relationships between characters, Fornes indicates power discrepancies which are also distinctly gendered. Leticia's class privilege constructs her as male in relation to the maid Olimpia and Nena, but, at the same time, the unfulfillment of her desire for Orlando maintains her position of feminine passivity.

The numerous acts of violence in the play connect violence and gender in a manner consonant with de Lauretis' description of dominant representations; in this way, the play cannot separate violence from gender. When Orlando and Leticia struggle for control in the final moments of the play, the shifts in power are not only about dominance, but also reflect the characters' gendered identities. At the same time, the characterizations refuse the spectatorial identification that realism urges. The Conduct of Life is only about power; all of the conversations and events in the play focus on the flow and transfer of power between the characters. They have no history or psychology, and events follow no linear narrative. The frequent displacements of power indicate its particularly gendered quality.

Like the ending of Fefu and Her Friends, the final moment of The Conduct of Life is highly ambiguous. Although I have suggested that Leticia forces Nena to take the gun and the blame for the crime, other commentators have argued that the two women bond in that instant, that Fornes reveals the female connection between them in their “subjugated roles.”57 Geis says that the ending “is left open for multiple interpretations, enacting the Brechtian legacy of avoiding catharsis and closure.”58 There is no hero, no moralizing, and no realist affirmation of dominant ideology.

Both plays suggest the relative fluidity between violence and gender in a constructed, inconsistent subjectivity through unstable subject positions. Although Fornes' plays construct violence as male, a woman commits each last violent act. Neither action, however, re-positions the women in terms of real power, and both actions express unfulfilled desire transformed into rage. Fornes' plays thus point to the cultural construction of violence and its intimate relationship to the technologies of gender construction; when Fornes creates images of violence on the stage, she creates images of gender inescapably bound to power, to desire, to the body. De Lauretis describes how, in representation, perpetrators of violence tend to be constructed as male and victims as females; Fornes' images follow this pattern, but rather than seeming natural, their textual locations renders them highly and visibly constructed. Her extreme gendering of Fefu and Her Friends and The Conduct of Life urges spectators to see the cultural construction of violence and its intimate relationship to the concurrent construction of gender positions. Although the violent images in Fornes' plays do point to the factual reality of male violence against women, Fornes' reveals not a non-violent utopia, but a successful deconstruction of the inextricable intermixing of violence, gender, sexuality and power that marks this historical moment. Only through the understanding of those interconnections can we hope to articulate a representational space for female desire that is not distorted into violence.


  1. Marilyn French, “A Choice We Never Chose,” The Women's Review of Books 8.10-11 (July 1991): 31.

  2. The arguments against violence often parallel or are conflated with those against pornography; such conflation tends to be expressed by cultural feminists like Andrea Dworkin, Susan Griffin and Mary Daly. For a critique of cultural feminism, see e.g., Linda Alcoff, “Cultural Feminism Versus Post-Structuralism: The Identity Crisis in Feminist Theory,” in Signs: Journal of Women and Culture in Society 13.3 (1988): 405-436.

  3. Gayle Austin, “The Madwoman in the Spotlight: Plays of Maria Irene Fornes,” in Making a Spectacle: Feminist Essays on Contemporary Women's Theatre, Lynda Hart, ed. (Ann Arbor: Michigan University Press, 1989), 76.

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

  5. Stephanie K. Arnold, “Multiple Spaces, Simultaneous Action and Illusion,” in The Theatrical Space, James Redmond, ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 266.

  6. Helene Keyssar, “Drama and the Dialogic Imagination: The Heidi Chronicles and Fefu and Her Friends.Modern Drama 34.1 (March 1991), 99.

  7. Catherine A. Schuler, “Gender Perspective and Violence in the Plays of Maria Irene Fornes and Sam Shepard,” in Modern American Drama: The Female Canon, June Schlueter, ed. (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1990), 218.

  8. Schuler, 224.

  9. Schuler, 218. For interviews with Fornes, see Scott Cummings, “Seeing with Clarity: The Vision of Maria Irene Fornes,” Theatre 17 (Winter 1985): 52-53, and Kathleen Betsko and Rachel Koenig, Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights (New York: Beech Tree Books, 1987), 154-167.

  10. For a detailed discussion of the foregrounding of theatrical apparatuses, see Jill Dolan, The Feminist Spectator as Critic (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988), especially Chapter Six, “Materialist Feminism: Apparatus-Based Theory and Practice,” 99-117.

  11. Catherine Belsey, Critical Practice (New York: Routledge, 1980), 50-51.

  12. See Belsey, and Terry Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Theory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976).

  13. For feminist critiques of realism in theatre, see Dolan, Sue Ellen Case, Feminism and Theatre (New York: Methuen, 1988), and Elin Diamond, “Brechtian Theory/Feminist Theory: Toward a Gestic Feminist Criticism,” TDR 32.1 (1988): 82-94.

  14. Catherine Belsey, “Constructing the Subject: Deconstructing the Text,” in Feminist Criticism and Social Change, Judith Newton ed. (New York: Methuen, 1985), 52.

  15. August Strindberg, “Forward to Miss Julie,” trans. Elizabeth Sprigge (New York: Avon Books, 1955), 84.

  16. Strindberg, 81.

  17. Chris Weedon, Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1987), 102.

  18. Feminists in theatre have been highly influenced by feminist film theorists, who have explored the relationship between the female and feminist spectatorship in detail. See, e.g., Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16.3 (Autumn 1975): 6-18, and E. Ann Kaplan, “Is the Gaze Male,” in Women and Film (New York: Methuen, 1981), 23-35.

  19. See Belsey, “Constructing the Subject,” Dolan, Feminist Spectator, and Case, Feminism and Theatre. For a detailed discussion of the position of the female spectator in narrative, see Teresa de Lauretis, “Desire in Narrative,” in Alice Doesn't (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 103-157.

  20. Elin Diamond, “Mimesis, Mimicry, and the ‘True-Real,’” Modern Drama 32.1 (March 1989): 60.

  21. Weedon, 172.

  22. Robert Stam and Louise Spence, “Colonialism, Racism and Representation,” Screen 24.2 (March/April 1983): 8.

  23. Diamond, 61.

  24. Bonnie Marrance, “The Real Life of Maria Irene Fornes,” in Theatrewritings (New York: PAJ Publications, 1984), 71.

  25. O'Malley, 103.

  26. Schuler, 219.

  27. Dolan, Feminist Spectator, 110.

  28. John Willett, ed. and trans., Brecht on Theatre (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978), 192.

  29. W. B. Worthen. “Still Playing Games: Ideology and Performance in the Theatre of Maria Irene Fornes,” in Feminine Focus (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 171.

  30. Eagleton, 26.

  31. Teresa de Lauretis, “Issues, Terms, and Contexts,” in Feminist Studies/Critical Studies (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 8.

  32. Teresa de Lauretis, “The Violence of Rhetoric: Considerations of Representation and Gender,” in Technologies of Gender, de Lauretis, ed. (Bloomington: Indiana U.P., 1987), 36.

  33. de Lauretis, “Rhetoric,” 33.

  34. de Lauretis, “Rhetoric,” 38.

  35. de Lauretis, “Rhetoric,” 43.

  36. de Lauretis, “Rhetoric,” 42.

  37. Dolan, 108.

  38. Keyssar, 99.

  39. Keyssar, 100.

  40. Austin, Keyssar and Arnold each offer a different but interesting reading of Fefu's audience in terms of confinement, proximity, and/or distance.

  41. Worthen, 176.

  42. Maria Irene Fornes, Fefu and Her Friends in Wordplays: An Anthology of New American Drama (New York: PAJ Publications, 1980), 38. Further references will be cited in the text.

  43. Diamond, 66.

  44. Deborah R. Geis, “Wordscapes of the Body: Performative Language as ‘Gestus’ in Maria Irene Fornes' Plays,” Theatre Journal 42.3 (October 1990), 297.

  45. Fornes' stage directions for Julia indicate another useful intersection of Brechtian and feminist theories, which Diamond calls the “true-real.” Based on Kristeva's notion of the hysterical body's “true-real,” Diamond argues that the actor's body can “signify but escape signification” (Diamond, 68). Her argument is based on the historical specificity of early Ibsenian realism and on the premises that spectators would read the play before seeing it, and would note the unsignified, unsignifiable text. See also Diamond, “Realism and Hysteria: Toward a Feminist Mimesis,” Discourse 13.1 (Fall-Winter 1990-91), 59-62. I would suggest Julia s an example of the “true-real”; her injuries are hysterical, and the stage directions require the actor's body to signify pain that cannot exist, thus becoming a “non-mimetic body” (Diamond, “Mimesis, Mimicry,” 68).

  46. Austin, 79.

  47. de Lauretis, “Rhetoric,” 43.

  48. Keyssar cited in Austin, 80.

  49. Beverly Byers Pevitts, “Fefu and Her Friends,” in Women in American Theatre, Helen Krich Chinoy and Linda Walsh Jenkins, eds. (New York: TCG, 1987), 317.

  50. Worthen, 180.

  51. Keyssar, 101.

  52. Keyssar, 101.

  53. Worthen, 175.

  54. Griselda Pollock, Vision and Differences: Femininity, Feminism and the Histories of Art (New York: Routledge, 1988), 158.

  55. Geis, 306.

  56. Worthen, 174.

  57. Austin, 84.

  58. Geis, 305.

Bonnie Marranca (essay date May 1992)

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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 Catholic than any of the other worlds of her plays. The teenage Marion marries a loving older man, she has an affair with another man, a child with a third, descends into a personal hell, and in the end nurses her husband after his stroke out of a sense of compassion and remembered love. At a time when so much writing about women (and men) celebrates the joys of sexual freedom, Fornes is writing about sin, penance, forgiveness, the power of love. She does not deny her characters the choice and excitement of self-discovery in transgression—in this case, adultery—but concerns herself instead with the repercussions of such liberating acts. Abingdon Square then is a counter-reformation for our ideological age in which responsibility for one's actions is regarded as a hindrance to personal fulfillment. Fornes's abiding humanism is in stark contrast to contemporary drama's moral relativism and contingency ploys.

Fornes is an unabashed moralist which is why her thinking is so suited to the epic style she has been developing as a writer and director in recent years, at least since Fefu and Her Friends. Epic dramaturgy is rooted in the medieval morality play which produced a synthesis of theatrical and spiritual style. If Brecht used this form to proselytize for his secular religion of communism, and the expressionists for the rebirth of modern man, Fornes makes it her own to represent the spiritual lives of women—the kinds of choices they make, and why.

In her recent production of Abingdon Square at the San Diego Repertory Theatre she has brought all of these strands together in a staging of more clarity and evocativeness than the original production of the play in 1987, at the American Place Theatre in New York. The play itself has been evolving, and considerably revised, since a workshop at the Seattle Repertory Theatre in 1984, and Fornes's own 1988 staging at the Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo. In San Diego it was performed on successive nights in English and in Spanish.

Stylistically, Abingdon Square is a journey play, but more importantly, another kind of Lehrstück or learning play. Enlightenment must be spiritual, not merely the absorption of received ideas. Knowledge is understood in the Platonic sense: as absolute beauty, virtue. Fornes's moral tale is strengthened by its distance from contemporary life and values and its elaboration over a ten-year period in the World War I-era. It exudes a willful circumspection and sense of refinement.

In such a universe a person must know his or her worth. Marion looks to Dante for instruction. She keeps a diary to chronicle “things that are imagined.” Learning—the book, the diary, the act of writing—holds a special place in the work of Fornes, for knowledge struggled over is a form of empowerment, a way of mastering one's life, a guide to value, the cultivation of worldliness. A manuscript must be of the illuminated kind, revelatory. (Kroetz develops this same theme in Through the Leaves, also using the epic form.) One of Fornes's preoccupations in her work is the evolution of a higher, transcendent knowledge from sexual knowledge. The body is a body of knowledge.

Fornes takes a very ascetic approach to life. It is important to live in a state of grace, and to save your soul. For there is a sense of heroism in the admission of shame. Her asceticism accepts the dualism of body and soul. Nothing must be extraneous, merely decorative, self-destructive. The good life is measured by accountability, purity of heart, virtue, transformation through work and study. Chekhov had that code of ethics; his thought moved along the same bourgeois lines of self improvement. The humor of characters who fail to achieve this gracefulness, therefore, is never one of mockery or the grotesque. It is that of manners—humors—as when the dour husband Juster reads a long suggestive passage about pollination from an E. A. Bowles garden book in a brief scene after Marion and cousin gossip with “sinful” delight about a menage à trois they've heard of. How do the three of them make love? Fornes's laughter sometimes comes in threes instead of the usual comic pairs. One of her early plays she called The Successful Life of Three.

More than any of her other works, Abingdon Square develops rhetorically through a prayer-like formality. Sentences are simple, short, unequivocating. Very few contractions are used. There is genuine communication, not diversionary chit chat. Characters tend to understand themselves and reflect on their behavior, traits reinforced by the liberal use of “I” in strong, declarative sentences. At times the language is confessional, transcendent. Therefore, the quality of voice is given primacy in the writing: it is the link to God. There is a certain sacredness attributed to the word because it expresses self-knowledge which, in Fornes's hierarchy of values, is esteemed as a gift. The upper class Marion shares this intuition, and the innate qualities of goodness and charity, with her later embodiment, the dirt poor Mae of Mud.

Fornes's lessons evolve in a precisely defined horizontal space that emphasizes stations of a life. The lack of depth in the stage privileges the portrait, the still life of tableau, as an object of contemplation, accenting the iconic nature of the scenes. There are thirty-one of them, usually brief, some only visual, others in monologue, each of them separated by a blackout. The sense of miniaturization also enhances the dimension of scale, making the events on stage at times more dramatic. Every element of the staging moves toward a meditative rhythm, space to breathe between scenes, darkness and stillness to welcome thought. The stage space and the auditorium forge a single architectural unit.

The (didactic) pictorial frame, reflecting Fornes's early life as a painter, is well suited to the epic construction of the play. Doorways, windows, walls, glass panes serve to emphasize the sense of the frame. In one important scene—a frame within a frame—part of the center back wall gives way to reveal an alcove where Marion is practicing the mortification of the flesh, as it were, shaking arms outstretched heavenward, in a trance-like recitation of “Purgatorio” from The Divine Comedy. A concerned old aunt finds her and in the final moment of the scene lays her body over the conscience-stricken Marion, evoking the pièta-like resonance of a religious painting. Fornes's space is theological.

If this drama is positioned between heaven and hell, light and dark are its poetic counterparts. Before her marriage to the much older Juster, Marion rejoices, “In this house light comes through the windows as if it delights in entering. I feel the same.” Toward the end of the play, when both husband and wife are at the brink of madness Juster will say, “Paper would burn if it were held up to her glance. When I reached the door I saw her back reflected in the glass. She was so still that there was no life in her.” The issue of enlightenment that is so central to the work is played out in the chiaroscuro effects of the staging. One can palpably feel the sensuous interplay of light and emotion in the visual style that characterizes Fornes's directorial intelligence.

Besides emphasizing the pictorial, the San Diego production for all its quietude was more operatic than the original. The highly emotional, taut quality of the writing, its subject matter of love, and the stylization of movements, shaped the musical line of the production. Scenes were played in many different musical moods, at times hymn-like, on occasion ragtime, then nocturne, or adagio. The Richard Strauss song cycle, a touch of Vivaldi, or an aria from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas used between some of the scenes heightened their operatic quality, transforming the work's epic nature by provoking at times a wonderful, humorous tension between melodrama and expressionism. The human, high drama was then subtly contrasted to the indifferent life of plants on the stage and of trees growing in the garden, glimpsed through the parlor doors leading outside, and through which Marion and her lover initially reveled in their illicit affair, soon turned from farce to tragedy. If more and more directors here and abroad are becoming attracted to opera and music-theatre, this is a rare instance of the operatic informing dramaturgy in ways that point to new possibilities of rhythmic experimentation within the epic vocabulary. Melodrama is a natural inclination in the highly emotional space of passion and its repression which defines opera because it addresses, to a great degree, heroism. In fact, the triumph of passion over negotiation (the subject of contemporary life) is perhaps what is making people (artists and audiences) turn now in increasing numbers to opera. The beauty of the soul in extremis is desperately needed on our stages ridden with role models instead of heroes, opinion in place of wisdom.

So is the need to create a greater place for artists with mature vision. It is one of the scandals of the American theatre obsessed as it is with “development,” whether of the playwright or funding sources or subscribers (and the parallels between the real estate industry and the theatre are notoriously striking in their attitude toward preservation) that at the age of sixty-two, after three decades of a richly committed life in the theatre, Fornes is still working on the margins. Most of the theatres she works in, like the San Diego Repertory Theatre which offered a home to this remarkable production, survive on the edge of bankruptcy. When Abingdon Square was produced recently in London it went from the fringe to the National Theatre.

At her age, and with such a long record of distinguished achievement entirely within the medium of theatre, a fully elaborated directorial style, and a grand reputation as a teacher, Fornes should be given all that the American theatre has to offer in terms of resources—choice of actors, technicians, designers, access to larger audiences, longer runs. Imagine what other artists might learn from Fornes. Imagine how her own work might grow under new artistic conditions. Yet, her work has never appeared on the mainstages of any of the major theatres which pride themselves on being an alternative to the commercial exigencies of Broadway—the Vivian Beaumont, the Guthrie, the Mark Taper Forum, Arena Stage, the American Repertory Theatre, the Public Theatre, among countless others. At the center of theatre's exclusionary practice and arrested development is the absence of the mature dramatic voice.

For too long the American theatre system has ruthlessly infantalized artists and audiences by coddling “new” playwrights and directors, falsely setting up gender gaps where instead we should be able to see theatre artists develop in relation to one another, generation to generation. The new triumvirate of young directors at the Public Theatre (albeit under the artistic directorship of the more seasoned JoAnne Akalaitis) already reflects the problematics of the one-dimensional approach. Perhaps it might have been wiser to secure a more broad-based leadership there so that artists and theatre audiences could benefit from seeing the work of several generations of artists, representing several stages of life and vision. An art form must carry on an internal dialogue with its own history, and the successive histories of artists and audiences, to honor cultural memory in any meaningful way. The American theatre obscures the profound relationship of art and society at every turn.

Out of a generation of playwrights who came to prominence in the sixties, including Rochelle Owens, Kenneth Bernard, Adrienne Kennedy, Megan Terry, Rosalyn Drexler, Ronald Tavel, Paul Foster, Jeff Weiss, Tom Eyen—to name only a few who created the idea of Off-Off Broadway—only Maria Irene Fornes is making a living in the (non-mainstream) theatre. Furthermore, their body of work is far more daring in its exploration of sexuality, language, theatricality, and politics than the vast majority of contemporary drama. Even Sam Shepard, one of the most gifted of this group though younger, received greater recognition only after he became a film star. With few exceptions, his work is still produced strictly within the confines of the non-profit system. Since those theatres which support Shepard only produce “new” American plays, none of his earlier work is revived in major contemporary productions, a situation duplicated for other writers as well. Compounding the problem is the fact that the fashionable theatres are closed to earlier generations of playwrights whose work is not of the mainstream. Thus, there is no attempt to create a repertoire of American contemporary plays. No space is created for American writers as they mature.

The American theatre has never found a way to integrate its avant-grade into the larger world of theatre the way Europe did, by giving them a place in their major institutions after they've proved their worth, nor even the way that the film, literary, and art establishments/industries have done here. In theatre the avant-garde spirit is made perpetual outcast. This dilemma increases as artists age because they cannot constantly, to use Lillian Hellman's good phrase, cut their conscience to fit each year's fashion, slavishly following the new hype of funding sources, theatre publicists and boards, trendy “isms.” Are you now or have you ever been an (avant-garde art)ist? The real twist in the theatre scene is not that it pandered to the masses, but that it pandered to the funding sources and their shifting “priorities.” Both conservatives and progressives, the right and the left/liberal, have corrupted the funding process by politicizing culture at the most base level. Art has become a branch of journalism or the social sciences, and critical discourse mere publicity. Only the true artists of the theatre can resist the grant hustle, the hype. They risk marginalization, obscurity, censure, unemployment. But then, being an artist is not a rights issue.

Fornes was in San Diego with her one-hundred-year-old mother Carmen, her frequent companion during theatrical engagements in this country and abroad. I hope that Fornes herself lives to be one hundred, still moving from place to place, bringing her work to the world without any trace of bitterness, simply considering herself lucky to be working in our economy of planned obsolescence of people and things, and that she may be fortunate in old age to have her own fellow travelers, if, that is, the light of our most courageous theatre artists has not been snuffed out by the shades of official culture already appearing on the horizon of the twenty-first century.

Further Reading

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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 Suarez-Duran's Banos Publicos, S.A.

Robinson, Marc, editor. The Theater of Maria Irene Fornes. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999, 276 p.

Robinson presents a diverse selection of critical essays analyzing different aspects of Fornes's oeuvre.

Solomon, Alisa. “Long Night's Journey into Daze.” Village Voice 48, no. 23 (4-10 June 2003): 56.

Solomon critiques a 2003 Soho Rep production of Molly's Dream, commenting that the production's flaws are masked by Fornes's “so quintessentially and pleasurably theatrical” script.

Worthen, W. B. “Still Playing Games: Ideology and Performance in the Theater of Maria Irene Fornes.” In Feminine Focus: The New Women Playwrights, edited by Enoch Brater, pp. 167-85. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Worthen discusses Fornes's emphasis on gender politics in her works, noting the recurring elements of rape and male violence in her plays.

Additional coverage of Fornes's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary American Dramatists; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 28, 81; Contemporary Dramatists, Ed. 5; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 39, 61; Contemporary Women Dramatists; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 7; Drama Criticism, Vol. 10; Hispanic Literature Criticism Supplement, Ed. 1; Hispanic Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Latino and Latina Writers, Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 1; and Reference Guide to American Literature.

Christine Kiebuzinska (essay date 1993)

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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 student in Paris. This experience led her to Lee Strasberg's Actor's Studio where she studied playwrighting and directing. Though the aesthetics of the Method seem rather remote from Brechtian theatrical practices, Brecht's techniques of Verfremdung have become the universal language of contemporary theater, irrespective of ideological contexts in which montage, epic narration or foregrounded theatricality are practiced. Consequently, this paradox of Brechtian reception suggests, as Marc Silberman mentions, an “epistemological decentering” of Brecht's theory and practice.2

In reference to interpreting the reception of historical events Brecht himself observed that an “image that gives historical definition will retain something of the rough sketching which indicates traces of other movements and features all around the fully worked figure. Or imagine,” he writes, “a man standing in a valley” making a speech “in which he occasionally changes his views or simply utters sentences that contradict one another, so that the accompanying echo forces them into confrontation.”3 In post-Brechtian theater the contradictions of the echoing voices have to do with the reception of Brecht's own theory and practice when they are considered along with the practices of the theater of the absurd, performance art, musical reviews and satiric theater, as well as mainstream Broadway productions. Brecht's decidedly Derridean observation may, as a result, be applied to an analysis of Fornes' work, which is accompanied by echoes and tracings of Brecht's influence as sketched on theater in general to reappear combined with the “traces of other movements and features” such as the theater of the absurd, to give Fornes' work its “fully worked figure” or character. As Herbert Blau observes, “since Brecht, and his assault on illusion, the lights are not always hidden now”;4 consequently, the dispersal of Brecht's techniques materializes in Fornes' work as reception of the Gestus or the Verfremdungseffekt without acknowledgement, an expropriation that ironically places Brecht into the position of the “other.”

Despite the unacknowledged evidence of what may be described as Brechtian distancing techniques in Fornes' plays, it is nevertheless useful to discuss Brecht's influence on Fornes' theatrical practices since, as Elin Diamond suggests, “feminist theory and Brechtian theory need to be read intertextually, for among the effects of such a reading are a recovery of the radical potential of the Brechtian critique and a discovery, for feminist theory, of the specificity of theatre.” Diamond's feminist revaluation of Brecht proposes that Brecht's attention to the dialectical and contradictory forces within social relations, and his commitment to alienation techniques and nonmimetic disunity in theatrical signification generate a relationship to theatrical space that is not exclusively based on ideology but shaped more by pleasurable engagement in observation and analysis.5

In particular the Gestus serves as an especially powerful agent for spectatorial disengagement, and Diamond's conclusion that “gestic feminist criticism would ‘alienate’ or foreground those moments in a play in which social attitudes about gender could be made visible”6 is particularly relevant to an analysis of Fornes' theatrical practices. The Gestus, as Brecht would have it, may occur through language as well as in gist or gesture;7 however, the significance of the Gestus, as Patrice Pavis describes, is that it “radically cleaves the performance into two blocks: the shown (the said) and the showing (the staging), a point of interaction of the enunciating gesture and the enunciated discourse,”8 thereby illustrating the fact that theatrical utterance is made up of shifting movements of verbal, gestural and paralinguistic elements of “representation … pointing at itself.”9 Fornes' attention to the gestic nature of discourse illustrates effectively that expression in theater has to do with the simultaneous and equivalent sharing of verbal and gestic elements. In Fornes' Mud two languages emerge quite distinctly: one the visual signs that illustrate the limited social horizon of the characters as presented in the freeze-framed, demystified moments which “lead to conclusions about the entire structure of society in a particular time,”10 and the other, the stuttering and faltering discourse of the lower depths character—Mae, Lloyd and Henry—that enunciates the violence within the power dynamics of the play.

Mud, which has as its center the act of a woman coming to understand herself through language, clarifies the process of Mae's realization that “a free woman is one who has autonomy of thought.”11 The encounters of the three characters, who have no language beyond one of the barest information, is presented in seventeen scenes which are separated by slow blackouts of eight seconds to show the process of dehumanization and the increasing violence of the inarticulate. Sometimes a scene is only an image, a few lines of dialogue or a close-up freeze frame with a strong pictorial composition. Since the action of the play is fragmented into discontinuous frames, the traditional concept of character is undermined as well. Instead, character is developed by means of a few repeated impulsive gestures, but, as Deborah R. Geis mentions, “that their ‘impulses’ as such are communicated in the gestic, self-narrated discourse of Brechtianism allows a partial recuperation of this fragmentation.”12 The short scenes, blackouts and foregrounded theatricality emphasize Fornes' attitude toward reception since her authorial voice does not demand power over theatrical experience. In addition Fornes abnegates the manipulative powers of expressive language, evident in her dramatic language, which excludes excessive qualifiers, adjectives and complex sentences. Instead her sentences are simple and exist to communicate or question.

In Mud the characters are placed into a world that resembles the play's title; it is a world that is primitive, dirty and dulled by hopelessness and routine. Here the poor rural trio of Mae, Lloyd and Henry leads lives that are entirely functional. Mae is a woman trapped in both the poverty of her cultural history and by the two men who represent that impoverishment. Both Lloyd and Henry are dependent on Mae for material, emotional and sexual satisfaction, and their needs keep Mae within the sticky and dirty realm of mud. Throughout the play Mae's attempts to deal with the dirt are concentrated in the image of ironing the never-diminishing pile of men's trousers. Mae's ironing, as Jill Dolan mentions, works in the play as a kind of Gestus, replete with the illustration of the gender specific nature of the social arrangements in that household.13 However, despite her efforts to change her world through clean trousers and clean plates, Mae sees that the only escape from her abject position is to learn to use language so that she can understand what lies behind such terms as “arithmetic” or “medicine.” Simultaneously the spectator realizes that the mystification of such terms has to do with the inherent power of those who control language and deny access to others. When Mae brings back a pamphlet from the doctor in order to explain Lloyd's disease, she admits she cannot read it, “I tried to read it and it was too difficult. … It is advanced. I'm not advanced yet. I'm intermediate. I can read a lot of things but not this.”14 She also understands that “arithmetic” is “more” than numbers, but as she struggles to define the abstraction, she can only come up with “multiplication” (18).

While the characters' struggle with language presents their abject social situation, the setting illustrates their limited horizon. Their world is both stark and dirty, “ashen and cold,” a room set on an earth promontory five feet high. The two doors seem to lead to nowhere, although there is a blue sky visible through the exterior door. Stage props consist of the bare necessities of table and chairs and all the material possession of the characters: an assortment of eating utensils; a textbook; a box with pills; an ax; a rifle; cardboard boxes, one filled with Mae's clothes, one tied with string and one empty box. The stage picture Fornes presents is one of stripped-down realism, and while the mise-en-scène suggests the literal and figurative impoverishment of the characters, Fornes also uses the device of freezes following each scene to illustrate the limited sphere of action, as the characters in essence enact the effects of all that “mud” comes to represent. The tableau-like freezes serve to illustrate the imprisonment of the characters in their situation as well as to frame their limited possibilities of action, particularly those of Mae when she is framed by Lloyd and Henry as their objectified source of nurturing. As Geis observes, “the structure of the play replicates or ‘enacts’ its contents.”15 In addition the very short scenes as well as the eight second freezes project Fornes' attitude toward the spectators since these stylistic elements allow them to enter into contemplative moments as they assemble meaning from the montage-like juxtapositioning of actions, pictorial arrangements and foregrounded theatrical actions of actors dropping and reentering their roles.

However, it is primarily the gestic quality of Fornes' language that reveals the characters, for it is discourse that has the power to demonstrate and articulate their situation. Consequently, our understanding of the characters does not emerge through dialogue, for dialogue would suggest an ability on their part to communicate. Instead they communicate their situation through their struggle to grasp even the most elemental meaning. In his analysis of Brecht's influence on postmodern theater Wirth suggests that Brecht's most significant contribution to the structural changes in dramatic form was the distinction he made between dialogue and discourse.16 While dialogue serves the plot in order to sustain illusion, discourse engages the spectator in thought processes. Fornes has discovered her own stage language, a method of discourse in which fragments of thought and unruly contradictions are part of the process of questioning preconceived ideas, conventions and emotional responses. As Bonnie Marranca comments, “instead of the usual situation in which a character uses dialogue or action to explain what he or she is doing and why, [Fornes'] characters exist in the world by their very act of trying to understand it.”17

In their inarticulateness and their struggle for expression Fornes' characters from Mud resemble Franz Xavier Kroetz's theater of the inarticulate, and Kroetz's critique of Brechtian discourse may be relevant for discussing Fornes' contributions to theater. Kroetz found his ideal in the work of Marieluise Fleisser, whose plays present characters reduced by language. Similar to Mae's attempts to understand “mathematics” or “medicine,” Fleisser's characters disappear into their situation simply because they cannot comprehend it. Kroetz writes that in contrast to Fleisser the Brechtian proletarians always have a range of language at their disposal, a language that is never compromised by the their masters, and since Brecht's characters have such a competence in language, the way to a positive utopia or future is clearly visible.18 Instead Fleisser's characters attempt to use a language that does not serve them, and since they use an appropriated discourse automatically, they lose their selfhood. One can extend Kroetz's observations on Fleisser to Fornes since the connection between their characters' incompetence in discourse is closely related to their lack of perspective. Initially Fornes' characters appear totally isolated from the rest of the world; no sign of radio, television or shopping-mall culture intrudes into their reality. Nevertheless, as Mae attempts to abandon her squalid life by attending adult education classes, she unwittingly becomes subject to a culturally-conditioned discourse to which she has little access. However, Fornes, unlike Fleisser and Kroetz, provides her characters the attainment of selfhood through subjectivity. And even though Mae fails to break through the seemingly impenetrable barrier that “mathematics” or “medicine” represent, the freedom suggested by the door to the open blue sky represents the potential to an open future, and in projecting a glimmer of that freedom, Fornes attempts to shape the potential outcome of Mae's struggle for selfhood in a similar manner to that found in Brecht's social plays.

The gestic quality of the language in Mud derives from Mae's attempts to find selfhood through discourse. She is one of the many characters in Fornes' plays whose essence is revealed through the desire to be initiated, to be taught about the “conduct of life.” The conduct of life does not, however, as in Brecht's plays have to do with an understanding of the inequities of a capitalist economy which make it difficult to become a “good person” but rather with the understanding of one's subjectivity, the expressive desire of the soul. Written texts represent Mae's desire for expression beyond the typical exchanges with Lloyd, “Fuck you, Mae. Fuck you, Lloyd” (18). When Henry enters their lives, Mae experiences a longing for beauty that differs from her original initiation into the language of “arithmetic” as “numbers” or “multiplication.” Mae from the beginning understands that language has a power that will prevent one from dying “in the mud,” as she insists that she will die in a hospital, “in white sheets,” with “clean feet” and with “injections” (19). However, until she listens to Henry saying grace, Mae has been incapable of addressing her subjectivity. The emotive power of the words of grace, “for he satisfies the longing soul, and fills the hungry soul with goodness,” feeds Mae's hunger, her craving for beauty. She says, “I am a hungry soul. I am a longing soul. I am an empty soul,” as the discourse of spirituality addresses her soul “so lovingly” (27).

For Mae language has to do with learning things that will make her “feel joyful” and allow her access to her own subjectivity. She says that she cannot “retain” words since she has no “memory,” nor enough knowledge “to pass the test” (26). However, she rejoices when she feels grace in her heart, and as she reads from her textbook with difficulty following the written words with the fingers of both hands, her reading is “inspired.” The gestic quality of Mae's clumsiness in coming to learn to read allows the spectator “to feel the physical process by which she tries to transform her world.”19 Though the passage she reads resembles the language of a biology textbook, Mae acquires an identity and even a corporeality as she reads:

The starfish is an animal, not a fish. He is called a fish because he lives in the water. The starfish cannot live out of the water. If he is moist and in the shade he may be able to live out of the water for a day. Starfish eat old and dead sea animals. They keep the water clean. A starfish has five arms like a star. That is why it is called a starfish. Each of the arms of the starfish has an eye in the end. These eyes do not look like our eyes. A starfish's eye cannot see. But they can tell if it is night or day. If a starfish loses an arm he can grow a new one. This takes about a year. A starfish can live five or ten years or perhaps more, no one really knows.


Identity for Mae is entirely connected in her “entry into discourse”;20 she is moved by what language represents, in particular the associative and poetic powers that go beyond the mechanical prose of the elementary reading text. At first Henry appears to be the catalyst for Mae's attempts at fashioning her life text, since not only does Henry open up Mae's world to identification through speech, he also provides her with an image of herself when he brings her a lipstick and a mirror. This moment, as Marranca mentions, is not related to a cosmetic action “but a recognition of a self in the act of knowing, an objectification, a critique of the self.”21 The lipstick and mirror along with the self-demonstration of her gestic monologue reading of the starfish text allow Mae to refashion herself and liberate herself “from the representational limits within which she has been confined.”22

Initially Mae associates the process of her emerging subjectivity with Henry; however, Henry's attitude towards language is entirely related to utility, not “joyfulness.” “I like to know things so I can live according to them, according to my knowledge” (26), he explains. In fact, Henry envisions a world where everything “will be used only once” since “our time will be of value and it will not be feasible to spend it caring for things.” For Mae a world in which one would make “a call on the telephone and a new one would be delivered” would have no place for her because in that world “a person must be of value.” In the rather naive vision of Henry's world Mae sees herself as “hollow” and “offensive.” “Why is it that you can talk, Henry, and Lloyd cannot talk?” she asks and, craving entry into the world that will provide “clean sheets,” “injections” and discardable clothes, appliances and cars, she invites Henry to live with them (24), hoping that his presence will make her feel less stupid, less as if living “like a dog” (28). What Mae does not understand is that both Henry's discourse of “grace” and his discourse on the utopian future conceal ignorance, selfishness and crudity. Once Henry loses his language through a crippling stroke, however, he becomes a slobbering, demanding, stealing brute. Disenchanted with the ugliness around her, Mae tells Lloyd, “Kill him if you want. He can't talk straight anymore” (34).

While Henry sees his identity related to knowledge and language, Lloyd sees his identity as something stripped down to a bare functional level: “I'm Lloyd. I have two pigs. My mother died. I was seven. My father left. He is dead. This is money. It's mine. It's three nickels. I'm Lloyd. That's arithmetic” (18). Yet when he perceives his mate has replaced him with Henry, Lloyd begins to identify with Mae's reading about the hermit crab who “lives in empty shells that once belonged to other animals” (29). Though his motivation is to get back his place in Mae's bed, Lloyd, unlike Henry, understands that Mae's “inspired” reading of the starfish text suggests a mysterious event he cannot comprehend. Surreptitiously he takes Mae's textbook and attempts to trace the letters of “starfish” one by one, so that in the process of reading the text, he may ultimately “read” Mae. Upon her return Mae recognizes that Lloyd is making an attempt at possessing her, and “she takes the book and holds it protectively” telling him “don't mess my book” (36). The gesture of protecting her book also announces Mae's desire for holding on to her own text, as if the textbook “articulates her bodied subjectivity.”23

Ultimately Mae finds herself in a world in which everything has turned bad. Henry, reduced to a mere functioning individual, betrays her not only because he can no longer provide stimulation for her spirit but also because he steals Mae's hard-earned money as a way of getting back at Lloyd. The “grace” Mae envisioned as part of Henry's presence is undermined by his lack of charity towards Lloyd. A reversal in characterization occurs as Henry is reduced to a functional existence, wherein his potency imposes a demand on Mae that does not differ from the demand that Lloyd imposes at the beginning of the play, “I'll fuck you till you're blue in the face” (17). At the same time Lloyd, having discovered a more mysterious, unfamiliar Mae, also demands his rights to her. In desperation Mae “looks up at the sky” asking “can't I have a decent life?” as she gets the empty box to pack her things. Both Lloyd and Henry frame her as they protest “but I love you, Mae.” But Mae wants to go to a place “where the two of you are not sucking my blood” (39). As Lloyd shouts and Henry makes plaintive sounds, Mae departs, but not for long. Lloyd takes the rifle. A shot is heard, and Lloyd reappears carrying the dying Mae, assuring Henry “she's not leaving” (40). As Geis explains, Mae's death occurs before she is “fully able to find the realm of language she has been seeking”;24 however, her dying speech shows that she can go beyond her identification with the starfish of her textbook to her own associative and poetic powers: “Like the starfish, I live in the dark and my eyes see only a faint light. It is faint and yet it consumes me. I long for it. I thirst for it. I would die for it. Lloyd, I am dying” (40).

In interviews on her approach to theater Fornes insists that her plays are not message oriented: “They are not Idea Plays. My plays do not present a thesis, or at least, let us say, they do not present a formulated thesis. One can make a thesis about anything (I could or anyone could formulate one).” Fornes does not want to create a world on stage invested with obvious moral imperatives and comments that if she were limited to writing plays to make points about women, she would feel that she would be working under “some sort of tyranny of well-meaning.” Fornes' attempt to subvert meaning is evident in what she has to say about the suppression of her authorial voice. “One play of mine has about three endings,” she writes. “These are almost-endings, and they do not have that total satisfaction of a real ending.” Her approach to playwrighting is based on an intuitive arrangement of “those things that have some relation—again, I do not even know why I consider that they are related—and put them together.” She describes the process of writing as accidental and writes on note cards which she arranges according to feelings for colors or other rather subjective criteria. Consequently, Fornes is surprised when “people put so much emphasis on the deliberateness of a work. I do not trust deliberateness. When something happens by accident, I trust that the play is making its own point.” Similarly, Fornes feels that the spectator should experience meaning through an accidental encounter with her plays because something is happening “that is very profound and very important.” She clearly distrusts a one-sided reading and the power of ideological interpretation:

People go far in this thing of awareness and deliberateness; they go further and further. They go to see a play, and they do not like it. So someone explains it to them, and they like it better. How can they possibly understand it better, like it better, or see more of it because someone has explained it?25

Ultimately, however, Fornes' protests with regard to her subjective approach to drama are not entirely convincing. When one examines both the attention to the gender positioning of Mae in Mud as well as the socioeconomic determinants that shape all three characters, it becomes evident that the play projects a very clear notion of the situation and the outcome. As Catherine A. Schuler mentions, perhaps Fornes is being deliberately disingenuous when she insists that her work is more devoted to form rather than content, and her conviction that hostile responses to her work are the “inevitable result of her continuing desire to engage in radical experiments with form” seem somewhat naive.26 From what is known of her method as the director of virtually all of her plays, Fornes has a very clear notion about both the aesthetics and message of her plays. Her feminism is evident in her emphasis that “what is important about [Mud] is that Mae is the central character. It says something about women's place in the world, not because she is good or a heroine, not because she is oppressed by men … but simply because she is the center of that play.” She goes on to say that “it is because of that mind, Mae's mind, a woman's mind, that the play exists.”27 Ultimately one could say that Fornes' theory, or seeming lack of theory, pose problems and contradictions that reflect similar conflicts that are found in Brecht's theory and practice. While Brecht preached ideological commitment and practiced subjectivity, Fornes preaches subjectivity while practicing a very discerning commitment to exploring problems of gender hierarchy and exposing the dehumanization of women reduced by male brutality and violence.

Fornes, as both dramatist and director of her plays, has stripped away the self-conscious objectivity, narrative weight and behaviorism of conventional theater to concentrate on the unique subjectivity of characters for whom language is purely gestural. In order to concentrate on the unique life of her characters, Fornes feels that characters should have a separate existence without the burden of serving a plot. At the same time Fornes uses dialogue in particularly subversive ways to demonstrate that the voice of the characters does not originate from pristine selfhood but reflects them as social beings and presents, similarly to Brecht, “the domain of attitudes which characters have in relation to each other.”28 She makes distinctions, however, between gestures that serve plot and those that enunciate the “mechanics of the mind … the process of spiritual survival, a process of thought.”29 When one reflects on the gestic nature of Fornes' Mud, on the very Brechtian devices of the freeze frames and foregrounded theatricality and on the fact that Fornes' training came from the study of the techniques of the Method, a very significant relationship emerges. While the Method provides Fornes the means to portray the internal, subjective realm of characters such as Mae, attention to Brechtian techniques, particularly to the Gestus, demonstrates the social significance of the gender relationships within the play. Janelle Reinelt's observations on the relationships between feminist theater and Brecht's theatrical practices indicate that “both Brecht and feminism posit a subject-in-process, the site of multiple contradictions and competing social practices, where concrete political change may coalesce, if not originate.”30

Fornes, like Brecht, withholds the assimilation of the various “enunciators” of the stage into a coherent whole, choosing instead to “suspend the identification between drama and its staging.”31 For the same reason, Fornes refuses to engage the characters in the seamlessness of traditional narrative to the extent “where the characters themselves seem at times too oblivious to the ‘story’ that they are supposed to be in.”32 That so many of her plays in addition to Mud, among them Dr. Kheal,Tango Palace,The Danube and Fefu and Her Friends, to one degree or another deal with the acquisition of language, suggests her consistent interest in the relationship of language to thought to action.33 Ultimately Fornes' theater is a theater about utterance, a metatheater and a theater about the disfavored. At the same time, the gestural quality of discourse in plays like Mud places Fornes into the foreground of feminist theater that may be linked to Brecht and may also provide a means of questioning Brecht.


  1. Andrzej Wirth, “Vom Dialog zum Diskurs: Versuch einer Synthese der nachbrechtschen Theaterkonzepte,” Theater heute 1 (1980): 16.

  2. Marc Silberman, “A Postmodern Brecht?” Paper presented at the Eighth Symposium of the International Brecht Society in Augsburg, December 12, 1991, forthcoming in Theatre Journal (Spring 1993).

  3. Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Theatre, ed. and trans. John Willet (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964) 191.

  4. Herbert Blau, The Audience (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991) 212.

  5. Elin Diamond, “Brechtian Theory/Feminist Theory: Toward a Gestic Feminist Criticism,” The Drama Review 32.1 (1988): 82-83.

  6. Ibid. 91.

  7. See Brecht on Theatre, 142.

  8. Patrice Pavis, Languages of the Stage: Essays in the Semiology of Theatre (New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1982) 45.

  9. See Blau 8.

  10. Brecht on Theatre, 98.

  11. Bonnie Marranca, “The Real Life of Maria Irene Fornes,” Theater-writings (New York. Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1984) 72.

  12. Deborah R. Geis, “Wordscapes of the Body: Performative Language as Gestus in Maria Irene Fornes's Plays,” Theatre Journal 42.3 (1990): 293.

  13. Jill Dolan, The Feminist Spectator as Critic (Ann Arbor/London: UMI Research Press, 1988) 109.

  14. Maria Irene Fornes, Mud, in Plays (New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1986) 21-22; all subsequent references from Mud will be cited within the text.

  15. See Geis 299.

  16. See Wirth 16-18.

  17. Marranca 69.

  18. See Franz Xavier Kroetz, Weitere Aussichten: Ein Lesebuch (Cologne: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1976) 519-526.

  19. See Geis 300.

  20. See Dolan 109.

  21. Marranca 70.

  22. Geis 301.

  23. Ibid.

  24. Ibid. 301.

  25. Maria Irene Fornes, “I Write These Messages That Come,” The Drama Review 21.4 (1977): 25-40.

  26. Catherine A. Schuler, “Gender Perspectives and Violence in the Plays of Maria Irene Fornes and Sam Shepard,” Modern American Drama: The Female Canon, ed. June Schlueter (Rutheford/Madison/Teaneck: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990) 218-219.

  27. Kathleen Betsko and Rachel Koenig, Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights (New York: Beech Tree Books, 1987) 166.

  28. Brecht, quoted by Roswitha Mueller in “Montage in Brecht,” Theatre Journal 39.4 (1987): 473.

  29. Maria Irene Fornes, in an interview with Bonnie Marranca in Performing Arts Journal 2.3 (1977): 107.

  30. Janelle Reinelt, “Rethinking Brecht: Deconstruction, Feminism, and the Politics of Form,” Essays on Brecht: The Brecht Yearbook 15 (Madison: The International Brecht Society, 1990) 106.

  31. W. B. Worthen, “Still Playing Games: Ideology and Performance in the Theater of Maria Irene Fornes,” Feminine Focus, ed. Enoch Brater (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989) 168.

  32. See Geis 294.

  33. See Marranca 72.

Scott T. Cummings (essay date spring 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4476

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 both comic and pathetic effect, is simply this: although Oscar and Bertha are adults, they behave like absolute children. Their mutual suspicion and animosity is so intense and so unchecked by the restraints of mature behavior that every interaction they have quickly devolves into verbal or physical combat. If their mother was around, they would be sent to their rooms.

After the typically long gestation period for a Fornes play, Oscar and Bertha premiered at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco in March 1992, on a bill with the curtain-raiser Drowning, Fornes's contribution several years back to Orchards, the anthology of Chekhov short story adaptations commissioned by Anne Cattaneo for the Acting Company. Fornes first worked on Oscar and Bertha at the Guthrie Theatre Lab in 1987. In July 1989, the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival included a workshop production of the play presented outdoors in the courtyard of the Art and Design Center at Cal State Northridge. Padua Hills later published this version in an anthology. The Magic Theatre production represents a revision of the Padua Hills script and no doubt, there will be changes after that: Fornes never truly stops working on a play; she simply puts it aside to concentrate on something else. As always, Fornes has directed the play at every stage of its development, lending the text and its performance a seamless continuity which the playwright finds perfectly natural. “It doesn't occur to me to finish a play and hand it over to someone else to direct,” she says in the Magic program. “That's like cooking a meal and then not eating it.” This investigation of the “cooking” and “eating” of Oscar and Bertha at the Magic Theatre intends to make clear just how interdependent these processes are and why Fornes's plays can be unwieldy in the hands of a director unfamiliar with her mise en scène.

The play takes place in Oscar and Bertha's shared home. As designed by Sandra Woodall, it is at first glance a simple, symmetrical, unadorned space. The main playing area downstage represents a sitting area (left) with two salmon pink armchairs and an eating area (right) with a small table and simple wooden chairs. A narrow central corridor bisects the upstage area and ends at another hall which goes off left to the kitchen and off right to the outside world. In the rear wall, where the two hallways meet in a T, there is a set of French doors, which only open twice in the production. Both brother and sister have a room of their own onstage, a bedroom not much bigger than a walk-in closet, upstage left and right respectively, separated by the tiny hallway. The alcove-like bedrooms are raised almost a foot above the stage floor and self-enclosed except for doorways facing on the hall and window-like openings which look onto the main room. Each cut-out (approximately four feet tall and five feet wide) is curtained; a broad cushioned shelf at its base serves as the bed for each room. Whenever Oscar or Bertha want to shut the other one out, they simply reach up and jerk the curtain closed.

As living quarters go, Oscar and Bertha's are noticeably spare, raw, undecorated. Nothing hangs on the walls, the table surface is empty, no personal objects lie about. The room is not altogether plain. There are patterns in the side walls, gold curlicues on the lintels, a carved wooden arch leading into the hall, a barely visible cloud pattern on the extreme upstage wall, and different weaves to the blankets on the beds and the curtains over the openings, but these details are subtle and textural, not pictorial. They adhere to the room's architectural design, not to its habitational use.

Despite showing no signs of being actively occupied, the room proves to be a domestic battleground. In contemporary parlance, the warring siblings of the play would be labeled “dysfunctional” or “codependent,” but Oscar and Bertha are “adult children” of a different color. The latest psycho-jargon is simply not appropriate for characters who inhabit a dramatic universe all their own, one which is realistic on its own terms but not at all a realistic reflection of a specific time and place. Historical events—the Gulf War, the presidential election, even something as general as inflation—do not impinge on the action or even color its narrative backdrop. In the world of Oscar and Bertha, there is a bank and a grocery store and even somewhere a hospital where the character Eve had shock therapy treatments, but it is not a “First National Bank” or an “A & P” or a “Veterans Hospital.” It is a world without proper names, parallel but without direct link to our own, where places and objects and often people are known generically. Like the set, it is a world uncluttered by specificity.

If Oscar and Bertha live in undecorated spaces, they are themselves undecorated as characters. They lack a biography in any coherent sense. We know they had a mother because they argue over her maternal allegiance. Bertha had a dog. Oscar had a girlfriend named Babette. But despite the presence of a photograph album, the family history remains vague and, ultimately, unimportant to the experience of the play. Undeniably, these characters share a past, but they exist in a present moment so immediate and self-contained as to seem to deny it.

Incidentally, this lack of exposition of either past or present circumstances is precisely what makes Fornes plays so utterly realistic and yet oddly surreal as well. In daily conversation when we say, “I have to stop at the bank on the way to the movie,” most often our interlocutor knows exactly what bank and exactly what movie we are referring to, based on previous discussion or knowledge which derives from an established relationship. To say “I need to stop at the Wells Fargo Bank on the way to Aliens 3 starring Sigourney Weaver” would be unnatural and bizarre. Characters in a Fornes play talk to each other in this same realistic way, but the continued withholding of explanatory detail for the audience's benefit rarefies the realism as the play progresses. It emphasizes the relationship between the characters in situ and the emotional immediacy of the situation while keeping that situation narratively unfamiliar, even a bit mysterious, to the audience. This emphasis on the moment asks for a particularly visceral type of acting, although not the tortured gut-wrenching variety often associated with third-rate Method acting. It's a matter of feeling, not of angst. The acting in the Magic Theatre production was strong across the board, although Dennis Ludlow (Oscar) and Patricia Mattick (Bertha) merit special kudos for their high profile, high energy performances. Their work amounted to an exemplary display of comic acting: physically precise, outsized, yet honest and unself-conscious.

Dennis Ludlow's Oscar is a mess of a human being. He wears rumpled crimson red pajamas and his hair is all disheveled. His speech is just as slovenly: erratically modulated, often labored and slurred, in a word, goofy. At moments it devolves into baby-like gurgles and squeals. He is housebound and spends most of his time in a wheelchair, although at moments he will crawl and even walk. Here again, the absence of narrative detail means we never learn why he uses a wheelchair, but whatever the cause, it seems to have brought mental as well as physical challenges. Oscar is, well, stupid. His major achievement in the play will be simply, mechanically, to make it out the door to go look for a job. Bertha is as sharp as Oscar is dull. Oscar sits around like a bump on a log; Bertha stands ramrod straight. Her eyes dart back and forth in her head like ricochetting BBs, revealing bundles of nervous energy beneath her stiff shell. Smartly dressed in a dark suit with a red blouse and a brooch, Patricia Mattick wears her hair piled up high in an imposing pompadour which adds to her stern presence. Her Bertha is tight-assed and loose-lipped, only she does not so much speak as bark or snarl or sometimes even purr. Whatever she says, she means business and most often that business is to put her brother in his place, which she does with gestapo-like militancy.

The chief object of Oscar and Bertha's rivalry is the character of Eve (played by Regina Saisi), a frail woman dressed all in black who has answered a want ad they have placed looking for a live-in housekeeper and caretaker. When they meet Eve, for brother and sister alike, it is lust at first sight. Much of the action of the play—which, like many Fornes plays, unfolds in a series of brief, often fragmentary scenes—presents their boisterous and competitive efforts to seduce Eve, or failing that, simply to use her to relieve themselves sexually. Sibling rivalry becomes sibling ribaldry.

The play begins with a scene in which Oscar interviews Eve for the job. He sits in his wheelchair, with a rolled up newspaper in his breast pocket, chewing his fingernails, fidgeting nervously, and leering at Eve. Eve sits in a chair shyly, with a black scarf on her head, a black shawl around her shoulders, and a newspaper folded in her lap, folded in on herself, a shrinking violet. She is pale and as the play wears on, she will grow sickly, maybe even gravely ill. She is quiet, a bit mousy in demeanor, but she has the full capacity to defend herself when necessary, as she soon demonstrates. No sooner has Oscar begun to question Eve than is he reaching over to her and pinching her breast like it was a bathtub squeeze toy, saying, “Do the girls in Franklyn have a pretty little tit. Like a bird. That goes pip pip.” Each time he squeezes Eve's breast, he peeps like a tiny bird. At first, Eve is outwardly unruffled by this intrusive behavior, but then she grabs the newspaper from his pocket and clobbers him over the head. Oscar persists, chasing Eve around the room in his wheelchair with a slobbery lasciviousness, eventually cornering her and trying to jam his head up under her skirt until Bertha enters and commands Oscar to stop. Bertha grabs the newspaper from Eve and swats Oscar like he was a bad dog. Oscar grabs another newspaper and swats back, as does Eve, and for an extended moment, all three flail away, swatting each other indiscriminately, frenetically, like cartoon characters who have dissolved into a blur of comic motion.

Although it may take audiences more time to acclimate themselves, this opening commotion establishes the quirky style of the entire play. From start to finish, Oscar and Bertha are at each other's throats, bragging, teasing, carping, kicking, hitting, choking, spitting, and generally lambasting each other with a ferocity that is strikingly honest. “Aww, buzz off” / “You buzz off” is their most frequent exchange. As opposed to Fornes plays from the 1980s like Mud or The Conduct of Life where the violence is deadly serious, in Oscar and Bertha it is inconsequential and purely comic. The play is a grotesque, a Punch-and-Judy show for actors instead of puppets, complete with pratfalls and shouting matches and slapsticks in the form of rolled-up newspapers. Its feisty and freewheeling spirit recalls Fornes's off-off Broadway work in the 1960s, such as The Successful Life of 3 or Promenade.

Although the action of the play is fueled by competing oedipal energies, Fornes is more interested in sibling rivalry as an ontology than a psychology. For this reason, she draws Oscar and Bertha with the simplicity and verve and innocence of cartoon characters. They are animated in a way that frees them from the demands of psychological realism yet captures the emotional reality of their situation. Their egocentricity is so naive and child-like that they seem to lack ego in the sense of a performative self-image which both masks and moderates competing interior impulses, prohibitions, desires, needs, and defenses. They respond reflexively and without inhibition, heart to heart and head to head but without self-consciousness or guilt.

Their infantilism operates as an abstraction of their feelings as adults, and in this regard, their motives are pure. Regarding each other, they are pure animus, eyeing each other with murderous intent. Regarding Eve, they are pure libido, behaving like animals in heat, driven more by instinct than by passion, as they awkwardly jockey for position in an attempt to mount their prey. Oscar is a pathetic mauler. He lumbers and pounces with the subtlety and grace of a rhinoceros. At one point, Oscar is humping Eve with such self-absorbed vigor that he fails to notice that she has slipped out from under him and that he is merely pounding the mattress. Bertha, on the other hand, is a stealthy seducer. Early in the play she sneaks up behind Eve as she bends over the table to wipe it clean. She pushes her pelvis against Eve's gyrating buttocks in an attempt to reach a climax, but after the briefest moment's pleasure, Eve thrusts back good and hard, sending Bertha ricocheting off the walls, spinning and careening about the room, tumbling over the furniture.

Not only does the clown-like crudity of this sexual behavior prevent the play from becoming pornographic, or even erotic for that matter, it makes the depth and desperation of the characters's feelings undeniable. Clearly, Oscar and Bertha do not crave sex for its own sake but as the currency of (parental) attention, approval, favor. Despite her dour demeanor, as caretaker and provider, Eve is a surrogate parent, and to a lesser degree, so is the play's fourth character, Pike. In the middle of the play, Bertha straddles one of the pink armchairs and masturbates as she fantasizes about having a baby with Eve. “Eve, people can have children even when they haven't been married,” Bertha says with calm assurance as she rubs against the back of the chair. “If a person does certain things with another—a child may be conceived.” As Bertha nears a climax, Oscar wheels in and refuses to leave, despite her protests. “This is private! Get out! This is between Eve and me!” yells Bertha, before she collapses onto the floor and twitches in orgasmic spasm several times before coming to a rest. Oscar's competitive response is to lift his shirt and show a bright red circle around his left breast. “Lipstick marks. I have lipstick on my tit,” he boasts, claiming that he got them from Eve. Bertha examines his chest closely and concludes, “Those are dog lips. You put lipstick on a dog, then put his snout to your tit so it would leave an imprint. I know you. What dog did it?” This is comic pathos at its most sublime.

Oscar and Bertha's outrageous behavior might be dismissed as ridiculous if it were not for Fornes's tremendous compassion for her characters, aptly described by Mari Coates in her review of the play for San Francisco Sentinel. “There is a fragility about her characters,” Coates writes, “a sense that they are perilously close to breaking. Once this is established, she seems to push them over the edge and then embrace them, as if she were saying that our vulnerability is what is most valuable about us.” Oscar and Bertha swerves from breaking point to breaking point. One such moment climaxes a typical scene of juvenile one-upmanship in which brother and sister brag about their sexual conquests. Oscar provides the topper when he claims to have had sex with their mother even before he was weaned:

She was my woman. I owned her. I was her baby love—she never nursed you … I drank the milk that was intended for you. I have your milk inside me. You never went near her. I lay in bed with her as she fed me. And we climaxed. Both of us. My baby penis was erect like a torpedo and I climaxed and so did she … You think she enjoyed herself with Daddy? Ha! His cock was big but dull. My little penis was cheerful. She came so deeply and so beautifully. And me. I turned to her and when my little penis touched her belly I came. She put her hand on my fat little butt and felt it pulsate with the throes of orgasm. She held me and she climaxed. We never kissed. Our love was pure.

This is so devastating that Bertha's immediate response is one of perverse denial. She drops to the floor on all fours and scurries about frantically, looking behind the furniture and calling “Here! Doggy, doggy, doggy. Here! Doggy, doggy, doggy.” Thus does Fornes demonstrate her unstinting yet unsentimental compassion for her characters.

Although the play lacks a plot in any conventional sense, the action does move through a period of crisis in the middle towards a happy ending. Oscar and Bertha have unspecified financial problems which prompt them first to contact a bank for a loan and later to ask that Eve get a paying job to pay for her share of the food. The geometry of the sibling rivalry changes when halfway through the play, Pike (Patrick Morris), the man from the bank, becomes a regular visitor to the home. Bertha claims that she and Pike “did it” and calls him her “boyfriend.” When Pike and Bertha sit and visit, leafing through the family photograph album, Oscar curls up at Pike's feet, and later, climbs up into his lap.

Eventually, the situation grows dire. Eve gets so sick that she is hospitalized. Oscar must look for work. First he reads the want ads and finds little that he's qualified for. Nevertheless he doffs his hat (still wearing his pajamas) and makes several determined but unsuccessful efforts just to get offstage. Each time he is repelled by some cosmic comic force which sends him back into the room with increasingly worse injuries: a bashed hat and bandaged nose, an arm in a sling, a crippling limp and a crutch. This unabashed comic routine is similar to Beckett's existential vaudeville, Act without Words I, or even the clown scene from Brecht's Baden Lehrstuck, except that it is inscribed in a domestic emergency. On the fourth try Oscar does make it out the door and this is his ironic moment of glory because, of course, he does not in fact get a paying job.

When Eve gets better and returns home, the storm has been weathered. In the final scene, the four characters, relatively secure within the reconstituted family circle, sit at the table and play cards. “It's hell out there,” says Eve. “Worse than here.” Within moments, some unseen transgression provokes a fight. Quickly, all four pull out their rolled-up newspapers and whack each other indiscriminately and, it seems, with loving disaffection. The melee signals the happy return to normalcy (and to vitality, perhaps), as the sound of barking dogs is heard growing louder and louder and the up-center French doors magically open to reveal a cloudy horizon at sunset which, Magritte-like, matches exactly the pattern on the upstage walls. The effect is oddly triumphant, even majestic.

Carefully orchestrated moment such as this are what make Oscar and Bertha much more than a self-indulgent Saturday Night Live sketch lampooning family relations or even a daring episode of The Honeymooners in which Ralph and Alice Kramden articulate the taboo. Although, as characters, Oscar and Bertha are wildly free in their behavior, their anarchy is tightly controlled by the spatial and temporal rhythms of the play in production. Like Oscar himself, the rambunctious energy of Oscar and Bertha is housebound, confined to a domestic and interior space. It cannot go out and play. Both the directing and the design assume a parental (i.e. aesthetic) authority over the action that is nowhere to be seen in the world of the play.

The play is precisely directed by Fornes, intensely focused as a series of images which in their stillness and spareness and clarity seem to contradict the mania of the characters, to cut back against the grain of the comedy. This dynamic internal tension gives the experience of the play in the theater a complex, paradoxical texture that some audience must find unfamiliar and even disconcerting. The characters are funny, but the play lacks the conventional signals that it is permissible to laugh, thus compelling viewers to trust their own responses.

Most of Fornes's earlier plays have been written as a series of short, fragmentary, often cryptic scenes, a style now much more widely and less expertly practiced than when Fornes took it up. Each scene functions photographically, offering a dramatic snapshot of the state of things at a particular moment or stage of events. Marked by a blackout or some other break which clearly frames the scene, each unit stands as its own separate entity, its own distinct image. In The Danube, a play set in Budapest and constructed around a metaphorical holocaust, most of the scenes are introduced by a sound tape which announces a different Hungarian language lesson (for example, “Unit Ten. Basic Sentences. Paul Green visits Mr. Sandor. They discuss the weather.”). Fornes's Mud, another play about an unusual ménage à trois, asks for a freeze at the end of each scene, stipulating “these freezes will last eight seconds which will create the effect of a still photograph.” These plays progress more as a series of self-enclosed scenic integers than as a coherent narrative propelled by cause and effect.

Fornes has always taken an experimental approach to her playwriting, and the particular experiment in Oscar and Bertha pertains to how the scenes are strung together onstage. As opposed to earlier work like Mud or The Danube, Fornes blurs the edges between scenes, in both her writing and her directing. The script doesn't indicate the beginning or end of a scene; it simply says, “There is a shift of light.” And in Fornes' production at the Magic Theatre, that shift of light was occasionally so minimal as to be unnoticeable. Fornes presents the scenes not as disjointed fragments of a mysterious whole but as segments of a continuing arc. There are gaps in narrative time, but the physical action onstage is continuous, except for one major blackout in the middle of the play. The repositioning of actors and the setting of props necessary for the next segment is staged “in character” and at the same pace and rhythm as the scenes themselves. This blurring effect insists all the more that the audience engage the work as a series of images, only now they are moving images, flowing into each other almost indistinguishably.

If the dramaturgy of Oscar and Bertha eschews the scene as a framing device for units of image and action, the design approach to the play more than compensates by providing frames within frames within frames. Sandra Woodall's simple, attractive, and symmetrical set operates as a series of concentric rectangles, from the all-encompassing proscenium arch to the French doors upstage center which frame the spot where the two corridors meet. Each of the off-white outer walls, which includes a large square section indented deep enough to catch light and cast a shadow, helps to frame the action in the eating area or the sitting area.

By far the most theatrical scenic frames are the curtained openings which look into the two small bedrooms in such a way as to make them virtual dioramas. The possibility of partially closing the heavy bedroom curtain, creating yet another, smaller frame, and of lighting these cubicles independently of the downstage areas is used again and again to stunning effect, as when Oscar lies on his bed upstage left bragging of his sexual prowess, with his hands up behind his head, the curtain closed up to his waist and the lights up bright, while Bertha sits downstage right at the table in half light, full back to the audience, listening and trying not to listen. The combined sense of isolation and intimacy makes for a quietly thrilling, haunting effect, one suggestive of some of Edward Hopper's portraits of urban loneliness. In Nighthawks at the Diner, for example, the bright fluorescent light inside the diner makes it both a sanctuary and a place of defeat against the surrounding dark and empty city streets. Fornes uses this same compositional dynamic within the domestic environment of Oscar and Bertha. When they're not at each others throats, they seem worlds apart.

Significantly, there are no visible sources of light onstage in Oscar and Bertha, scenic or practical. No table lamps, no wall switches, no candles. All the light comes form outside the framed fictive space of the play, objectifying it as it illuminates, shifts the focus, colors the mood. The distancing effect is enhanced by the various frames provided by the set and, further, by the shuttering in of the Magic Theatre's already small proscenium arch. The playing surface for Oscar and Bertha is raised nearly a foot off the Magic's stage floor and the set has built-in borders and a teaser which narrow and focus the field of view. This gives the subliminal impression of peering into a puppet booth or a dollhouse with an outer wall removed or, to go even further, into a microscope. What goes on inside this frame is oddly miniaturized and magnified at the same time.

In this and other ways, dramaturgy, directing, and design in Oscar and Bertha unify in a unique way that might be called ‘theatrical microscopy.’ Fornes's proscenium arch functions not as a voyeuristic keyhole for peeping at the private lives of the troubled and the traumatized but as an aesthetic lens which allows us to observe phenomena invisible to the naked eye. Dramatic specimens swim about in a neutral domestic medium and are examined and experienced primarily as things unto themselves, as sentient creatures independent of the narrative context from which they have been plucked. Characters are distilled to their essence which is almost always a passion, a suffering of feeling, here a comic suffering. In this way, Fornes's theater is a laboratory which serves her effort to present some of the most poignant and painful aspects of being human in an abstract, almost pure, form.

Sheila Rabillard (review date May 1994)

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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 these fragments, the shape of Enter the Night began to appear: a delicate triangle involving three friends—Tressa, a nurse who tends the dying; Jack, a gay man mourning the death of his lover from AIDS; and Paula, a woman threatened by bankruptcy and a potentially fatal heart disease. Still a rough draft when Fornes began to work with the three-member cast, the play developed in keeping with what Fornes, once a painter, has called her collage technique: incorporating material from her subconscious; from the culture's collective memories of Hollywood, Shakespeare, and Christianity; and from chance discoveries. (Among these were a nurse's diary found at an auction; a newspaper account of an eighteenth-century Chinese scholar; and the sight of a light-man on a ladder which prompted Fornes to include a brief sample of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet.) While the final structure remains dreamlike and open-ended, a succession of haunting moments rather than a progressive march, it possesses a considerable cumulative power. When, near the end of the play, Paula cries “into the night,” her outburst is provoked by Jack's self-punishing plunge into a dark world where he may be beaten to death or fatally infected, but it also sums up and impels the audience's contemplation of pain and affection shadowed forth by the play.

As in The Conduct of Life and Fefu and Her Friends, Fornes explores not simply the facts of suffering and mortality but the effort to comprehend these facts through action and imagination. Here again she creates what Susan Sontag has called her “theatre of heartbreak,” but in a way that combines the playfulness of her earlier drama with the passion of her more recent work. Though the characters are granted moments in which they enter one another's experience in dream or play, the dominant note of the drama is desire: the unappeased longing of these three friends to ease one another's pain, or perhaps even to conceive it fully.

Fornes's playfulness and her exploration of the longing (by turns selfless and egotistical) stirred by suffering were most vivid in act 2. The first act established the three characters, the pace rather gentle and the mood expository. It was not until the second act that the play gripped me as Tressa, Jack, and Paula began to enact snippets from a repertoire of familiar cultural texts, among them Capra's Lost Horizons, and Griffith's Broken Blossoms. At this point, the setting took on its full significance: a bare loft space in a geographically unspecified Chinatown, with a stairwell in the middle leading to the invisible ground floor. The principal acting space seemed to hover above the level of ordinary existence as a sort of temporary refuge. Quotations from the two films, popular western fantasies of the Asiatic Other, emphasized the exotic setting and allowed Fornes to evoke more overtly the ways in which we imaginatively confront human mortality. At one extreme we deny it altogether, at the same time undoing our denial, by creating an unreachable Shangri-La; and this is the gently ironic note on which the play ends, with a reading from Lost Horizon. But the most powerful scene of the play was the reenactment by Jack and Tressa of the central gestures from Griffith's silent film. There was not a hint of laughter in the house as Jack, in the Lillian Gish role, was rescued by Tressa as Huang, the gentle Chinese scholar who tries to bring teachings of peace to the West but fails to save even the frail young girl from a brutal death. As Huang, barred by race from his broken blossom, Tressa's austere yet erotically charged pantomime played out a yearning passion unexpressed in her sober diary record of her patient's decline; and Jack, as Gish, is released from rage and grateful for succor, a beautiful victim rather than a guilty survivor. When Paula happens on their scene-playing, she learns that this is a customary game of theirs, and her pleasure in this discovery adds to the scene's curious note of joy in the strength and subtlety of the allegiances binding the three.

It is interesting to speculate how much of the power of this production was due to Fornes's direction. Certainly, a great deal would be missing without the stylized choreography of the mimed scenes from Broken Blossoms and, given the spareness of the dialogue, the direction of the play's allusive visual language seems crucial. Fornes elicited rich performances from Mary Ewald as Tressa, and Patricia Mattick as Paula; Mattick in particular brought small touches of gaiety to her role which seemed completely in tune with the play's complex tone. Brian Faker, playing Jack, was less moving, perhaps because the role was emotionally more extreme and less nuanced: the character's feelings of guilt at surviving his partner, and his consequent need to believe he too had AIDS, at one point found a visual equivalent in obvious evocations of the suffering Christ. But in the Lillian Gish role from Broken Blossoms, Jack was genuinely compelling; and I can't help but think that Fornes writes and directs with a special insight into the roles of women.

In fact it might be appropriate to look at this play, in part, as a response to AIDS from a woman's point of view. From this perspective, the disease joins a continuum of suffering which women traditionally have tried to assuage. Thus, Fornes pairs the specter of Jack's possible infection with the certainty of Paula's failing heart and makes both afflictions of equal concern. It is notable that when Paula questions Tressa about the ways in which she eases the last hours of dying patients, Tressa remarks that this is what we do—the plural drawing attention to the function of all nurses, most of them women. To be sure, Tressa is also the masculine Huang; but that, perhaps, is the point: the role of the nurse, the one who attempts to comprehend another's pain, is always that of the unworthy Other, filled with longing and distanced from what can never be touched: the feminized position of the disfavored.

Sheila Rabillard (essay date spring 1997)

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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 interrogation, Fornes draws from the ruptured boundaries of late capitalism a means to rearticulate a language of desire in the face of human suffering. The most striking manifestation of Fornes' delicately transgressive dramaturgy is her binding of post-modern techniques that point out the limits of representation to her concern with classic questions of constructing an emotional sublime. This is the curious conjunction that I want to consider: whether, in a “mediatized culture” (to borrow Baudrillard's term), through pastiche and cultural recycling, Fornes can discover the possibility of psychic coherence. If the term “sublime” seems almost anachronistic here, its employment is intentional for it posits the strongest possible contrast between the phantasmagorical sampling techniques Fornes employs in this drama and her articulation of a species of emotional transcendence. This negotiation of a concordia discors lies at the heart of her play.1

Enter the Night received its world premiere 16 April 1993 at Seattle's New City Theater under Fornes' direction.2 Commissioned in 1990 by the resident company, the drama began as a series of monologues that came to Fornes between sleep and waking:

She wasn't yet sure which direction the script would take, or even what it might be about, until she began hearing the voices of friends in the early hours of the dawn. “They were telling me things about themselves, things I wouldn't otherwise have known. … When I woke up completely, I would write down these monologues, and some of them were quite wonderful. I thought, why not use them in the play?”3

As she assembled these fragments, the shape of Enter the Night began to appear: a delicate triangle involving three old friends—Tressa, a nurse who tends the dying; Jack, working as a stage manager and mourning his gay lover's death from AIDS; and Paula, a woman threatened by bankruptcy and a fatal heart disease. The play developed in keeping with what she has called her collage technique: incorporating material from her subconscious; from the culture's collective memories of Hollywood, Shakespeare, and Christian iconography; from chance discoveries. Among the latter were a nurse's diary found at an auction; a newspaper account of an 18th-century Chinese scholar who produced the first Chinese-French dictionary; and the sight of a light-man on a ladder which prompted Fornes to include a brief sample of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet.4 The play presents a succession of haunting moments that openly allude to their disparate sources; under Fornes' direction, the Seattle première was framed by videotapes (played in the lobby before the performance and during intermission) showing scenes from two classic films that would be reenacted, in part, by the characters of her play.

One of the most striking features of the drama lies in the way in which it engages specific aspects of the cultural vocabulary of the cinema. In particular, Fornes is fascinated with the image of the Asiatic “other” inherited from Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1919) and Capra's Lost Horizon (1937). Through these two films—the one a tragedy focusing on the unassailable barrier between the races, the other offering a utopian vision of assimilation—Fornes inscribes the essential strategies of her play. As she discloses the conceptual imperialism and inherent contradictions of Hollywood representations, she endows a post-modern cliché of the precession of simulacra with a powerfully elegiac quality. When Tressa and Jack enact the famous scene from Broken Blossoms where the scholarly Asian servant hovers trembling above the sleeping body of Lillian Gish, crucially Tressa (played by a white actress) becomes the manservant and Jack recreates the role of Gish, both in full costume and makeup.5 Here, Fornes subverts the emotional moment with a battery of post-modern devices: the parody of a locus classicus, crossings of gender and race, and the interfacing of live and recorded performance. Yet it is by means of these dissonances that Fornes asserts the depth of the emotional encounter between her characters. As each actor becomes a collection of cultural images, he or she appears to offer only a parody of profundity. But Fornes manages to transform these seemingly chance assemblages into a kind of palimpsest a text which inscribes the history of a culture through a series of accumulations and partial erasures—in effect, a layered record of attempts, individual and collective, to confront the otherness of race and gender and above all the ultimate estrangement of mortality.

Originally titled Dreams, the play takes place largely at night or in dim early dawn. The setting is Tressa's loft in a geographically unspecified Chinatown.6 Softly lit, sparsely furnished, the playing area is raised above the stage with a stairwell in the center of the structure leading to an invisible ground floor; when characters enter, they seem to climb up into a space of temporary refuge that hovers above the ordinary level of existence. Both the slightly dislocated acting surface, and the setting of the action—in Chinatown, but not of it, for all three characters appear to be non-Asian—suggest that the playwright is developing a subtle rhetoric of margins and disjunctions. Within this liminal space, three friends from very different worlds attempt to cross the boundaries that separate them and to comfort one another. Each is confronting illness: Tressa, the nurse, has made it her business but suffers no less for that; Paula, who belongs to a more sheltered, suburban existence, in the course of the play learns that she does not have long to live; Jack, from the insecure world of theatre, has lost his lover to AIDS and is consumed by rage and guilt, at times tempted to expiate the sin of survival by convincing himself that he too is infected.

As the play begins, Tressa enters. It is 6:30 a.m., and she seems to have just finished her night shift, for she is exhausted, and—apparently still preoccupied with her work—she reads aloud from a diary that recounts in intimate detail the deterioration of a dying patient. Interestingly, we are not told that the diary is hers; as she pronounces the words, however, we take them as indicators of the suffering with which she is only too familiar. Refuge is bound, in contrast, to the exotic, for as she gradually relaxes, the Caucasian actress puts on loose, dark-blue Chinese trousers and tunic and slowly powders her face a rice-powder white, like a character in a silent film or a Chinese opera. When the costume and make-up are complete, Tressa seems wholly composed—in both senses: playing to the hilt a stereotypical “oriental” calm. (Curiously, the reading of the diary and the clichéd Asiatic composure, although both in a sense “quoted” performances, are moving.) At this point in the play, although the implications of Tressa's transformation are as yet obscure, the elements of the drama have been established: illness; quotation of roles; and what Roland Barthes has called “Sinité”—the west's mythical concept of Chineseness.7

Throughout the drama, the characters are granted moments in which they seem to enter one another's experience, although only in dream or play—Paula, for instance, claims to have met an exotic foreigner, who turns out to be either a dream, or Jack playing a joke, or a dream premonition of Jack's entrance in a false mustache and fake gold tooth; and the three play the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, fluidly enacting the lovers' duet in a trio of voices. But the dominant note is desire: the unappeased longing of each friend to ease the other's pain, or even to comprehend it; and Fornes' exploration of this longing (by turns selfless and egotistical) is most vivid in moments where Tressa, Jack, and Paula enact snippets from a repertoire of familiar cultural texts, among them Frank Capra's Lost Horizon and D. W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms. Quotations from the two films, popular Western fantasies of the Asiatic Other, emphasize Fornes' setting on the margins of the exotic and allow her to evoke more overtly the ways in which mass culture has confronted “the undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveler returns” via the imagined boundaries of race. At one extreme, the frontiers between life and death, and between East and West, are erased (or rather, almost infinitely distanced)—although only in the guise of a lost Shangri-la which can never be regained. And this is the gently ironic note on which the play ends, with a reading from Lost Horizon.

But the most powerful scene of the play is the reenactment by Jack and Tressa of the central gestures from Griffith's silent film. There was not a hint of laughter in the house as Jack, in the Lillian Gish role, was rescued by Tressa as Huang, the gentleman Chinese scholar who tries to bring teachings of peace to the West but finally fails to save even the frail girl from a brutal death. As Huang, barred by race from his broken blossom, Tressa's austere yet erotically charged pantomime played out a yearning passion not expressed in her reading of the clinical diary record of a patient's decline; and Jack, as Gish, was released from rage, grateful for succor, a beautiful victim rather than a guilty survivor. Each gesture in this scene presents itself as a quotation from the film which the audience has just seen in the intermission, and is layered with reminders of the play's own accumulations of roles. The audience can see the masculine outlines of Jack's body under the graceful posture of the doomed girl, and read against his/her sentimentally beautiful, innocent death the aggression of his previous brief, suicidal performances: his angry claiming of the role of crucified Christ, his self-dramatizing exit into the night to meet with violence or infection. Likewise, Tressa's present role is marked, and enriched, by traces of her previous playing as her ministrations in the guise of “Huang” recall the opening scene in which she escaped from her painful duties on the terminal ward by donning the costume and mythical imperturbability of the Orient.8 These traces serve not to distract from the scene before us but to freight the disjunctions between actress and Huang, between Tressa and Huang, so that the current scene speaks of gaps and mismatches, of the deferrals of representation, of desire for what cannot be fully possessed—in bodily experience or in language. “Tressa” both is and is not “Huang” (nor, of course, can actress be identified with character when pastiche continually de-centers subjectivity); and the failure of one role to disappear completely into the other reminds us of an analogous failure: the role of nurse, the one who attempts to comprehend another's pain, is always that of the unworthy Other, filled with longing and distanced from what can never be touched. There is an expressive fullness in the exposure of representational poverty; and there is also comfort for the characters in the action of playing together. When Paula happens on the scene-playing she learns that this is a customary game, and her pleasure in this discovery adds to the strength and subtlety of the allegiances binding the three. Beyond this, a curious formal grace can be gleaned from the tinsel-town triteness of the Oriental stereotyping. Via quotation, the status of Huang (i.e., Griffith's Cheng Huan) or the Lama of Shangri-la as stereotypical Other is the more exposed—and the inadequacy of representation is thematized in a way that lends it an almost elegiac quality. At this point I should explain what I mean by claiming that Fornes thus achieves a version of the sublime.

The concept of the sublime is very much a creature of history and Jameson's post-modern formulation—upon which I draw here—must be understood as part of a conversation originating at least with Boileau's reading of Longinus. For many critics today, under the influence of the Derridean challenge to Kantian formalism, the sublime has come to represent something like an inversion of the Kantian claim about it: namely, the view that the sublime represents an “excess” in language that keeps it from ever assuming any fixed form or meaning.9 But with Jameson, in a definition almost reminiscent of Burke's, we turn away from the purely linguistic. Jameson's postmodern sublime is not found in the natural world, however; it is the system of late capitalism. “The other of our society is … no longer Nature at all, as it was in precapitalist societies” and what we try to grasp is “the whole new decentred global network of the third stage of capital itself.”10 (Moreover, the challenge to comprehension is not so much magnitude or intentionlessness, as the tendency of the system itself to co-opt necessary aesthetic distance.) And, as with older forms of the sublime, Jameson promises that a vision of this world space of multinational capital will not paralyze; that a cognitive mapping is possible.

Fornes, I suggest, offers a version of the sublime that can be aligned with Jameson's. In some respects, to be sure, Fornes' sublime seems to resemble that of Burke: an encounter, in imagination, with the intransigent natural phenomena of human mortality—geographies of bodily decay, tidal waves of AIDS infection as terrifying as any mountainscape, and in particular with the painful opacity of the experience of another human being's suffering.11 But as Judith Butler reminds us, what count as natural matters of the facts of the body are always also the material products of a culture's discourse. And here I want to locate Fornes' performance of the sublime: in confrontation with the mass-media processes of commodifying mortality. In Enter the Night, Fornes focuses attention on the processes whereby the immense, intentionless phenomenon of death, and the impregnable privacy of another person's suffering, are commercially packaged with images of the Oriental “other.” (Race, sex, and death are slickly intertwined on celluloid: as Huang fails to save his broken blossom, the barriers against miscegenation, the passive and philosophical character of the East, the brute fact of mortality, are similarly constructed as natural, mourned as inevitable. Likewise, though Lost Horizon seems to promise an idealized meeting of East and West, as well as a virtual immortality, it binds action and sexual passion to the West, punishes inter-racial romance, and in the end confirms the superiority of the West through its association with the ultimate reality—death.) Fornes presents a Jamesonian sublime: a glimpse of mediatized culture, of the dream-factory at work, as her characters perform the acts of mourning and rehearse the gestures of longing that the imagery of mass culture affords them. Yet at the same time as she suggests that the world “threatens to become a glossy skin, a stereoscopic illusion, a rush of filmic images without density,”12 Fornes evokes a sense of richness—an intimation of complexities of fear and desire created in part by the layering of dramatized and quoted roles (though eschewing any simplistic metaphors of surface and depth, illusory versus veracious). Chiefly, Fornes creates a plangency through the very crudeness of the cinema's Orientalizing stereotypes. Within the action of the drama, passages from Lost Horizon and Broken Blossoms, because their specific racisms are outdated and hence their promise to express desires and fears of the unknowable are faded, become signs of loss. In a broader sense, the reductive mythology of “Chineseness,” thus quoted and historicized, reveals a gap in the cultural system that constructs us as subjects desiring what the system provides.

At this point, I must add a small caveat. The effect of the pastiche of excerpts from Lost Horizon and Broken Blossoms that I have just hypothesized depends upon recognition of what Edward Said's landmark study might lead us to call “Orientalism” (although Said, of course, did not deal specifically with the discursive construction of China or Tibet). But I am obliged to point out that in the theoretical writing that has helped me to develop the present argument—and perhaps in Fornes' own dramatic strategies—I detect a hint of “Orientalizing” of another sort. By referring to Asian peoples, and China in particular, for examples of the “Other” who is stereotyped and misrepresented, it might be argued, Fornes' play reinscribes the East as inscrutable. Ironically, Jameson's seminal essay, “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” also turns to China for an exemplar of the disjunct. In defining what he describes as a new, joyously schizophrenic style, Jameson quotes Bob Perelman's poem “China” and observes that it “turns out to have little enough to do with that referent called China.” Moreover, Jameson points out that China serves as exemplar for Barthes in what may be a significant instance: “Barthes of Mythologies … saw connotation as the purveying of imaginary and stereotypical idealities, ‘Sinité,’ for example, as some Disney-EPCOT ‘concept’ of China.”13 In short, it is not easy to find our location on the global cognitive map while using Jameson to analyze a play set in “Chinatown” that concludes with a character reading a speech by a mythical Lama from a supposed lost realm in the Himalayas.

If I have expressed a faint unease concerning Fornes' use of the Orient in her creation of a postmodern sublime, perhaps I can put the great and delicate pleasures of the play into perspective by concluding with a very brief analysis of a much less nuanced prelude to the manipulation of stereotype in Enter the Night. Fornes' earlier play, What of the Night? (1989), though it has a similar title is very different: a collection of four playlets with a number of overlapping characters, spanning a period from before World War II into the projected future, What of the Night? has been compared to The Danube (1982) and The Conduct of Life (1985).14 The playlets that concern me here are numbers two and three, Springtime-1958, and Lust-1983.

Springtime explores the love between two women: Greta, a German girl who is ill and confined to bed, and Rainbow. Despite the sickness, the tone is romantic and affection between the two is expressed through linguistic play: Rainbow asks Greta to teach her phrases (“I love German,” she says), and Greta teases her by mis-translating. As the title announces, Lust is designed as a sharp contrast in theme and mood. What is interesting for the present argument, however, is the fact that lust—here treated as an infantile, utterly self-centered greed for possession, whether of pleasures and bodies, or money and power—is not simply demonstrated in sexual acts and financial dealings, but also figured through linguistic and cultural self-centredness. In the first scene we see one businessman, Joseph, taking a younger man, Ray, from behind; as he does so he assures him that the sex won't interfere with their business conversation. And it doesn't; negotiations are carried on uninterrupted during the sex act; sexual pleasure is just another commodity.

By the sixth scene, the play develops into a series of Ray's dreams, and the dream-visions contain shockingly clear-cut stereotypes of the Asian “other.” The shift to dream is signaled by a change of lighting, an announcement projected on the rear wall, and a touch of Chinoiserie: “Wang walks across to up-center, then down-center. His appearance and behaviour mimic a traditional Chinese prototype. Wang: Ray has a dream.”15 The first dream concerns a casual, homosexual encounter. In the second dream, Ray is in the midst of a quarrel with a woman, whom he has locked into the bathroom because he suspects her of sharing her sexual favours with someone else. Again, the theme is greed, possession: and the essentially self-centred nature of this lust is demonstrated amusingly for, in the course of the argument, as Ray leans against the mirrored door to keep it shut, he begins to grind his pelvis against his own image and eventually climaxes as the scene ends. By the fourth dream, Ray is in a Chinese restaurant. And here we see the contrast between love and lust reworked in terms of language and culture. If Rainbow and Greta play with one another's tongues, in Ray's solipsistic dream-world Chinese is simply gibberish—when pressed to order his meal, he gabbles in mock-Chinese nonsense syllables and the waiter is made to speak in a caricature form of heavily-accented English. Moreover, the operators of the restaurant try, in vain, to conform to Western ways: a woman, Wing, dressed like Wang in supposedly traditional clothes, sprays Christmas decorations on the window but confesses that she has spoiled one part of the lettering and made a mess of the picture of a bird. (Homi Bhabha has analyzed the ways in which a dominant culture attempts to reduce the dominated to strategies of imperfect imitation.) The link between the dream scene outside the bathroom door, and the dream of the Chinese restaurant, then, is not simply the continuing theme of unbridled physical appetite (although Ray grabs a girl, “slurps” on her chest, and chews on a menu, suggesting an infant's uninhibited oral pleasure); rather, the infantile self-absorption, the imperfect awareness of others, allies commodified sex with the inability to hear another language as language, or to comprehend another culture except as an imperfect approximation of one's own. Stereotypes of Chinese people, in this context, become the means of dramatizing the potentially political as well as personal dimension of “lust.” Fornes' use of Orientalisms for the blunter purposes of satire, then, may illuminate the subtler strategies of the sublime that I have attempted to uncover in this paper.

Despite Fornes' post-modern techniques—pastiche and quotation; characters with a seemingly performative subjectivity, continually rehearsed from the repertoire of mass cultural imagery—I have argued that her drama recuperates a species of emotional transcendence. Though his formulations have been criticized by Jameson (among other theorists of the post-modern), I propose, in conclusion, that Jurgen Habermas offers a way of articulating the core of Fornes' emotional appeal. (And Fornes is, after all, a self-described romantic.)16 Habermas holds that language, however distorted or manipulative, always has consensus or understanding as its inner telos. We speak to be understood, even if what we say is a curse or an insult. It is therefore possible to project from this condition the contours of an ideal communicative situation, implicitly anticipated in every actual act of dialogue.17 Fornes, I suggest, in drama that evokes not merely individual interchanges but the encompassing discourse of a commercial, global culture, shows us isolation, incomprehension, slick superficialities, the endless precession of simulacra, and inspires a dream of what is not—a Shangri-la.


  1. I am well aware of the variety of contending characterizations of the concept of the post-modern. Among the godfathers of the term, for instance, Charles Jencks dismisses works of extreme disjunction and abstraction as merely “Late-Modernism,” reserving “Postmodern” for those “connected with semantics, convention, historical memory, metaphor, symbolism and respect for existing cultures” (What Is Post-Modernism? [London: Academy Editions, 1989], ch. 3); Jean-Francois Lyotard, in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984) sees a radical break in scientific research and systems of knowledge which Jameson, in turn, contends is rather “the very ‘permanent revolution’ of capitalist production itself” (Jameson, “Foreword,” The Postmodern Condition, xx). As should become clear, the present essay is most indebted to Jameson's idea of the post-modern; see “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review 146 (1984): 53-92. In discussing features of Fornes' style, however, Todd Gitlin's summary of post-modern cultural phenomena has provided a useful guide:

    “Postmodernism” usually refers to a certain constellation of styles and tones in cultural works: pastiche; blankness; a sense of exhaustion; a mixture of levels, forms, styles; a relish for copies and repetition; a knowingness that dissolves commitment into irony; acute self-consciousness about the formal, constructed nature of the work; pleasure in the play of surfaces; a rejection of history.

    “Postmodernism: Roots and Politics,” in Cultural Politics in Contemporary America, ed. Ian Angus and Sut Jhally (New York and London: Routledge, 1989), 347.

  2. In this premiere production by Theater Zero (New City Theater and Art Center, Seattle), Mary Ewald played Tressa/Huang; Patricia Mattick played Paula; and Brian Faker played Jack. The producing director was John Kazanjian, the scenic designer was Donald Eastman, lighting was designed by Anne Militello and costumes by Rose Pederson.

  3. Interview of Fornes by Misha Berson, Seattle Times, 16 April 1993.

  4. In her interview with Berson, Fornes described the various trouvés that found their way into this play. “I save things like that because when I was a painter, the idea of creating collages was very attractive to me,” she told Berson. “I apply the same collage technique to playwriting” (Seattle Times, 16 April 1993). Actress Patricia Mattick, who played Paula in the premiere production, explained the introduction of the scene from Shakespeare: “‘Like she sees a light man on a ladder bending over a wall to adjust a fixture. And this guy on a ladder reminds her of the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet. So she decides to put a bit of the balcony scene into Enter the Night. She's very open to ideas and inspirations.’” (Quoted by Joe Adcock in his preview of Enter the Night, “What's Happening,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 16 April 1993, 7.)

  5. Griffith's Asian character is called “Cheng Huan”; in the program for the Seattle production of Fornes' play, he is referred to as “Huang.”

  6. Joe Adcock's preview of the performance states that the play is set in San Francisco, but the program for the New City/Theater Zero production says simply: “Tressa's loft in Chinatown.”

  7. “China is one thing, the idea which a French petit-bourgeois could have of it not so long ago is another: for this peculiar mixture of bells, rickshaws and opium dens, no other word is possible.” Roland Barthes, Mythologies, selected and translated by Annette Lavers (London and Glasgow: Collins, 1973), 130.

  8. It's interesting to compare this technique with Fornes' characteristic exposure of the gaps between a drama and its staging. As William Worthen comments in “Still Playing Games: Ideology and Performance in the Theater of Maria Irene Fornes,” Feminine Focus: The New Women Playwrights, ed. Enoch Brater (Oxford University Press, 1989):

    Despite their variety, Fornes' experiments share a common impulse: to explore the operation of the mise-en-scène on the process of dramatic action. Rather than naturalizing theatrical performance by assimilating the various “enunciators” of the stage—acting, music, set design, audience disposition—to a privileged gestural style encoded in the dramatic text (the strategy of stage realism, for instance), Fornes' plays suspend the identification between the drama and its staging.


  9. The foregoing summary of versions of the sublime is drawn from the essay by T. V. F. Brogan, Gerald F. Else, and Frances Ferguson in The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, ed. Alex Preminger and T. V. F. Brogan, et al. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).

  10. Jameson, 77, 80.

  11. The mystery of another person's experience of pain, physical or mental, is the center around which The Conduct of Life circles, and Fornes returns to this meditation in many of her plays.

  12. Jameson, 76-77.

  13. Jameson, 75, 67.

  14. See the introductory essay by Rosette C. Lamont, Women on the Verge (New York: Applause Theatre Books, 1993), xxvi.

  15. What of the Night? in Women on the Verge, 203.

  16. See Fornes' interview with Scott Cummings, “Seeing with Clarity: The Visions of Maria Irene Fornes” Theater 17.1 (Winter, 1985): 55.

  17. Habermas has said that the central intuition he hoped to clarify in his Theory of Communicative Action was “the intuition that a telos of mutual understanding is built into linguistic communication.” Jurgen Habermas, Autonomy and Solidarity: Interviews with Jurgen Habermas, ed. Peter Dews (London, New York: Verso, 1992), 100.

Cara Gargano (essay date August 1997)

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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 complicated, too intricately structured, too subject to uncontrollable forces, for us to understand it in one go. The laboratory experiment is the intermediary between reality and theory—between the natural world and humankind's mental picture of how the natural world works. The aim of a laboratory experiment is to isolate some small fragment of theory and test it to destruction.

Ian Stewart, Does God Play Dice: The Mathematics of Chaos, p. 304

There has been a recent proliferation of plays, books, and articles dealing with the relationship between the new physics, chaos theory, and art.1 Leonard Shlain demonstrates the way that artists have always anticipated scientific breakthroughs or made parallel discoveries.2 David Porush, William Demastes, and N. Katherine Hayles3 have explored the relationship between science and theatre or literature. Playwrights as diverse as Tom Stoppard, Wendy Hammond and Richard Foreman use quantum mechanics or the popularized chaos theory as a principal metaphor, and, as David E. R. George4 has noted, the theatre has become a principal metaphor for the new physicists. This self-reflexivity reflects a new détente between the two traditionally antagonistic domains as it becomes possible to explore one discipline using the analytical or descriptive vocabulary of the other.

Indeed, this cross-pollination suggests a new critical approach, offering us new ways of seeing and discussing elements of the dramatic text as well as new ways of describing the theatrical performance text, using what Natalie Crohn Schmitt calls a ‘correspondence between science and art’, which I take as a dialogue between them.5 Maria Irene Fornes' work seems particularly susceptible to such an approach, permitting new insights into the structures and meanings of her plays, and offering a forum for a reflection on the practice of theatre from this new point of view.

Since Fornes began writing plays in the 1960s (at about the same time that Edward Lorenz was making his first, paradigm shattering discoveries about the inherent random turbulence in dynamical weather systems), her work has disturbed and bewildered critics and audiences alike. There is a troubling quality to Fornes' plays; they elude categorization, and the reader or the audience has the uncomfortable sense of being on the unstable edge of an important metaphysical truth located just out of reach, on the other side of the liminal zone we share with the dramatic or performative text.

John Briggs has written that ‘the patterns humans genuinely find aesthetically pleasing are a dynamic balance’,6 and Fornes seems to set that balance vibrating, challenging our notions of stability in time and in space. Natalie Crohn Schmitt has proposed that the scientific paradigm upon which we base our sense of reality is in the process of shifting,7 and relates that shift to the postmodern refusal of the Aristotelian emphasis on continuous, linear time in a stable, locatable space, in favour of a theatre of discontinuity, fragmentation, and reflexivity. She suggests that much of the discomfort occasioned by postmodern theatre derives from and reflects a wider discomfort with this shifting scientific paradigm.

Caught between the clockwork logic of the Newtonian paradigm on one hand and the apparent chaos of the new science on the other, we are also caught between a drama comfortably centered on the Aristotelian principles of cause and effect in human behaviour and a theatre that reflects what Riebling calls ‘“nucleate” disorder in a system far from equilibrium’.8 All of Fornes' plays to date seem to demonstrate, even to celebrate, the state of disequilibrium that characterizes a dynamical system at a critical bifurcation point.


One of the most elusive of Fornes' plays is Mud, which, since its premiere in 1983, has been called ‘a naturalistic play’ (Feingold), ‘an allegorical drama’ (Smithie), a ‘horrifying vision of human failure and tragedy’ (Smith), a ‘preposterously self-indulgent piece’ (Arditti), and ‘an astringent examination of poverty’ (Watson). The play is at a chronological and thematic crossroads in Fornes' oeuvre, and I believe that discussing it through the lens of the changing scientific paradigms offers new access to the play, both as drama and as theatre.

Mud is a two-act play set in seventeen scenes. It tells the story of Mae, Lloyd, and Henry, and of Mae's struggle to impose order over chaos. Mae and Lloyd live together, but, as Mae tells Henry:

He's always been here, since he was little. My dad brought him in. … We are related but I don't know what to call it. We are not brother and sister. We are like animals who grow up together and mate.9

Lloyd is crude, shiftless, and suffers from a disease that renders him impotent, and Mae yearns for something more: learning, civilization, order. The older Henry represents that ideal for her: ‘When you came here’, she tells him, ‘I thought heaven had come to this place, and I still feel so’ (p. 28). As soon as Henry moves in, however, he begins to regress: thirty years their senior, he has a stroke, must be fed like a baby, is crippled and unable to speak well. Lloyd, on the other hand, takes up Mae's books, and begins to learn.

Henry's entrance into the balanced chaos/order duality posed by Mae and Lloyd's couple creates a turbulent, unstable system. Alliances shift between the three characters, as first Mae and Henry reject the ailing Lloyd, then Lloyd and Mae reject the crippled Henry, and finally Henry and Lloyd ally to kill Mae when she tries to leave them in her search of a ‘decent life’. Each of the seventeen scenes ends in a freeze, creating an eerie picture of action suspended in theatrical time. Bonnie Marranca observes that Fornes gives the audience ‘their own space and time’, and the freezes, followed by a blackout that prepares for the next scene, fulfil this function, reminding us that we are in a theatrical location, a laboratory for the human condition.

If an interest in mathematics and geometry pervades Fornes' work she has not, to my knowledge, mentioned quantum mechanics or complexity in any of her plays or interviews. Yet the disease that characterizes her oeuvre is particular to the paradigm shift mentioned by Schmitt, as her characters try and fail to apply principles of Euclidean geometry and Newtonian physics to a world that responds instead to the vocabulary of Einsteinian relativity—in paradoxes such as those of Wigner's friend10 or Schrödinger's cat,11 Prigogine's dissipative structures,12 Lorenz's strange attractors,13 and Mandelbrot's fractal dimension.14

Repeatedly, her characters try to set up logical cause/effect relationships that are then invalidated by seemingly unimportant details that incur great consequences; this suggests an awareness of the instability and turbulence that characterize chaos theory, and which she relates to social interaction and to the human condition. What many critics have viewed as a despairing and nihilistic view of the human condition might more profitably be considered as a reflection of this new way of seeing our world: what Porush terms a ‘postmodern mythology’.15

Mircea Eliade defines myth as a ‘highly significant … primordial revelation’, a ‘true story’.16 Indeed, in its earliest definition, a myth was simply ‘a story’. Mud, dealing as it does with today's oscillation between new and old scientific paradigms, between thermodynamic entropy and biological evolution, may indeed be a telling of the cosmogonic myth of our time; the characters, rather than discussing the new science, are living examples of the characteristic instability of its systems.


Ilya Prigogine, winner of the 1977 Nobel Prize for his work on dissipative structures, and often referred to as the ‘poet of thermodynamics’, suggests that chaos theory, while a dramatic title, is inappropriate to describe the essential relationship between randomness and order, since the term ‘chaos theory’ implies a privileging of chaos over order, rather than their essential interconnectedness. Prigogine suggests that we might more properly refer to ‘complexity’, and his complexity carves out a space where randomness and order can co-exist.

The site of this interconnection has been ‘pictured’ by Benoît Mandelbrot, whose fractals, like Fornes' plays, ‘record what happens in the transitional zones between order and chaos’.17 Fractals are computer-generated ‘paintings’ of complexity, and of the radical changes created in a dynamical, non-linear system by feedback, or iteration. John Briggs has explored the relationship between fractals, which not only bridge the traditional gap between art and science, but also the space between human ways of seeing the world and the complex paradigmatic patterns found in nature.

Of course, it is possible to compare the fractal to the theatre, since both depend on iteration: both the dramatic text and the performance event are based on paradigmatic patterns of human behaviour, compressed in time and space, simplified into and framed as a single example, and intensified by chronological and spatial feedback. As fractals offer us an infinite view of ‘worlds within worlds at finer and finer scales’,18 theatre, in both its dramatic and performative aspects is, like the fractal, a liminal zone in time and in space.

If Fornes is, as Marc Robinson points out, insistent that ‘small things matter’,19 Bonnie Marranca has referred to Fornes' work as ‘theatre made by a miniaturist’,20 and writes that ‘the sense of miniaturization also enhances the dimension of scale, making the events on stage at times more dramatic’.21 Indeed, we might consider the theatre as an ancient, human-generated fractal, in which the latent patterns within nature's apparent chaos can be discerned.

Perhaps one of the most powerful images in Mud is that of the starfish, which appears at the pivotal centre of the play when Mae reads about it from a textbook:

The starfish is an animal, not a fish. He is called a fish because he lives in the water. The starfish cannot live out of the water. If he is moist and in the shade he may be able to live out of the water for a day. Starfish eat old and dead sea animals. They keep the water clean. The starfish has five arms like a star. That is why it is called a starfish. Each of the arms of the starfish has an eye in the end. These eyes do not look like our eyes. A starfish's eyes cannot see. But they can tell if it is night or day. If a starfish loses an arm he can grow a new one. This takes about a year. A starfish can live about five or ten years or perhaps more, no one really knows.

(p. 27)

This quotation inscribes the figure of the starfish as a cosmological unity: neither animal nor fish, it symbolizes the farthest heaven and the deepest sea. A metaphor for regeneration, Fornes' starfish both yearns towards the light of order yet is caught in a cycle that throws it back into the dark primeval ooze. Mathematician Ian Stewart uses the starfish as an example of chaotic symmetry, which has ‘five distinct transformations that leave its apparent form and position unchanged’,22 and Briggs sees it as the quintessential fractal being, both the ‘beneficiary and victim of nature's dynamical action’.23

The pentagonal symmetry is played out in Mud as the figure of the starfish turns and shifts, yet is unchanged on a mythic level. In the second act when Lloyd reads from Mae's book, painstakingly sounding out the word starfish, letter by letter, he is echoed by Henry, who both mimics and parodies his efforts. This second reference to the starfish image is a fractured one: the word itself is deconstructed into a sum of its parts, both ‘tearing off its arms’ as a metaphor yet raising it to a higher level of complexity.

The starfish embodies the liminal, paradoxical position of all the characters in the play. At its final moment, Mae recognizes herself as a sacrificial starfish:

Like the starfish, I live in the dark and my eyes only see a faint light. It is faint and yet it consumes me. I long for it. I thirst for it. I would die for it. Lloyd, I am dying.

(p. 40)

The iteration of the starfish creates a dynamical journey for the characters that resembles the path traced by a strange attractor. It is both cyclical and infinitely varied.


Mae's search for order, signified by her obsession with pressing a pile of unpressed trousers, her insistence on sanitization, her reverence for the trappings of civilization (saying grace before meals) and for social conventions (her joy at Henry's gift of lipstick), inscribes her in the logical process posited by the pre-chaoticists. As Robinson notes,24 the pressure toward civilization and higher order becomes intensified even as its desirability is questioned.

Mae's lust for Henry's mind rather than his body gestures toward the traditional Cartesian mind/body split, which privileges mind over body, cleanliness over dirt, and order over noise. Mae is unable to allow order and chaos to co-exist, making her a victim of life's dynamical system. As her last words, ‘I am dying’, are directed to Lloyd, and are, as Marranca points out, in the tense of the eternal present, we must wonder if her sacrificial death does not carry with it some sense of everlasting life, and is not connected to Prigogine's resolution of the duality between being and becoming.

Fornes places a woman at the centre of this cosmogonic struggle, and reverses the traditional symbolism of man as rational and woman as physical beings, suggesting, as does Luce Irigaray, that the myths that have shaped human behaviour, often to the detriment of both the individual and the race, are essentially arbitrary. In Robinson's reading of the play, Mae's tragedy is that she ‘remains entranced by spiritual goals’ (the product of society's discourse), refusing ‘to acknowledge the body's demands until she says her very last word’.25 I would suggest in addition that her final acknowledgement of her ‘becoming’, and the fact that it is directed to Lloyd, imply that both life and death exist in an eternal present that can only be ‘viewed’ in a theatrical space.

While Mae rejects the animal side of herself as a human, the starfish image suggests that we can only survive by embracing both sides of our oxymoronic nature. Fornes uses both the starfish and the hermit crab to reflect the interconnectedness of all life. The hermit crab, too, breaches traditional boundaries of categorization, trying on different shells until it ‘finds one that fits’, casting off and finding new shells as it grows, suggesting the symbiosis and the recycling inherent in life, and the changing nature and the fluidity of the persona we choose to wear.

Larry Dossey26 has pointed to the ‘exchange of atoms’ that is part of what he refers to as the ‘biodance’: the scaling in Mud suggests a parallel between life on the scaled levels of the atom, the human condition, and the cosmos. If Mae seeks Henry because he represents order, an idealized, higher level on the evolutionary scale, her very choice changes him irrevocably. As Lloyd points out, Henry begins to exhibit ‘crab’ behaviour almost immediately, and several scenes later has regressed to the piggish behaviour exhibited by Lloyd in the first scene.


Many of the theatre practitioners and critics refer to the programmed randomness of avant-garde or recent performance art as an example of complexity. However, the dramatic text, the texte troué in Anne Ubersfeld's terminology, and the performance text, an event infinitely susceptible to random initial conditions from scène and salle, both exist, by their very nature, as dynamical systems in their own right. Even the most linear script is subject to the non-linear phenomena of a reader who ‘fills in the holes’, the audience member whose cough creates a pivotal onstage moment, or the actor who drops a line or breaks a glass.

Fornes' plays, tightly scripted and almost over-determined by a playwright who prefers to direct her own work, nevertheless demonstrate, in both script and performance, an extremely dynamical system. Her stage directions, which are painterly and exacting, combine the practical with the poetic. The ‘tiny things’ in the play, the props, the gestures (magnified and framed by the freezes so that we can ‘see’ them but usually lost to us in ordinary theatrical time) send us off into random but self-similar patterns. The very fabric of her text is fractal and complex, both in its subject and in its execution. Even as we use chaos theory to explicate Mud, so Mud paints a picture of chaos theory, exposing the self-reflexive, prismatic relationship between them.

Fornes' plays seem to insist on the liminality of the performance event, where time can contract or expand. She emphasizes both the limitations and the possibilities of the theatrical space, which can function as a tiny cage or as a vast wasteland, as a place where the performer may be pinned down by the audience's gaze or liberated to roam in uncharted territory. In an early play, Dr. Kheal, the character of that name speaks of ‘the poetry of space in a box … abysmal and concrete at the same time. Four walls, a top. and a bottom … and yet a void.’27 This is surely a description of the stage.

Often Fornes highlights performativity by staging a performance space within the performance space. Anne Ubersfeld has suggested that by staging ‘theatre within theatre’ a playwright acceeds not to the ‘real’ of mimesis but to the metaphysically ‘true’.28 Fornes insists on theatrical ‘framing’ in her plays, even in the ground-breaking and proscenium-breaking Fefu and Her Friends, consistently revealing the art and the artifice of the theatre. In early plays such as Dr. Kheal and Tango Palace there are actual stages for professorial or divine performance, while in her most recent work, Terra Incognita, tourists look into a travel brochure and ‘see themselves’, locating their reality within the frame of the picture of the café in which they are sitting.

In Mud, the characters ‘stage’ themselves for each other, and the icons of civilization are costume, make-up, and monologue attesting to the necessarily performative aspect of conscious human interaction at any level. Fornes, in her meticulous attention to detail and her use of iconographic props, insists on one of the principles of complexity, ‘a sensitive dependence on initial conditions’, in which each gesture has far-reaching ramifications. The freezes written into the end of each scene give both the static quality of a finished painting and the filmic quality of a tape that is running down, insisting on the discontinuity inherent in the apparently most linear series of events, both fixing and magnifying a single moment.

Mae is attracted by the image of the starfish, almost as a child is drawn to her own reflection in a mirror without recognizing it as such. The starfish functions as the ‘strange attractor’ here, as the metaphorical relationship between Mae and the starfish creates patterns of self-similarity that shape the play.

Fornes uses the theatrical space as her laboratory—a place to explore the interface between our society's construction of the world and our evolving artistic and scientific vision of that world. If mathematician Ian Stewart sees the laboratory experiment as a way to discover essential anomalies, the playwright Fornes uses the laboratory and the anomalies it reveals as a way of both exposing and absorbing the social construction of desire and identity. Strangeness becomes an essential ingredient to evolution and growth. As Fefu says, in the play of that name: ‘I am strange. … But I am fortunate in that I don't mind being strange’ (p. 14). It is Fefu's anomalies that make her a compelling force, that attract the other women to the sites of the play, and instigate the ‘becoming’ that is at its heart.


Fornes' plays insert characters into a primeval cosmogonic cycle at the moment of an important bifurcation point: in other words, at a dramatic crisis on humanity's evolutionary path. She shows how we often assume that social construction represents an essential reality, negating our potential for change; social grace is equated with state of grace. Potential, according to Heisenberg, ‘introduces something standing in the middle between the idea of an event and the actual event, a strange kind of physical reality just in the middle between possibility and reality’.29 David E. R. George relates Heisenberg's idea of potential to the ‘liminal realm’ of the theatre.30 Fornes' characters stand on the uneasy threshold between the microcosmic and the macrocosmic worlds, even as the theatre is balanced between metaphor and materiality, potential and determination, ‘between the possibility of radical change and the actuality of passively attending our own tragedy’.31

Leonard Shlain has proposed that artists and their art shape the way scientists see the world, and therefore, in some sense, promote new scientific discovery. Perhaps one reason why Fornes has been somewhat marginalized, in spite her many awards, is that her work is on the cutting edge of a shift in how we ‘see’ reality. Fornes combines scientific description and passionate intuition in her work. She lances boils with clinical detachment and infinite compassion. Her dissection of human behaviour is disturbing, with her insistence on bodily functions, her graphic descriptions of tortures, and recurring acts of violence, yet there are tender scenes that celebrate human relationships and suggest the possibility of redemption. Her texts are spare and geometrically precise yet she offers us moments of pure poetry, passion, and lyricism as well.

While contemporary playwrights such as Hammond and Stoppard use new scientific discoveries as metaphors for the evolution of human thought, reflecting both our fascination and our fear at the changing scientific paradigm, Fornes' work refuses discovery as simply metaphoric, and forces us to experience the instability of this new territory. She creates her own dynamical system, recording the way our discoveries destabilize our view of the world. She uses the paradigm of the theatre as potential to demonstrate the inevitable connection between our art, our learning, and our social artifice.

Hers is a disturbing, fractal world, but as artist Jeanne McDermott writes: ‘Fractals capture the texture of reality.’32 Perhaps it is precisely that texture that audiences resist, in its uncompromising experience of the inherent instability and turbulence of the universal condition.


  1. I am indebted to Susan Kotwinkel, Michael Vanden Heuvel, Robert Brooks, and John Fleming for their generosity in sharing both their bibliographies and their papers, delivered at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education in San Francisco in August 1995; to Dean Wilcox for sharing his paper, delivered at the International Federation for Theatre Research in Montreal in May 1995; and to Richard Shindeldecker who graciously agreed to discuss some of these issues with me. I am especially grateful to Mala Renganathen for sharing with me the fruits of her Fulbright research.

  2. Leonard Shlain, Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light (New York: William Morrow, 1991).

  3. See particularly David Porush, ‘Making Chaos: Two Views of a New Science’, New England Review and Breadloaf Quarterly, XI, No. 4 (Summer 1990); William W. Demastes, ‘Re-inspecting the Crack in the Chimney: Chaos Theory from Ibsen to Stoppard’, New Theatre Quarterly, X, No. 39 (1994); N. Katherine Hayles, ed., Chaos and Order: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

  4. David E. R. George, ‘Quantum Theatre—Potential Theatre: A New Paradigm?’ New Theatre Quarterly, V, No. 18 (1989).

  5. Natalie Crohn Schmitt, Actors and Onlookers: Theatre and Twentieth-Century Scientific Views of Nature (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1990), p. 4.

  6. John Briggs, The Patterns of Chaos: Discovering a New Aesthetic of Art, Science, and Nature (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), p. 155.

  7. Natalie Crohn Schmitt, Actors and Onlookers: Theatre and Twentieth-Century Scientific Views of Nature (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1990).

  8. See Barbara Riebling, ‘Remodeling Truth, Power, and Society: Implications of Chaos Theory, Nonequilibrium Dynamics, and Systems Science for the Study of Politics and Literature’, in After Poststructuralism: Interdisciplinary and Literary Theory, ed. Nancy Easterlin and Barbara Riebling (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1993), p. 193.

  9. Maria Irene Fornes, Plays (New York: PAJ, 1986), p. 28. All further quotations are taken from this text.

  10. The paradox of Wigner's friend, proposed by Eugene Wigner, is as follows: a friend, carrying out an experiment on a particle within a box, arrives at a result; upon completion of the experiment, another scientist appears who announces that he himself has been carrying out an experiment on the friend and the particle within a larger box. Quantum physics suggests that the results of the first experiment are dependent on the observation of the second. In other words, as Fred Alan Wolf puts it, ‘the friend and the particle owe their very existence to the professor's kind observation’ (p. 217).

  11. Schrödinger posed his famous problem of the cat, placed within a box with a radioactive atom. Since the half-life of such an atom is one hour, at the end of an hour the probability of the cat being dead or alive is equal, and therefore within the closed box there are potentially two possible ‘editions’ of the cat. When the experimenter opens the box, he or she ‘determines’ the outcome by that action, and there is only one cat. (See Fred Alan Wolf, p. 189-91, for a fuller explanation.)

  12. Ilya Prigogine ‘created theories to bridge the gap between biological and social scientific fields of enquiry’, wrote the committee for the Nobel Prize (as quoted in Dossey, op. cit., p. 82). The theory of dissipative structures shows how the second law of thermodynamics, which states that the world is moving towards entropy, can remain true in its ensemble and yet be superceded in specific instances. When chance fluctuations occur in nature they give rise spontaneously to new complex forms which ‘interact with the local environment by consuming energy from it. … Increasing complexity generates a need for increasing fragility. But ironically it is this feature of the dissipative structure that is the key to its further evolution towards greater complexity. For if the internal perturbation is great enough the system may undergo a sudden reorganization, a kind of shuffling, and “escape to a higher order”, organizing in a more complex way’ (Dossey, op. cit., p. 82-4).

  13. Edward Lorenz's work in weather turbulence led to the formulation of a computer-generated pattern called a ‘strange attractor’ which demonstrates the way a dynamical system can be graphed. The plot of a strange attractor shows how a system can be chaotic and orderly at the same time, as a pattern emerges, whose path cannot be predicted accurately, but is attracted to a self-similar area.

  14. Fractals, discovered by Benoît Mandelbrot, are non-linear, computer-generated phenomena, defined by John Briggs as the ‘patterns of chaos’.

  15. Porush, op. cit.

  16. Mircea Eliade, Aspects du Mythe (Paris: Gallimard, 1963), p. 11.

  17. Briggs, op. cit., p. 13.

  18. Ibid., p. 14.

  19. Marc Robinson, The Other American Drama (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 89.

  20. See ‘The Real Life of Maria Irene Fornes’, in Bonnie Marranca, Theatre Writings (New York: PAJ, 1984), where Marranca makes some important points about Fornes' use of time and space, as it relates both to a Theatre of Images and to a sense of a new cosmology.

  21. See Bonnie Marranca, ‘The State of Grace: Maria Irene Fornes at Sixty-Two’, Performing Arts Journal, XIV (May 1992), where Marranca discusses Fornes' preoccupation with the theme of human evolution through knowledge, learning, and the act of writing.

  22. Ian Stewart, Does God Play Dice: The Mathematics of Chaos (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), p. 316.

  23. Briggs, op. cit., p. 40.

  24. Robinson, op. cit., p. 109.

  25. Ibid., p. 110.

  26. Larry Dossey, Science, Time and Medicine (Boston: Shambhala, 1985).

  27. Maria Irene Fornes, Promenade and Other Plays (New York: PAJ, 1987), p. 130.

  28. See Anne Ubersfeld's work on ‘theatre within theatre’ in Lire le théâtre (Paris: Editions Sociales, 1977).

  29. Quoted in George, op. cit., p. 178.

  30. David E. R. George sees quantum theatre as ‘potential’ theatre in the sense of being both powerful and, in Heisenberg's sense, as ‘something standing in the middle between the idea of an event and the actual event, a strange kind of physical reality just in the middle between possibility and reality’. See George, op. cit., p. 178.

  31. Ibid., p. 178.

  32. Quoted in Stewart, op. cit., p. 242.

Randi Koppen (essay date autumn 1997)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8490

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 is rather emotion directed and defined, and when we describe art as ‘the will to form’ we are not imagining an exclusively intellectual activity, but rather an exclusively instinctive one. … Frankly, I do not know how we are to judge form except by the same instinct that creates it.”1 It is the thinking, reading, and judgment of form that will concern me in the following pages, in an inquiry with a specific as well as a more general motivation. Generally (and schematically) speaking, it appears that current critical approaches to form run the risk of falling into either of two traps: the modernist trap of mysticism/metaphysics, or the postmodernist trap of the empty gesture, the attention to form which has exhausted, or is about to exhaust, its potential for significance. Specifically, such limitations of critical discourse seem to apply with particular relevance to the work of Gertrude Stein and Maria Irene Fornes, two writers for the theater whose aesthetic projects are in many ways related, and who appear to me to be somewhat awkwardly positioned in current critical discourse, between a politicized postmodernist project and a formalism generally held to be deficient. Examining these writers together may bring out more clearly the nature of their attention to form as well as serve to reopen more generally the question of form, its significance and its possible “reading effects.”

This pairing off of Stein and Fornes may come as a surprise to some, especially in view of the critical tradition of considering Fornes (as opposed to Stein) a directly political writer, whose realism, if stylized, is always unquestionably referential, concerned with the world “out there.” As commentators before me have noted, however, Fornes's consistent attention (whether as writer or director) to the stage as visual and auditive field defines her as formalist at least in that sense of the word, and sets up the connection to Stein. Another less noted connection arises from certain ideas about what we may call “significant form” which the two hold in common. It will be the objective of the argument below to show that these ideas, fully attended to, may serve to renew ruling critical perceptions about form and its meanings. Finally, let me remark that considering Stein and Fornes as formalists is not to depoliticize them. In fact, it will be a central point in the argument below that much of the unsettling effect of the plays in question (what we may refer to as their enunciative and performative force) precisely resides in and emanates from form, most fundamentally because it is the “mark of form” which sets up a viewing capable of invalidating the controlling, masterful gaze: the look that returns to the body.

With these objectives in view, my discussion will take the following route: I. A review of certain modernist and postmodernist approaches to form and their limitations. II. The specificity of Stein's and Fornes's formalist projects as approached through their aesthetics and through some of the insights of phenomenology. III. An attempt to meet some of the challenges posed to current critical thinking on form by drawing on the resources of psychoanalysis.


Herbert Read's statement above arises from a modernist aesthetic which opposes art forms to discursive language, where art, as Anne Fernihough expertly shows in a recent essay, “communicates a state of being,” somehow “reaches beyond itself as discourse to a deeper, non-conceptual level of apprehension.”2 It is the same rationale which informs the Bloomsbury art critic Clive Bell's distinction between “significant form” and “labels” and Roger Fry's “imaginative vision”: “The ‘imaginative’ (or non-discursive) vision is that which transforms any fragment of ‘life’ into a work of art …, ‘lifts’ what would otherwise be ‘labels’ out of their commonplace, one-to-one context” (“TT” [“The Tyranny of the Text: Lawrence, Freud and the Modernist Aesthetic”] 55). Art, for Fry as for his fellow modernists, is a question of recognizing something as a complete, autonomous entity, and of doing so by approaching it holistically. Against the fall from unity (between self and world) of discursive language, the modernist aesthetic proposes to restore the original unity through art forms that rest on, and initiate, an integrated response, a fusion, as it were, of body and mind. It is in recognition of such, or at least similar ideas, that Julia Kristeva explains the modernist concretization of the signifier as part of a project to formulate a truth that would be the real in the Lacanian sense: a truth outside signification. Modernity, then, for Kristeva, is defined by “a search for … forms capable of transforming or rehabilitating the status of truth … [T]he truth they seek (to say) is the real, that is, the true-real [vréel]).”3

The modernist exaltation of form involves, as Anne Fernihough points out, what will inevitably appear as a naive assumption: that art forms, as opposed to other forms of discourse, can somehow enact (rather than state) deeper, nondiscursive levels of meaning. While critics have been quick to recognize such traps of mysticism and metaphysics in the modernist project, it has perhaps been less obvious that postmodernist thinking on form also has its problems. It is this thinking which informs many recent approaches to the “formalism” of Stein and Fornes.

For modernism's depth-models, postmodernist conceptions of “form” substitute “opacity without mystery” (Robbe-Grillet) and, in some cases, a more phenomenal (sensuous) aesthetic experience.4 One example, which may be related in its antecedents and its inheritance to Stein and Fornes respectively, is that direction of post-1960s American theater which is sometimes termed “the Theater of Images.”5 Here form is about restoring object-ness (to “re-tree the tree,” in Richard Foreman's phrasing) or about perception and consciousness (to “de-tree the tree”) (BB [A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama. Volume Three: Beyond Broadway] 196). Form, in other words, is the medium through which one reflects on the problematics of the real and on the problematics of perception. From a similar perspective, studies of Stein's poetics have fastened on the reflexive dimension of the encounter between consciousness and perceptual reality. Influenced by Picasso's analytical reflexivity, Stein is seen at once as committed to unmediated mimesis and to simultaneous analysis of the mimetic act. Anticipating Saussurean principles, the “structure of representation, not what is represented itself,” is allegedly her subject.6

Recently, the political (or at least politicized) extension of postmodernist thinking on density, opacity, and so forth, has shifted the focus from what is in its essence a continuation of formalist defamiliarization (a creative deformation avowedly restoring sharpness to our perception), to denaturalization, as in Linda Hutcheon's work on postmodernist framing and quotation techniques.7 In this perspective, form, the emphasis on the signifier, “foregrounds” and “de-doxifies” cultural representations in a mode which is essentially knowing and ironic, raising the question of the supposed transparency of representation in the process. Such a perspective informs recent approaches to Gertrude Stein that find it necessary to rescue her work from the fallacy of “formalism,” understood as a failure to consider what lies beyond the page or the self-sufficiency of the signifying system. Rescue operations of this nature have led to an understanding of her work as “most fundamentally … a direct and intentional undermining of writing itself … the structure of power relations inherent in writing.”8 Along related lines of thought, critics have recognized in Fornes's drama a practice of ironic quotation and parodic framing of the theatrical apparatus which would place her squarely if not securely in the postmodernist camp.9

The reflexive notion of form (that is, of form as a mode and medium of reflection on the processes of perception, consciousness, or the representational apparatus) is problematic, from my perspective, for two reasons. Firstly, as I intend to argue in part II of this article, insofar as it fails to be sufficiently sensitive to the specificity of Stein's and Fornes's aesthetic projects. Secondly, and more generally, because this is a notion of form which unduly reduces its significance and performative force. To take the second point first: it ought to be obvious, especially in light of the recent inflation in ideas to this effect, that there are limits as to how far we can take the famous “emphasis on the signifier,” how many times we can meaningfully reenact the recuperation of the real and the moment of defamiliarization or denaturalization (in Foreman's as well as Hutcheon's sense). It would seem to be in recognition of some such limit that Susan Sontag, in a 1979 interview entitled “On Art and Consciousness,” rejects a formalist theater such as Robert Wilson's (and behind Wilson, Gertrude Stein and the long faux naif tradition in modernist art): a theater whose principal subject is, in a word, “consciousness,” the thinking process and modes of perception. It is its failure to make truth claims, according to Sontag, that leads this theater into a “pathology of solipsism.”10 Christopher Bigsby's commentary in extension of Sontag's takes the argument a step further: “the necessity to reconstruct our perceptive powers and to become fully conscious of the processes of thought, once stated and enforced, gains little from elaboration unless, like converts to religion, it is necessary to meet together at regular intervals in order to renew our faith” (BB 201).

Two points that concern the limits on current approaches to form are being made here: firstly, that a focus on the processes of perception and consciousness to the detriment of referential truth traps us in asocial and ultimately pathological circles; further, that the reflexive turning back on the processes of perception and consciousness, once performed, quickly exhausts both its newness and its potential for significance. And we may add, even if we read the reflexive moment in its political extension, as the turn which stages, frames, denaturalizes, is it not the case that such gestures very soon become simply that, gestures with little performative impact? Our own experience as readers and spectators ought to tell us that a hyper-reflexive reading of form such as this can only be taken so far: we tire of it, we have other receptive desires which intervene, the moment of discovery has long since been repeated to the point of cliché. Another point is that the idea of a hyper-reflexive reading of form lacks theoretical support, as demonstrated by Jacques Lacan in his seminars on the gaze.11 Thus it is significant that what Lacan sets out to challenge in his seminars is specifically the self-reflexive illusion: the metaperspective of a consciousness that is somehow “doubly” knowledgeable and informed, eminently capable of analyzing its own sighting operations. The gaze, as Lacan understands it, is bound up with the subject's desire and lack, hence always in excess of a consciousness that imagines itself in control. What we have to actively reckon with, as a consequence, is the disorganizing force of desire in the field of perception, and the possibility that self-conscious self-reflection is no more than the mirage which falsely guarantees consciousness full mastery of itself.

In Stein criticism, an alternative line of inquiry into the question of form starts from the connection between Stein's poetics and the principle of playful performativity informing many of the experiments of 1960s art. The title of J. P. Bowers's 1991 study “They Watch Me as They Watch This” is representative in this respect. Bowers focuses on the distinction which Stein introduced in The Geographical History of America between human nature (identity) and human mind (entity), the first a social and psychological concept, the latter essentialist and structuralist (“what we really are and will always be”). “And human nature,” declares Stein, “well human nature is not interesting not at all interesting.”12 What is interesting is the mind at play, or as Bowers puts it: “In reading Gertrude Stein as she hoped to be read we are supposed to see her at play and to have contact with the world she perceives by having contact with her playful language, to participate in the original experience.”13

This is a critical approach which reads Stein and the question of form in the light of a 1960s postmodernism that may be understood as specifically American. Thus we may recognize similarities between Bowers's reading and the rationale behind John Cage's “purposeless play” as well as 1960s performance theater. Further, one may identify connections between Stein's mind-play and the shift toward a phenomenal approach to the work of art which defines the antimodernist stance of the same period: Leslie Fiedler and Susan Sontag's celebration of immediate, not intellectualized, experience. As Sontag wrote in recommendation of Resnais/Robbe-Grillet's Last Year at Marienbad: “What matters … is the pure, untranslatable, sensuous immediacy of some of its images, and its rigorous if narrow solution to certain problems of cinematic form.”14 Accepting the relevance of this anti-intellectual postmodernism to an understanding of Stein's formalism, however, still leaves us with certain pressing questions and with the problem of a critical vocabulary in which to speak of form, its significance and its reading effects. Is “what matters” really what matters? Why does it matter? And how can we speak of Sontag's untranslatable immediacy (or Stein's playful performativity) except in a subjective vocabulary that can only insist on, rather than account for, experience?

So far, my concern in this article has been to indicate certain limits of a modernist approach to form (assumptions which can only appear as naive or as leading into mysticism). Further, I have pointed to certain limits of an experiential and theoretical nature associated with so-called “reflexive” ideas of form, and to the problems of a “playful” or anti-intellectual formalism which leaves us with a subjective, celebratory vocabulary rather than a usable metalanguage. More important than these shortcomings of critical discourse, however, is the recognition that none of the approaches to form I have discussed so far seem able to capture the specificity of Stein's and Fornes's formalist projects. As a next step in my inquiry, therefore, I propose to come to terms with this specificity by turning to what the writers themselves have had to say on the subject of form.


I found that any kind of a book if you read with glasses and somebody is cutting your hair and so you cannot keep the glasses on and you use your glasses as a magnifying glass and so read word by word reading word by word makes the writing that is not anything be something.

(GH [The Geographical History of America or the Relation of Human Nature to the Human Mind] 352-53)

What Gertrude Stein is describing here with characteristic ingenuousness is the act and activity of framing, or in Roland Barthes's more fitting metaphor, découpage. The frame, in Stein's anecdote as in Barthes's theoretical discourse, produces significance, promotes (magnifies) the word into visibility and into signification, not, in Stein's case, as a syntactical unit but as a signifier in its materiality and opacity. A reading in frames, elaborates Stein, is “interesting,” as opposed to reading something “as a whole,” as having to do with “a beginning and middle and ending, with “remembering and forgetting,” which is “occupying” but not interesting (GH 352-53). The distinction is significant because it points to the idea of an imaginative viewing as a key principle in Stein's compositorial practice as well as in her proposals for reception and spectatorship.

The minute painting gets abstract it gets pornographic.15

Great thinkers eyes do not turn in, they get blank or turn out to keep themselves from being disturbed. It is only sentimentalists and unexperiencing thinkers whose eyes turn in. Those having wealth of experience turn out or quiet in meditation or repose.16

Equating the look of abstraction (of theoria) with the sadistic gaze of pornography, Gertrude Stein here effectively rejects that scopic economy in which epistemophilia is inseparable from scopophilia, where knowledge arises from and assumes the subject's mastery, by spectatorial distance, of its object. Equally, however, she rejects the gaze which turns inward, the introspection of an art which presumes to be psychological, substituting, in her own aesthetic practice, a speculation which is a looking out, yet a looking with the proximity and intimacy of the magnifying glass. Rid of the dual sins of abstraction (theoria) and introspection, the creative mind, in Stein's system, is free to engage in a meditation whose truth effect is guaranteed by its phenomenal approach: precise, intimate, and unmediated contact with the object of attention and with the moment as it occurs. Such meditation is truly productive of knowledge: “How do you know anything, well you know anything as having it completely in you at the moment you have it. That is what knowledge is, and essentially therefore knowledge is not succession but an immediate existing.”17

Stein's aesthetic, then, unlike Sontag's pathological formalism above, assumes an understanding of art forms as knowledgeable, or productive of knowledge. Framing the object of attention removes its cap of invisibility, but more than that, it institutes a relation of sensuous immediacy (sets up a phenomenal encounter) of perceiver and perceived which is the very condition of possibility of meditation—a meditation, significantly, which actively disconnects knowledge from abstraction, from spectatorial distance and the pose of mastery. This is a point to which we shall have cause to return.

For a closer consideration of Stein's ideas on imaginative viewing and the significance of form, we may turn to “Plays,” one of the author's Lectures in America. In an interesting move, “Plays” set out to write Stein's history as a playwright through her history as a spectator.18 The Steinian poetics, it appears, arises from the needs of the spectator. It aims for a type of integration or contemporaneity between spectacle and spectator which curiously depends on the separation between the two. Noting that certain signifying systems or structural relationships present obstacles to contemporaneous perception, Stein sets out to remove such stumbling blocks. A play modeled on the calm of a landscape rather than the nervousness of sequence and plot, she finds, permits the spectator's emotion to be in time with the spectacle, to be “always in relation,” and to “rest in it untroubled” in a “simple direct and moving pleasure.” The drama which ensues creates its own space, exists in and for itself, and remains foreign, does not force itself on you: “you [do] not have to get acquainted” (115-16).

Like Stein's, Fornes's aesthetic practice works on the principle of framing. One reviewer described the set for the London production of Fornes's 1989 play Abingdon Square as a “laboratory”: it is a term which captures not only the atmosphere of this particular play, but a significant aspect (perhaps the defining quality) of Fornes's approach. Examining gesture, movement, and utterance in a particularly controlled aesthetic space in which everything is differently charged, thus more resonant and expressive, Fornes, as writer, director, and designer, promotes a rare intimacy in the viewing situation, sets up a looking (and a listening) that works close-up rather than by critical distance. It is the details and the nuances, as signifiers rather than naturalized behavior, that claim our attention, in a pared down, minimal representation which is not, as Bonnie Marranca correctly observes, the hyper- or photo-realism of the 1970s avant-garde, but something at once more committed (emotive, subjective) and intimate (“drawing in” the spectator's gaze rather than throwing it off in hyper-sophisticated reflection).19 The effect is to induce a sense of strangeness, an interest in the signified combining with an examination of the signifier, of the materiality of the sign. While such examination is at its most pronounced in plays like Abingdon Square and Mud, representation in Fornes's theater is never simply transparent, always somehow opaque.

I referred initially to the unsettling nature of Fornes's particular brand of formalism. This effect was particularly to the fore in the critical reception of Abingdon Square. It is suggestive of the nature of Fornes's attention to form that reviewers, while generally attracted to the “stuff” of her writing, were quick to express resentment at the “perversity” and “alienating artifice” of her approach in this play.20 “Unnaturalistic” and “unnatural,” Abingdon Square is seen to be opting for the “self-conscious” and the “tricksy” rather than the natural and the straightforward. Censuring Fornes for “niggardliness,” for holding back textual information, reviewers complain that the play “teases” and “tantalizes” only to frustrate, leaving one “unsatisfied” and somehow “cheated.” A connection is established, through this critical discourse, between artifice and perversion, between the unnaturalistic and the unnatural. The “perverse” (formalist) text, one is asked to conclude, teases and cheats where the sound text, reliable and artless, tells everything. In all events, then, form, the “mark” of aestheticism, of art and artifice, may be understood as the condition which at once produces and withholds meaning.

On the evidence of the author's own statements, Fornes's experiments in drama become readable as a search: for a different, “expressive” stage language, a “realism,” or rather a formalism, that is somehow more true to theater, to art, indeed to truth itself than any “ordinary” representation. Inspired by Strasberg's Method, her writing, as she understood it, became “organic,” her approach less “manipulative.”21 What resulted is a type of playwriting in which character and characterization do not develop from any external notion of dramatic “psychology,” but from the process and logic of acting, and a concept of theater where truth and truthfulness are not verisimilitude but a kind of “inner necessity” stemming from the actor's and theater's art. Asked about her method, Fornes in a similar vein explains that she uses games, exercises, and meditation to allow the play to “make its own point.”22 What is implied in this account is in effect the same as when she says elsewhere that the play is “there as a lesson”—it is to say that art (theater) is knowledgeable, that it possesses its own knowledge which, under certain conditions, will be revealed: “The play is there as a lesson, because I feel that art ultimately is a teacher … it gives you something, a charge of some understanding, some knowledge that you have in your heart. And if art doesn't do that, I'm not interested in it.”23 Fornes herself equates the meaningful and the illuminating. The reception of meaning, for her, is fundamentally intuitive—indistinguishable and inseparable, in true modernist style, from the reception of the work of art: “To say that a work of art is meaningful is to imply that the work is endowed with intelligence. That it is illuminating. But if we must inquire what the meaning of a work of art is, it becomes evident that the work has failed us. … A work of art should not be other than what it demonstrates. It should not be an intellectual puzzle. … If there is wisdom in the work it will come to us. But if we go after it, we become wary, watchful. We lose our ability to taste.”24 What we have here, it seems, is a modernist understanding of significant, performative form and of holistic response: a conception of the art symbol as capable of enacting (rather than stating) nondiscursive, nonconceptual meaning, and of reception (viewing) as sensuous and phenomenal, depending on an integration of body and mind. Privileging a type of truth—“wisdom”—that she perceives as unspeakable yet able to “perform,” to illuminate and instruct, Fornes's writing is, or aims to be, philosophical in the original and widest sense of the word, understood as the love or pursuit of knowledge. As a writer, designer, and director she examines and expands the register of dramatic codes, searching for a different (nonconventional) expressiveness not so much to give expression to a knowledge that precedes and exists apart from the theatrical event, as to examine how the theater—its art, process, or “inner necessity”—can give rise to knowledge or, rather, to what we may term a knowledgeable condition.

As in the case of Stein, however, Fornes invites a look, and a knowing, which forgoes mastery. Mae's amorous pursuit of knowledge in Mud, for example, reveals that enlightenment is not so much a position to be achieved, as the ability to grasp the idea of knowledge. The knowledgeable state is something one may strain toward, the process is itself a form of enlightenment. In Fefu and Her Friends (1977), knowledge is related in part to dreams and hallucinations, that is, to a fundamentally unmastered condition. Analogously, to view Fornes's plays is often to strain toward, yet in the end be deprived of, initiation. Interpretation moves by accumulation of detail, gestures, phrases, tones of voice, then the text holds back, refuses to tell. It is a knowledge in process, but the process does not instantiate, or even aim for, a privileged informedness. Viewing is heightened, attentive, relying on intuition, on sensing the understated. As Bonnie Marranca observes about Fornes's dictatorial practice, “Fornes acknowledges the audience by giving them their own space and time in the productions. … The authorial voice does not demand power over the theatrical experience. It is not territorial. There is room for subjectivity, as a corrective to evasive objectification, on the part of all those involved in the making and witnessing of the event.”25 The echoes of Stein's landscapes are clear. Once more, viewing is a case of being “in relation” without having to “get acquainted”; of a meditative space depending at once on integration and separateness. Once more, too, what is implied is an understanding of art and artifice as knowledgeable, but as involving a reconceptualized viewing/knowing.

It emerges that we here have two aesthetics which are related and whose outlines become clearer in light of each other. Both involve conceptions of form which are closer to modernist than to postmodernist assumptions, and as such might lead us into the trap of mysticism. Thus we are using terms such as “knowledge,” “significance,” “truth,” “meaning,” “aestheticism,” “form,” in ways that are distinctly unscientific, and that many would reject as purely conjectural. However, if the artists themselves (and even reviewers in some cases) can speak of such “subjective” aspects of the artistic function, it must surely be among the tasks of critical discourse to take cognizance of this dimension. It ought to be obvious that I am referring to aspects of viewing (and a reading of form) which do not readily offer themselves to theorization. The point I wish to make is that what is required, and indeed opened for, by these aesthetics is a different understanding of signifying relationships than the ones we currently have at our disposal. Herein lies their potential for a renewal of critical discourse.

If we turn to aesthetic theory in search of an adequate metalanguage, we may well see in Stein's “framing” in particular some resemblance to the Husserlian notion of bracketing, the principles of “phenomenological reduction” and “eidetic abstraction.” With both writers (Stein and Husserl) it is a case of bracketing off the real object so as to attend to the act of knowing it. However, where Husserl establishes the centrality of the perceiving subject, where the Husserlian consciousness actively constitutes or “intends” the world and where certainty is to be had by reducing the external world to the contents of our consciousness alone, Stein's object of attention retains much of its object-ness, its independent existence. Here the concern is with a relation between subject and object as constitutive of “knowledge,” a relation, moreover, informed by an attentiveness, a receptivity on the part of the subject which is in effect closer to the Heideggerian Gehör than to Husserl's centralized subject.

If we develop the connections with phenomenology, it will appear that the ideas of both Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty may go some way toward theorization of Stein's and Fornes's significant form. Turning to the Heidegger of “The Origin of the Work of Art,” for example, we see that it is precisely in the “frame” of art that phenomenological truth unconceals itself, gives itself up to our contemplation.26 It is this truth that we as readers must attentively hear, by opening ourselves passively to the text. It remains, however, that a phenomenological theory of perception is invested with a philosophical and metaphysical underpinning (the “inspiration and expiration of Being,” in Merleau-Ponty's formulation) which turns out to be as problematic as that of the modernist aesthetic, and which can hardly be seen to have much bearing on the “epistemological” projects of Stein and Fornes. When I proceed to examine more closely some of Merleau-Ponty's concepts, then, it is on the understanding that these ideas will serve as a point of entry, though not as an explanatory framework, to the formalism which is the object of our study. The idea of an “embodied” vision is one such point of entry.

To perceive, for Merleau-Ponty, “is to render oneself present to something through the body.”27 Thus: “The painter takes his body with him. It is by lending his body to the world that the artist changes the world into paintings.” To understand this creative process, “we must go back to the working, actual body … that body which is an intertwining of vision and movement” (162). It is the presence of this body which “forbids us to conceive of vision as an operation of thought that would set up before the mind a picture or a representation of the world, a world of immanence and ideality. Immersed in the visible by this body, itself visible, the see-er does not appropriate what he sees; he merely approaches it by looking, he opens himself to the world” (162). What Merleau-Ponty points to here concerns three areas of insight which all bear some relation to what I have been saying about the aesthetics of Stein and Fornes: the subject's decentralized position in the visual field; a gaze which does not appropriate; and an imaginative vision which is “connected” to the body. To Merleau-Ponty, the artist's gaze—the look which transforms “any fragment of life” into a work of art (into art forms)—is holistic in the sense that it includes and depends on the body. To do so, to take the body with you, has consequences. It means that the subject is no longer the untroubled point of perspective who watches from a distance and “appropriates” (masters) his object. The subject is himself inserted in the field of vision and may at any time be constituted as the object of another's gaze, thus disturbed in its privileged position as subject of the representation. It is through the body, then, that vision becomes imaginative, that the subject comes to be no longer the master of his/her representations, and that the latter becomes a condition of the former. There are echoes here of what I pointed to in connection with Stein and Fornes—of holistic response, of an attentive, meditative viewing which approaches but does not control, and of a fundamentally unmastered knowledge. These are echoes, I believe, which will become clearer in light of Anne Fernihough's elucidations of modernist principles of form.

For modernists like Bell, Fry, and D. H. Lawrence, as Fernihough suggested above, the recognition of wholeness is the key to aesthetic experience. This recognition comes about as an integrated response, a fusion of body and mind. Lawrence, with his understanding of the body as the site and modality of unconscious response, explicitly relates this “imaginative” response to the unconscious: “The imagination is a more powerful and more comprehensive flow of consciousness than our ordinary flow. In the flow of the imagination, we know, mentally and physically at once, in a greater, kindled awareness.28 It is in extension of this point that Fernighough comes in with an observation which illuminates Merleau-Ponty's “embodied” vision: that modernist form must be understood, paradoxically, as a return to the body. Fernihough, once more: “[I]t is only when we enter the aesthetic space offered by the art-work that we renounce the endlessly metaphoric process of abstracting from the world and allow our unconscious the free play which alone will help us to penetrate our environment. The Modernist pursuit of form can be seen as the pursuit of the conditions which will enable us to do this most easily” (“TT” 56). Two points are being made here: one, an idea of holistic aesthetic perception as particularly insightful and as putting into play the particular conditions and competence of the unconscious. Two, an understanding of form as the pursuit of the conditions which will enable such viewing. These are ideas which may turn out to have some explanatory force in relation to the projects of Stein and Fornes. Like Fernihough's modernists, yet differently, their formalism “returns to the body.” It is the difference here which is particularly significant. Where Lawrence's integrated response brings with it a promise of mastery, the nondelusion of the all-encompassing gaze, no such guarantee is given by Stein or Fornes. Here the return to the body is not so much a question of “knowing the other side as well” in a mystical all-inclusiveness,29 as of locating the conditions of imaginative viewing in sensuous, phenomenal perception, and in the noncentrality of the subject-position associated with the unconscious. The difference I just pointed to, and the many problematic underpinnings of the phenomenological and modernist approaches referred to above, indicate that we have taken the suggestiveness of these particular perspectives as far as it will go, and that we need to look elsewhere to account for the specificity of Stein's and Fornes's “return to the body.”


The projects of Stein and Fornes resemble those of modernism, but that is not to say that we must simply return to the language of modernism to speak of them. The modernist critical language (and Lawrence's “psychoanalysis”), we saw, rested on what might easily appear as a naive assumption, that art forms could somehow enact rather than state, and on a radical distinction between the art symbol and the symbols of discourse which, in the light of current linguistic thought, can only be deemed untenable. The metalanguage which I propose (and, as I intend to show, the work of Stein and Fornes actively invites) is still psychoanalysis, but not in Lawrence's sense. I have been pointing, via modernism and phenomenology, to a conception of form which requires and opens up to a different understanding of signifying relationships. The proposition I wish to pursue in the remainder of this article is that psychoanalysis in its poststructuralist formulation emerges as the metalanguage that will engage, while demystifying, form and its address. Psychoanalysis is particularly suited to this task because it rethinks firstly, the modernist conception of performative form; secondly, the relations (between reader/spectator and work) through which form may attain significance; and thirdly, what it means to activate the “particular conditions and competence of the unconscious.”

Because it thinks of utterances as speech acts, and defines its task as reading the signifier as signifier rather than as uncovering the hidden signified,30 (post-)Freudian psychoanalysis, by extension, allows for an understanding of aesthetic performativity (in effect of the enunciative force of the signifier) which does not rest on the distinction between “art-term” and “symbol.” It should be stressed that the reference here is not to J. L. Austin or John Searle, but to Lacan and Felman. Thus, in Shoshana Felman's reading of Lacan, psychoanalytic recognition is tied up with the subject's (the analyst and the analysand's) speech act, “whose symbolic action modifies the subject's history rather than cerebrally observing or recording it at last correctly.” As such, “its value is less cognitive than performative”: Felman speaks with Lacan of “knowledge supported by the signifier as such.”31 On this principle, meaning may be thought of as including an illocutionary or performative dimension, that is, the idea that a signifier or an act of enunciation could modify or directly affect (the subject and its history) other than by its constative, proposition-bearing force. It is a theoretical concept of performative form which rethinks the naive assumptions of modernist mysticism.

Along a related line of inquiry, Kristeva's psychoanalytically oriented readings in modernist literature (especially in Revolution in Poetic Language) open up to a reading of the signifier in its materiality, and thus to theorization of Stein's phenomenal encounter and Fornes's signifying aestheticism. With its focus on that surplus of “materiality” which the sign cannot subsume and its understanding of processes of proximity and inclusion in artistic reception (the “alchemy of the word,” in a particularly suggestive phrase32), Kristevan theory allows for a conception of significance and response which is never naively causal or based on simplified notions of communication.

In Stein's and Fornes's aesthetic, we saw, there was no disconnection between a rigorous attention to form and truth claims. Both are concerned to assert the artifice and artness of art, but equally its claims to tell the truth, to provide insight, to serve as source and vehicle of meditation. Art, for both writers, constitutes a nonreduced and nonreducible language, with its own cognitive competence and performative force. In this language, it is the signifier which speaks the truth. Knowledge is produced in the phenomenal encounter with a framed reality, with the signifier in its materiality. We may say with Kristeva that Stein declares herself a stranger (étranger) to language, labors in the materiality of that which society regards as a means of contact and understanding, in order to initiate a meditation whose truth effect is guaranteed precisely by its phenomenal (sensuous) approach. In similar terms, Fornes's theater marks the visual field by an aestheticism which becomes readable, via Kristeva, as a “signifying materiality.” We have already considered the suggestiveness of Abingdon Square's suspended aesthetic space. In Mud (1984) a “signifying materiality” is perceivable in the “monochromatic” quality of set and costumes. In the New York production the set was the color and texture of “dried bone,” the costumes “drab”—streaky and dirty—creating the impression of a monochromatic painting.33 Eight-second freezes separate sequences—the effect is that of a series of stills, transforming the “depiction of reality” into a marked (aestheticized) visual field. Fornes's conception of design takes the stage toward an aesthetic space as much as a referential room. A “wooden room” sits on a five-foot-high earth promontory which is also surrounded by earth. There is no vegetation, but the earth is red and soft; behind the promontory is a “vast, blue sky.” Red, soft earth meets the room's color and texture of dried bone, “ashen and cold”; the clearly defined limits of the room meet the expanding lines and the ascending movement of the promontory (15). Once more, the mark of form, of art and artifice, makes this a découpage which has less in common with dramatic realism than with certain types of painting where meaning resides as much or more in light, lines, and texture (a signifying materiality) as in iconic signs.

In both cases, then, the signifier speaks. But what does it say? Phenomenologists would say “being,” Anne Fernihough's modernists would introduce some other transcendental or mystical principle. Psychoanalysis, however, allows us to reformulate the terms of the question: rather than attempt to articulate what Stein's and Fornes's “knowledge” or “truth” is, a more productive approach would be to simply acknowledge that it speaks, and to try via psychoanalytic terms to trace how, with what authority and through what relations, it does so. With its focus on the (real) subjects of production and reception, psychoanalysis takes criticism toward an understanding of relations of proximity and inclusion, via a consideration of affective links, transferential relationships, and other states of particular receptivity and involvement which may inform the viewing/reading.34 With such a perspective, it becomes possible to see that meaning, in the theaters of Stein and Fornes, takes effect as performances and sights essentially of a nonintellectual, nonreflexive kind, working through relations of intimacy, proximity, and sentience, and through the suggestive eloquence of that meaning which the sign cannot subsume. Significance may evolve from a particular attentiveness or receptivity, a readiness to engage with the performance in ways which cannot be understood as narrative or hermeneutic. It is an aesthetic which involves a concept of spectatorship as intimacy (intimate contact with the object of attention) depending on separateness, but not on the spectatorial distance of a masterful abstraction. For the spectator, what is on offer is a simple, direct, and moving pleasure; what is required, it seems, is a meditation of the same naivety and truthfulness as that in which the plays were written. In the particular receptivity, the attentiveness and subjective investment of spectators, resides the difference between a viewing which invests the representation with knowledge and proceeds to be “illuminated,” and a viewing of alienation which declines to be taught.

We have said that in the case of Stein's and Fornes's formalism, it is precisely the attention to and foregrounding of form which suspends one kind of viewing (abstracting, masterful) and institutes another, one which is intimate, attentive, and meditative. What is more, this is a viewing which involves a reformulation of knowledge and of a type of spectatorship that is ultimately sadistic. To come to a closer understanding of this reformulation, we turn once more to the insights of psychoanalysis. Epistemophilia, the drive for knowledge, is situated in psychoanalysis, at the intersection of sublimation and scopophilia, that is, in different, yet related, orders of mastery and control. Mieke Bal, in Reading “Rembrandt,” writes of how the instinct for mastery (a masterful knowledge) takes effect as a narcissistic protection against the threats of contamination and castration.35 Stein, we saw, rejects a scopic economy in which epistemophilia is inseparable from scopophilia, where knowledge arises from and assumes the subject's mastery, by spectatorial distance, of its object. Similarly, on Fornes's stage the representation does not invite mastery. Holding back, retreating as it were behind its own surface (its aesthetic materialism), this theater always leaves part of the spectacle unmastered. Fornes's pedagogical project is to transmit knowledge, understood as “wisdom,” “illumination,” “a charge of some understanding,” that is inseparable from (and arises in) the spectacle, contingent on a viewing that is not the “protection against contamination” but that attends to the visual in another way. What we have, with both authors, are not spectacles given to the all-encompassing gaze, but rather sightings which invite an entirely different way of engaging with the visual: a look which forgoes mastery. It is a way of pointing toward a refigured knowledge—a different conception of what knowledge is and what it means to have it “in possession.” In an order of representation where eye and knowledge do not conclusively and unproblematically “come together,” the look of mastery, the drive for domination and objectification, is called into question in the subtlest of ways. This is what is involved in Stein's and Fornes's “transformation” or “rehabilitation” of “the status of truth.”

To sum up, then, the practice of framing as we have seen it in the aesthetic of Stein and Fornes, invites a particular type of gaze—one that is meditative, attentive, intuitive. Further, their formalism “returns to the body” in the sense that it invites and authorizes the conditions and competence of the body, or more specifically, the unconscious: sensuous, phenomenal response and a knowledge that admits nonmastery (the knowledge that does not know that it knows). Psychoanalysis permits us to read this invitation: the signifying relations through which it works, as well as its implications for knowledge, for the looks of abstraction and epistemophilia.

The purpose of this final section was not to elaborate on the advantages of psychoanalytic criticism—that has been done more fully elsewhere. What needs to be stressed is that Stein and Fornes point to the need, and to some extent also the means, for a criticism concerned with the question of form to go beyond the surface of what is “obviously” present in the theatrical exchange in order to release meanings that are performatively and experientially “there”—and to do so by allowing for a more complex understanding of the theater as a transactional space. It has been my proposition that psychoanalysis takes us a long way in the direction of such a “release.” It is a metalanguage which recommends itself by avoiding the traps of modernism while expanding the current limits of a postmodernist thinking on form.

My reflections opened with a modernist text on form; they close here with the curious text of the body. In an essay from 1977 entitled “The Mind, the Body, and Gertrude Stein,” Catharine R. Stimpson makes the observation that Stein, otherwise a competent student did badly in a junior psychology class studying “consciousness, knowledge, and the relation of the mind to the body,” and as a medical student at Johns Hopkins (with the official excuse of “boredom” with the materials) either failed or did badly in four courses studying “childbirth, the orifices and openings of the body, and the skin.”36 How curious, then, and yet how fitting, that for Stein the artist, the mark of form—of art and artifice—transposes boredom into imaginative vision, and permits the body to makes its circuitous return.


  1. Herbert Read, The Meaning of Art (London, 1931), p. 8.

  2. Anne Fernihough, “The Tyranny of the Text: Lawrence, Freud and the Modernist Aesthetic,” in Modernism and the European Unconscious, ed. Peter Collier and Judy Davies (Oxford, 1990), p. 54; hereafter cited in text as “TT.”

  3. Julia Kristeva, The Kristeva Reader, ed. Toril Moi (Oxford, 1986), pp. 216-17.

  4. Alain Robbe-Grillet, Snapshots and Towards a New Novel, tr. Barbara Wright (London, 1965), p. 98.

  5. Cf. C. W. E. Bigsby, A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama. Volume Three: Beyond Broadway (Cambridge, 1985); hereafter cited in text as BB. While Richard Foreman, one of the exponents of Bigsby's Theater of Images, acknowledges his debt to Stein, Fornes's practice may be seen as related to Foreman's. For a critic who stresses these connections, see Marc Robinson's The Other American Drama, which, as stated in the introduction, “attempts to tell the story of American drama in a new way, with the acute sensitivity to form that Stein encouraged” (Marc Robinson, The Other American Drama [Cambridge, 1994], p. 3).

  6. See, for instance, Charles Caramello, “Gertrude Stein as Exemplary Theorist,” in Gertrude Stein and the Making of Literature, ed. Shirley Neuman and Ira B. Nadel (London, 1988), pp. 1-7.

  7. Linda Hutcheon, The Politics of Postmodernism (London, 1989).

  8. Henry M. Sayre, “The Artist's Model: American Art and the Question of Looking Like Gertrude Stein,” in Gertrude Stein and the Making of Literature, p. 32.

  9. See, for instance, W. B. Worthen, “Still Playing Games: Ideology and Performance in the Theater of Maria Irene Fornes,” in Feminine Focus: The New Women Playwrights, ed. Enoch Brater (New York, 1989), pp. 167-85, and Jill Dolan, The Feminist Spectator as Critic (Ann Arbor, 1988).

  10. Susan Sontag, “On Art and Consciousness,” Performing Arts Journal, 2, no. 2 (Fall, 1977), 29.

  11. Jacques Lacan, “Of the Gaze as Objet Petit a,” in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (London, 1979).

  12. Gertrude Stein, The Geographical History of America or the Relation of Human Nature to the Human Mind (excerpt), in Really Reading Gertrude Stein: A Selected Anthology with Essays by Judy Grahn (Freedom, Calif., 1989), p. 350; hereafter cited in text as GH.

  13. Jane Palatini Bowers, “They Watch Me as They Watch This”: Gertrude Stein's Metadrama (Philadelphia, 1991), p. 83.

  14. Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation (New York, 1966), p. 9.

  15. Gertrude Stein, Everybody's Autobiography (New York, 1937), p. 127.

  16. Stein quoted in Gertrude Stein and the Making of Literature, p. 43.

  17. Gertrude Stein, Narration (Chicago, 1935), p. 20.

  18. Gertrude Stein, “Plays,” in Lectures in America (1935; rpt. Boston, 1985); hereafter cited in text.

  19. Bonnie Marranca, “The Real Life of Maria Irene Fornes,” Performing Arts Journal, 22, no. 1 (1984), 30. The set for the American Place production of Abingdon Square, which Fornes directed, constituted a formal, elegant space of white walls, tall French windows and sparse period furniture, all irradiated by shafts of light. The atmosphere was strange, a function of Fornes's technique of stylization, by which every impression appears somehow distilled, at once heightened and severely contained. Except for the bouts of madness toward the end, emotion is consistently suppressed. The play on stage appears delicate, a fragile construction in which gesture is controlled, resonant, language faintly stilted, formal, yet expressive.

  20. For the English reviews, see London Theatre Record, 4-17 June 1989 and 26 March-8 April 1990.

  21. Interviewed by Scott Cummings, in Theater, Fornes explains: “The first play that I wrote that was influenced by my understanding of Method was The Successful Life of Three. What one character says to another comes completely out of his own impulse and so does the other character's reply. The other character's reply. The other character's reply never comes from some sort of premeditation on my part or even the part of the character. The characters have no mind. They are simply doing what Strasberg always called ‘moment to moment’” (Maria Irene Fornes, “Seeing with Clarity: The Visions of Maria Irene Fornes,” interview by Scott Cummings, Theater, 17, no. 1 [1985] 52).

  22. Maria Irene Fornes, “I Write These Messages That Come,” Drama Review, 21, no. 4 (1977), 38.

  23. Maria Irene Fornes, “Maria Irene Fornes,” in In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights, ed. David Savran (New York, 1988), p. 56.

  24. Maria Irene Fornes, Preface, Tango Palace, in Playwrights for Tomorrow, ed. Arthur A. Ballet (Minneapolis, 1966), 2:9.

  25. Marranca, “The Real Life of Maria Irene Fornes,” 32.

  26. Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” in Poetry, Language, Thought (New York, 1975), pp. 15-87.

  27. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception (Evanston, Ill., 1964), p. 42; hereafter cited in text.

  28. D. H. Lawrence, “Introduction to These Paintings,” in Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D. H. Lawrence, ed. Edward D. McDonald (London, 1936), p. 559; italics mine.

  29. For Lawrence, Cézanne's famous apple becomes symbolic of “knowing the other side as well, the side you don't see, the hidden side of the moon.” “The eye sees only fronts,” Lawrence explains, “and the mind, on the whole, is satisfied with fronts. But intuition needs all-aroundness, and instinct needs insideness” (Lawrence, “Introduction to These Paintings,” p. 579).

  30. See, for instance, Jacques Lacan's reading of Poe in his “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter,’” tr. Jeffrey Mehlman, Yale French Studies, 48 (1972), 38-72.

  31. Shoshana Felman, Jacques Lacan and the Adventure of Insight: Psychoanalysis in Contemporary Culture (Cambridge, Mass., 1987), pp. 130-31.

  32. Julia Kristeva, “Julia Kristeva Interviewed by Vassiliki Kolocotroni,” Textual Practice, 5 (1991), 165.

  33. Maria Irene Fornes, Plays (New York, 1986), p. 15; hereafter cited in text.

  34. I have already referred to Kristeva in this connection. For an examination of transferential relationships in reading/viewing, see Peter Brooks, “The Idea of a Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism,” in Discourse in Psychoanalysis and Literature, ed. Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan (London, 1987), and Randi Koppen, “The Furtive Event: Theorizing Feminist Spectatorship,” Modern Drama, 35 (1992), 378-94.

  35. Mieke Bal, Reading “Rembrandt”: Beyond the Word-Image Opposition (Cambridge, 1991), p. 289.

  36. Catharine R. Stimpson, “The Mind, the Body, and Gertrude Stein,” Critical Inquiry, 3 (1977), 494.

Don Shewey (essay date 9 November 1999)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 585

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.

Nevertheless, Fornes is revered by theater artists, among them gay Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights Tony Kushner and Paula Vogel. In fact, Vogel will go so far as to say that “in the work of every American playwright at the end of the 20th century, there are only two stages: before she or he has read Maria Irene Fornes—and after.”

The operative word there may be read. Although Fornes has worked steadily for more than 35 years, her plays have been widely published yet seldom performed outside New York. But now that situation may be changing. New York's influential Signature Theatre Company, which every year devotes its entire season to a single playwright, has chosen to greet Y2K with a Fornes retrospective.

“You can't imagine how wonderful it is!” says Fornes, whose discernible Cuban accent adds an extra layer to her natural effervescence. “To have a festival of three plays is wonderful for the author but also for the audience. They have retrospectives in film, in music, in painting all the time, but it's very rare in theater.”

The Signature season began in September with the double bill of Mud, a 1983 play about a woman loved by two men, and Drowning, a brief and dream-like 1986 adaptation of a Chekhov short story. Next up is Enter the Night, a 1993 play about friendship, which opens November 23. The season will end in March with a new work, which the playwright will direct herself.

Fornes's plays characteristically depart from the kind of naturalistic dialogue to which we're accustomed from movies and TV shows. Yet they're not wacky absurdist exercises either. They reveal the inner lives of the characters (especially women) in an amazingly direct, poetic, and philosophical way without being sentimental or doctrinaire. A few of her more than three dozen plays have gay characters, but despite her own lesbian identity, Fornes doesn't make a special effort to represent gay life in her work.

“Being gay is not like being of another species,” she says. “If you're gay, you're a person. What interests me is the mental and organic life of an individual. I'm writing about how people deal with things as an individual, not as a member of a type.”

For instance, in Enter the Night Tressa, a nurse, and her gay friend Jack—an off-Broadway stage manager whose lover has died of AIDS complications—cross-dress to reenact their favorite scene from the silent movie Broken Blossoms. Fornes suggests that this ritual expresses the tenderness and the sublime, almost religious feeling the two characters have for each other without sex—in fact, beyond sex.

Fornes's odd, poetic plays exist in a realm quite removed from the commercial world of Broadway drama, which is fine by her. Being given the Signature retrospective, Fornes says, “makes me feel I am now on the border of mainstream—not quite in it. To be mainstream frightens me. Then people put claims on you and expect things of you. I've always liked being on the border.”

Sally Porterfield (essay date summer 2000)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5194

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 indicates a tree just visible from the window of the small Greenwich Village café where we sit over coffee. It takes me a moment to find the tree because of the surrounding tangle of people, traffic, trash cans, and buildings. But there it is: a spindly little maple, leaning at a rakish angle toward one of the area's shabby-genteel apartment buildings.

Then the picture comes into focus and I see it through the eyes of the playwright. An isolated snapshot, apart from the world around it, the tree stands as a gallant symbol of life amid the ruins.

The image also seems to embody an art that, like Fornes's little tree, emerges from seeming chaos as a miracle of selection that is the essence of life as she experiences it. “Chance,” she says, “Can be more reliable than thinking about things and planning.”

We had met twice before when she came to the University of Hartford as visiting artist and attended scenes from her plays and a performance of Sarita. Encouraged by the playwright's approval, my undergraduate actors wanted to understand what it was that allowed them to find her characters and to live within them so thoroughly; why words that lie inert on the page come to life in the actor with a startling immediacy that takes both actor and audience by surprise.

The 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.

Her plays are so dissimilar that each might have been written by a different artist. I suggest that she seems to possess what Keats called Shakespeare's “negative capability,” the ability to project herself so thoroughly into her characters that there is no trace of the playwright showing through.


Fornes responds to that idea by describing the process of “getting inside the play.” As an example, she cites the new version of Fefu and Her Friends, her best-known work, which she recently translated into Spanish.2 Since the original three-act version, in which the second act is played in four separate locales within the theatre,3 is not suitable for many spaces, she wanted to write an alternative version, in which the scenes are combined on the main stage in order to make the work more viable for production.

Working with the translation permitted her to get back into the writing mode with Fefu, she says: “I got into the exact same frame of mind, inside that world, not looking in.” Thus the adaptation had, for her, the same creative impulse as the original. When she then translated the revised middle section into English, it was also new and fresh again. The new version pleases her because it allows her actors to live within that world with integrity. Like a fond but practical mother, she loves her plays but allows them to develop and shape their own lives.

We discussed Fefu's characters, who seem like old friends both to her, their creator, and to me, whose introduction to her work was as an actor, playing the title role some years ago. The play deals with a group of women who have gathered at Fefu's house to discuss their volunteer social work. Set in the 1930s, it functions as a portrait of emerging feminist sensibilities. I suggested that one of Fefu's speeches carries a particular power because it seems to work as a metaphor for clinical depression:

I am in constant pain. I don't want to give in to it. If I do I am afraid I will never recover. … It's not physical, and it's not sorrow. It's very strange Emma. I can't describe it, and it's very frightening. … It is as if normally there is a lubricant … not in the body … a spiritual lubricant … it's hard to describe … and without it, life is a nightmare, and everything is distorted.—A black cat started coming to my kitchen. He's awfully mangled and big. He is missing an eye and his skin is diseased. At first I was repelled by him, but then, I thought, this is a monster that has been sent to me and I must feed him. And I fed him. One day he came and shat all over my kitchen. Foul diarrhea. He still comes and I still feed him.—I am afraid of him.


“Oh, no,” Fornes protests; “That cat was real. He came to my apartment window and I had to let him in. It was like making peace with my darkness. I took care of the demon. I fed him. You don't antagonize your demons. Besides, they might protect you from other demons and tell them, ‘Leave the nice lady alone.’”


Fornes laughs at her own susceptibility to such magical thinking. The ability to laugh at herself is one of many endearing habits that stem from her lack of pretense, a quality she prizes in others as well. Despite an extraordinary generosity with students and other artists, she has no patience with rigidity, whether in academia or in a waitress who will not bring her poached eggs without ratatouille. As we leave the café for friendlier territory, she remarks that inflexibility is a cardinal sin and that academia is one of the biggest sinners in that respect. While acknowledging the academy's kindness to her work, she deplores its maddening insistence on capturing and labeling art that should speak for itself.

This kind of analysis, she says, “does not put itself in the perspective of the creation.” Attempting to find a suitable analogy, she suggests that “it is like trying to push the baby back into the womb.” Discarding that effort, she tries again: “You cannot get back to the source from the extract.”

Still unsatisfied by lack of the precision she seeks, she shrugs and goes on, “Dramaturgs can be the worst. They ask me ‘What do you want the audience to take home with them?’ If I wanted them to take something home I'd give it to them.” Laughing again, she muses, “Maybe I'll give them a message. Give money to the poor. It will make you feel better and make the poor feel better too.”

Clearly, for Fornes, polemic is anathema to art. Brecht's only real success, in her opinion, is The Threepenny Opera, which has its own integrity. The other work is successful, she says, only because he was sufficiently intelligent to make it theatrical.


Ibsen, on the other hand, despite his preoccupation with social and political issues, fascinates her. Her latest work in progress is, in fact, a play based on Hedda Gabler, which, she explains, Ibsen himself described as a character study rather than a social play.4 What captivates so in Ibsen's Hedda, she believes, is that Ibsen based her on a young woman who was the subject of his obsession at the time, and the spell of that fascination suffuses the character. “He was sixty-two at the time and this young girl was nineteen. He was in love with her and that's what makes Hedda so magnetic.”5

Since the first writing of this essay, Summer in Gossensass has had its premier production in a limited run, directed by the playwright, in spring 1998 at the Judith Anderson Theatre. The reviews were encouraging, and the play is currently under revision before its next production.6

It was Ibsen's passion that engaged Fornes and provided the impetus for her own investigation. For Fornes, that's what writing should be: “Something that inspires, obsesses. You're curious about it. The play itself is the analysis. The best play is an investigation. If you already know the answer, the process is fake, because all the appearance of discovery is false.”


Fornes loathes what she considers fakery, anything that lacks the authenticity that propels her, the thing without which she cannot accept her own or anyone else's efforts. My first glimpse of her that morning caught her striding across Seventh Avenue carrying what appeared to be a walking stick. On closer inspection it proved to be an old wooden yardstick that a neighbor had given her in the elevator of her building. He was moving and clearing out junk, she said, and she collects junk. The yardstick, for instance, looked better, more authentic, than the one she has, more seasoned and less commercial.

“I'm a techie at heart,” she claims, interested in all the technical and mechanical aspects of both theatre and life. Lights, sets, sound, acoustics, all these things are of vital importance to her, particularly in her role as director. She describes an arrogant young designer who considered her “just a dame with a foreign accent.” Ultimately he learned that she was right about the acoustical problems he ignored and that much of the set was unusable.

Fornes's mother was the family mechanic and passed along that talent to her artistic daughter. Her father, on the other hand, loved books, and, consequently, Fornes says, “We were always very poor. He was not a good businessman.”


Was he like Leopold in Tango Palace, I wonder, which she dedicates “To the memory of my father / Carlos Fornes”?7

“No, no, you don't dedicate things to people you don't love.” She is shocked at the suggestion, because this clearly is a significant tribute; her first play, dedicated to the memory of a gentle, bookish father who died when she was fifteen, the year her family moved to New York from their native Cuba.

Spurred by her admiration for Beckett, Tango Palace is brilliant and cruel, admittedly inspired by Endgame. When it became clear to her that the tormented victim, Isidore, must kill his tormentor, Leopold, Fornes was paralyzed.

“A good writer does what an actor does, gets inside the character, rather than attempting to understand him from the outside. In the end I'm going to allow the characters to speak rather than putting words in their mouth.” But how to get inside a murderer? “The idea of having to suffer that death, to identify with a murderer, to experience it in order to write it, of pushing that knife …” Suddenly she stops and laughs: “Why didn't I think of poisoning him? It would have been easier.”

We talk about acting techniques, and Fornes speaks of her early days as a playwright/director, when she apologized to actors for forcing them into painful emotional states. Actor Robert Benson was a case in point when, as Isidore, he committed the murder in Tango Palace, making a bloody end of Dan Sullivan, who was playing the diabolical Leopold. The scene was so convincing that Fornes feared for his sanity. Then he turned to director Herbert Blau and calmly asked, “Was that okay?”8

“I felt you could poison your emotional system with such things, but it doesn't work that way,” she discovered, over time, in her own work. Instead, she realized, it becomes a sort of catharsis for the actor.

One of her most difficult hurdles was Orlando's speech in The Conduct of Life in which he describes his feelings to the child, Nena, whom he keeps as a sex slave in his basement:

What I do to you is out of love. Out of want. It's not what you think. I wish you didn't have to be hurt. I don't do it out of hatred. It is not out of rage. It is love. It is a quiet feeling. It's a pleasure. It is quiet and it pierces my insides in the most internal way. It is my most private self. And this I give to you.—Don't be afraid.—It is a desire to destroy and to see things destroyed and to see the inside of them.—It's my nature.9

This dark, disturbing masterpiece began its life, paradoxically, as an absurd comedy; it was to be performed at the Patio Hills Festival in California, with Orlando as a comic opera military bully and a silly wife and her sisters functioning as foils for his buffoonery. Then, at a writing workshop, Fornes had an image of a young lieutenant and a young girl, she in pink slip, he in riding pants, undershirt, and boots. They were in a tropical hotel room, standing on either side of a dresser, with open doors to the balcony. It seemed that she would sleep with him if he would help her boyfriend, who was a revolutionary. The play then proved to have its own direction, far from its comic beginnings, as Fornes gained entrance to the world she had created and was drawn further and further into its murky depths. Realizing toward the end of her writing that she needed to allow Orlando to speak to the audience, she was once more paralyzed, as with the murder in Tango Palace.

“We should be able to understand all the range of normal human experience, but how could I get to that place—to understand how someone could enjoy hurting others?”

Her solution was to buy a Puerto Rican weekly tabloid that “always had a dead person on the cover.” Forcing herself to read the grisly details for several weeks, she found that what had been all but unbearable began to take on a weird fascination for her. When she found herself eagerly reaching for the paper one day, she knew she could finally write from inside Orlando's diseased psyche. The result is one of the most chilling speeches in dramatic literature.

Orlando allowed Fornes to make peace once more with her own darkness. This willingness and ability to face that darkness seems to be one of the most critical aspects of her writing. Such honesty and courage enable not only the playwright but the audience to confront the darker aspects of their own humanity and to own them, rather than allowing them to remain hidden and unexamined. Bringing them into the light demystifies and disempowers those dark demons, just as Fefu's black cat does.


Like her writing, Fornes's directing is intuitive, born of the moment and of inspiration. She speaks with great fondness of actor Sheila Dabney, who played Nena in the original 1985 production, directed by the playwright. Nena's long speech to Olimpia is a heartbreaking tribute to the human spirit at its finest, gazing at the stars from a dung-heap. After Nena describes her former life with her grandfather and her abduction by Orlando, Olimpia asks why he beats her. She replies, “Because I'm dirty” (84). When Olimpia protests, Nena explains:

I am. That's why he beats me. The dirt won't go away from inside me.—He comes downstairs when I'm sleeping and I hear him coming and it frightens me. And he takes the covers off me and I don't move because I'm frightened and because I feel cold and I think I'm going to die. And he puts his hand on me and he recites poetry. And he is almost naked. He wears a robe but he leaves it open and he feels himself as he recites. He touches himself and he touches his stomach and his breasts and his behind. He puts his fingers in my parts and he keeps reciting. Then he turns me on my stomach and puts himself inside me. And he says I belong to him. (There is a pause.) I want to conduct each day of my life in the best possible way. I should value the things I have. And I should value all those who are near me. And I should value the kindness that others bestow upon me. And if someone should treat me unkindly, I should not blind myself with rage, but I should see them and receive them, since maybe they are in worse pain than me.


The speech is an almost unbearable gut-wrencher for the most seasoned actor. Dabney was having difficulty with the speech, and Fornes suddenly knew that she had to make the experience physical. She told the actor, who shells beans during the speech, to squeeze the bean tightly and then press into her finger with a fingernail.

“This produces a kind of painful energy, up the arms, around the back and down to the other hand, like an electric current.” Using that technique, Fornes claims, Dabney underwent an astonishing physical transformation, giving a performance so spectacular as to win her an Obie for that one speech.


Although Fornes's first writing venture was the translation of some family letters for her parents, her recounting of that correspondence reveals a born storyteller. In fact, it became the family romance for the Familia Fornes, including love, war, desertion, danger, and even a castle (well, a very grand house, anyway) in Spain. The author of the letters was a distant cousin in Spain who wrote to Fornes's great-grandfather in Cuba. The letters, written circa 1905-1906, tell of the cousin's flight to Spain because her husband, a journalist, became politically involved, a situation that was unacceptable to his wife. He followed her, in an attempt to see their child, but she refused him access to the boy. Returning to Cuba, he fell in love with a Cuban woman, whom he married after a Florida divorce. They had a family together, and the journalist eventually died. His first wife, seeing the obituary a friend in Cuba sent her, denounced the widow publicly, calling her a whore and her children bastards, so that her own son would retain his legitimacy in the public view.

Fornes is passionately involved in the story by now. This cousin, she thinks, was a narrow-minded, domineering woman who needed to control people. But the controlling cousin lived in Seville, in a fabled family house that was eventually inherited by Fornes's great-aunt. The Fornes family dreamed of inheriting this grand house one day, but that was not to be. Spain prohibited the sale of Spanish property by non-citizens unless the money stayed in Spain, so the house was eventually traded for an inferior property in Cuba that was apparently not a good swap.

When Fornes finally visited Seville in 1954, she saw the legendary family mansion, and it was all they had ever dreamed it might be—a very large, elegant city house with an enclosed courtyard in the center; the impossible dream, so near and yet so far. On a later visit she was unable to find it again, and now it exists only in memory, possibly a victim of time or urban renewal.


Susan Sontag has called Fornes's theatre “a theatre of heartbreak.”10 Perhaps it is that sense of sadness or unrealized desire that drew Fornes to the work of Samuel Beckett. She recalls, “I thought theatre was old-fashioned and boring until I saw Waiting for Godot and then I said, this is art.”

It was the Judson Poets Theatre that brought her talent to life and into the public eye with what proved to be their greatest success, the musical fantasy and social spoof Promenade, written by Fornes with music by Al Carmines.11Promenade was first performed in the Judson Memorial Church in Washington Square South. The theatre, a vital part of New York's cultural scene in the 1960s, hosted and nurtured such artists as Twyla Tharp, Meredith Monk, Allen Ginsberg, and Robert Rauschenberg. The Rev. Howard Moody opened the church to artists, musicians, and poets in a program that ran from 1961 to 1981. Fornes remembers the sign over the door that proclaimed “Dedicated to the Needs of the Neighborhood.” In a neighborhood comprised mostly of artists, the church provided a matchless outlet for legendary creative energies.

Assistant minister Al Carmines, a gifted composer and musician, wrote the music not only for Promenade but for a number of other efforts as well. Fornes was astonished when people thought her “little play” was worth writing music for and producing. This happy accident was a box office success that bagged her the first of numerous Obies, including one for sustained achievement in 1982.

Promenade had an extensive life after Judson, moving uptown to a theatre on Broadway and Seventeenth, where it played for nine months. The theatre was renamed “The Promenade” after that run, a lasting tribute to Fornes's “little play.”

Some of her characters are so real, I muse, so complex, and others seem more like sketches, almost allegorical, like those in The Successful Life of 3 or Mud.12 “No, no, the people in Mud are real,” she insists, not pared down at all. Characters in The Successful Life of 3, on the other hand, are cartoons, not intended to be realistic. Still skeptical about the Mud people, I dig deeper. They are so spare, so stark, so oddly outspoken. She knows they are real, she explains, thanks to a House Manager who approached her after a performance of Mud and told her he recognized them because he came from that world. His home was a rural mountain area without any prospects for the young. All the boys went into the army and all the girls married soldiers because it was the only way to get out. After his family moved, he returned each summer to stay with his grandmother, where he lived within that culture and retained the knowledge of it. He asked her how she knew these people, knew their language so well. Her only knowledge of that kind of life was from the movies, she claimed. She asked if he was sure they talked that way, and after a while he concluded that her dialogue was not the way they talked, but the way they thought. She had managed to move beneath the surface and find the core of these people, recognizable to a man who had grown up in that landscape of physical and verbal poverty.

Mae, the protagonist of Mud, whose hopeless life has consisted of waiting on Lloyd, her companion since childhood, attempts to pull herself out of the mud by attaching herself to Henry, an older man who can read. She seduces him because she wants his mind, which she believes will be a way out of her “hollow,” meaningless existence. He protests that he has nothing to offer her:

Yes, you do. I want you.
(She starts to move her head toward him slowly and intensely.) I want your mind.
… My mind?
(Still moving her head toward him.) I want it. (She kisses him intensely. They look at each other.)
Did you feel my mind?
Yes. I did. (She kisses him again.) I did. I want you here.


“Being interested in the truth of something—of being true to the core, there is a kind of integrity, even of invention,” Fornes explains. “It holds together. It doesn't fall apart. People are inconsistent, but the more complex people are, the more unpredictable. Characters start out with solid dimension or strength and I know when I'm finding something that's true to the character even when it's invention … when they come alive.”


In her teaching, Fornes attempts to unlock those sources of power for her students. She teaches regularly at New York University and travels around the world giving workshops. She has also taught in India, where her experiences were disappointing. She found the Indian students not only more literal than she had expected, but also surprisingly unreceptive to subtlety or symbolism. This she blames on the Indian movie industry, a giant far surpassing Hollywood and consisting, if she is accurate, almost entirely of boy-meets-girl musicals. “First,” she says, “You see how beautiful they both are and I think the cameras are all on helicopters because they keep zooming in from all different directions and then everyone sings. That's it.” So much for the Indian film industry. “Zagreb,” she says thoughtfully, “was better. They are serious there.”

We move on to Sarita, in which my own actors and I had found such extraordinary power just a few months earlier. This play, like so much of her work, came from a visual image. The play's point of attack finds two young girls in parochial school uniforms, childishly playing with tarot cards while teasing each other in the manner of children everywhere. Yeye delivers a very funny, rapid-fire recitation as she reads the cards for Sarita:

1—merengue. 2—big love. 3—rice pudding. 4—sticks. 5—butterfly. 6—everything. 7—beauty. 8—pork rind. 9—things. 10—string beans. 11—this is you. 12—cherries. 13—poppies. 14—candy. 15—hope.13

And so on to through the deck. When an impatient Sarita asks if Julio loves her, the scene undergoes an abrupt and almost surreal mood change as Sarita becomes distraught over having seen him with another girl. Suddenly the school uniforms and the bobby sox become ironic masquerade costumes.

Why was his thing standing up? […]
He was scratching it. He had an itch.
He didn't have an itch. He had something else. I know what he had. I know when he's hot. He was hot. Son of a bitch. I'm going to cut it off. […]
They'll put you in jail.
Not me!
Yes, they will!
I'll tell them what he did!
They won't care! They'll put you in jail!
Let them! I'll kill them if they do!
They'll burn you if you do.
I'll kill him and her too!
Who is she?
It doesn't matter!

(95, intervening dialogue omitted)

Thus begins this tragedy of infantile longings mingled with adult sexual passions. Julio and Sarita's febrile dance of death builds to a crescendo at the play's climax, when, after years of abuse from him, she finally does cut off … his life.

Sarita fights her demons, her black cats, through desperate attempts at a healthy love for Mark, the American soldier she marries after he saves her from taking her own life in despair over the degradation of sexual enslavement to Julio. She prays,

If one has one love in one's lifetime, only one, and one has been true to that love, does one go straight to heaven?—for being true? (Short pause.) I hope so. Because here it's hell. (Short pause.) I just want to know if you know about this? (Short pause.) Is this your idea?—Or is the devil doing it? […] I feel I'm dying. God, I want to love Mark and no one else.


Attempts to find answers in friendship with her mother's elderly boarder, Fernando, are equally vain, as she asks, “Teach me how to be like you. Teach me how to look for peace” (128).

Like Nena and Mae, Sarita strives vainly for a way to conduct her life honorably. Like Isidore, she attempts to find release by killing her black cat, rather than by feeding him, as Fefu does. This tension between darkness and light, good and evil, and the search for self informs all Fornes's work. Her valiant characters charge into the forest like Red Cross Knight. Some slay their dragons, but sometimes the dragon wins.

Fornes's money is on Sarita, despite the bleak final scene in which she is discovered in a mental hospital, comforted by the still faithful Mark and Fernando. In our production,14 the sound design included the hollow clang of a metal door after Sarita's final query, “What do you think will happen? What will they do to me?” (132). At the playwright's request, we took the ominous clang out. She objected to its implications of hopelessness because she wants the play to remain open-ended, with Sarita's question hanging in the air. She would like to believe that Sarita is finally able to make peace with her darkness and to find the light she is seeking. “I want every moment to be alive for itself, not waiting for the point. Life is not wanting to get from everything. My creative process has to do with what interests me, and chance can be more reliable than thinking about it and planning.”

What interests Maria Irene Fornes, more often than not, seems to be the search for truth, for wholeness, for understanding of our attempts to make sense out of a seemingly random existence. Her characters are often what Athol Fugard calls “heroic pessimists,” a term that emerged from Albert Camus's discussion of the absurd in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.”15 They are existential heroes, true to the influence of Beckett, whose work first showed her the possibilities of theatre. Light and darkness, life and death, green trees and black cats, work together to form a rich tapestry that shows us not literal reality, but the essence of experience.


  1. Maria Irene Fornes, personal interview, New York, August 1997. Unless otherwise specified, subsequent quotations from Fornes are from this interview.

  2. The translation remains unpublished and is in the possession of Maria Irene Fornes.

  3. See Maria Irene Fornes, Fefu and Her Friends, in Wordplays: An Anthology of New American Drama (New York: PAJ, 1980), 5-41. Subsequent references appear parenthetically in the text.

  4. See Hans Heilberg, Ibsen: Portrait of the Artist, trans. Joan Tate (Miami, FL: U of Miami P, 1967), 252-57.

  5. See ibid. for a discussion of Ibsen's relationship with Emilie Bardach during the summer of 1890 and his subsequent correspondence with her.

  6. Summer in Gossensass, by Maria Irene Fornes, dir. Fornes, performed by The Women's Project at the Judith Anderson Theatre, New York, 21 March-26 April 1998.

  7. Maria Irene Fornes, Tango Palace, in Promenade and Other Plays (New York: Sinter House, 1971), 127.

  8. This production of Tango Palace, directed by Herbert Blau and presented by the San Francisco Actor's Workshop, premiered under the title There! You Died at the Encore Theatre, San Francisco, 29 November 1963.

  9. Maria Irene Fornes, The Conduct of Life, in Plays (New York: PAJ, 1986), 82.

  10. Susan Sontag, preface to Plays, by Maria Irene Fornes, 9 (see note 9).

  11. See Maria Irene Fornes, Promenade, in Promenade and Other Plays, 201-72 (see note 7).

  12. See Maria Irene Fornes, The Successful Life of 3, in Promenade and Other Plays, 163-99; and Mud: A Play in 17 Scenes, in Plays, 13-40. Subsequent references appear parenthetically in the text.

  13. See Maria Irene Fornes, Sarita, in Plays, 93. Subsequent references appear parenthetically in the text.

  14. Sarita, by Maria Irene Fornes, directed by Sally Porterfield, performed by the University Players of Hartford at the Auerback Auditorium, Hartford, CT, May 1995.

  15. Athol Fugard, Notebooks: 1960-1977 (New York: Knopf, 1984), 96; and see Albert Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” in The Myth of Sisyphus, trans. Justin O'Brien (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1955), 9-110.

Steven Drukman (essay date September 2000)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2913

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 herself. Several features, reviews and profiles appeared in magazines and newspapers, each one looking back on Fornes's extraordinary career. In these articles, critics spilled a lot of ink about how Fornes is a theatrical treasure who has never received the recognition she deserves.

After 30 years or more, this “caviar to the general” lament has become the way Maria Irene Fornes gets written about. Most critics hold forth on other critics who haven't given the proper amount of critical praise to, or haven't grasped the proper critical context for, Fornes's work. Of course, when these more “enlightened” critics boot up, they, almost neurotically, avoid talking about the art itself. At least the very best—like Jonathan Kalb in New York Press last year—confess that what happens in a Fornes play “would challenge anyone's power of description.” But for most, it's easier to speculate about why she occupies the strange place she does—beloved by artists, overlooked by audiences—and to then affix vague-but-shimmering descriptions to her body of work. (Often: “surreal” or “absurdist” or “avant-garde,” designations bankrupt of meaning in an age when those terms are applied to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)

The truth is this: Every critic who loves the plays of Maria Irene Fornes is also, in some small way, stymied by them. And I'm talking about those of us who are her biggest fans, who can chart her ascent from the Open Theatre to the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival to the Intar Hispanic American Arts Center, right up to last year's season at the Signature. For us, too, the intoxication of a Fornes play in production turns to hangover when trying to synopsize the experience in journalistic prose, to provide interpretive closure, to pin each play down in words.

The task is even more difficult for academics (though Diane Moroff's 1996 Fornes: Theater in the Present Tense is a solid scholastic study of her work). Fornes has remarked about pedantic misreadings of her plays: “Academics listen to each other. If they don't understand something, or even if they understand it … they have more trust in the explanation of another academic.” Her plays aren't for those who can't trust their instincts, and nobody gets tenure by trusting his guts. But, gosh, all critics—journalistic, academic, anything in between—like to get it right, like to understand.

Entering into the world of Fornes means not understanding. (At least with Beckett and Chekhov—authors who also explored life's ellipses on stage, and made absence into presence—we understand how to write about them.) With Fornes, one must forget the previous Fornes play to experience the next one in good faith. As Ross Wetzsteon wrote in 1986, “There's no Fornes signature to capture the attention of the casual theatregoer.” As last season proved—at the Signature Theatre, no less—this is even truer today. It's not that she's just a ruthless experimenter—it's more that she reinvents the Fornes play each time she writes one. No major playwright who has lasted so long can make the same claim.

For what is the typical Fornes play? Most are bona fide narratives—hardly Aristotelean, but following their own unusual logic, like a daisy chain wending from the writer's unconscious. Then again, Fornes often uses an already-existing text: The Danube was, in part, a transcription of a Hungarian language record, a John Cage-smitten (but deeply moving) spin of a found object. Likewise, A Visit used sections of a Victorian novel; there are epistles in both The Widow and Letters from Cuba.Evelyn Brown was drawn from a 1909 diary. The Trial of Joan of Arc in a Matter of Faith staged transcripts from Joan of Arc's interrogation; Terra Incognita used actual historical records of a voyage of Columbus. But even these found-text plays do not “sound” alike.

And, on the page, her plays don't look alike, either. Fefu and Her Friends is, spatially, a promenade-style play, but Promenade isn't. The Danube uses puppets; Vietnamese Wedding used audience participation; Eyes on the Harem is a many-fezzed affair; Tango Palace is a prop master's nightmare; Dr. Kheal is spare. The denizens of Mud are dirt poor; those of Abingdon Square are stinking rich. Fornes has displayed dildos and prosthetic breasts, and Drowning is the short tale of two potato-headed people.

This protean quality will not change. Fornes, now 70, wrote recently that she has more energy as the years pass, and that you can never “feel that you're aging when every day your work is something that is new to you” (n.b.: take that statement literally). Writing (for her) has nothing to do with revealing personality, so the more she writes, the less critics will be able to ensnare her, wrap their minds around her plays, find theoretical boxes to put her in.

Two new books—The Theater of Maria Irene Fornes (Johns Hopkins University Press/PAJ) and Conducting a Life (Smith and Kraus)—wisely sidestep any sort of critical closure on the subject of Fornesia. The former is a collection of essays, accompanied by production criticism and some nifty photos. The second is, appropriately, mostly a collection of tributes by other artists and critics. Still, after reading these books, I'm not sure I am any closer to understanding Fornes. That's fine. A quote from the playwright on page 208 of The Theater of Maria Irene Fornes states, in part: “If art is to inspire us, we must not be too eager to understand.”

Fornesia is like amnesia—for critics, for audiences. It casts a spell, exists as a nudging force, dwells in the realm of the senses. It is, for some, an acquired taste, but the taste we acquire is one that Fornes shows us we had from the beginning. The cachet of this signature-less writer is a sensibility that, like any sensibility (as her former flatmate Susan Sontag noted in Notes on Camp), “is almost, but not quite, ineffable. Any sensibility which can be crammed into the mold of a system, or handled with the rough tools of proof, is no longer a sensibility at all.” That is why most critics write about writing about Fornes or write around her plays. You can't catch a cloud and pin it down.

So: How do you solve a problem like Maria? My (necessarily flawed) attempt:


1. To start very generally: Fornes strips away all the conventions of realism. Sometimes it really feels like stripping: Words, actors, ideas are denuded, vulnerable, pink from the bath. In a way, though, it's a striptease, as every play taunts the spectator with coy and flirtatious humor, even (especially?) the darkest (Conduct of Life,A Visit,Sarita). Richard Eder complained in the New York Times that “some of (Fornes's) playfulness is private and tedious; we are being played at, not with.” But that's wrong: In all of her plays, she dares you to laugh and then tickles you if you don't. As a character from Summer in Gossensass instructs (many of her characters instruct): “A play is a riddle.”

2. Her characters, too, are teasers—often teasing themselves the most. They are full of hope, usually, but like to see their hopes dashed. They are romantics in spite of themselves. A lyric from the 1965 musical Promenade: “You were there when I was not, I was there when you were not, don't love me, sweetheart, or I might stop loving you.” Fornesia is, at once, giddy and jaded.

3. Or, as Sontag has said, Fornes's theatre is a theatre of heartbreak. No doubt. It is also a theatre of fancy, eschatology, eroticism, anxiety, language, romance, brutal candor, experiment and instruction (it's no accident that Fornes has devoted much of her career to pedagogy). And it's political: Her work has examined nuclear destruction, AIDS (The Danube addresses both of these topics, even if only implicitly), women's issues (she has said, “Party members don't think I'm much of a feminist,” but some feminists celebrate her plays' gender politics), fascism, immigration and freedom of expression. Indeed, Fornesia seems to be “about” freedom of expression. The triple threat of Fornes's aesthetic, personality and pedagogy have inspired other writers to take permission—freedom—to express themselves. And in her plays, Fornes is always concerned about her characters' restraints (self-imposed or otherwise) of expression

4. It's harder to find what Fornes's theatre is not, but somehow the term “postmodern” seems inapt as a category for her plays. Even her time-tripping avoids being what Linda Hutcheon termed, in The Poetics of Postmodernism, “historiographic metafiction.” Summer in Gossensass has, of course, all the “pomo” ingredients: The play is about actors preparing to perform Hedda Gabler (the only play that Fornes had ever read when she started writing plays in 1963). But postmodernists are happy to stop there, proud of their Chinese boxes, feeling clever enough to wink and nudge the audience (Get it? Historical Slippage! The Death of the Author! Deconstruction!). But Fornes doesn't approach her plays that way. In fact, she doesn't “approach” her plays at all. She walks right into them and embraces her characters. She is meta-theatrical, but she is not postmodern. Many critics may disagree, but I find Fornesia devoid of the self-aware cleverness that accompanies most postmodern parody, pastiche, etc.

Life is theatre. Theatre is life. If we're showing what life is, can be, we must do theatre.

Fefu and Her Friends

5. Fornes, like Beckett, derives a lot of her words' performative power from writing in a second language. Sometimes the dialogue sounds like subtitles. Fornes, too, when she speaks—tentatively, as if being translated—sounds like she might be dubbed. (But nobody could fake that voice.) In fact, Fornes is compared more often to Beckett than to any other writer. (I instantly flash to Beckett's Ping-Pong of insults traded by Didi and Gogo in Waiting for Godot, ending triumphantly with the charge: “crrrrrritic!” Fornes slaps with a similar glove.) It's no accident that Fornes points to the Roger Blin production of Godot as the signal event that inspired her to write plays, even though she didn't understand a word of French.

6.Tango Palace, Fornes's first play, is Godot performed by an androgynous clown (Isidore) and Leopold (the Lucky to Isidore's Pozzo). Like many of her plays, it is obsessed with death. (One of its early titles was There! You Died—announced by Isidore after he trips Leopold). There is an aporia of props that cannot “add up,” in any realistic sum (a guitar, a whip, a toy parrot, a Persian helmet, etc., etc.). If Beckett empties the stage of meaning, Fornes makes “meaning” into an idiotic yard sale, even placing the very text of the play on stage (in a series of index cards that litter the action).

7. In this play, she is also like Richard Foreman—a comparison not readily made. First, there's a hell of a lot of clutter and farcical physical cruelty. And as in Foreman, when Isidore gestures, we hear a chime. Both writers like triangles, romantic and otherwise, in their plays (The Successful Life of 3,Mud,Enter the Night, on and on). Both are, at the same time, master directors, derivative of nobody else, forging their own styles since the 1960s. You might also say they are both “ludic formalists” (not in over-represented category in American theatre, where formalism often equals bloodless stage dressing).

8. People call Fornesia “Chekhovian.” It is in many ways: There is nostalgia for a world that didn't surrender to planned obsolescence. The Waiter in The Danube says that Americans are light—without a sense of history—whereas the old-country Europeans are heavy, rooted. Henry in Mud predicts that “soon everything will be used only once.” And Fornes's characters, like Chekhov's, experience mercurial changes of mood, most famously the characters in Fefu and Her Friends (with an opening tableau that is a visual tribute to Chekhov's Three Sisters). There are heartbreaking shifts from joy to despair in that idyllic croquet scene. But Fefu, like Masha, is not “depressed.” She is just feeling things. we all go from glee to misery on the turn of a dime. Again, this is the part of Fornesia that is realism—but stripped of realism's conventions.

It must be true if machines say it.

The Danube

9. Fornes's plays are usually episodic, elliptical. Her sentences are often ballistic, telegraphic, followed by a long speech. The human soul is often under threat of extinction. In these three ways, Fornesia also hearkens to the German Expressionists. Her characters, too, are obsessive, on their own sorts of quests.

10. If you like the plays of Maria Irene Fornes, chances are you may also like:

The theatre of Richard Foreman (and, for that matter, Beckett, Chekhov and the German Expressionists, not to mention Albee, Guare, Shawn, Handke, et alia)

The paintings of Paul Klee, but also of Florine Stettheimer

The films of Buster Keaton, but also of Busby Berkeley

The poetry of Wallace Stevens, but also of the New York School of Poets

Wittgenstein's Tractatus, but also his Philosophical Investigations

The piano music of Satie, Scriabin and Thelonious Monk, programmed on your CD player in the shuffle mode (so you don't know which one's coming next)

The Innocence of Dreams by Charles Rycroft

Children, but particularly when asleep

Marcel Duchamp, but especially as Rrose Selavy

Whirling dervishes, but also Doris Humphrey's The Shakers

The essays of Susan Sontag, but also her novels

11. Fornes likes making lists, and Fornesia may appeal to people too busy to make their own. I sometimes feel that when Fornes gets stuck, when action stalls, when she wants to change tempo, she just has her character recite a list: the contents of the suitcases in The Danube, the quotidian tasks of The Conduct of Life. Yeye's oracular list actually begins the play Sarita. Sometimes, she has one character simply read to another. (Mae reads about the life of a starfish in Mud, for example.) This goes back to her very first writing: When Susan Sontag said she wanted to write a novel, Fornes said that writing was a cinch. To prove it, she opened a cookbook and concocted a short story by using the first word from each sentence. (Thirty-five years later Fornes called a play the “recipe,” likening the production to the finished dish.)

I imagine things … I imagine that things are peaceful. That people go to work, and come back from work, and they eat and go to sleep.


12. The Fornes philosophy seems, in part, Emersonian. She believes in “self-reliance,” especially for her female characters. The Conduct of Life is also the title of an Emerson essay from 1860 (I have no idea if Fornes knows or cares). “To be great is to be misunderstood,” said Emerson, as might Fornes, if she had that sort of ego. Emerson's aphorism, “Make yourself necessary to somebody,” is, implicitly, a nostrum for Fornes's most suffering characters. Like Emerson a poet-philosopher, Fornes regards art as the reconciler of nature and humankind. The Cuban-born Fornes is a New England transcendentalist in other ways, too. She exists in a materialist, venal culture, but chooses to live in the twin wildernesses of her imagination and a (more and more utopian) theatre that never panders to the marketplace.

13. Fornes's writing is the writing of an exile. Many of her characters are foreign visitors (Paul in The Danube) if not downright homeless (Nadine in What of the Night?). Some of those homes are not very homey (Mae and Lloyd's place in Mud, Joan of Arc's cell in The Trial of Joan of Arc in a Matter of Faith). But more to the point, often these domiciles are little theatres. In Enter the Night (talk about meta-theatrical titles!), when a character leaves, the others experience his egress with intense anguish. Leaving the stage is, in a sense, dying. (Phèdre, in Racine's meta-theatrical masterpiece, experiences death as a great blackout.) Fornes's writing really does come alive on the stage.

14. So … Fornesia is metatheatrical, “ludic-formalistic,” Expressionistic, realism—in the tradition of American transcendentalism.

15. Three things that pop up again and again in Fornes plays: diaries, attics and exaggerated gestures. All three converge in Abingdon Square: Before resorting to escaping in her diary, Marion—full of self-loathing—stands in her stuffy attic, in a tortured pose “on her toes with her arms outstretched, looking upward.” (Godot again. Estragon, in a similar pose, cries to heaven: “on me, on me, pity on me.”)

Oh, let me be wrong. But also not know it / Be wrong, be wrong / And, oh, not to know it.

The Successful Life of 3

16. Fornesia and knowingness are antitheses. Fornes is for people who prefer passion to fashion, who prefer awe to wit. She is for those of us who don't mind admitting that we're still groping in the dark.

17. The ultimate Fornesian statement: Her work is brilliant because I don't understand it. Of course, one can't always say that. Only under certain conditions, those which I've tried to sketch in these notes.

Piper Murray (essay date winter 2001)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8851

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 Friends leaves us with a vision that is nothing if not ambivalent. Coming as the climax of eight women's efforts to throw off “the stifling conditions” (45) that have brought them together, Julia's sympathetic death—apparently the result of a shot fired by Phillip's unsympathetic gun—shocks and confuses. In an effort to explain this strangely ambiguous ending, many critics have looked to one of its most obvious roots: the conflicted psyches of Fefu and her friends. In such an interpretation, Julia's real and hallucinated struggle, however dramatic, becomes just an extreme example of the pain and paralysis that all the women experience. All of these women, it would seem, have internalized the kind of judges Julia hallucinates in her Part Two monologue. All of them must strive to create an identity not dependent on men (or “man”) for its definition, one that celebrates both the plumbing that women can call their own and the fact that women can do all their “own plumbing” (13).

Besides identifying this “common denominator” (29), as Cecilia might put it, critical discussions about how all of these fractured identities finally add up tend to fall into two camps. The first, less sanguine approach tends to focus on how thoroughly the psyches of Fefu and her friends have been inscribed by male dominance. Read as a dramatization of the effects of that dominance, Fefu and her friends come to represent the psychic fragments that, when pieced together, give us a reflection of the male structure that literally surrounds them. According to this reading, the most significant bond that exists between the play's all-female cast would seem to be their common interest in making a place for themselves within that structure. W. B. Worthen, for example, has attempted to show how, despite the fact that no men actually appear on stage, “[t]he authority of the absent male is everywhere evident in Fefu” (176). It is the male (or his absence), in other words, that holds the women—and each woman—together.

Other critics, on the other hand, have de-emphasized the absent presence of the men, opting instead to see Fefu and her friends as a positive presence in their own right. Penny Farfan, for example, suggests that “Fefu and Her Friends posits postmodern feminist theatre practice as a constructive response to the psychic dilemmas of the play's female characters” (443). Even more celebratory, Deborah Geis has argued that Fefu represents the successful formation of a “transgressive […] community of listeners […] capable of generating enormous power” (298). In this view, it is not solely the men's power that bonds these women to one another but also a power they can call their own, resistant to but not solely defined by the men's. So much power do they generate on their own, in fact, that Julia's conflicted psyche must be sacrificed in order to baptize this community's capacity to, as Geis quotes Fefu, “blow the world apart” (298).

Apocalyptic as that sounds, however, both readings tend to elide much of the ambivalence that I find at the heart of this play's production. To celebrate theirs as an unambivalent “joining together,” I would suggest, ignores many of the limits of identity and desire that, individually and together, Fefu and her friends perform. After all, the female characters who do make it outside the house to stargaze on the lawn must finally come running back inside, where they stand over Julia's violently (yet imperceptibly) murdered body. And even earlier in the play, it becomes gravely clear that whatever power has been produced by these women's performances depends on more than their individual psyches; it also depends on how their performances are received—by one another, by us. To conclude either that the gathering of Fefu and her friends functions primarily as a performance of the lack of men on the scene or that the women triumph by “ending […] their physical/verbal paralysis” and “joining together as a community of women” (Geis 298). I think, glosses over many of the complicated ways in which, in this play, by Fefu's own admission, men “are well together” and “women are not” (15).

In part, then, what I want to explore is the ways in which, as a set of performances staged on many levels, Fefu and Her Friends urges us toward a more complicated notion, not just of the female psyche, but also of female—and feminist—homosociality. Between women, forming a feminist sociality has often meant, quite simply, cultivating women's capacity for “identifying” with each other: women-identified women joining other women-identified women to create a community that is not dependent on men for its constitution. As the work of theorists such as Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has shown, however, the power and even the possibility of any homosociality comes not just from same-sex identification but from a whole spectrum of same-sex desire—a spectrum we find missing in any theory that posits the relation between woman and women solely in terms of either identification or desire. Whereas the power of male homosociality has been shown to work along the entire spectrum of male homosocial desire, no similar attempt seems to have been made by feminist or queer theory to analyze female homosociality from the point of view of homosocial (including, but not exclusively, homosexual) desire. In other words, Sedgwick has a whole tradition in anthropology and poststructuralism to draw from in formulating, in Between Men, her theory of male homosocial desire; when it comes to women, however, we still seem to be stuck at the level of identity and identification, where women are forced either to identify with others of their sex or to desire someone else of that sex—not really a choice at all. And it is about this concern with female homosocial desire, with how any powerful community of women can and must be formed by passionate attachments to one another, that I find Fefu and Her Friends most productively—and performatively—ambivalent.1

In Bodies That Matter, Butler describes how sex and gender identities, far from being natural facts of life, are produced performatively, as ideal constructs “forcibly materialized through time. [Sex] is not a simple fact or static condition of a body,” Butler writes, “but a process whereby regulatory norms materialize ‘sex’ and achieve this materialization through a forcible reiteration of those norms” (1-2). What can come to matter in terms of sexual identity, in other words, depends on what can or will be recognized at the social level: a matter less of nature than of norms. Subjects are discursively urged to “assume” a sex by identifying with these norms, as well as by disidentifying with what is marked (again and again) as “unlivable” and “uninhabitable” (3)—all those bodies and identities, in short, that do not matter. The subject is thus founded in part on the very identities and desires it must abject in order to constitute itself. All those sexed identifications that do not matter, that are forcibly excluded in order to constitute a subject who does matter, become what Butler calls the “founding repudiations” (3) of that subject. Founded as much on the sexualities it abjects as on the sexed identifications is assumes, then, the subject is nothing if not ambivalent (15).

Fefu and Her Friends introduces us early on to the abject—and to the ambivalence that always characterizes its performance. Perhaps this is nowhere more evident than in Fefu's preoccupation with plumbing. “Plumbing is more important than you think” (15), Fefu tells Christina, and revulsion is exciting:

that which is exposed to the exterior … is smooth and dry and clean. That which is not … underneath, is slimy and filled with fungus and crawling with worms. It is another life that is parallel to the one we manifest. It's there. The way worms are underneath the stone. If you don't recognize it … (Whispering.) it eats you.


Or, in Julia's case, it paralyzes you. As Julia makes clear in her hysterical monologue in Part Two, hers is a constant struggle to forget “the stinking parts of the body,” even though “all those parts [that] must be kept clean and put away […] are the important ones: the genitals, the anus, the mouth, the armpit” (33). Men and women both might be accused of “act[ing] as if they don't have genitals” (27), but, as Julia reiterates through her “prayer,” it is woman who is fundamentally, mythologically, not only condemned to but, in fact, founded on that denial. And we can imagine how exhausting that constant denial must be, considering that “women's entrails are heavier than anything on earth” (33-34).

Though Julia's may be the most extreme case, to some extent we come to know all of Fefu and her friends as abject identities. In the merry-go-round of Part Two, for example, we encounter in each of the scenes a kind of hysterical production through which, into all the play and laughter, erupts a pain neither purely physical nor purely emotional: Cindy relates a dream in which she is nearly strangled by a man who rubs her nipples, while Sue sucks on Fefu's ice cubes before returning them to the freezer, declaring “I'm clean” (38). And through it all, despite her frequent testimony that she takes pleasure in what others find disgusting, Fefu seems to spend an awful lot of time wielding a plunger, presumably in order to keep the abject at bay. Despite her tendency to feed (on) the very things that revolt her, that is, Fefu appears unusually preoccupied with ensuring that the “the rubber stopper […] falls right over the hole” (13)—making sure, that is, that the once-abjected will not reproduce itself. Indeed, for the risk-taker Christina takes her to be, it would seem that Fefu takes a remarkable number of precautions when it comes to plumbing.

Why is plumbing—as Fefu and Julia both describe it—so “important”? Why, in a gathering and performance that is supposed to be about educational reform, does the plumbing seem so often and so insistently to come up? At one level, we might say that the power with which Fefu endows her plumbing makes Fefu a paradoxical performance from the beginning. For plumbing, especially when it is not performing as it is supposed to, reminds us of the physical fact of the body and its production of waste. At the same time, however, when it is functioning as we expect it to, plumbing is also precisely what enables us to conceal, to forget, the fact of our bodily functions. In other words, plumbing is like the perfect performative described by Butler: while it may function as witness to the body and its avenues of abjection, it also functions as a “smooth and dry and clean” denial of that same function. We might also wonder, of course, whether Fefu's prophylactic activity is not meant as a guard against another kind of bodily (re)production, as well. As the Shakespearean sonnet that Emma recites to Fefu in Part Two suggests,2 Fefu remains childless; she has not yet “convert[ed]” herself “to store” by fulfilling the promise of reproduction.3 And if Fefu would like to keep it that way, then she must constantly check to make sure that the rubber stopper/diaphragm “falls right over the hole.” For we might remember that it is Fefu's husband, and not Fefu, who controls whether the gun shoots blanks or the real thing—no matter whose hands it is in or who it is aimed at.

As Fefu's question to Christina (“What do you do with revulsion?” [9]) suggests, the abject always serves a performative function. We learn early on in Fefu that so much talk about the abject, along with the revulsion it produces, is never merely talk; it is also a production that does something, that acts. From the very first line, “[m]y husband married me to have a constant reminder of how loathsome women are” (9), Fornes's play draws us into a world where every utterance does something, enacts some inequality between men and women (and, though this is less frequently noted, between women and women). Julia tells her audience that as soon as she believes the prayer that condemns women as inhuman and spiritually sexual, she “will forget the judges. And when I forget the judges,” she goes on, “I will believe the prayer. They say both happen at once. And all women have done it” (35). In other words, if she can forget the performative and (re)productive nature of the female “sex,” and simply allow it to “materialize” as if it were “natural” (much like the plumbing), then she will finally have become a woman who can walk with other women. Indeed, it would seem that it is this very act of forgetting that makes “woman” what she is in the first place. Julia's failure to live up to this performative demand will, of course, be fatal. To Emma's offer to stage a dance for her (and we know from Julia's monologue where dancing got Isadora Duncan), Julia happily replies, “I'm game” (22). And so she is: like the deer and the rabbit that are literally hunted, Julia's perception that she is “game” for her persecutors finally becomes a paralyzing and deadly reality, and one that, like any performative utterance, is never clearly either the result or the cause of the act it performs.

Though they may be staged most conspicuously at the level of Julia's psyche, these abject performances have more than merely psychic relevance. For Fefu also establishes itself early on as also interested in homosociality and its limits. Most obviously, the number of women moving in and out of the living room in the first and third parts of the play amounts to a real crowd; each woman is given what we might call her own “character,” and yet, with the exception of the more isolated scenes of Part Two, there are just enough of them to make the spectator's intimate identification with any of the individual characters difficult. (Interestingly, we often find ourselves remembering who each one is by paying attention to whom she is most often “coupled” with, but even these relations tend to change from scene to scene, part to part.) As Cecilia declares, all of these women, despite their “same-sex” relation to one another, are still searching for the “common denominator” that will make them cohere: “We must be part of a community, perhaps 10, 100, 1000” (44). At the same time, however, the search for this common denominator is an inevitably risky one. As Worthen's reading suggests, even before the first blast from the shot-gun, the men in some ways already represent the common denominator by which all the women are divided. Fefu and her friends must thus struggle to find some common denominator that will not actually divide them, make them identical to one another, or reduce them to their differences.

Even more than Cecilia's, Fefu's attitude toward women's sociality reflects these risks. Explaining to Cindy and Christina why she would rather identify herself with men, Fefu describes the essential difference between men, who have “natural strength,” and women, whose strength seems somehow artificial, unnatural, even dangerous. Fefu then goes on to develop a whole theory of how men are “well together” and “women are not”:

Women are restless with each other. They are like live wires … either chattering to keep themselves from making contact, or else, if they don't chatter, they avert their eyes … like Orpheus … as if a god once said “and if they shall recognize each other, the world will be blown apart.” They are always eager for the men to arrive. When they do, they can put themselves at rest, tranquilized and in a mild stupor. With the men they feel safe. The danger is gone. That's the closest they can be to feeling wholesome. Men are muscle that cover the raw nerve. They are the insulators. The danger is gone, but the price is the mind and the spirit.


Ironically, in her description of how women are socially and psychically put “together,” Fefu would seem to agree more with Worthen than with any of her more sanguine feminist critics, many of whom read the play as a triumph of feminist community. Like Worthen, Fefu believes that it is indeed the men that make the women feel whole, and that it is the presence or absence of the men that determines how “well together” the women can be. This point, of course, seems to be the one thing on which the outrageous Fefu and the conventional Christina can agree: “I too have wished for that trust men have for each other,” Christina admits. “The faith the world puts in them and they in turn put in the world. I know I don't have it” (15). Unlike either Christina or Worthen, however, Fefu attributes this lack of faith and trust not to women's lack of power but to a power so dangerous that it threatens to undo men and women both, to blow apart the world as they know it. In fact, Fefu does not exactly seem to blame women's inability to be well with one another on the men who surround them. Some presumably masculine “god” might have decreed that men might enjoy “the fresh air and the sun, while [the women] sit here in the dark […]” (15), but it is the women themselves who have internalized this prohibition in the form of fear—fear of their own power, their own collective mind and spirit. It is not the men's fault, after all, that the women walk around waiting for them to arrive.

Considering how “unwell” they seem to be together, what bonds do tie women like Fefu and her friends to one another? From Fefu's description of how women act together—chattering, restless, eager for the men to arrive—it is difficult to imagine why they would desire one another's company at all. And from their inability even to “recognize” one another, it would seem that there is little in the way of either identification or desire between these women. The term Irigaray might give the critical foreclosure Fefu describes is “hom(m)osexuality” (This Sex 171); in the masculine “logic” of thought and desire in which women find themselves, Irigaray writes, “the feminine occurs only within models and laws devised by male subjects. Which implies that there are not really two sexes, but only one. A single practice and representation of the sexual” (Irigaray, This Sex 86; original emphasis). In such a system, in other words, how women are together seems always to “boil down to” a reiteration of women as they have already been described by male homosocial structures—that is, the logic that defines the feminine and the female as the not-masculine, as the not-male (This Sex 69). After all, as “the judges” tell Julia, the “human being is of the masculine gender” (35).

As Cecilia might put it, the

system can function with such a bias that it could take any situation and translate it into one formula. That is […] the main reason for stupidity or even madness, not being able to tell the difference between things.[…] That is […] the concern of the educator—to teach how to be sensitive to the differences, in ourselves as well as outside ourselves.


And in many ways, we find Cecilia's call incorporated into the very structure of Fefu and Her Friends. As we attempt to make some overall sense of each of its different and various “parts,” we often get the impression that this play would make us more “sensitive,” not only to the differences among Fefu and her friends, but also to the differences between them and their various audiences. In fact, I would suggest that, from the simultaneous scenes and seasonal play in Part Two to the play's overall setting in a specific historical time and place. Fefu and Her Friends attempts to keep in play the very differences that hom(m)osexuality would deny.

The play's attempt to make “how women are together” matter, in real historical terms, is signaled most obviously by its setting in a specific historical time and place: New England, Spring, 1935. Fefu and her friends are meeting to rehearse a presentation on the current state of education, a presentation in which one of the speeches (Emma's) is actually taken from the preface of a real historical book published in 1917 and written by a real historical character, an educator named Emma Sheridan Fry. More abstractly, however, we might also identify in the play other historicizing modes of representation, modes that are in some ways suggestive of the “Brechtian Theory/Feminist Theory” dialectic that Elin Diamond has made familiar to theatre criticism. Certainly there is little in Fornes's play to suggest a classic Brechtian distanciation between the identifications of character and actor, or between character and audience. In fact, that the audience is asked to share the characters' various habitudes in the second part of the play might be seen as an attempt to collapse the distance between character and spectator.

Still, the fragmentation of narratives and identities in Fefu in many ways functions to demystify representation. Though the play may not necessarily, as Diamond puts it, “releas[e] the spectator from imaginary and illusory identifications” (121), it does, most extremely in Julia's case but also in that of the other characters, expose just how much the feminine identity itself is bound to such imaginary and illusory—or, as Butler might put it, “phantasmatic”—identification. Julia listens and speaks to, even gets slapped by, the male judges she hallucinates, while Fefu hallucinates a functioning Julia who can walk into the living room and check to see how much sugar is in the bowl. And there is even a way in which the black cat that crawls into Fefu's kitchen each morning appears as a part of her (parceled-out) self, a “monster” that only she can feed because its appetite is in some strange way hers to satisfy (29). As many critics have noted, Fefu and her friends are nothing if not fractured identities, and those identities appear to depend a great deal on context: on who is performing what and for whom. In other words, by representing representation, the play represents the psyches and bodies of Fefu and her friends as discursive productions, tensions, and identifications themselves. It exposes how the female body is always “a part of a theatrical sign system whose conventions of gesturing, voicing, and impersonating are referents” that gain much of their signifying power by disguising their traces (Diamond, “Brechtian Theory” 129). That is, it performs the performative nature of the naturalized performance.

In Part Two of the play, the mise en scène changes to incorporate another mode of representing difference. Four separate but overlapping scenes (and seasons) are presented simultaneously, while the audience, moving from one of these repeated scenes to the next, is invited to view the women's interactions more intimately. Instead of watching from the historical distance and linear time of Parts One and Three, the audience watches from the intimate proximity and synchronicity that only simultaneous scenes can represent. As the bizarre narrative and emotional eruptions in each scene “represent” the characters as fragmented subjects, the simultaneity of the scenes dramatizes the kind of sedimentation that constitutes identity and desire (or forecloses it). Repeated over and over so that performance and rehearsal become nearly indistinguishable, the arrangement of Part Two reveals both the reiteration and the potential discontinuity that performance and performativity entail. As the characters in Part Two literally travel from one simultaneous scene to another, producing an overflow across the boundaries of each, we get a view not just of woman as never fully identical with herself but also of women as never fully identical with themselves or one another. The mise en scène constantly reminds us of our inability to see all there is to see of these women; while attempting to absorb all that is being performed in one of the scenes, we can always hear echoes of another performance going on elsewhere, in our absence.

As fragmented and contextually bound as the identities of Fefu and her friends seem to be, then, we should hardly be surprised that the “reeducation” that Cecilia calls for never takes place in quite the linear fashion of feminist narrative. Still, there is a way in which so much fragmentation and difference makes it more rather than less difficult to comprehend just what it is that draws these women together again in time and space in Part Three. The kind of “sensitivity” to difference that Cecilia calls for, after all, does not necessarily amount to anything we might confidently call desire. For as long as women continue to be defined by their difference from men, the differences among them tend to get elided (as Paula finally asserts in her monologue in Part Three). And it is no doubt difficult to imagine identical subjects desiring one another. After all, what difference would their desire make, what would it matter? As Teresa de Lauretis has suggested, “so-called sexual difference” always amounts to “sexual indifference” (18; emphasis added), so long as hom(m)osexuality denies women a way of being together in which desire and identification might meet along a continuum of same-sex relations. Indeed, we might even say that what hom(m)osexuality allows women is not really a homosociality of their own at all but, instead, what we might call a hom(m)osociality. No matter how strongly Fefu and her friends identify with one another, hom(m)osociality continues to ensure that women cannot be well together in the way that men are; the women are always left desiring the presence of the men, even if no one but Fefu is willing to admit it.

We might remember that, for Butler, the woman who identifies herself with other, “naturally” heterosexual women does so by “foreclosing” the possibility of desiring other women. For what is performatively produced in the assumption of a sexual identity is not just an ideal body but an ideal sexuality, a “heterosexual imperative” that operates by both “enabl[ing] certain sexed identifications and foreclos[ing] and/or disavow[ing] other identifications” (Bodies 3). Because heterosexuality is constituted as a prohibition against homosexuality, to identify oneself as a heterosexual woman entails more than the loss of the “other” woman who would be desired; it also entails the denial of that loss, since actually to mourn the same-sex object of desire would be in some way to recognize that that desire “matters” in the first place (Butler, Psychic Life 136-37). As a result, according to Butler, heterosexual identity is an inevitably, fundamentally melancholic one, founded on an ungrievable loss.

Fefu and her friends might all be said to play in some way the role of the melancholic heterosexual woman, compulsively performing what they refuse to mourn: the repudiated desire for another woman.4 Julia struggles to make more and more believable her performance of the “prayer” that condemns women as undesirable, and she does so precisely because so much is at stake for her in the act of identifying herself with, much less desiring, Fefu. Julia calls her love life “[f]ar away,” declaring that she has no need for it (52), but we also know from her hallucinations that she fears identifying with or loving Fefu, afraid that her desire will prove deadly for Fefu, that its recognition might, indeed, blow their world apart. Ironically, however, the foreclosure of Julia's passionate attachment to Fefu proves deadly not for Fefu but for Julia herself. Meanwhile, Fefu is left complaining about her “revolting” (11) attachment to her husband: “I need him. […] I need his touch. I need his kiss. I need the person he is. I can't give him up” (58-59). It is as though Fefu takes it for granted that, when it comes to her marriage, there is only one whole “person” between them. She needs her husband in order to be whole.

With Butler, then, Fefu seems to ask,

what happens when a certain foreclosure of love becomes the condition of possibility for social existence? Does this not produce a sociality afflicted by melancholia, a sociality in which loss cannot be grieved because it cannot be recognized as loss, because what is lost never had any entitlement to existence?

(Psychic Life 24)

Or, to put it differently, we might ask what happens when the social life of women is itself founded on the repudiation of women's desire for one another. Is it any wonder that, in a such a world, we find Fefu and her friends constantly waiting for the men to arrive?

Indeed, by the play's violent ending, we might wonder whether constructing a feminist homosociality is possible at all without performing some challenge to this foreclosure of homosocial desire. In her discussion of “the lesbian phallus,” Butler implies just how much female homosocial desire, and not just identification, matters for doing anything more than reproducing the indifference between women. By dislocating the power of signification from its status as a tool of masculine desire, the lesbian phallus offers a potential recuperation of a female desire that matters, that signifies. Such an “act” can engender a powerful disruption of the “central figures of power” that characterize “masculinist contexts,” Butler suggests, by revealing both the phallus's association with the penis and its transferability (Bodies 89): “When the phallus is lesbian […] [it] (re)produces the spectre of the penis only to enact its vanishing, to reiterate and exploit its perpetual vanishing as the very occasion of the phallus. This opens up anatomy—and sexual difference itself—as a site of proliferative resignifications” (89). The phallus relocated among women who not only identify with but also desire other women, then, offers a powerful critique of the masculinist context in which the power to (re)signify is confused with that which men have and women do not.

The object that most obviously figures as a lesbian phallus in Fefu and Her Friends—the shotgun that circulates among them in Fefu's living room—does not function so simply. The hope Butler holds for the lesbian phallus would suggest that Fefu and her friends, in becoming together the keepers of Phillip's shotgun, might cease to be the phallus (the embodiment of lack) and come instead to possess it. For we might remember that, repelled as she is by Fefu and Phillip's game, it is the skittish Cindy, and not Fefu, who reloads the gun once Julia has removed the remaining slug. And in some ways, all the women (except Julia, who unloads it) conspire to keep the gun present and loaded. Still, as the disastrous, unpredictable, and even indecipherable consequences of the gun's circulation among the women point out, Fefu and her friends finally fail to “remov[e] it from the normative heterosexual form of exchange” by “recirculating and reprivileging it between women” (Butler 88). Far from recirculating the phallus within a context of female homosociality, they remain trapped in, “insulated” by, the heterosexual terms set by male homosociality—a failure that seems to have less to do with whom they identify themselves with (men or women, homosexual or heterosexual) and more to do with the difficulty of finding any other use for it between women. Nor can they simply ignore it: loaded or not, the gun remains an imposing presence.

Ultimately, it is never quite clear whether or not the performances these women give really do create new possibilities that matter—to them, to the men outside on the lawn, to us. In the opening banter between Fefu and Cindy (with the appalled Christina looking on), we get a whole series of what we might call ambivalent performatives, in which the “heaviness” and “loathsomeness” of women and their “entrails” gets rehearsed, but with the lightness and laughter we might expect from a play with a title as frivolous as Fefu and Her Friends. Fefu's marriage, we learn right away, is itself a rehearsal of the loathsomeness of women, a fact which can never be established once and for all but must be repeatedly reiterated. Fefu declares that she finds this reminder somehow “funny.—And it's true. That's why I laugh […] when he tells me” (8). But how could it be that her husband's statement seems both to have convinced Fefu of women's loathsomeness and to have made her laugh in the believing (and retelling)? Is Fefu's laugh the counter-performative laugh of Cixous's Medusa, re-citing the old myth (that women are loathsome) with just enough mockery to alter its truth in the very act of repeating it? Does her laughter really matter, after all?

One thing, at least, is sure: despite Fefu's showy laughter at her husband's beliefs about women, or the squealing school-girlishness of the water-fight scene, it is difficult to characterize the play of Fefu and her friends as an unproblematically “happy” performance. (I use “happy” here in two senses, in both its affective sense and its effective one, a doubling that I take from J. L. Austin [21] and to which I will return below). Fefu assures Christina and Cynthia that women's loathsomeness is simply something to think about, a “thought.” As “just a thought,” the statement does not really matter after all, apparently, because it addresses the condition of women in general. It does not actually apply to “anyone in particular” (8). In other words, “women,” once set in the quotation marks Fefu's gay announcement seems to put them in, are apparently one thing, while each individual women remains entirely another. But Fefu's friends appear not to be convinced—either that women are loathsome or that such a statement might not apply to them. “I don't feel loathsome,” Cindy protests (8). “And how is women being loathsome an exciting idea?” Christina wonders aloud (9).

With Fefu's impossible response, “I take it all back,” we learn an important lesson not only about the performative nature of gender and sex but also about the difficulty of reconstructing “how women are together”: namely, that no performative utterance can be taken back. If the saying is the doing, then once it has been said it has been done.5 Once Fefu has said “I do,” she will always have been married to Phillip. Once she has declared women loathsome, they will always have been loathsome. As Butler shows us, there is no true woman behind “her” discursive production, only a series of sedimented identities. And as these “founding” performatives and unperformable performatives suggest, there is no “taking it back,” only resignifying. Even more, there are limits to the powers of signification, to what can come to matter. Saying it doesn't make it so if no one can understand what is said, or why it might matter. (Otherwise, we can imagine that creating a feminist homosociality would be easy enough: just to wish for it in words would be enough to call it into being.) The potential for resignification is bounded in part by the very limits which it might exceed—that is, the limits of what is already recognized as performable. And it is with these limits that the performance of Fefu flirts most persistently by asking, Just whose utterances, and whose laughter, matters?

In How to Do Things with Words, Austin considers the role that audience plays in determining the effectiveness of a particularly performative utterance—an issue necessarily of concern to the playwright or the critic who wants to “do” feminist work. Considered apart from any real rhetorical context, the performative utterance distinguishes itself automatically from the constative utterance by accomplishing the very act it enunciates—and by concealing the performative nature of that act in the very process of enacting it. Austin also suggests, however, that the accomplishment of the effect (and, it turns out, affect) of that performative utterance depends on the presence of a recognizable context, on a kind of conscious or unconscious consensus among its audience about what signifies, what matters. Auditors in a courtroom, say, or at a marriage ceremony must recognize the authority of the ceremonial language; they must recognize the judge's or priest's utterance as the citation of a phrase already invested with the authority to accomplish what it names. If, however, “something goes wrong in the performance of a performative, ‘the utterance is then, we may say, not indeed false but in general unhappy.’” It suffers from an “‘infelicity,’” an “‘ill to which all acts are heir which have the general character of ritual or ceremonial, all conventional acts’” (Austin, qtd. in Parker and Sedgwick 3; original emphasis). In other words, it is precisely its conventionality that lends the performative utterance both its power and its vulnerability. Only the utterance that is somehow already invested with meaning can actually do as it says; however, that very iterability always puts the utterance at risk of being regarded as mere convention, as mere performance—and therefore of failing to matter.

If, as Austin suggests, the success—or “happiness”—of a particular performance is both dependent on and made vulnerable by its own conventionality, then it would seem that the more performance-like a performative utterance becomes, not only the more unhappy it becomes, but also the more downright perverse—or, at least, that seems to be the “consensus” on which Austin builds his argument.

[A] performative utterance will […] be in a peculiar way hollow or void if said by an actor on the stage, or if introduced in a poem, or spoken in soliloquy. […] Language in such circumstances is in special ways—intelligibly—used not seriously, but in ways parasitic upon its normal use—ways which fall under the doctrine of the etiolations of language. All this we are excluding from consideration.

(Austin, qtd. in Parker and Sedgwick 3; emphasis added)

For Austin, then, there is something about any performative that insists on calling attention to itself, on performing its own limits, that makes it unhappy, excluded from “serious” consideration. But as this passage also demonstrates, such utterances must be actively excluded from consideration, performatively. Indeed, in the introduction to their collection Performativity and Performance, Parker and Sedgewick suggest that, by labeling certain performatives as not only abnormal but also “parasitic,” part of the “doctrine” of the “etioliations of language”—in a word, queer—Austin effectively puts them into the same unhappy camp as “the perverted, the artificial, the unnatural, the abnormal, the decadent, the effete, the diseased” (5): in other words, the abject. The distinction between the ordinary and the parasitic citation thus becomes not an objective but an abjective one, and one that attempts to cover its own performative tracks but which nonetheless depends for its meaning on the consensus of its audience.6

If simply performing the performative does not necessarily make it so—indeed, if the explicit “performance” of the performative necessarily makes it not so—then how “seriously” can we take Fefu's declaration that women are loathsome, not to mention Cindy's protest that she does not feel loathsome? What can the audience ultimately make of the series of performances that constitute Fefu and Her Friends? Gathered together as these women are with the self-conscious aim of rehearsing their performance, do the struggles they perform ultimately undermine their own power, render them “hollow” or “void,” “parasitic” upon their “normal use”? Such a problem obviously—and performatively—begs the question of what the “normal use” of such utterances might be, as well as how that determination is made to matter.

If the “happiness” of any performative, positive or negative, depends on its recognizability, then resignifying how women are psychically and socially put together requires more than the production of new signs. The effectiveness of any feminist performance would also depend a great deal on the constitution of its audience, an audience that must collectively recognize the feminist utterance as authoritative. It demands the construction of an “audience,” that is, who can recognize its power and whose recognition matters—a prospect about which Fefu and Her Friends, with its many unhappy (indeed, “melancholic”) performances, remains remarkably ambivalent. We have seen how what matters as “normal use,” as well as what gets excluded as “hollow” or “void,” must be determined socially as well as psychically. For just how much Fefu's remarks belong to the category of the “etiological” is apparently an object of negotiation—not just among the not-so-absent male authorities (or “judges”) but also among the women. Christina and Cindy dramatize that negotiation from the beginning with their discussion of just how seriously Fefu's remarks should be taken. Fefu's imperative to “just laugh,” whether she believes in its power or not, will never be effective (or “happy”) so long as Christina does not recognize its performative force, or as long as Christina's recognition does not matter anyway.

Much of the difficulty that Fefu (and Fefu) faces in attempting to challenge what counts as “normal” lies in the difficulty of formulating what Parker and Sedgwick call a “negative performative” (9). What often makes the power of the naturalized performative so difficult to resist, they argue, is the inherent difficulty not just of uttering but even of formulating an utterance that denies the authority of the “original” performative. Offering the examples of the gay person invited to a heterosexual wedding or the person who is dared to do something he or she does not want to do, Parker and Sedgwick suggest that many performatives derive their effectiveness less from an audience that actively consents and more from a “lack of a formulaic negative response” that matters to anyone besides the speaker. As Parker and Sedgwick point out, “[i]t requires little presence of mind to find the comfortable formula ‘I dare you,’ but a good deal more for the dragooned witness to disinterpellate with, ‘Don't do it on my account’” (9). Even the successfully formulated negative performative would presumably lose out, if only for the simple fact of its negativity; whatever refusal it is intended to perform must nonetheless be formulated in the terms set by the original performative. Thus, at a loss for a countering “disavowal, renunciation, [or] repudiation” or an authoritative way to say “count me out” (9), the unwilling witness to the original performative remains, unhappily, powerless to signal her dissent to whatever authority is reiterated. Fefu and Her Friends, I would argue, presents us with a continuous struggle to formulate just such a negative performative—to marriage, to heterosexual identification, even to the female sex as it is performatively constituted. Just how far this is possible, and just how difficult, however, becomes central to the play's momentum of working against—and toward—a feminist performance that matters.

Paula's final “monologue” in Part Three (57) does seem to perform the kind of “count me out” that Sedgwick and Parker suggest is so difficult to formulate. By telling her own story about bitter summers spent on the job as her friends floated off to Europe, Paula exposes just how exclusive Emma's performance really is in its emphasis on the spiritual at the expense of the material concerns of educational reform. Paula had appeared grateful for Emma's offer to “work with her” on her part of the presentation, but it becomes clear later that Paula is ambivalent about her role in a production that so blindly reproduces its own conditions. Similarly, by delivering her monologue, as the stage directions make clear, without looking once at Cecilia, Paula performs a kind of “count me out” of the conventional break-up scenario that she enumerates and itemizes earlier in Part Two. When Cecilia embraces her after she is finished, we might assume that her performance was, after all, a “happy one,” since it seems to have performed and produced the kind of passionate attachment between the two women that had formerly been disavowed. Ironically, however, this promising and passionate act is brought about only through a melancholically happy performative, an unhappy burst of dissensus—unfortunately, not quite the happy foundation we might wish for a female homosocial desire.

In the end, of course, Fefu and her friends can hardly be said to blow the world apart, or even to lay the foundation for a new one. But that the play successfully (if not happily) performs this struggle in all its ambivalence might be evident in the fact that, as Fornes herself has noted, nobody seems to know quite what to do with the sheer number of women in this play. As Helene Keyssar writes of her own experience as an audience member, spectators of both sexes often find themselves “disconcerted, not only by being moved from our stable and familiar positions, but by our proximity to each other and to the characters; we are in their spaces but not of them. Their world remains separate from ours, and there is nothing we can do to make a difference in their world” (100; original emphasis). If we are invited to be in their spaces but not of them, made to feel how little difference our presence makes in their world, then what does that say for the status of Fefu as a feminist performance? Does Fefu, in fact, perform the feminist work we might as critics call on it to do? Or does it allow us to remain just indifferent enough to view the happiness and unhappiness of Fefu and her friends as “mere” performance, regarding them as something between real women and drama queens? Fornes's own comments about the play's reception have suggested that many audience members continue to judge how well Fefu and her friends are together through the familiar lens of hom(m)osociality; indeed, many of the post-performance questions about the play often concern neither Fefu nor any of her seven friends, but the few male characters who never even appear.7 We, too, it would seem, are always waiting for the men to arrive.

Perhaps no other play demonstrates so clearly as Fefu and Her Friends the fundamental—and founding—ambivalence that necessarily constitutes female homosocial desire in a culture where the men play outside in the fresh air while the women gather inside, “in the dark.” Certainly the complicated struggle of Fefu and her friends to become “well together” seems to imply, with Butler, that “[e]xceeding is not escaping, and the subject exceeds precisely that to which it is bound” (Psychic Life 17). In the same way, however, the passionate attachments that Fefu and her friends do develop would also seem to enact the kind of ambivalent hope that Peggy Phelan identifies with feminist critical theory: “What makes feminist criticism performative,” she writes, “is not its utopian pitch toward a better future but, rather, the ‘intimate dissonance’ inspired by the recognition of mutual failure, in the here and now—the failure to enact what one can barely glimpse, can only imagine, and cannot reproduce” (21). In other words, because feminist criticism (and performance) is itself performative, it cannot ever hope to have achieved its end once and for all. Instead, it must find its hope in the very necessity and fragility that repetition has to offer it. Looking at the play in this way, as Fefu and her friends gather around Julia's body in the final scene of Fornes's play, we might ask, not once but many times, just what kinds of passionate attachments Fefu and Her Friends makes possible—between women.


  1. Much recent critical debate has been devoted to drawing and redrawing the boundaries between performance and performativity: Blau (e.g., Eye of Prey 171) has distinguished the former as his subject, Butler the latter (Bodies 234), and Elin Diamond, in a recent article in TDR, has attempted to shorten the distance between the two. Without exactly entering into that debate, I would like to think these two critical meanings of “performance” together in much the same way that Parker and Sedgwick do in the introduction to their collection, Performativity and Performance. There, Parker and Sedgwick draw together these two modes of enactment by returning us to one place where they find that “the philosophical and theatrical meanings of performative actually do establish contact with each other” (3). I want, in other words, to explore how Fefu and her friends, in the process of staging the limits of what we recognize as “how women are together,” might reinforce or exceed those limits in very the act of performing them.

  2. The PAJ edition I am quoting from differs slightly but significantly from the Wordplays version. The former includes a stage direction that does not appear in the latter, one that makes Fefu the (absent) addressee of Shakespeare's sonnet. After Fefu exits, “Emma improvises an effigy of Fefu. She puts Fefu's hat and gloves on it.”

  3. Considering that the intended audience for Shakespeare's sonnet would have been a young man rather than a woman, it is interesting that Emma would choose this poem in particular to re-cite. Addressed to a woman, the sonnet's commonplace figures for patriarchal reproduction become strikingly literal, bodily. We cannot help but be struck with the importance of plumbing as we realize that a woman equipped with a womb can convert herself “to store” in a way that no man can.

  4. And if Melanie Klein is right that guilt is produced not by internalizing an external prohibition but by the fear that one will destroy the object of one's love (Butler, Psychic Life 25), then female homosociality might also be a fundamentally “guilty” sociality as well.

  5. Interestingly, Christina would seem to give a similarly impossible performance when she declares, in her first line of the play, “I am speechless” (9). But here the effect is the opposite of Fefu's failed attempt at discursively taking it all back: by performing the statement that she is speechless, Christina unveils—and therefore undermines—the performative reiteration of women's “natural” silence.

  6. Parker and Sedgwick offer marriage as the example par excellence of this interplay between the utterance and a willing audience, as well as the necessary denial, through naturalization, of this interplay. As a spectacular ceremony and as an institution, “a kind of fourth wall or invisible proscenium arch that moves through the world” (11), marriage requires its audience both to forever hold its peace and to forever bear silent witness to the “happy couple.” Besides exemplifying the kind of showy but compulsory consensus that the “happy” performative requires, marriage secures its happy status by, like a play, constructing its audience as privileged witnesses who are able neither to look away from nor to intervene in the spectacle (11). At the same time, however, it covers its performative tracks by naturalizing the version of normalcy it enacts and by abjecting others; while a minister might, for example, pronounce any two people “married,” the happy occasion becomes an “unhappy” one in the context of a gay wedding, where the utterance is regarded by the law as a “theatrical” performance only.

  7. For a more detailed description of men's limited responses to the play (but, unfortunately, no accompanying account of women's), see Fornes's contribution to “Women in the Theatre.”

Works Cited

Austin, J. L. How to Do Things with Words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1975.

Blau, Herbert. The Eye of Prey: Subversions of the Postmodern. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987.

Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter. New York: Routledge, 1993.

———. The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1997.

de Lauretis, Teresa. “Sexual Indifference and Lesbian Representation.” Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre. Ed. Sue-Ellen Case. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990. 17-39.

Diamond, Elin. “Re: Blau, Butler, Beckett, and the Politics of Seeming.” TDR 44.4 (2000): 31-43.

———. “Brechtian Theory/Feminist Theory: Toward a Gestic Feminist Criticism.” A Sourcebook of Feminist Theatre and Performance: On and Beyond the Stage. Ed. Carol Martin. New York: Routledge, 1996. 120-35.

Farfan, Penny. “Feminism, Metatheatricality, and Mise-en-scène in Maria Irene Fornes's Fefu and Her Friends.Modern Drama 40 (1997): 442-53.

Fornes, Maria Irene. Fefu and Her Friends. New York: PAJ Pub., 1990.

———. “Women in the Theatre.” Centerpoint 2 (1980): 31-37.

Geis, Deborah R. “Wordscapes of the Body: Performative Language as Gestus in Maria Irene Fornes's Plays.” Theatre Journal 42 (1990): 291-307.

Irigaray, Luce. Elemental Passions. Trans. Joanne Collie and Judith Still. London: Athlone, 1992.

———. This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1985.

Keyssar, Helene. “Drama and the Dialogic Imagination: The Heidi Chronicles and Fefu and Her Friends.Modern Drama 34 (1991): 88-106.

Parker, Andrew, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. “Introduction: Performativity and Performance.” Performativity and Performance. Ed. Andrew Parker and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. New York: Routledge, 1995. 1-18.

Phelan, Peggy. “Reciting the Citation of Others; or, A Second Introduction.” Acting Out: Feminist Performances. Ed. Lynda Hart and Peggy Phelan. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1993. 13-31.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia UP, 1985.

Worthen, W. B. “Still Playing Games: Ideology and Performance in the Theater of Maria Irene Fornes.” Feminine Focus: The New Women Playwrights. Ed. Enoch Brater. New York: Oxford UP, 1989. 167-85.




Fornes, Maria Irene (Drama Criticism)