Fefu and Her Friends
Fefu and Her Friends
MARIA IRENE FORNES
Fefu and Her Friends by Maria Irene Fornes was first produced at the Relativity Media Lab (part of the New York Theatre Strategy) on May 5, 1977, and was directed by Fornes herself. It was performed to a wider audience at the Off-Broadway venue, the American Place Theatre, on January 8, 1978. Fornes published the script of her short play in the winter 1978 edition of the Performing Arts Journal, or PAJ. PAJ Publications published the most recent edition of Fefu and Her Friends as a slim book in 1990.
Fefu and Her Friends is Fornes's fifteenth play. When it was produced, she was an established playwright and director. Nevertheless, it was one of Fornes's most successful plays and it was also an unusual format for the absurdist playwright because it relied more on realism than her earlier plays. Fornes won an Off-Broadway award, or Obie, for Fefu and Her Friends. The play's themes of gender roles, sexuality, love between women, and insanity strike chords within a society still coming to terms with the sexual revolution of the 1960s—a revolution some historians claim has actually been going on since the 1920s. Fefu and Her Friends is a play that remains raw and relevant today.
Maria Irene Fornes was born on May 14, 1930 in Havana, Cuba, to Carlos Luis and Carmen Hismenia Fornes. In 1945, when Fornes was only fifteen, her father died. Later that same year, Fornes, her mother, and her sister immigrated to the United States. Settling in Manhattan, Fornes attended Catholic school but dropped out before graduating so that she could work. Fornes became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1951.
As a young adult, Fornes wanted to be a painter and spent a lot of time in Greenwich Village and even a few years in Paris. While in Paris, she saw and was struck by the original production of Samuel Beckett's absurdist masterpiece Waiting for Godot. The themes in Beckett's play have echoed throughout Fornes work. When she returned to Greenwich Village in 1957, Fornes spent a few more years supporting herself as a custom textile designer before discovering her love of playwriting. Her first professionally produced production, The Widow, was staged in 1961. Fornes has gone on to write more than forty plays, directing many of them herself. In 1972, Fornes teamed up with other playwrights to create the New York Theatre Strategy, which opened in 1973. The New York Theatre Strategy was envisioned as a place where playwrights could test out their ideas. Fefu and Her Friends was originally staged there in 1977, using the theatre's office and costume shop as part of the set.
In the 1970s, Fornes became deeply involved in Hispanic theater through INTAR, the Hispanic American Arts Center in New York City, where she taught workshops for aspiring Hispanic playwrights. In the 1980s, some of Fornes's works were criticized as being too Hispanic, whereas her 2000 production, Letters from Cuba (based in part on correspondence with her only brother who remained in Cuba), was considered to be not Hispanic enough. Fornes is also a feminist playwright although some have criticized her work as not being feminist enough.
Fornes has been honored with numerous awards and grants including nine Obies (Off-Broadway theater awards)—one of them for Fefu and Her Friends, two Rockefeller grants, two National Endowment for the Arts grants, and a Guggenheim fellowship. She is still writing and directing plays.
Fefu and Her Friends is a three-part play. The first part has one scene, the second part has four scenes, and the third part has one scene. The scene in part 1 begins at noon in the living room of Fefu's country home in New England. It is a spring day in 1935 and Fefu has invited her friends over for a meeting. When the play opens, Fefu, Cindy, and Christina are waiting for the others to arrive. Fefu tells the others that her husband married her "to have a constant reminder of how loathsome women are." Cindy is surprised, but Fefu assures her that she agrees with Phillip's assessment. Fefu explains that what she is really interested in is "exciting ideas," giving the impression that she is less invested in what she is saying than in the reaction she gets from others. She tells Cindy and Christina that she likes revulsion: "It's something to grapple with." Fefu illustrates her point by describing the worms and fungus found on the underside of a stone: "It is another life that is parallel to the one we manifest…. If you don't recognize it…. (Whispering) it eats you."
Hearing voices out on the lawn, Fefu picks up her gun and shoots at Phillip, who gamely falls down for a moment and pretends to be dead. It is a strange game between Phillip and his wife. Fefu leaves and Cindy tries to convince Christina that Fefu is not crazy although she has an odd marriage. Cindy assures Christina that the gun is only loaded with blanks. Rattled, Christina asserts, "One can die of fright, you know." They argue over putting the gun away; neither wants to touch it. Fefu returns just as Christina is about to toss a silk shawl over it but, embarrassed, Christina pretends to be dancing instead.
Fefu informs Cindy that she has fixed the toilet in her bathroom and Cindy is surprised that Fefu does her own plumbing. Fefu admits to the other women that Phillip scared her this time, that she thought he might really be hurt because he has threatened to one day put real bullets in the gun. Christina tells Fefu that she is "crazy," "stupid," and depressing but Fefu implores Christina to just laugh at her instead. "I know I'm ridiculous. Come on, laugh." Fefu now tells them that she likes men better than women. She watches her husband, brother-in-law, and gardener outside during her soliloquy. "Women are restless with each other…. They are always eager for the men to arrive. When they do, they can put themselves at rest, tranquilized and in a mild stupor."
Fefu leaves to check the toilet and Cindy sings a song to soothe Christina. Julia arrives, wheelchair-bound. She was injured in a hunting accident but Cindy assures Christina that the bullet did not touch Julia. Emma, Paula, and Sue arrive soon thereafter. There is a happy reunion among friends while Christina is introduced around. They discuss lunch and the meeting/ rehearsal they will have later, then disperse to different areas of the house. Julia takes up Fefu's rifle, removing the remaining slug and smelling the barrel. She blacks out for a moment, then says, "She's hurting herself." Julia leaves to lay down and Cindy reloads the gun. Cecilia arrives and introduces herself to Cindy and Christina.
Fornes wrote and directed this middle part of the play to be performed in four parts simultaneously. The audience is divided into four groups and is moved to each location until they have seen all the scenes. They are reunited again for part 3.
IN THE LAWN
It is afternoon and Fefu and Emma are on the lawn playing croquet and eating apples. Emma tells Fefu that she obsessively thinks about people's genitals all the time; she finds it very strange that people aren't more self-conscious of their genitals. The two friends have an easy rapport. Fefu confides in Emma, "I am in constant pain…. It's not physical, and it's not sorrow." She describes her pain as being something spiritual but she cannot adequately express what it is. Fefu abruptly leaves to get lemonade and Emma recites William Shakespeare's "Sonnet 14": "Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck." She is commenting on Fefu's enduring and beautiful spirit. Fefu returns with Paula and Cecilia.
IN THE STUDY
Christina is sitting at the desk in the study reading a French textbook. Cindy sits nearby reading a magazine. They read pieces aloud to each other and languidly philosophize. Cindy asks Christina if she's having a good time and Christina says she is. They talk about Fefu and Christina struggles to identify what it is about Fefu that unsettles her. "Her mind is adventurous." Christina determines that Fefu's adventurousness leads to some measure of disregard for convention and that she, Christina, is probably more of a conformist and therefore threatened by Fefu. Cindy tells Christina about a strange dream she had the night before. In her dream, she was threatened by an angry young doctor and escapes with her sister in a taxi, waking just before he catches her. Neither know what this dream means.
IN THE BEDROOM
Julia's guest room is a converted storage room. She lays in the bed, dressed in a hospital gown, and is hallucinating quietly. In her monologue, Julia describes being abused by unidentified attackers: "They clubbed me. They broke my head. They broke my will. They broke my hands. They tore my eyes out. They took my voice away. They didn't do anything to my heart because I didn't bring my heart with me." She explains that the judges love her and that's why they beat her. "He said that I had to be punished because I was getting too smart." They are also after Fefu and Julia cries out to her judges to spare Fefu "for she's only a joker." Julia says her prayer, declaring man to be human and woman to be, among other things, evil and the source of evil. "The mate for man is woman and that is the cross man must bear." In an echo of Fefu and Emma's conversation on the lawn, Julia says that man's sexuality is physical and therefore pure whereas woman's sexuality is spiritual "and they take those feelings with them to the afterlife where they corrupt the heavens." Julia hallucinates that she is being slapped for not believing her prayer. Sue interrupts her, bringing in a bowl of soup.
IN THE KITCHEN
Paula declares to Sue that she has determined that a love affair lasts exactly "seven years and three months" and goes on to describe the pattern in detail. Paula recommends celibacy to solve the problem of overlapping love affairs, then puzzles over how the mind and body each differently get over a breakup. Sue asks her if something wrong. Paula says no and Sue leaves to take soup to Julia. Cecilia enters the kitchen and it becomes apparent that there was a relationship between her and Paula, which has fizzled out. Cecilia apologizes repeatedly for not calling and Paula shrugs it off. Paula tells Cecilia that she has been examining herself since they were together and is disappointed that she hasn't made more of her life. Paula was the less dominant one in their former relationship and organized herself around Cecilia's happiness. When Cecilia left, Paula's life lost meaning. Fefu interrupts, coming into the kitchen for lemonade. She invites them to croquet and Paula apologizes to Cecilia, "I'm not reproaching you." Cecilia, speaking up for the first time since Paula began pouring out her heart, takes Paula's hand and says, "I know. I've missed you too."
The final part of the play takes place in the living room in the evening. The women all enter, moving about their business while Cecilia is telling Sue, "We cannot survive in a vacuum. We must be part of a community." Julia connects this with her isolation as a person who has hallucinations because only other hallucinating people can understand what she is going through. The group prepares for their meeting. They are having a dress rehearsal for an educational fundraising event. Fefu opens the presentation; Paula goes next. Emma is dressed in an exotic costume for her part and she recites from the writings of Emma Sheridan Fry, a children's acting teacher. While they discuss the order of their presentation, Cecilia sits next to Paula and puts her hand on Paula's leg, absent mindedly. When they finish, everyone except Cindy and Julia go to the kitchen to prepare coffee. Christina comes running back into the living room because there's a water fight in the kitchen over who will do the dishes. Emma, Paula, Sue, and Fefu begin chasing each other through the house with pans of water. Christina hides on the couch until the water fight is over.
Cindy tells Julia, "She's been hiding all day." They ask after each other's lives. Cindy has broken up with her boyfriend or husband, Mike, and Julia is too concerned with death to have a love life. "I think of death all the time." Paula, Sue, and Emma, delivering coffee, try to brighten the mood with silly jokes. Everyone except Paula retreats to the kitchen to drink coffee. Cecilia enters from the lawn. She promises Paula again that she will call her but will not be specific about when. Paula stands her ground and tells Cecilia she is not available to be called at just any time. Paula and Cecilia leave the living room in different directions while Fefu sits quietly on the steps. She observes Julia—walking—as she briefly comes into the living room, picks up the sugar bowl, puts it back down, and returns to the kitchen. Immediately thereafter, Julia, Sue, Cindy, Christina, Emma, and Cecilia come into the living room. Julia is back in her wheelchair. Paula returns from upstairs. Sue reminisces about old friends of theirs who were sent to "the psychiatrist" because they were not conforming to a womanly ideal.
Paula remembers when she was new to the faculty and thought that everyone who was rich was happy. She has changed her mind. "I think we should teach the poor and let the rich take care of themselves." Paula starts crying; Cecilia kisses her and they leave the living room. Sue, Christina, Cindy, and Emma go out to the lawn to look at the stars, leaving Fefu and Julia behind to talk. Fefu asks Julia directly if she can walk and Julia says she cannot. Fefu is frustrated with Julia for not trying. "What is it you see?" Fefu demands of her. "And you're contagious. I'm going mad too," Fefu accuses Julia. Fefu admits to Julia that Phillip hates her; Fefu is devastated by this knowledge. She implores Julia to fight with her, grabbing her and shaking her. Christina comes in on this scene and Fefu is sure the other woman's good opinion of her is totally ruined. She grabs her gun, saying she's going to clean it. Christina tells her not to and Fefu calls her "silly." Cecilia enters, ready to leave. Fefu goes onto the lawn. Julia is worried that she told Fefu something about the judges and that now she will be in trouble. A shot rings out and Julia touches her forehead. Just like in the first hunting accident, she is mysteriously bleeding. Then Julia's head falls back and she dies. Fefu enters the living room with a dead rabbit, surprised that she has killed it.
Fefu (pronounced Feh-foo) is the host of this gathering, which is held at her house in the New England countryside. She is friends with everyone except Christina, whom she has just met. Fefu is a well-heeled philanthropist, giving talks and fundraising for education. At her house, she is a thorough and welcoming host and has a playful, fun spirit. There are also glimpses of her dropping under some kind of strain. The audience is introduced to Fefu's strange relationship with her husband Phillip at the very beginning of the play but Fefu's bright behavior glosses over her unhappiness, which only gradually emerges. In part 2, she tells Emma she is in some sort of spiritual pain. The poem Emma recites, "Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck," is Shakespeare's "Sonnet 14," and the last line, "Thy end is truth's and beauty's doom and date," expresses Emma's deep respect for Fefu's character—she believes in her friend even though Fefu doesn't much believe in herself anymore. Christina, meanwhile, represents how many other people respond to Fefu's brash comments and actions. She is appalled and repulsed, which Fefu sees and tries to mitigate by asking Christina to laugh at her. In part 3, Fefu is sitting on the stairs near the living room, glum, a face she hides from everyone else as she dashes around to get lunch or fetch lemonade or fix a toilet. She fully reveals her unhappiness to Julia at the end of the play: "Phillip can't stand me…. I need him, Julia. I need his touch. I need his kiss. I need the person he is." Her torment is that Phillip does not need or want her. Fefu, a scholar and a feminist, is crippled by her own powerlessness in her marriage.
Phillip is Fefu's husband. He is offstage on the lawn for the entire play. Phillip and Fefu have a strange relationship—such as Fefu shooting blanks at him and Phillip falling down for a moment, pretending to be hit—but Fefu insists they are happy. At the end of the play she admits to Julia that Phillip can't stand her: "He's left. His body is here but the rest is gone." This line is interesting in light of the fact that Phillip is never actually seen or heard—as if he were indeed gone. Fefu's dead rabbit is also proof that there was a real bullet in the rifle. The question remains: who put it there?
See Fefu Beckmann
Emma is boisterous and outgoing, jumping into Julia's lap, kissing one of the women sitting on the couch, and taking part in the water fight. She is wealthy and likes to travel, showing up at Fefu's house wearing an outfit she bought in Turkey. Emma has also brought along an even more outlandish costume to wear for their fundraiser event. Emma is a performer and likes to recite—her recitation of Emma Sheridan Frye's work is the core performance of their fundraising event. Emma and Fefu are especially close with each other. Despite her extroverted behavior, Emma pays close attention to her friends and has keen insight into their personalities; however, her own emotions are not revealed.
Christina is new to this circle of friends and only knows Cindy and Julia. She is disturbed by Fefu's talk and frightened by the group's outlandish behavior, such as Fefu shooting blanks at her husband and the extensive water fight over who will do the dishes. Christina prefers to conform—to not stand out or be involved in conflict—and she admits to Cindy that Fefu confuses her. "I suppose I do hold back for fear of being disrespectful or destroying something—and I admire those who are not. But I also feel they are dangerous to me." Christina's remark to Fefu at the end of the play, when Fefu picks up her rifle again, is telling of Christina's priorities: "I don't care if you shoot yourself. I just don't like the mess you're making." This concern is domestic to an extreme rather than compassionate.
Cindy is a friend of Fefu's and cares for her despite Fefu's wild behavior. She is patient and spends most of the play in company with Christina, who doesn't know this group of friends. Cindy does not express an opinion as to whether she approves of Fefu or not, giving readers the impression that she rides the fence: she mutely goes along with Fefu's ideas but maintains a calm, normal exterior, not talking or behaving like Fefu or Emma. Cindy has a disturbing dream wherein an angry young doctor chases her. Her dream draws on a fear of authority figures: her significant other, Mike; a young male doctor; and secret policemen. In her dream, she is aided only by her sister Meg. For a moment in the dream Cindy commands everyone's respects by yelling, "Stop and listen to me." She has been separated for a few months from Mike and there are hints that she is unhappy, but, except for describing the dream, Cindy never opens up about her feelings.
Paula, like the other women, is a friend of Fefu's and an educator. She is less well off than her wealthy friends but has come to the conclusion that she is no less happy. Paula and Cecilia had a romantic relationship that has recently fizzled out. Paula tells Cecilia, "I'm not lusting after you," when Cecilia continues to give her mixed signals. Paula is clearly still drawn to Cecilia but determined to not be the less-dominant figure in any future relationship. When Cecilia repeatedly, emptily promises to call Paula so they can talk, but refuses to commit to a time, Paula refuses to be infinitely available to her. The stronger Paula is, the more Cecilia is attracted to her. But unlike Cecilia, this is not manipulation on Paula's part. She sincerely cares for Cecilia and is willing to walk away from their relationship if Cecilia continues to abuse her emotionally.
Cecilia is a friend of Fefu's and is Paula's former lover. She and Paula drifted apart although Cecilia's disinterest in the relationship seems to have precipitated the breakup. Throughout the play, Cecilia sends Paula mixed signals, sometimes being cold to her and sometimes affectionate. Cecilia is manipulative, trying to maintain control in their relationship, not inviting Paula to call her but telling Paula that she will call, and then refusing to commit to a time. When Paula shows her strength and refuses to be run over by this manipulation, Cecilia is inexplicably drawn to her ex-lover. In this play, Cecilia's dominating behavior is a masculine foil to Paula's feminist strength.
Julia is one of the central characters of this play. She is wheelchair-bound following a mysterious hunting accident. She now suffers from petit mal seizures, also known as absent seizures, where the person loses consciousness for a few seconds. Julia may in fact be epileptic and her seizures were brought on by the bang of the hunter's gun rather than a blow to the head. Julia assures everyone that she is adapting well. She matter-of-factly tells Cindy, "I'm very morbid these days. I think of death all the time." There is a lot of tension surrounding Julia's presence in Fefu's house because of the gun Fornes has placed in the living room. At the end of the play, the tension is resolved by Julia's death—another mysterious hunting accident. Fefu is outside shooting rabbit (an irony since Cindy told Christina in part 1 that Fefu doesn't hunt anymore because of her love of animals and because the gun is supposedly loaded with blanks) but at the crack of Fefu's gun, Julia slumps over, dead.
In part 2, alone in her room, the audience observes Julia's most private thoughts. She hallucinates freely, wrought with guilt and tormented by imaginary judges. These imaginary judges hold her accountable for deviant thoughts and behavior and the slightest misstep brings further pain. Julia tries to comply with their wishes but knows she will not be free of them until she truly believes, in her heart, what they tell her is fact. The things she is to believe include the fact that she is not smart, that Fefu is not smart, that human beings are men while women are both evil and a gift to men just like oxen for farming. Julia's death may be foreshadowing Fefu's future decline.
Sue is an educator and a friend of Fefu's. She is helpful: making lunch, serving food and coffee, and washing dishes. She is also the treasurer of their fundraising group. Sue is playful, demonstrating the many uses of ice cubes on a stick as well as taking part in the water fight. She is also sensitive to others‧ feelings but does not push them when they do not want to talk. Little is known about her life outside this single day at Fefu's house, except that she, like the others there, have been smart enough to not be sent to the psychiatrist like some of their former friends were. Sue is a feminist-in-hiding, breaking out at the appropriate times but generally sticking to the gender role expected of her. Sue is one of the most domestic women in this play—kind and fun to be with, but also bland and forgettable.
Relationships between Women
Fefu and Her Friends highlights a multitude of ways in which women relate to each other. Fefu and Emma are close friends and appear to have known each other for a long time. They talk easily and intimately, unlike Fefu and Christina, who are unable to find common ground. Everything Fefu says and does is appalling or discomforting to Christina, who clings to conformity as much as Fefu casts it off. Another type of relationship that Fornes explores is the romantic relationship. Cecilia and Paula are old lovers whose relationship has failed. They are still drawn to each other but it is clear by the end of the play that they will not connect again. Through Fefu, Fornes expresses the idea that women are uncomfortable with each other and seek to be with men or to be like men. Men get along with each other easily, unlike women with other women. Although the women in this play are all friends, they are each separated by uncertainty, fear, and confusion, and they only open up to one another reluctantly.
Conformity and Insanity
Julia is losing the battle with her inner demons. Her inner judges force her to denounce her intelligence. They beat her. She must recite a "prayer" that encapsulates a decidedly anti-feminist, misogynistic point of view. Julia's grip on reality is shaken when a stray remark from Fefu leads her to believe she has committed a grievous error and accidentally told someone about the judges. Fefu and Julia's fates seem linked. Fefu is the only friend Julia mentions by name in her hallucinations, fearing that the judges will be after her next. Of all the friends meeting that day, Fefu's inner struggles most closely resemble Julia's. Fefu even thinks she has had her own hallucination when she sees Julia walk into the living room and pick up the sugar bowl. While this may have been another absent seizure, because Julia can't remember it happening, Fefu cannot be sure of herself now. Julia is a prisoner in her own mind. even as her body is unable to move. Her death at the end of the play is a merciful release.
One of the ways a person's power over their lives and even themselves, can be undermined is through a diagnosis, or even just a suspicion of insanity. Sue illustrates this when, during part 3, she recalls a couple of women whom they used to know—intelligent, beautiful, young—who were each sent to the psychiatrist because they were too beautiful and too smart. They are recalled as if they were dead, cut down in their prime, because being sent to the psychiatrist was a kind of societal death. The compromise with society is conformity, as represented in the characters of Sue, Christina, and Cindy. Conformity is safe, a known pattern that nearly everyone can follow. It is also dull in its predictability. Many times conformity also masks societal ills wherein one group has power over another and maintains that power through general acceptance of the situation (such as accepted inequities of gender, race, and religion).
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- In small groups of four to eight people, write a one-act play portraying these characters ten years after Fefu and Her Friends ends. Take into account historical events and personalities, adding your own creative touch. Perform your play for your class. When all of the class plays have been presented, engage in a round-table discussion to examine the different interpretations.
- Social classes are hierarchical (status-driven) divisions within society that often fall along lines of wealth, race, or religion. Fornes touches lightly on this matter in her play but social class has always been a significant issue. Research social classes as they were organized in the 1930s and write a paper comparing these divisions to social classes today. Has the class divide widened or narrowed over the intervening years?
- Emma recites from Shakespeare and from Emma Sheridan Fry. Choose a poem or passage from a book and memorize it, then recite it with dramatic flair for your class. Do you feel you have a deeper understanding of this piece now that you have it memorized? Why or why not? Write a brief response on your discoveries.
- One question that critics pose about Fefu and Her Friends is: Is this a feminist play, an anti-feminist play, or just a play that happens to have an all-female cast? Write an essay in which you address this question, using examples from the play to support your thesis. When all of the class's papers are turned in, take a survey of your classmates to find out what the most common and uncommon conclusions were.
Sexuality, Power, and Gender Roles
The women of Fefu and Her Friends are concerned with sexuality and the power it confers. In the first line of dialogue in the play, Fefu says, "My husband married me to have a constant reminder of how loathsome women are." Although Fefu is saying this to excite controversy and conversation, by the end of the play the audience comes to understand the pain Fefu bears because this statement is so true. She weeps to Julia that she needs her husband—emotionally and physically—but he dislikes her and will not fill that role for her. Phillip has asserted his dominance in their relationship; he is the one in control. This is a startling conclusion because Fefu otherwise is a strong, intelligent, confident woman. Cecilia tries to use similar tactics of withholding affection to manipulate her former lover, Paula. Paula has grown wise and, although she is still attracted to Cecilia, she stands her ground every time Cecilia tries to belittle her. Paula's strength, in fact, draws Cecilia to her.
Julia allows herself to believe that men's sexuality is pure and women's is not—and that women are evil and are only some tool gifted to men by God. These are deeply ingrained stereotypes that feminists have long struggled to overcome. Fefu and her friends are illustrative of the various forms these struggles can take: Fefu and her failing marriage; Cecilia and Paula fighting for dominance or equality with one another; Cindy, separated from her significant other but closed-mouthed about her pain; Sue, stable and very domestic; Emma, also stable and anything but domestic; Christina and her fear of nonconformity; and Julia, beating herself for daring to be powerful, intelligent, and female.
Absurdism is a belief that human existence is chaotic and meaningless. Fornes was strongly influenced by Theater of the Absurd playwrights such as Samuel Beckett, and her early plays reflect this. Fefu and Her Friends was a new, more realistic form for Fornes but still has prominent absurdist elements. First, the play has no real plot; it is a presentation of a series of conversations between women with no particular direction or resolution. The conversations that are strung together to form the content of this play are very loosely connected, leaving the meaning of the overall production open to interpretation. Events such as Fefu shooting blanks at her husband, Julia's hunting accidents, and the water fight are also absurdist elements.
Foreshadowing is a device whereby the playwright places clues that warn about future events. In Fefu and Her Friends, Fornes heavily foreshadows Julia's death with the inclusion of the rifle, multiple discussions about whether the gun is loaded with real bullets or not, and Julia's frequent talk about death. "I will die … for no apparent reason," she prophesizes in part 3. The hunting accident which left Julia paralyzed, combined with the presence of the rifle, leaves the audience to wonder throughout the play what will happen when the rifle is fired while Julia is nearby.
Between Two Wars
At the time Fefu and Her Friends takes place, the world is recovering from the ravages of the Great War, later known as World War I (1914-1918). The U.S. economy, under the earnest direction of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal programs, is recovering from economic depression, which hit the country hard in 1929. Germany, also economically depressed and smarting from the harsh restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles, became a hotbed of resentment. The National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nazi Party) was formed in 1919 and took over the government when its leader, Adolf Hitler, was elected Führer of Germany in 1933. After Hitler came into power, he began to break restrictions established by the Treaty of Versailles—restrictions on actions such as conscripting citizens into military service, building an arsenal, and invading nearby countries. World War II (1939-1945) officially began when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939.
In the United States, many people were averse to becoming involved in problems overseas as they felt the United States had enough of its own problems. Dust storms ravaged many of the agricultural states in the Midwest, while mobsters and criminals (like Bonnie and Clyde) ran rampant across the country. Few, if any, were aware of the inhumane treatment happening at concentration camps and death camps in Europe. The United States held off direct involvement in World War II until December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. At Fefu's country house in New England, these problems are far away; Paula is the only one to mention contemporary issues when she worries that they should focus more on teaching the poor. These women are under a different kind of assault, unseen and difficult to overcome, involving sexuality and gender roles.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1930s: The United States is slowly recovering from an economic depression that started with the stock market crash of 1929. Many people were unemployed (25 percent), their lives destroyed by deep poverty, as Paula notes in the play. From 1933-1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacts a number of programs, collectively called the New Deal, designed to stabilize the economy.
1970s: Soaring energy prices cause people to fear an economic recession. Unemployment is around 6.2 percent. The Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) places an embargo on shipping oil to the United States from October 1973 to March 1974, resulting in prices at the pump as high as $6.13 per gallon. It takes a decade for gas prices to return to normal levels.
Today: Companies are downsizing and laying workers off even as income disparity is becoming more pronounced. Unemployment stands at 4.5 percent. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which destroyed oil refineries in the Gulf of Mexico, the price of gasoline at the pump rises to $3.04 per gallon, the highest price since March 1981.
- 1930s: Eugene O'Neill, an American playwright known for popularizing realism, wins the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936. Non-commercial theatres and plays with a social or political message are emerging. Experimental theater (such as absurdist or avantgarde) is in its infancy, primarily in Europe, and will fully flourish after World War II.
1970s: Both realism and absurdism continue to be popular forms in theater. Musicals like A Chorus Line are very popular. Experimental forms such as improvisation and performance art are being explored. Plays about minorities and women also become more numerous, reflecting society's emerging awareness of issues related to gender and race. In addition, more women and minority playwrights see their work produced.
Today: Plays range from experimental to realistic. Theater, always in competition with cinema and television, is increasingly threatened by other media such as the Internet, DVDs, and iPods. Still, media has never been able to fully replace the experience of live theater.
- 1930s: The first wave of feminism dies out once women are granted the right to vote in the United States in 1920. The country is in the grips of terrible economic depression and strict gender roles are somewhat loosened as women seek work, earn Social Security rights from President Roosevelt's new law, and vote.
1970s: The second wave of feminism begins. Women are fighting for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and have been doing so ever since gaining the right to vote. The controversial Roe v. Wade decision is handed down in 1973, giving women the right to seek an abortion if they so choose.
Today: More women than ever are political leaders. Nancy Pelosi became the first female U.S. Speaker of the House in January 2007.
Women played a large role in supporting the U.S. economy during World War I, taking on the jobs men had to leave behind to go fight overseas. When the war was over, women did not readily give up their careers and freedoms. In the United States, the National Women's Party was formed in 1913 to fight for women's rights. Their primary goal was suffrage, or the right to vote. They saw success with their campaign in 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified. Icons of this era include Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt. Earhart was the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1932 and she inspired many women with her independent spirit. Roosevelt, as First Lady, was very active alongside her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in promoting the New Deal programs. She was known to be a no-nonsense woman, strong-willed, independent, and a suffragist. Roosevelt was, however, opposed to the Equal Rights Amendment because she believed it would be detrimental for women, and she was not alone in this reasoning. The Equal Rights Amendment was never ratified, although it continues to be proposed into legislation at every Congress. Fefu, like Earhart and Roosevelt, is a strong, independent woman, although she has discovered that strength and independence do not automatically equate with happiness in life.
Fefu and Her Friends was well-received when it was first produced in 1977 and again in 1978. Writing for the New York Times, Richard Eder describes Fornes's directing as "uneven" and awkward but praises the script as "the dramatic equivalent of a collection of poems." He summarizes: "It is an imperfect evening but a stimulating one; and with moments of genuine splendor in it." Walter Kerr, also writing in the New York Times and reviewing the same production, gives Fefu and Her Friends a scathing review. He complains that the play is too "philosophical." He does not enjoy the intimacy of part 2 when the audience visits different rooms to see the scenes performed, and he does not see why the women are getting together. Kerr concludes: "If I lasted as long as I did, it was because I kept hoping during my constant journeyings that I might find a play in the very next room."
These critics saw the Off-Broadway performance at the American Place Theater in January 1978. Fornes, recalling the question-and-answer sessions she hosted for audiences during that production, writes for the Performing Arts Journal in 1983: "I began to notice that a lot of the men looked at the play differently from the women…. They insisted on relating to the men in this play, which had no male characters." She also writes, in response to critics such as Kerr: "The only answer they have is that it is a feminist play. It could be that it is a feminist play but it could be that it is just a play…. it is natural for a woman to write a play where the protagonist is a woman. Man is not the center of life."
Ullmann is a freelance writer and editor. In the following essay, she discusses sickness, madness, depression, and contagion in Fornes's Fefu and Her Friends.
Fefu and Her Friends gives audiences a-day-in-the-life view of eight progressive 1930s New England women who have gathered to discuss the very practical matter of a fundraising event that they are hosting to raise money for education. All of these women are involved in education and have made it their career. Despite their independence, their intelligence, and their playful spirits, gloom touches them all, especially Fefu and Julia.
The idea of madness is tossed around almost carelessly in the beginning of the play when Christina confides to Cindy that she thinks Fefu is "crazy" and Cindy concurs that she is, albeit "a little." On the surface, they are referring to the outrageous things Fefu says and to her shooting blanks at her husband. The gun firing scared them and they are trying to calm their pounding hearts. Cindy explains to Christina about Phillip and Fefu, "They are not crazy really. They drive each other crazy." Christina is unconvinced. As the most timid character in this play, Christina is completely out of her element around Fefu. She tells her so a little later in part 1, "I think you're crazy" and "You depress me." Christina is accusing Fefu of not only being insane but also being contagious because her madness has depressed Christina and depression can be perceived as a first (though not irrevocable) step down the road to insanity. Fefu claims she is sane and implores Christina to not be depressed on her account: "Don't be depressed. Laugh at me if you don't agree with me…. I know I'm ridiculous."
Julia is the epicenter of the darkness that runs throughout the play. The victim of a mysterious accident that left her paralyzed, Julia is in the grips of a quiet madness. Julia believes that none are aware of what she is going through because she is careful to keep it a secret, although Cindy has overheard her hallucinations. Cindy tells Fefu and Christina, "I fear for her." Her medical condition is perfectly understandable—Julia is epileptic. The details of her accident are unclear such that it is not certain if the hunter's gunshot or the fall and blow to the head brought on Julia's seizure initially. She now suffers from petit mal seizures, known today as absence seizures, which are characterized by temporary loss of consciousness, with the victim staring off into space for a short period of time. Whether or not Julia understands her medical condition, she is also now in the grips of serious hallucinations wherein she believes herself to be persecuted by a group of nameless judges. Fefu says of Julia, before her accident, "She was afraid of nothing…. She was so young and yet she knew so much." This has been completely undermined; Julia is hardly the same person they once knew. The women are all disturbed and Julia is desperate to convince them that she is fine, lest the judges torment her more.
When she hallucinates, Julia is alternately being beaten by her judges and trying to placate them by reciting what they want to hear, mainly concerning the filthy and evil nature of women and their bodies, and the inherent purity of men. "He said that I had to be punished because I was getting too smart." Julia believes that she was already killed once by the judges but revived when she repented. She is crippled because of her former bad beliefs and behavior. Julia's condition is reminiscent of Fefu's comment about the worms under the rock:
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.
Julia is being destroyed by her madness because she refuses to acknowledge that that is what it is.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Renasence and Other Poems, by Edna St. Vincent Millay, was published in 1917 to critical acclaim. Millay was self-sufficient and progressive, much like the characters in Fornes's play.
- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966), by Tom Stoppard, is an absurdist take on the question of fate and free will, a question that could be asked regarding Julia's death.
- Abingdon Square (1987), by Marie Irene Fornes, is a play with a strong historical element. The play follows a young woman, Marion, from when she is married at age fifteen to nine years later when she nurses her estranged and dying husband.
- Latin American Dramatists since 1945 (2003), by Tony Harvell, covers more than 700 playwrights and 7,000 plays. Entries are organized by country and playwright, and contain biographical information as well as extensive bibliographic records for each author.
- "The Yellow Wallpaper" (1892), by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, tells the tragic story of a wife who is locked in her room by her husband on the advice of her doctors. This short story is told in the first-person through entries in the wife's journal.
- Feminist Theatre Practice: A Handbook (1999), by Elaine Aston, provides information and exercises to aid in feminist performance. It is divided into three sections.
The imagined judges who hurt Julia are also interested in Fefu, whose intelligence and forth-right behavior is threatening to their misogynist beliefs. Julia tries to claim that Fefu is not smart, perhaps hoping to spare Fefu what she is going through. When Julia first arrives, she unloads Fefu's rifle, noticing the slug is a blank. She says cryptically, "She's hurting herself," then slips into an absent seizure. Even through the filter of Julia's madness, her words ring true. The meaning of this is made clear as the characters unfold their innermost thoughts and the audience learns of Fefu's depression. The gun is a masculine, violent way for Fefu to release her anguish over her failing marriage. But it is also a temporary relief, perhaps because it is only loaded with blanks.
Fefu's seemingly careless regard for life frightens Christina, who does not feel that this is natural behavior, even for an adventurous woman. She is right, but this conclusion is not puzzling when one is aware that Fefu pines for a husband who despises her, and that Fefu has lost interest in her life's work. "I am in constant pain. I don't want to give in to it. If I do I am afraid I will never recover," Fefu tells Emma in part 2. This is the first direct indication that Fefu is not as strong, nor as happy as she appears. Fefu covers up her depression with domestic concerns. Whenever she is overly aware of the pain she feels, she rushes out of the room to fetch lemonade, fix a toilet, or make lunch.
Fefu accuses Julia (much as Christina did to Fefu earlier, only this time with more insistence), "You're nuts, and willingly so." Julia denies her madness. Fefu continues, "And you're contagious. I'm going mad too." Fefu hallucinated that Julia walked across the living room when no one else was around, so it would appear to be true, that Fefu is also mad. Or was this an absent seizure and Julia does not remember? Madness and depression are not the same things, despite efforts to equate the two for purposes of neutralizing a person's independence. Sue remembers a friend from years ago, who dated twenty-eight men in one semester because she was both beautiful as well as kind to each man who asked her out. She got in trouble with her superiors for dating too many men. "And the worst thing was that after that, she thought there was something wrong with her." As seen with Julia's imagined judges, authority figures have a lot of influence on one's beliefs and self-esteem.
Gloria Schuman, another friend, was sent to a psychiatrist for writing a brilliant paper. "He almost drove her crazy. They just couldn't believe she was so smart." Julia recalls, "Everybody ended going to the psychiatrist." "Ended," not ended up. Those who were sent to the psychiatrist—those who were perceived as having mental problems—were no longer valued because they were marked by madness (real or otherwise). The only identity left to them was that of patient. "Those were difficult times," Sue remarks. She also notes that most people, herself included, knew better than to report how many men they were dating or to be honest at their medical check-ups. Otherwise they would end up like naïve Susan Austin, who "said she was nervous and she wasn't sleeping well. So she had to see a psychiatrist from then on." Emma assumes Austin was crazy but Sue assures her she was not. This is the stigma of being sent to the psychiatrist.
Repeatedly, Fornes is telling audiences through Fefu and Her Friends that the brightest women are brought down by madness, whether actual or implied. This is the fate that Fefu desperately wants to avoid, and she seeks refuge from this by pretending to be fine, by hiding within the domestic sphere. Women like Fefu take care of their houses, prepare food for their families and guests, and otherwise behave in a feminine, subservient manner. Sue and Christina are superior examples of domesticated scholars. Fefu is quite the opposite. She tells Cindy and Christina, "I like being like a man. Thinking like a man. Feeling like a man." Fefu has few avenues for dealing with her problems—a failing marriage and depression—because the world she inhabits prefers to treat women themselves as the problem rather than as human beings who need help. The underlying implication is that "Woman is not a human being…. Woman generates the evil herself."
Source: Carol Ullmann, Critical Essay on Fefu and Her Friends, in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.
In the following excerpt, Murray interprets Fefu and Her Friends as an astute examination of how and why women gather together.
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" 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." …
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 pre-occupation with plumbing. "Plumbing is more important than you think" 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." Men and women both might be accused of "act[ing] as if they don't have genitals," 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."
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." 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"—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, Fefu remains childless; she has not yet "convert[ed]" herself "to store" by fulfilling the promise of reproduction. 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?") 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," 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." 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." 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 …
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 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? Forne'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. 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." 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.
Source: Piper Murray, "‘They Are Well Together. Women Are Not’: Productive Ambivalence and Female Hom(m)osociality in Fefu and Her Friends," in Modern Drama, Vol. 44, No. 4, Winter 2001, pp. 398-415.
In the following excerpt, Farfan examines Fornes's unusual staging choices in Fefu and Her Friends as well as how the play's mise-en-scène ("putting into the scene") drives its feminist message.
The first time that Maria Irene Fornes attended a rehearsal of one of her plays, she was amazed to be informed by the director that she should not communicate her ideas about staging directly to the actors but should instead make written notes that they would discuss together over coffee after rehearsal. This exclusion of the playwright from the rehearsal process seemed to Fornes "like the most absurd thing in the world." As she later commented,
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.’
Since her initial theatrical experience, Fornes has directed many of the first productions of her own work, having resolved that if she did not direct, the "work would not be done" at all. She has "never [seen] any difference between writing and directing" and for this reason she rarely goes into rehearsal with a completed script in hand.
The organic relationship between dramaturgy and mise-en-scène in Fornes's work is perhaps nowhere more evident than in her 1977 play Fefu and Her Friends, in the middle section of which the audience is divided into quarters, taken out of the main auditorium, and rotated through four intimate playing areas representing rooms in Fefu's house, where the actresses simultaneously repeat interlocking yet distinct scenes four times, once for each section of the audience. Fornes arrived at this unique staging by chance while she was looking for a space in which to present her as-yet-unfinished 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 … 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.
Yet while Fornes attributes the staging of Fefu and Her Friends to chance, she has also stated, "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." Indeed, as I will argue here, in reconfiguring the conventional performer-spectator relationship, Fornes's mise-en-scène in Fefu and Her Friends realizes in theatrical terms an alternative model for interaction with the universe external to the self such as that proposed by the metatheatrical actress/educator-character Emma as a means of transforming Fefu's pain. In this respect, Fefu and Her Friends posits postmodern feminist theatre practice as a constructive response to the psychic dilemmas of the play's female characters. As Emma says, "Life is theatre. Theatre is life. If we're showing what life is, can be, we must do theatre."
Set in New England in 1935, Fefu and Her Friends involves eight women who seem to share a common educational background and who gather at Fefu's house to prepare for what seems to be a fundraising project relating to education. One of these women, Julia, suffers from a mysterious and apparently psychosomatic illness that became evident a year earlier when she collapsed after a hunter shot a deer. She has not walked since and still occasionally blanks out. Alone in her bedroom in Part Two, Julia undergoes a long hallucination punctuated by threats and blows from invisible "judges" who seem to epitomize patriarchal authority. During the course of her hallucination, she reveals that the onset of her illness was a punishment for having got "too smart" and that the conditions of her survival were to become crippled and to remain silent about what she knows. Even now, however, though she attempts to appease the judges by reciting a creed of the central tenets of patriarchal ideology, Julia remains covertly but essentially defiant and unindoctrinated, challenging conventional wisdom relating to women and attempting to get the judges off the trail of her friend Fefu, who is also considered to be "too smart." Thus, in the 1930s context in which the play is set, Julia's physical symptoms both express and suppress her resistance to women's subordination within patriarchal society, as did those of the "smart" female hysterics treated by Sigmund Freud, Josef Breuer, and others around the turn of the century.
Described by Fornes as "the mind of the play—the seer, the visionary," Julia herself implies \that her insights into the patriarchal construction of female inferiority are repressed common knowledge when she states at the end of her Part Two monologue, "They say when I believe the prayer I will forget the judges. And when I forget the judges I will believe the prayer. They say both happen at once. And all women have done it. Why can't I?" (emphasis added). Julia's connection to the other characters in the play is borne out by the simultaneous staging of Part Two, when, at the same time that she is in the bedroom reciting the patriarchal creed under threat of violence from invisible tormentors, Paula is in the kitchen describing the pain of breaking up with her lover Cecilia, Cindy is in the study recounting a nightmare about an abusive male doctor, and Emma and Fefu are on the lawn discussing Emma's obsession with genitals and Fefu's "constant pain." Fornes's sense of the appropriateness of a certain amount of sound-spill between the various playing areas in Part Two suggests that Julia's forbidden knowledge functions as the intermittently or partially audible subtext underlying all the characters' interactions, which have been described by W. B. Worthen as "transformations of Julia's more explicit subjection.
The connection between Julia and the other characters is confirmed in Part Three of Fefu and Her Friends when the women reminisce about their college days in terms that resonate with and confirm the reality of her hallucinations: female intelligence is associated in these recollections with madness, while college professors and doctors are represented as actual versions of Julia's hallucinated judges and are referred to similarly, by means of the pronoun they." Elaine Showalter has written that "hysteria and feminism … exist on a kind of continuum" and that "[i]f we see the hysterical woman as one end of the spectrum of a female avant-garde struggling to redefine women's place in the social order, then we can also see feminism as the other end of the spectrum, the alternative to hysterical silence, and the determination to speak and act for women in the public world." The common educational background of the women in Fefu and Her Friends signifies their shared experience of the pressure to become indoctrinated into the system of beliefs outlined in Julia's prayer. At the same time, the reunion of these women on the basis of their ongoing commitment to education may suggest a fundamental concern on Fornes's part with representing characters engaged in the project of researching alternative modes of response to the knowledge articulated by the hysteric Julia as "the mind of the play." In this sense, the term Lehrstück or "learning play" that Bonnie Marranca has used to describe Fornes's 1987 work Abingdon Square is applicable to Fefu and Her Friends as well.
Julia aligns herself explicitly with Fefu, implying that she also is too smart and is therefore in similar danger of punishment by the judges; and indeed, of all the characters in the play, Fefu is most directly involved in the struggle that has left Julia crippled. Fefu is married to a man she claims to need and desire, but who has told her that he "[married her] to have a constant reminder of how loathsome women are" and who engages her in a terrible "game" whereby he falls to the ground after she shoots at him with a rifle that has thus far been loaded with blanks but that he has threatened one day to load with a real bullet. Fefu's interest in the male-associated activities of shooting and plumbing and her assertions that she "like[s] men better than women" and that she "like[s] being … thinking … [f]eeling like a man" indicate that her strategy for coping with the pain of her marriage is male-identification, but this mode of response is problematized by the presence of female friends who cause her to confront the patriarchal construction of female inferiority. In the opening scene, for example, Cindy forces Fefu to acknowledge a discrepancy between what her husband Phillip says about women being "loathsome" and what she herself knows of women based on her own personal experience. This invalidation of her posture of male-identification makes being around women a dangerous situation for Fefu. As she states in Part One,
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 … High price.—I've never understood it. Why?—What is feared?—Hmmm. Well …—Do you know? Perhaps the heavens would fall.
The devastating recognition scene that this speech anticipates occurs near the end of the play when, in a moment that may support Julia's assertion that "[h]allucinations are real," Fefu "sees" Julia walking and understands that her illness is a psychosomatic response to an insight that she will not or cannot communicate except through the hysterical paralysis of her body. Unaccepting of what she perceives as Julia's passive and voluntary submission, Fefu tries to force her to her feet to fight and then takes action herself, exiting to the lawn with the now-loaded rifle. Like the hunter who shot a deer and mysteriously injured Julia, Fefu now shoots a rabbit and Julia once more suffers the wound, which this time may be fatal.
Beverley Byers Pevitts has argued that the death of Julia signifies the symbolic killing off of woman as created by the dominant culture in order to enable the emergence of a new self-determined female identity, yet Fornes's assertion that her characters should not be seen as symbolic or representative figures makes Pevitts's positive interpretation of the ambiguous ending of Fefu and Her Friends problematic. With regard to this question of the play's ending, Fornes's starting premises for her work on Fefu may perhaps be instructive. By her own account, she began writing the play with two "fantasy" images in mind. The first image was of a "woman … who was talking to some friends [and then] took her rifle and shot her husband"; the second was a joke involving "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.’" In the completed play, Fornes has brought these two starting premises together so that, however indirectly, Fefu shoots Julia rather than her husband Phillip and, in doing so, takes the place of the men in the "joke" who objectify women to the point of annihilation. Notably, in Part One of the play, Julia remarks of Fefu's use of the gun, "She's hurting herself"; inasmuch as taking up the gun is a male-associated strategy of domination, Julia's observation is correct. In this Lehrstück, then, Fefu's male-identification is ultimately as self-destructive and ineffectual a strategy of resistance to women's subordination within patriarchal culture as Julia's hysteria.
Source: Penny Farfan, "Feminism, Metatheatricality, and Mise-en-scène in Maria Irene Fornes's Fefu and Her Friends," in Modern Drama, Vol. 40, No. 4, Winter 1997, pp. 181-93.
W. B. Worthen
In the following excerpt, Worthen discusses Fornes's political, feminist approach in Fefu and Her Friends, particularly how she challenges the audience's inherently uncomfortable response to the play itself.
… Fornes's most assured play, Fefu and Her Friends, brings the gendering of the realistic spectator fully into view, revealing "his" covert control of the women of the stage. The play opens at a country house in 1935. Fefu has invited a group of women to her home to rehearse a brief series of skits for a charity benefit to raise money for a newly founded organization. In the first scene, the women arrive and are introduced. Many seem to have been college friends, two seem to be lovers, or ex-lovers. Much of the action of the scene centers on Julia, who is confined to a wheelchair as the result of a mysterious hunting accident: although the bullet missed her, she is paralyzed from the waist down. In part 2, Fornes breaks the audience into four groups, who tour Fefu's home—garden, study, bedroom, and kitchen: "These scenes are performed simultaneously. When the scenes are completed the audience moves to the next space and the scenes are performed again. This is repeated four times until each group has seen all four scenes." In part 3, the audience is returned to the auditorium. The women rehearse and decide the order of their program, Fefu goes outside to clean her gun, and suddenly a shot rings out; Julia falls dead, bleeding, though again the bullet seems to have gone elsewhere.
The play examines the theatrical poetics of the feminine not only as theme, but in the visible protocols of the spectacle as well, by unseating the invisible spectator of realism and by dramatizing "his" authority over the construction of stage gender. Early in the play, for instance, Fefu looks offstage and sees her husband approaching: "FEFU reaches for the gun, aims and shoots. CHRISTINA hides behind the couch. She and CINDY scream … FEFU smiles proudly. She blows on the mouth of the barrel. She puts down the gun and looks out again." As Fefu explains once Phillip has regained his feet, "It's a game we play. I shoot and he falls. Whenever he hears the blast he falls. No matter where he is, he falls." Although Phillip is never seen in the play, his attitudes constantly intrude on the action—"My husband married me to have a constant reminder of how loathsome women are"—and mark the presence of a powerful, masculine, destructive authority lurking just offstage. The shells may be live or only blanks ("I'm never sure," says Fefu), but it hardly matters. The exchange of power takes place through the "sighting" of the other.
The power of the absent male is everywhere evident in Fefu, and particularly imaged in Julia's paralysis. As Cindy suggests when she describes the accident, Julia's malady is a version of Fefu's "game": "I thought the bullet hit her, but it didn't … the hunter aimed … at the deer. He shot":
Julia and the deer fell … I screamed for help and the hunter came and examined Julia. He said, "She is not hurt." Julia's forehead was bleeding. He said, "It is a surface wound. I didn't hurt her." I know it wasn't he who hurt her. It was someone else … Apparently there was a spinal nerve injury but the doctors are puzzled because it doesn't seem her spine was hurt when she fell. She hit her head and she suffered a concussion but that would not affect the spinal nerve. So there seems to be no reason for the paralysis. She blanks out and that is caused by the blow on the head. It's a scar in the brain.
The women of Fefu and Her Friends share Julia's invisible "scar," the mark of their paralyzing subjection to a patriarchy that operates on the "imaginary," ideological plane. The hunter is kin to Julia's hallucinatory "voices" in part 2, the "judges" who enforce her psychic dismemberment: "They clubbed me. They broke my head. They broke my will. They broke my hands. They tore my eyes out. They took away my voice." Julia's bodily identification is broken down and reordered according to the "aesthetic" canons prescribed by the male voice, the silent voice that characterizes women as "loathsome." This internalized "guardian" rewrites Julia's identity at the interface of the body itself, where the masculine voice materializes itself in the woman's flesh. The subliminal voice infiltrates the deepest levels of psychological and physiological identification, enforcing a crippling gesture of submission:
(Her head moves as if slapped.)
Julia: Don't hit me. Didn't I just say my prayer?
(A smaller slap.)
Julia: I believe it.
The gun business derives from a joke, as Fornes reports in "Notes": "There are two Mexicans in sombreros sitting at a bullfight and one says to the other, ‘Isn't she beautiful, the one in yellow?’ and he points to a woman on the other side of the arena crowded with people. The other one says, ‘Which one?’ and the first takes his gun and shoots her and says, ‘The one that falls.’ In the first draft of the play Fefu explains that she started playing this game with her husband as a joke. But in rewriting the play I took out this explanation." It's notable that the gun business dates from Fornes's original work on the play in 1964, as Fornes suggests in "Interview." For a fuller reading of Fornes's theater, see Worthen, "Still playing games."
As Fornes remarked to Gayle Austin, "Julia is really not mad at all. She's telling the truth. The only madness is, instead of saying her experience was ‘as if’ there was a court that condemned her, she says that they did" (Austin 80).
Fornes suggests that "Julia is the mind of the play," and Julia's scene articulates the shaping vision of Fefu as a whole, as well as organizing the dramatic structure of part 2 ("Notes"). The action of Fefu and Her Friends takes place under watchful eyes of Phillip, of the hunter, of Julia's "guardians," a gaze that constructs, enables, and thwarts the women of the stage: "Our sight is a form they take. That is why we take pleasure in seeing things." In the theater, of course, there is another invisible voyeur, whose performance is both powerful and "imaginary." Fefu and Her Friends extends the function of the spectator beyond the metaphorical register, by decentering "his" implicit ordering of the theatricality of the feminine. First performed by the New York Theater Strategy in a SoHo loft, the play originally invited the spectators to explore the space of Fefu's home. In the American Place Theater production, the spectators were invited, row by row, to different areas of the theater—a backstage kitchen, an upstairs bedroom, the garden and the study sets—before being returned to the auditorium, but not to their original seats. At first glance, Fornes's staging may seem simply a gimmick, a formalist exercise in multiple perspective something like Alan Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests (1973). yet Ayckbourn's trilogy—each play takes a different set of soundings from the events of a single weekend—implies that there could be, in some mammoth play, a single ordering of events, one "drama" expressed by a single plot and visible from a single perspective. Fefu and Her Friends, though, bears little confidence in the adequacy or authority of the single viewing subject characteristic of both film and of fourthwall realism, and more closely approximates the decentering disorientation of environmental theater. Different spectators see the drama in a different sequence and in fact see different plays, as variations invariably enter into the actors' performances. Fornes not only draws the audience into the performance space, violating the privacy of the stage, she actively challenges and suspends the epistemological priorities of realistic vision and its privileged, private subject: the invisible, singular, motionless, masculine "I." By reordering the audience's function in the theatrical process, Fefu reorders its relation to, and interpretation of, the dramatic process it shapes.
As Cecilia says at the opening of part 3, after we have returned to the living room, "we each have our own system of receiving information, placing it, responding to it. That system can function with such a bias that it could take any situation and translate it into one formula." In performance, Fefu and Her Friends dramatizes and displaces the theatrical system that renders woman visible: the predication of feminine identity on the sight of the spectator, a "judge" multiplied from the singular "he" into an audience of "them." In this sense, Fornes's theatrical strategy works to replace the "objective" and objectifying relations of realistic vision with the more "fluid boundaries" sometimes said to describe women's experience of themselves and others. Writing the play, Fornes sought to avoid "writing in a linear manner, moving forward," and instead undertook a series of centrifugal experiments, exploring characterization by writing a series of improvisational, extraneous scenes (Cummings 53). Perhaps as a result, the staging of Fefu challenge the institutional "objectivity," the controlling partitions of realistic vision. The play not only realizes Julia's absent voices, it reshapes the audience's relation to the drama, requiring an interpretive activity that subordinates "plot" to "atmosphere" or "environment," one that refuses recourse to a single, external point of view.
Stanley Kauffman's reading of the play's filmic texture is at once shrewd and, in this sense, misapplied: "I doubt very much that Fornes thought of this four-part walk-around as a gimmick. Probably it signified for her an explanation of simultaneity (since all four scenes are done simultaneously four times for the four groups), a union of play and audience through kinetics, some adoption by the theater of cinematic flexibility and montage. But since the small content in these scenes would in no way be damaged by traditional serial construction, since this insistence on reminding us that people actually have related/unrelated conversations simultaneously in different rooms of the same house is banal, we are left with the feeling of gimmick."
It should be noted that Fornes also remarks, "I don't mean linear in terms of what the feminists claim about the way the male mind works." For the phrase, "fluid boundaries," and for much of my understanding of feminist psychoanalytic theory, I am indebted to my late colleague Joan Lidoff. Patrocinio Schweickart argues, referring to the work of Nancy Chodorow and Carol Gilligan, that "men define themselves through individuation and separation from others, while women have more flexible ego boundaries and define and experience themselves in terms of their affiliations and relationships with others."
In Fefu and Her Friends, vision is achieved only through displacement, by standing outside the theatrical formula of realism. The play undertakes to dramatize both the results of realistic bias—in the various deformations suffered by Julia, Fefu, and their friends—and to enact the "other" formula that has been suppressed, the formula that becomes the audience's mode of vision in the theater. To see Fefu is not to imagine an ideal order, a single, causal "plot" constituted specifically by our absence from the performance; not only are there several "plots," but we have shared the space in which they have been enacted. Fefu sharply illustrates how a "subversive text" can open up theatrical rhetoric, exposing "the negotiation of meanings to contradictions, circularity, multiple viewpoints" (Forte 117). Fefu and Her Friends decenters the absent "spectator" as the site of authentic interpretation, replacing "him" with a self-evidently theatricalized body, an "audience," a community sharing irreconcilable yet interdependent experiences. In Fefu, Fornes provides what Glaspell could not discover in Trifles: a means of politicizing our interpretive activity as spectators. The environmental design of the play invokes the realistic ideal of verisimilitude even as it renders any sense of spectatorial "objectivity" impossible. The perspective offered by the realistic box appears to construct a community of witnesses but is in fact grounded in the sight of a single observer: the realistic audience sees with a single eye. Fefu challenges the "theory" of realistic theater at its source, by dramatizing—and displacing—the covert authority of the constitutive theoros of realism and the social order it reproduces: the offstage man. In this regard, Fornes's theater shares its rhetoric with the theater of Brenton, Barnes, Churchill, Osborne, Kennedy, and many others who work to stage our performance as a political act. The genius of Fefu and Her Friends lies in the way that Fornes renders the relations of visibility palpable, dramatizing their coercive force and the gender bias they inscribe within our own performance of the play.
See Jane Gallop's description of the oculocentrism of theory "from the Greek theoria, from theoros, ‘spectator,’ from thea, ‘a viewing.’" It should be noted that theater of this kind is, in the careful sense developed by Benjamin Bennett, anti-Fascist, in that it not only opposes the imagined uniformity of response latent in the single perspective of realism and the single "personality" produced by poetic theater, but it also forces the audience to negotiate its own variety of responses as part of the play's condition of meaning. See Theater as Problem chapter 4, esp. 159-63.
Source: W. B. Worthen, "Framing Gender: Cloud Nine and Fefu and Her Friends," in Modern Drama and the Rhetoric Theater, University of California Press, 1992, pp. 182-93.
In the following excerpt, Mael gives a critical analysis of Fornes's life and work.
"Innocence, tenderness, a sense of humor, a special kind of joy"—these are the ingredients María Irene Fornés wants in her plays. Structure or form makes these ingredients cohere. According to Fornés, structure is not necessarily words or plot but what takes the audience from one thing to another. "Structure is a personal and idiosyncratic sense of order which is abstract and instinctive." She compares structure in drama to form in abstract painting: "When looking at an abstract painting, we see the elements basic to painting. When looking at a figurative or representational painting, we are not as aware of the abstract elements of composition which must be [present] in order for the painting to be good. Structure refers to the basic elements of playwriting which must be there regardless of content."
Her experimental plays have earned her recognition and critical support. Author and critic Phillip Lopate has written that Fornés "helped clear a way through the claustrophobic landscape of Broadway vapidity and Off-Broadway ponderous symbolism, by making theater that was fresh, adventurous, casual, fantastic, perceptive and musical." Like that of many other recent avant-garde playwrights, Fornés's work has earned both recognition and financial support from several universities and philanthropic foundations. For her work in the theatre she has received awards from the Whitney Foundation (1961), the University of Minnesota (1965), Cintas Foundation (1967), Yale University (1967-1968), Boston University (1968), the Rockefeller Foundation (1971), the Guggenheim Foundation (1972), the National Endowment for the Arts (1973), and the New York State Council on the Arts (1976). These awards testify to her continuing search for new forms to express a personal idiom for theatre.
Fornés emigrated from her native Cuba to the United States in 1945 with her mother and sister. In 1954 she went to Europe and spent three years painting, returning in 1957 to New York, where she worked as a textile designer. In 1960 she began writing plays and had her first production in 1961. She has also directed plays, principally her own. Since 1973 she has been president of the New York Theatre Strategy, an organization that produces the work of experimental American playwrights. In addition to writing plays in English, she has written in Spanish such plays as Cap-a-Pie (1975) and Lolita in the Garden (1977)—both important contributions to INTAR, a New York native Spanish theatre.
Although some might consider her works too abstract, too concerned with form and texture, Fornés insists a strong message is present in most of her plays. But she distinguishes between political thinking and art. In her plays she is "teaching something that is, that exists, but is not telling what to do about it. To indicate what the next step should be, what to do next is political action and not the function of art at all. The function of art is to reveal."
Tango Palace (1964), her first important play, is about the power struggle between Isidore, "an androgynous clown," and Leopold, "an earnest youth." Their struggle is as stylized as the tango Isidore ostensibly attempts to teach Leopold and as deadly as the bullfight in which they engage, a fight which culminates in an embrace as Leopold kills Isidore.
Isidore and Leopold represent the twin poles of an archetypal battle (father-son, teacher-student). As the play opens, Isidore is resting in a shrine, occasionally emerging to toss cards at Leopold. According to Isidore, the cards "contain wisdom" which Leopold must memorize, such as "All is fair in love and war." But Leopold protests this socialization process, wishing instead to learn in his own way, listening to his inner voice. There! You Died (1963), the original title, refers to a line that exemplifies Isidore's desire to be omnipotent. Attempting to convince Leopold that all knowledge emanates from him, Isidore tells Leopold he will die should he burn the cards containing Isidore's words of wisdom. When Leopold asserts himself by setting fire to a card, Isidore trips him and shouts: "There! You died." But Leopold springs to his feet insisting that he only tripped, thus rebelling against Isidore's authority.
The Successful Life of 3 (1965) exhibits, according to Richard Gilman, Fornés's "occupation of a domain strategically removed from our own not by extravagant fantasy but by a simplicity and matter-of-factness that are much more mysterious." He goes on to suggest that the correct style for staging the play would be "doing it as though it were a movie … with the film's freedom precisely from the oppressions of finite time and space … eliminating all the integuments, the texture of verisimilitude and logical connection which … Fornés had excluded as part of her principle of writing."
A vivid example of the cinematic influence in The Successful Life of 3 is the use of "freeze" shots of the characters. Three people assume characteristic expressions at certain moments in the play: He ("handsome young man") "looks disdainful"; She ("sexy young lady") "thinks with a stupid expression"; 3 ("plump, middle-aged man") "looks with intense curiosity." The three stereotyped characters form an absurd triangle which both replicates and undermines conventional romantic notions. The illogical use of time and space and the parodies of masculine rivalry, financial success, justice, and roles of women all serve to subvert conventional theatrical and ethical values.
Fornés's next play, the musical Promenade (1965), is her greatest critical success prior to Fefu and Her Friends (1977). The play mixes wit and compassion, humor and tenderness, zaniness and social satire as prisoners named 105 and 106 journey from prison out into the world and back again. Fornés's lyrics (aided by the music of Rev. Al Carmine) comment on unrequited love, the abuse of power, the injustice of those who are supposed to uphold the law, and the illogical and random nature of life. The play questions the nature of truth as the mother sings: "I have to live with my own truth / Whether you like it or not … I know everything. / Half of it I really know, / The rest I make up." Social criticism is evident but attenuated by the absurdity of its presentation. "Costumes / Change the course of life," as 105 and 106 discover when they place their prisoners' jackets on an injured man who is then taken away by the jailer. Although 105 and 106 have escaped into the world to "discover the appearance of sin," having been "unacquainted with evil," they soon learn to steal from the poor as well as the rich. In the last scene of the play they sing "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." For Promenade and The Successful Life of 3 Fornés received the Obie award for distinguished playwriting in 1965.
A Vietnamese Wedding (1967) was one of Fornés's two plays written to protest American involvement in Vietnam. (The other is The Red Burning Light, 1968.) A Vietnamese Wedding, originally performed as a part of the week-long protest called Angry Arts Week, is not a play, according to Fornés. She says, "Rehearsals would serve the sole purpose of getting the readers acquainted with the text and the actions of the piece. The four people conducting the piece are hosts to the members of the audience who will enact the wedding, and their behavior should be casual, gracious and unobtrusive." During the performance ten people are selected from the audience to participate in the wedding, during which the tradition of matchmaking and the symbolic objects used in the ceremony are explained. The entire audience participates in the celebration that follows the wedding.
Dr.Kheal, first produced in 1968 at the Judson Poets' Theater, New York, is one of Fornés's most frequently performed plays. The playwright, who states she is a teacher by nature, empathizes with the eccentric Dr. Kheal, who is "very wise and wonderful in his madness." Denying that Dr. Kheal is related to fascistic teachers such as the teacher in Ionesco's The Lesson or Miss Margarida in Miss Margarida's Way, Fornés says "Dr. Kheal insults people because he is desperate, because people are so stupid. He is saying something and gets angry and frustrated because people don't understand what he says." Dr. Kheal (like Isidore in Tango Palace) insists he is always right because he is the master and proceeds to lecture on the elusiveness of truth, the impossibility of understanding beauty, and the mathematics of love. Alone onstage with his lectern, blackboard, and charts, Dr. Kheal, according to Gilman, offers "a wholly new epistemology, logical, convincing, aggressive, farseeing … and entirely unreal."
Molly's Dream (1968) illustrates the influence of cinema on people's dreams of romance. The play, in fact, ironically examines how fantasies are nourished by the movies. Molly, a waitress in a saloon, falls asleep and dreams of Jim, "endowed with sublime sex appeal … dressed in glittering lace, looking like a prince in a fairy tale." The fairy-tale atmosphere is strengthened by the appearance in her dream of John (modeled after John Wayne) and Alberta (modeled after Shirley Temple). By giving themselves to a passion, the filmic prototypes are completely transformed (John to Dracula then Superman, Alberta to Hedy Lamarr). Molly and Jim observe the transformations of John and Alberta but are too proud to fully engage in the intense passion required to establish a relationship. Molly becomes merely a silly imitation of Marlene Dietrich, which only further alienates her from Jim.
Although Jim and Molly sing "If we had met some other time perhaps / Perhaps we'll meet again some other time," the end of the play suggests that Molly has not learned from the dream. While she sleeps with her head on a table, the young man who played Jim in her dream enters and leaves the saloon. Molly awakens alone.
Fefu and Her Friends is Fornés's most successful play to date. Similar to some of her other plays in using cinematic elements and demonstrating a tenderness toward the characters, Fefu and Her Friends differs in being more realistic, developing characters more fully, and containing decidedly feminist content.
In the opening scene, Fefu says she envies men because "they are well together. Women are not." The play contradicts Fefu's statement by showing women laughing, relaxing, playing, and caring for one another. Eight women gather at Fefu's house ostensibly to discuss plans for a fund raising activity. Through their interaction, women relate in a way that is relatively new in theatre, and an emerging feminist consciousness is acknowledged: "Women can be wonderful with each other…. All women need to do is recognize each other and like each other and give strength to each other and respect their own minds." The dominant mood of the play is the joy of female friendship.
During the second part of the play, the audience is divided into four parts and invited into Fefu's home. These close-ups (another example of Fornés's use of cinematic style) enable members of the audience to experience the women's relationships in a more intimate manner than would be possible on a proscenium stage. In the kitchen Sue prepares chicken soup. Fornés sees the literal nourishment related to the psychological nourishment the women provide for each other. Paula sits at the kitchen table and tallies up mathematically the sum of a love affair. In the study Christina and Cindy relax in a gentle scene Fornés includes for its texture and the loveliness of the experience.
Pain and fear, however, are also depicted. Julia's paralysis reflects the suffering that strong, intelligent women can experience. Her paralysis may be caused by her identification with nature, suffering at the hands of man the hunter; she refuses to accept the patriarchal view that women are generically different from men. Fefu's hallucination toward the end of the play suggests her growing participation in Julia's vision. Christina, a conformist willing to accept the dominant patriarchal view, finds women such as Fefu frightening. Concerned with a more conventional sense of order, Christina admits that some of her way of life is endangered by Fefu's way of thinking.
Fefu and Her Friends is a feminist play presenting intelligent women who understand the distortion of women's personalities that can occur in a patriarchal world in which women are strangers about whom horrendous myths are perpetrated. "The human being is of the masculine gender," Julia recites in the prayer the Judges would have her (and all women) believe. The play counters that view by inviting the audience into a woman's home to share the pains and joys of female friendship.
Fefu and Her Friends was a critical success. Fornés received Obie awards for both her playwriting and her directing. Michael Feingold in the Village Voice described the play as "the only essential thing the New York theatre has added to our cultural life in the past year." Rob Baker in After Dark stated: "Once or twice a decade, I suppose, a play or book or song comes along and so changes the way you look at the world that theater or literature or music will never be quite the same again. Fefu and Her Friends is just such an experience."
Through her playful imagination, graceful sense of humor, tender concern for humanity, and exquisite understanding of dramatic structure, Fornés has created a variety of plays which provide both enjoyment and enrichment.
Source: Phyllis Mael, "Maria Irene Fornes," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 7, Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, edited by John MacNicholas, Gale Research, 1981, pp. 188-91.
In the following review, Aaron praises Fornes's production of her own play, concluding "Fefu and Her Friends challenges our preconceptions about life and the theatre through boldly drawn women."
In the introduction to her feminist play The Mod Donna, Myrna Lamb characterizes woman's entrapment in traditional roles as preventing the "conception of truth, of a true feeling, a true relationship, a true intensity, a true hatred, even." In the plays of such disparate writers as Lamb, Susan Miller, Edward Bond, Wendy Wasserstein, Jack Heifner, and Maria Irene Fornes, the complex needs and relationships of women are pointedly explored. Currently, Fornes's Fefu and Her Friends, in its West Coast premiere in Pasadena, California, indicates a theatrical breakthrough in creating important plays about women's relationships.
Fefu and Her Friends concerns the exhiliarating, constant pain of women defining their roles in the "logical world of men." In 1935, Fefu, a bright, outrageous woman, meets with seven friends in her New England country home to prepare a group presentation about education. Among the women are Julia, confined to a wheelchair with a mysterious spinal injury after witnessing the shooting of a deer, two ex-lovers, Celia and Pauline, and an educator, Emma, whose conference presentation is based on the early twentieth-century writings of acting teacher Emma Sheridan Frye. The psychological and historical details only provide the audience with tangible reference points for approaching the startling, inexplicable events of the play.
Fornes's own direction of Fefu is a study of space and time, logic and intuition, reality and hallucination. As Emma says, "Environment knocks on the gateway of the senses." While exploring this women's world temporarily without men, Fornes probes the audience's psychological and theatrical senses as well. In the production at the Greenhouse Theatre, the play is divided into three acts without intermission. The first and third acts take place in Fefu's living room; in the second, the audience physically moves through the bedroom, kitchen, study, and garden of Fefu's house in four audience groups (the scenes are played through four times), as interludes of the ballad "Ramona" drift over the speakers placed throughout the grounds. The opening act thus becomes a distant theatrical viewing of the situation; in the second act, "real" time is intimately and somewhat uncomfortably shared in the four spaces; and in the third act, the action drifts in surreal time between the real world of the theatre and the hallucinatory workings of the characters' minds.
The theatrical, mystical tone of the play is set by the game that Fefu plays with her husband. Within the first few minutes of the play, she picks up a rifle and "shoots" him across the lawn. He falls and plays dead. Fornes's universe is arbitrary; mundane questions of plumbing have equal validity with questions of sanity. Fefu's life and the play itself are filled with both ordinary and symbolic tasks; activities like fixing the toilet, water fights, and reunions with old lovers fill the women's lives, bringing them together. Yet, though in the last moments of the play, Fefu sees Julia walk, a moment later she is again in her wheelchair. Fefu picks up a rifle and walks out on the lawn. We hear a gun shot. As Fefu brings a dead rabbit into the room, blood inexplicably trickles down Julia's forehead.
Fornes's production, which was first performed at Padua Hills Playwright's Festival last summer, works dynamically in the cavernous main theatre, annex buildings, and grounds of the Greenhouse Theatre. The multiple realities of the play are suggested by Nora Chavooshian's finely detailed settings (combining artificial outside grounds off the living room with the natural sounds of crickets). Fornes's direction elicits fine ensemble work from the eight actresses and strong emotional responses from the audience. Fornes began as a painter and her work unfolds with bold brush strokes: as in a Munch painting, we surround Julia's bed in the claustrophobic room and uncomfortably share the horror of her hallucinations; or, evoking a Renoir landscape, we watch Fefu drift across the lawn eating an apple after a croquet game with Emma. Like remembered photographs, it is haunting and disorienting to pass other groups moving into new rooms and to catch glimpses of empty spaces which we have previously visited. The momentary connections of the women illuminate the dark hallucinatory landscapes of the characters' minds.
Fefu and Her Friends challenges our preconceptions about life and the theatre through boldly drawn women, temporarily divorced from relationships, trying to sort out the ambiguities of their lives. Julia's wound in Fefu is our own. Fornes provides no answers, but her women make startling strides in confronting the oppressive environment of prescribed relationships in art as well as in life.
Source: Jules Aaron, Review of Fefu and Her Friends, in Theatre Journal, Vol. 32, No. 2, May 1980, pp. 266-67.
Austin, Gayle, Colette Brooks, Anne Cattaneo, Marie Irene Fornes, Marjorie Bradley Kellogg, Karen Malpede, Julia Miles, Joan Schenkar, Roberta Sklar, and Elizabeth Wray, "Backtalk: The ‘Woman’ Playwright Issue," in the Performing Arts Journal, Vol. 7, No. 3, 1983, pp. 90-91.
Eder, Richard, "Fefu Takes Friends to American Place," in the New York Times, January 14, 1978, p. 10.
Fornes, Marie Irene, Fefu and Her Friends, in the Performing Arts Journal, Vol. 2, No. 3, Winter 1978, pp. 112-40.
Kerr, Walter, "Stage View: Two Plays Swamped by Metaphors," in the New York Times, January 22, 1978, p. D3.
Armstrong, Ann Elizabeth, and Kathleen Juhl, eds., Radical Acts: Theatre and Feminist Pedagogies of Change, Aunt Lute Books, 2007.
This book is a collection of essays about teaching feminist theatre and includes essays by the feminist playwrights Ellen Margolis and Cherrie Moraga.
Delgado, Maria M., and Caridad Svich, eds., Conducting a Life: Reflections on the Theatre of Marie Irene Fornes, Smith and Kraus, 1999.
This book is a collection of tributes and reminiscences from the wide array of people Fornes has worked with over her forty-year career. Contributors include the critic Susan Sontag and the playwright Caryl Churchill.
Esslin, Martin, The Theatre of the Absurd, Vintage, 2004.
First published in 1962, Esslin's book coined the term "Theatre of the Absurd" and defined a tradition that, Esslin argues, emerged from the work of European playwrights in the 1940s.
Giard, Robert, Particular Voices: Portraits of Gay and Lesbian Writers, MIT Press, 1997.
Photographer Giard published almost 200 photographs that he took of gay and lesbian writers in the 1980s. Giard captures not just playwrights but also poets, critics, historians, novelists, and activists.
Kent, Assunta Bartolomucci, Maria Irene Fornes and Her Critics, Greenwood Press, 1996.
Kent's was the first full-length book dedicated to Fornes's work. The critic closely examines Fornes's writings in their historical, theoretical, and production-based contexts.