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.
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).
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.
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.