Maria Irene Fornes Fornes, Maria Irene (Drama Criticism) - Essay


(Drama Criticism)

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."

Principal Works

(Drama Criticism)


The Widow 1961

There! You Died 1963; produced as Tango Palace, 1964; revised, 1965

The Successful Life of 3: A Skit for Vaudeville 1965

Promenade [music by Al Carmines] 1965; revised 1969

The Office 1966

The Annunciation 1967

A Vietnamese Wedding 1967

Dr. Kheal 1968

Molly's Dream [music by Cosmos Savage] 1968

The Red Burning Light, or Mission XQ3 [music by John Bauman] 1968

Aurora [music by John Fitzgibbon] 1972

The Curse of the Langston House 1972

Cap-a-Pie [music by José Raúl Bernardo] 1975

Washing 1976

Fefu and Her Friends 1977

Lolita in the Garden 1977

In Service 1978

Eyes on the Harem 1979

Evelyn Brown (A Diary) 1980

Blood Wedding [adaptor; from a play by Federico Garcia Lorca] 1980

Life Is Dream [adaptor; from a play by Pedro Calderon de la Barca] 1981

A Visit 1981

The Danube 1982

Mud 1983

Sarita [music by Leon Odenz] 1984

No Time 1984

The Conduct of Life 1985

Cold Air [adaptor and translator; from a play by Virgilio Piñera] 1985

A Matter of Faith 1986

Lovers and Keepers [three one-act musicals; music by Tito Puente and Fernando Rivas] 1986

Drowning [adaptor; from a story by Anton Chekhov] 1986

Art 1986

The Mothers 1986; revised as Nadine, 1989

Abingdon Square 1987

Uncle Vanya [adaptor; from a play by Chekhov] 1987

Hunger 1988

*And What of the Night? [four one-act plays] 1989

Oscar and Bertha 1992

Terra Incognita [music by Roberto Sierra] 1992

Summer in Gossensass 1995

*The four one-act plays that comprise this work are: Hunger, Springtime, Lust, and Nadine (formerly The Mothers).

Author Commentary

(Drama Criticism)

I Write These Messages That Come (1977)

SOURCE: "I Write These Messages That Come," in The Drama Review, Vol. 21, No. 4, December 1977, pp. 25-40

[In the following, Fornes discusses her writing methods.]

Thoughts come to my mind at any point, anywhere—I could be on the subway—and if I am alert enough and I have a pencil and paper, I write these messages that come. It might be just a thought, like a statement about something, an insight, or it could be a line of dialog. It could be something that someone says in my head.

I have a box filled with these scribbles. Some of them are on paper napkins or the backs of envelopes. These things are often the beginning of a play. Most of the lyrics of the songs that I write are based on these notes—as opposed to a play, which, once it starts, / make. I usually gather a number of those things that have some relation—again, I do not even know why I consider that they are related—and I put them together. I compose something around those messages using a number of lines that have come into my head.

Now sometimes I am trying to get myself organized, and I am sharpening pencils and doing all those things. So I go to that pile of notes—it's a mess because it is scribblings. Sometimes I cannot read what I wrote because often I make notes in dark theatres when I am sitting through a play. (A lot of thoughts come into my mind when I am watching a play, especially a play that I am not at all absorbed by.) I start typing through some of these things and very often I find things I cannot imagine why in the world I thought they were anything special. They are the most mundane thoughts or phrases. Sometimes I think, "There is some value here that I do not recognize now, but at some point I thought, 'this is a message.' It must be that it is, but I have lost the thought." When that happens I often type it out and leave it, even though it is without any faith at all. I leave it because at some point I did have this faith.

The feeling I have about these messages is very different from what I have about what I am writing when it is / writing. I might write something that I like, and it feels good. But the feeling I have about those other things is really as if it is a message that comes in an indivisible unit. I feel if a word is changed, then it is lost. A thought comes—sometimes I do not have a pencil with me—I try to repeat it in my head until I get to a pencil. I know I must remember the exact construction of the sentence. I might be wrong, you see. It could be that it does not matter more or less how it is said. But still I feel that it is a block and that is how it should look, whether it is a page of dialog that comes in the message or three pages or one line.

That dialog then could become a play. When I am to write a work, I never start from a blank page. I only start from one of these things that I do, that I receive. Sometimes I start a play from one line of dialog. It has to be something that has the makings of a play.

The only play that I started from an idea—and it was an idea that was very clear in my head—and that I sat down and wrote was Tango Palace. I think it is quite clear that that is how it is written because the play has a very strong, central idea. None of my other plays does. 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), but I do not present ideas except in Tango Palace. I lost interest in that way of working.

The play writes itself. The first draft writes itself anyway. Then I look at it and I find out what is in it. I find out where I have overextended it and what things need to be cut. I see where I have not found the scene. I see what I have to do for the character to exist fully. Then I rewrite. And of course in the rewrite there is a great deal of thought and sober analysis.

One day I was talking to Rochelle Owens, and I was telling her how when I start working on a play the words are just on paper. Perhaps I will see some things or I hear something. I feel the presence of a character or person. But then there is a point when the characters become crystallized. When that happens, I have an image in full color, technicolor. And that happens! I do not remember it happening, but I get it like click! At some point I see a picture of the set with the characters in it—let us say a picture related to the set, not necessarily the exact set.

The colors for me are very, very important. And the colors of the clothes the people wear. When it finally happens, the play exists; it has taken its own life. And then I just listen to it. I move along with it. I let it write itself.

I have reached that point in plays at times. I have put scripts away then and picked them up three years later, and, reading them, suddenly I see that same picture with the same colors. The color never goes away. It could be ten years later. The play exists even if I have not finished writing it. Even if it is only fifteen pages. It is like an embryo that is already alive and it is there waiting.

I am always amazed how an audience knows when a play is finished. That is something that I have always found very beautiful. Sometimes when I go to the theatre when it is not written in the program that there is going to be an intermission, and when it is quite clear that something has ended, people say, "Is it over?" But they say it with surprise. The actors have left the stage, but it does not look over. People know. And then when it is really over, there is that immediate knowledge that it has ended, and people applaud. In that same way, I know when a script has completed itself. I sense the last note of the play.

One play of mine has about three endings. It looks like it has ended, but then there is another ending, and then there is another ending. These are almost-endings, and they do not have that total satisfaction of a real ending. It could have been that I could have left it. But probably people would have been asking, "Is it over?" "Oh, it's over."

The characters: they talk. And when it talks, a character starts developing itself. I never try to reproduce a real character. I did, in fact, try to reproduce real people that I knew in one play. The Office. I got into trouble because the characters in the situation were from real life, and I changed a lot of things in the play. I felt that I lacked the objectivity to make the play really sharp and for me to be sure exactly what I was doing. Since I started with a reality of what happened, it was the event that was important. And that event would not work for the play.

I know a lot of people write either about a real person or else they put a familiar character into an invented situation. I find that it just confuses me, that I do not see that as useful for me in any way.

In that same conversation with Rochelle Owens, I told her about my colors. She found it very interesting. And I said, "You mean you don't see color when you write? I thought everybody saw color!" But she does not. I asked what happens to her, and she said she hears voices. She hears the sound of what the play is saying. Sometimes she is writing and she knows that a sentence should be bah-bah-bah-bah, but the words do not come immediately. Rather than stopping, she goes on and she leaves that blank space. She goes on because the other words are coming. She knows how it has to sound, and she goes back to it. It comes in exactly that form. That is very different from my own work.

Everything that I have written has had a different start. Successful Life of 3 started when I heard two men speaking to each other. One of them was an actor I knew.

That conversation was actually in my head. Not mat I wanted to write the play for that actor, it is just that he was there and this other guy was there, and he did not have a very definite face. That caught my imagination completely. I wrote the play in two weeks.

At the same time, I was writing Promenade, which I wrote as an exercise I gave myself. I wrote down the characters on one set of index cards. On another set of cards, I wrote different places. I shuffled them together. I picked a card that said, "The Aristocrats." And I picked the card that said, "The Prison." So the play started in prison for that reason. But I found it very difficult to write a scene with aristocrats in prison, so the first thing that happened was that they were digging a hole to escape. I wanted to get them out of there.

For some reason it worked for me that the prisoners remained prisoners. And in me next scene, they were at a banquet where there were aristocrats. After that, I found using the cards for the characters was not helping me at all. But I kept using the place cards. That is why me play has six different locations. I would write a scene and when I was finished writing that scene I would turn to the next card. That was the order the scenes came in.

By the way, I find doing exercises very valuable. It is good for me not to do things too deliberately: to have half my mind on something else and let something start happening. I am really very analytical. I like analyzing things, but it is better for me not to think very much. Only after I have started creating can I put all my analytical mind into it.

Most of my plays start with a kind of a fantasy game—just to see what happens. Fefu and Her Friends started that way. There was mis woman I fantasized who was talking to some friends. She took her rifle and shot her husband. Also, there is a Mexican joke where there are two Mexicans speaking at a bullfight. One says to the other, "She is pretty, that one over there." The other one says, "Which one?" So the first one takes his rifle and shoots her. He says, "That one, the one that falls."

So in the first draft of the play, Fefu does just mat. She takes her rifle and she shoots her husband. He falls. Then she explains mat they heard the Mexican joke and she and her husband play that game. That was just my fantasy: thinking of the joke, how absurd it was. But I do not know what came first, the shooting fantasy or the memory of the joke. (Finally, I left the joke out of the play.)

I started Fefu and Her Friends about thirteen years ago. There was just that scene. Then three years later I started again. Then mere was a woman in a wheelchair. The play was very different men, but the spirit was actually quite similar. About five years ago, I started really writing, really seeing what had to be done and shaping it. And mat was much closer to what it is today. Early this year, I decided I wanted to do that play—finish it and put it on. I just sat down and did it.

A playwright has a different distance from each script. Some are two feet away, and some are two hundred feet away. Fefu was not even two inches away. It is right where I am. That is difficult to do when one feels close. A different kind of delicacy enters into the writing. Each day I had to put myself into the mood to write the play. I wrote it in a very short period of time, in a very intense period of writing, where I did nothing but write, write, write. Every day I would start the day by reading my old folder (a different folder from the one where I keep my "messages"), where I have all my sufferings, personal sufferings: the times when I was in love and not, the times I did badly, all those anguishes which were really very profound. There were times that I just had to sit down and write about it because I felt anguish about it. It was not writing for the sake of writing; it was writing for the sake of exorcism. A lot of those things had been in this folder for many years. I had never looked at them. That was where the cockroaches were, so to speak.

I would start the day by reading something from that folder. Actually, there were even a couple times when I used things I found there, but most of it is garbage, really garbage, a collection of dirt: the whining, the complaining. But it would put me into that very, very personal, intimate mood to write.

I never before set up any kind of environment to write a play! This was the first time that I did that because the play was different. I had to reinforce the intimacy of the play.

Then I would put on the records of a Cuban singer, Olga Guillot. She is very passionate and sensuous. She is shameless in her passion. And I wrote the whole play listening to Olga Guillot. (My neighbors must have thought I was out of my mind.) There was one record, Añorando el Caribe, that particularly seemed to make my juices run. I just left it on the turntable and let it go on and on and on. The play had nothing to do with Olga Guillot. Her spirit is very different. She is very dramatic. And Fefu is very subtle and very delicate. But her voice kept me oiled.

I started the final writing of Fefu in February, 1977. At that time, I had about a third of the play written. It opened May 5, 1977. In those three months, I finished writing, I cast it, and I rehearsed it. I finished the play four days before it opened. I do not mean the very last scene. There were scenes in the middle I had to do. I made no revisions during rehearsals. I have to do some rewriting of the play now. I believe I must approach the rewrite in the same way as before: with the pile of writing and Olga Guillot.

Space affected Fefu and Her Friends. In late February, I decided to look for a place to perform the work. I had finished the first scene, and I had loose separate scenes that belonged somewhere in the second part of the play. I did not like the space I found because it had large columns. But then I was taken backstage to the rooms the audience could not see. I saw the dressing room, and I thought, "How nice. This could be a room in Fefu's house." Then I was taken to the greenroom. I thought that this also could be a room in Fefu's house. Then we went to the business office to discuss terms. That office was the study of Fefu's house. (For the performance we took some of the stuff out, but we used the books, the rugs, everything that was there.) I asked if we could use all of their rooms for the performances, and they agreed.

I had written Julia's speech in the bedroom already. I had intended to put it on stage, and I had not yet arrived at how it would come about. Part of the kitchen scene was written, but I had thought it would be happening in the living room. So I had parts of it already. It was the rooms themselves that modified the scenes which originally I planned to put in the living room.

People asked me, when the play opened, if I had written those scenes to be done in different rooms and then found the space. No. They were written that way because the space was there. I had to figure out the exact coordination for the movements between one scene and the other so the timing would be right. I had rehearsed each scene separately. Now I was going to rehearse them simultaneously. Then I realized that my play, Aurora, had exactly the same concept. There was the similarity of two different rooms with simultaneous life. I did not consciously realize until then that it had some connection with Aurora.

I mention this because people put so much emphasis on the deliberateness of a work. I am delighted when something is not deliberate. I do not trust deliberateness. When something happens by accident, I trust that the play is making its own point. I feel something is happening that is very profound and very important. 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?

I am very good at explaining things. And whatever I do not understand, I can even invent. There are people who do beautiful work and do not know why, and they think it is invalid. Those who are not good at explanation are at a disadvantage, but their work is as valid.

I think it is impossible to aim at an audience when writing a play. I never do. I think that is why some commercial productions fail. They are trying to create a product that is going to create a reaction, and they cannot. If they could, every play on Broadway that is done for that purpose would be a great success. They think they know. They try and they fail. I know I do not know, but even if I did, I do not think I would write for the audience.

As a matter of fact, when the audience first comes to one of my plays, my feeling is that they are intruders. Especially when I have directed the play, I feel that I love my play so much, and I enjoy it so and feel so intimate with the actors, that when opening night arrives I ask, "What are all those people doing in my house?" Then it changes, of course, especially if they like it. I might even think I wrote it for them if they like it. I love to have an audience like a play. But during the work period, they are never present. Basically I feel that if I like something, other people will like it, too.

I think there is always a person I am writing for. Sometimes it is a specific person that I feel is there with me enjoying it in my mind. In my mind, that person is saying, "Oh, yes, I love it!" Or if it is not a specific person, it is a kind of person. It might be someone who does not really have a face, but it is a friend, someone who likes the same things. If we saw a play, we both would like it or we both would dislike it. So in a way I am writing for an "audience." But it is not for the public, not for the critics, not the business of theatre.

I feel that the state of creativity is a very special state. And most people who write or who want to write are not very aware that it is a state of mind. Most people when they cannot write say, "I can't write. I'm blocking." And then at another point they are writing a lot and they cannot stop; it appears to be a very mysterious thing, writing. Sometimes the Muse is speaking and other times it is not. But I think it is possible to put oneself in the right state of mind in the same manner that some people do meditation. There are techniques to arrive at particular states of consciousness. But we artists do not know the techniques. I do not know, either. I learned to do it with Fefu and Her Friends with my notes and record. But who knows? Maybe I could have done the play anyway.

I find that when I am not writing, starting to write is not difficult—it is impossible. It is just excruciating. I do not know the reason, for once I get started it is very pleasurable. I can think of nothing more pleasurable than being in the state of creativity. When I am in that state, people call me, say, to go to a party, to do things that are fun, to do the things where usually I would say, "Oh yes! Of course!" And nothing seems as pleasurable as writing.

But then I finish writing, and that state ends. It just seems that I do not want to go back to it. I feel about it the same way I feel about jumping off a bridge. And to keep from writing, I do everything. I sharpen pencils. In the past few days, it has been a constant thing of sitting at a typewriter and saying, "Oh! Let me get my silverware in order!" It seems very important because, when I might need a cup of coffee, the spoons will be all lined up. Incredible. It is incredible. So I go back to the typewriter. I say, "Oh! I need a cup of coffee." And then, "I better go get a pack of cigarettes so I'll have them here." 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. I usually do not press my clothes. I just wear them. 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.

Interview with Fornes (1988)

An interview with Maria Irene Fornes, in In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights, by David Savran, Theatre Communications Group, 1988, pp. 51-69.

[In the conversation below, Fornes and Savran talk about a number of issues relating to Fornes' dramas, including influences on her work, the content of her plays, and the political role of theater.]

Born in Havana, Maria Irene Fornes came to New York with her mother in 1945, when she was fifteen years old. She studied painting in night school and with Hans Hoffman in Provincetown before going to Paris to paint for three years, returning to New York in 1957 as a textile designer. Three years later, having read only one play—Hedda Gabler—she suddenly got the idea for Tango Palace. "I stayed home for nineteen days and only left the house to go buy something to eat," she recalls. "I slept with the typewriter next to me." In the 1960s she was active in the Off-Off Broadway movement and wrote a series of dazzling, inventive fantasies, including The Successful Life of 3 (1965), an almost comic-strip version of an erotic triangle; Promenade (1965, revised and expanded 1969), a vaudevillian celebration of unexpected juxtapositions, with music by Al Carmines; and Molly's Dream (1968), about a waitress's wistful fantasies.

In the early seventies she went through a fallow period, which came to an abrupt end in 1977 with the first production of Fefu and Her Friends, a play much more somber and emotionally violent than her early works. It was followed by a series of passionate and political works, including Evelyn Brown (1980), based on the diary of a servant in turn-of-the-century New Hampshire; The Danube (1982), about nuclear war; Mud (1983), an examination of a lethal erotic triangle; and The Conduct of Life (1985), about women held in thrall to a petty Latin American tyrant, torturer and rapist.

Despite the sharp differences between her early and her later plays, all of Fornes's work can be seen as a relentless search for a new theatrical language to explore what theatre has always been about: the difference between text and subtext, between the mask and the naked face beneath it, between the quotidian and the secret, between love and the fear and violence always threatening its fragile dominion. Fornes's early plays are filled with a slightly melancholic cheer, the result of an interplay between a sequence of fantastic and whimsical interactions and the underlying knowledge of unrequited desire and unfulfilled hopes—or in the words of her Dr. Kheal, "Contradictions compressed so that you don't know where one stops and the other begins." Promenade, for example, is peopled by a variety of symbiotic pairs, escaped convicts and a jailer, rich socialites and servants, ladies and gentlemen, a mother and her children. It is a comedy about the failure to make connections, searching for its plot in the same way that the jailer searches for his prisoners or the mother for her lost children. Throughout the play the pairs keep missing each other and although they delight in the unexpected turns, there is an intimation of a darker reality always held at bay. At the end the mother asks the two convicts, "Did you find evil?" And when they tell her "No," she assures them, "Good night, then. Sleep well. You'll find it some other time."

Even in these early works Fornes's revolutionary use of language is evident. From the first, she has honed speech to a simple, concrete and supple essence, whether in dialogue or as here, in the song of the convicts from Promenade:

When I was born I opened my eyes,
And when I looked around I closed them;
And when I saw how people get kicked in the head,
And kicked in the belly, and kicked in the groin,
I closed them.
My eyes are closed but I'm carefree.
Ho ho ho, ho ho ho, I'm carefree.

This is language surprisingly capable of expressing complex shades of emotion and mobilizing a rich and understated irony.

One way of approaching Fornes's recent work is to see a reversal in the relative tonalities of surface and depth, the action now much more ominous, the characters no longer the "cardboard dolls" of Promenade but beings who breathe and sweat. The change is heralded in the first scene of Fefu when the title character, discussing her husband's belief that women are "loathesome," compares her fascination with it to turning over a stone in damp soil. The exposed part "is smooth and dry and clean." But that underneath "is slimy and filled with fungus and crawling with worms. It is another life that is parallel to the one we manifest." Fefu warns, "If you don't recognize it … (Whispering.) it eats you." All of Fornes's later plays are explorations of the dark underneath. In Fefu Fornes unearths the workings of a furtive misogyny and its destructive power. The seven women who join Fefu at her country house are all, to some degree, victims of the men, with their "natural strength," hovering just offstage. "Women have to find their strength," Fefu explains, "and when they do find it, it comes forth with bitterness and it's erratic." Those among them unable to recognize their internalization of masculine attitudes are destroyed.

The plays since Fefu, written in a great diversity of styles, explore the workings of violence—psychological, political and sexual—and the self-destruction toward which it leads, with the aim of teaching, of asking the spectator to understand and to make another choice. The Danube was conceived when, by chance, Fornes came across a Hungarian-English language record. "There was such tenderness in those little scenes," she recalls. When asked to write an antinuclear play, Fornes thought of the sadness she felt for "the bygone era of that record, and how sorrowful it would be to lose the simple pleasures of our own." Set on the eve of World War II, the play charts the gradual decay of a civilization along with the emotional and physical destruction of its well-meaning protagonists. It ends with a "brilliant white flash of light," and then, darkness.

Fornes's plays differ from those of most of her contemporaries in that almost all are set either in a preindustrial society or on the far edge of middle-class culture. They are filled with a deep compassion for the disenfranchised, for whom survival—rather than the typically bourgeois obsession with individual happiness and freedom—is the bottom line. They do not delight, even covertly, in suffering but take a stand unequivocally against dehumanization and violence in its myriad forms. Perhaps it is in this context that her revolutionary use of language is best understood, its simplicity and beauty signaling, in the midst of violence and decay, a verbal utopia in which things are called by their proper names and brutality is so embarrassingly evident that it can no longer hold sway.


[David Savran]: What got you interested in theatre?

[Maria Irene Fornes]: A play that I wanted to write got me interested in theatre. I was not a playwright. I was not in theatre because at that time theatre was not a very interesting art.

When was that?

1959, '60. At that time the most advanced writers in the American theatre were Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. That was the American theatre. Important theatre took place on Broadway. The beginning of the avant-garde theatre came from Europe: Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Jean Genet. It was as if those European writers were inviting us. But even when these writers became known here, it took a few years before we actually started doing their work.

For years most of my friends were in the arts. They were writers—novelists, poets—or painters. I didn't know anybody in theatre. So I was never at a rehearsal of a play. I never knew an actor who would talk about rehearsals or auditions or anything like that. Very few people I knew went to the theatre. I do remember going to see A Streetcar Named Desire because word filtered down that it was interesting. But when I started to write a play, although it did have something to do with some theatre I had seen, it had nothing to do with a general affection for or interest in the theatre.

So you were more attracted to European theatre?

In '55, I think it was, or '54, I saw the original production of Waiting for Godot in Paris, directed by Roger Blin. I'd just arrived in Paris and I didn't know a word of French. But I was so profoundly upset by that play—and by upset I mean turned upside down—that I didn't even question the fact that I had not understood a word. I felt that my life had been turned around. I left the theatre and felt that I saw everything so clearly. Maybe it was just a clear night, but it was such a physical experience. I felt that I saw clarity. Maybe that night something in me understood that I was to dedicate my life to the theatre. My feeling was that I understood something about life. If you'd asked me then what it was I'd understood, I couldn't have told you. If I had understood the text it still wouldn't have been clear. Of course, I knew the play had something to do with slavery and freedom.

I was a painter and lived in Paris for several years. I was not interested in writing. I came back to New York in '57 and the next year, I think it was, I saw a production of Ulysses in Nighttown, with Zero Mostel, directed by Burgess Meredith. It was performed in a place—on West Houston Street, I think—that was not ordinarily used as a theatre. And that too had a profound effect on me. But still I didn't think I wanted to write a play. I just thought, "How wonderful, what an incredible thing."

Then in 1960, or maybe it was 1959, I had an idea...

(The entire section is 12695 words.)

Overviews And General Studies

(Drama Criticism)

Bonnie Marranea (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "The Real Life of Maria Irene Fornes," in Performing Arts Journal, Vol. VIII, No. 1, 1984, pp. 29-34.

[In the following essay, Marranea describes the essential characteristics of Fornes' drama, praising the "warm delicacy and grace that distinguish it from most of what is written today."]

Ever since Fefu and Her Friends Maria Irene Fornes has been writing the finest realistic plays in this country. In fact, one could say that Fefu and the plays that followed it, such as The Danube and now Mud, have paved the way for a new language of dramatic...

(The entire section is 40428 words.)

Fefu And Her Friends

(Drama Criticism)

Beverly Byers Pevitts (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Fefu and Her Friends," in Women in American Theatre: Careers, Images, Movements, edited by Helen Krich Chinoy and Linda Walsh Jenkins, Crown Publishers, 1981, pp. 316-20.

[In the following, which was first published in 1981, Pevitts reads Fefu and Her Friends as a feminist play.]

Maria Irene Fornes explores basic feminist issues in her play, Fefu and Her Friends. Although set in 1935, the play explores lives of contemporary women. The sensibility, the subject matter, the "universal" female characters, and the very structure of the play are clearly feminist. The eight...

(The entire section is 7359 words.)

Further Reading

(Drama Criticism)

Betsko, Kathleen, and Rachel Koenig. "Maria Irene Fomes." In Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights, pp. 154-67. New York: Beech Tree Books, 1987.

Conversation in which Fomes talks about her methods of constructing and directing her plays, the "female aesthetic" in drama, and other topics.

Chaudhuri, Una. "Maria Irene Fornes." In Speaking on Stage: Interviews with Contemporary American Playwrights, ed. Philip C. Kolin and Colby H. Kullman, pp. 98-114. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996.

Interview in which Fomes discusses her dramaturgy and the reception and interpretation of her works.

Gargano, Cara. "The Starfish...

(The entire section is 540 words.)