Maria Irene Fornes 1930-
Fornes is a pioneering avant-garde dramatist who helped create the off-off-Broadway forum during the 1960s. Unlike most of her contemporaries, she has continued working in small, non-commercially oriented theaters for over thirty years. In 1972 she co-founded the New York Theater Strategy—an organization that produced the work of experimental playwrights—and she served in various capacities, from bookkeeper to president, until the company dissolved in 1979. Fornes' works have earned her an unprecedented seven Obie Awards, the highest recognition for off-Broadway productions.
Fornes was born in Havana, Cuba, and attended public schools there. After her father's death in 1945 she immigrated to the United States with her mother and sister; she became a naturalized U.S. citizen six years later. Fornes began a career as a painter and in 1954 went to Europe to study painting. While in Paris, she attended Roger Blin's original production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, an event that changed her life in the direction of playwriting. Of the production, Fornes has said: "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." Fornes began writing plays of her own, and her first to be produced, The Widow, was staged in 1961. She has also directed plays, principally her own, and she has said mat for her directing is an integral part of the composition process. Besides an unprecedented seven Obie Awards for distinguished playwriting and direction, Fornes has received numerous other awards and scholarships throughout her career, including Yale University fellowships in 1967 and 1968; Rockefeller Foundation grants in 1971 and 1984; an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award in Literature in 1985; and a Playwrights U.S.A. Award in 1986.
The surrealistic elements of Beckett's writing have influenced Fornes' plays, which are unconventional in their structure, dialogue, and staging. Emphasizing neither plot nor character development, the plays are often symbolic rather than realistic and at times contain both brutality and slapstick humor. Fornes is mainly concerned with human relationships, though a social and political consciousness is also evident in many of her plays. In her first important play, Tango Palace, Fornes presents ill-fated male lovers who enact such roles as father-son and teacher-pupil. They gradually become engaged in a metaphysical power struggle that ultimately ends in murder. The Successful Life of 3, a romantic spoof for which Fornes received her first Obie Award, 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. Fornes' next Obie Award-winning play, Promenade, contains perhaps her strongest social criticism. In mis comedy of manners, two guileless, lower-class prisoners, 105 and 106, escape from their jail cell in quest of the evil they know to exist in the world, but which they 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 "rich" in spirit and kindness. However, unable to pinpoint evil because they cannot identify it, the uncorrupted prisoners willingly return to the "freedom" of their cell.
Fefu and Her Friends marks a change for Fornes to a somewhat more conventional approach to drama. With this pivotal work Fornes begins to emphasize realistic, three-dimensional characters rather than symbolic and surreal action. The play revolves around eight female friends who have gathered at a New England country home for a reunion weekend in 1935. Frought with tension and underlying violence, however, the play culminates with the apparent murder of one of the friends. Innovative staging highlights this work, which also won an Obie. Scenes in Act II, for instance, take place in different rooms simultaneously; the audience, split into groups, physically moves from room to room. The play's action, viewed in no particular sequence, stresses the redundant lives of women in a chauvinistic society. Through a blend of quick humor and stream-of-consciousness dialogue, Fornes illuminates the concerns and social ills of the Depression era from a female perspective. Mud, also grounded in realism, 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 gloom and ignorance. After Mae learns that knowledge and communication are the keys to power, she prepares to leave the stifling farm, but the inarticulate Lloyd kills her.
Fornes treats the themes of sexual politics and the failure of communication in other plays as well. The Danube centers on Paul and Eve, whose difficulty communicating is punctuated by the broadcasting of a foreign language instruction tape before each scene. The title character in 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, an Obie Award-winner, focuses on the personal and sexual life of Orlando, a Latin American soldier whose duty is torturing prisoners for his 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 Uves, Fornes comments on the brutality of political oppression. Another Obie Award-winning play, Abingdon Square, is set in New York City in 1905 and conveys 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. When a young man helps her discover her true self, she begins to acknowledge the importance of her own needs and desires.
Despite her accomplishments, Fornes has not received significant public attention. Her plays are neither widely reviewed nor have they been subject to numerous interpretations, perhaps because critics are unable to categorize Fornes' constantly evolving experimental style. Fellow dramatist Lanford Wilson has commented: "She's one of the very, very, best—it's a shame she's always been performed in such obscurity. Her work has no precedents, it isn't derived from anything. She's the most original of us all." The commentary that exists praises Fornes for her subtle social criticism and economy of style. Susan Sontag has asserted: "Fornes has a near faultless ear for the ruses of egotism and cruelty. Unlike most contemporary dramatists, for whom psychological brutality is the principal, inexhaustible subject, Fornes is never in complicity with the brutality she depicts. … Fornes's work has always been intelligent, often funny, never vulgar or cynical; both delicate and visceral."