FornÉS, María Irene

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FORNÉS, María Irene

Born 14 May 1930, Havana, Cuba

Daughter of Carlos L. and Carmen H. Collado Fornés

María Irene Fornés has been a powerful moving force in the experimental theater scene since the early 1960s. "A major voice in American drama," according to Scott Cummings, and "the truest poet of the theater," according to Erika Munk. Born and educated in Cuba, Fornés came to the U.S. in 1945 and became a naturalized citizen in 1951. Since then, her work has earned her such accolades as official citation as a "national treasure" by the American National Theatre, which commissioned her to write a play. She has received awards from the Rockefeller (1971) and Guggenheim (1972) foundations, the National Endowment for the Arts (1974, 1984, 1985), and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1985). She has also won seven of her eight Obies since 1977, including one (1982) for Sustained Achievement. She also won the Playwrights U.S.A. award in 1986 for her translation of "Cold Air." Fornés was a founding member of the Women's Theatre Council and the New York Theatre Strategy, an organization of off-off Broadway playwrights; she served as president of Theatre Strategy from 1973 until it disbanded in 1980.

Although never explicitly feminist, Fornés' plays explore women's role in society, examining power relations inherent in sexuality, households, and in all human relationships. Trained early in American Method acting under Lee Strasberg in the Playwrights' Unit of the Actors Studio, Fornés soon began developing plays in collaboration with performers, often in workshop. She decided that it was important to direct her own works, a part of a natural, continuing process that she likens to cooking and then eating the same meal. "I never saw any difference between writing and directing," she said in a 1985 interview. "Of course, they are different things, but they are sequentially and directly connected."

The workshops Fornés designs and leads are aimed at "inducing inspiration." As she told David Savran, "I have invented exercises that are very effective and very profound." Her own work "does not present a formulated thesis," but rather arrives as "messages that come" to her out of the inarticulate parts of her consciousness or unconsciousness.

Fornés' plays do not revolve around clear plots but instead present moments of intense engagement among characters. Fefu and Her Friends (1977) was performed, under Fornés' direction, with the audience divided into groups to move around a loft that served as theater space, seeing the scenes in different sequences. "From the first," John Kuhn writes, "Fornés' broad and playful sense of attention and of verbal and visual images poked audiences with freakishly or theatrically exalted characters, both innocent and experienced." These characters are often limited by constricted environments or by their inability to articulate their experience, but even her simplest characters have a wisdom that transcends these limitations. And whatever their limitations, one senses in Fornés a great compassion and deep respect for the characters.

Fornés says her plays become "crystallized" when she "feels the presence of a character or person.… I get it like click." Then she sees "a picture of the set with the characters in it." Having begun as a painter and textile designer, she says, "The colors are very, very important for me. And the clothes that people wear. When it finally happens, the play exists; it has taken on its own life." The result is a style most often described as realism, a realism Susan Sontag says eschews both the "reductively psychological" and "sociological explanations" and Bonnie Marranca characterizes as "emphasizing the interior lives of her characters, not their exterior selves."

Fornés' plays often present an unromanticized sexuality, raw and violent and at the same time casual. Sexuality is rarely the subject, however. The subject is rather the ramifications of sexuality on human relationships, sexuality as power and as a fact of life, another part of her characters' natural existence.

Her recent play, The Summer in Gossensass (produced 1998), is another piece very different from the expected. In it, the two main characters play American actresses living in England who are trying to piece together a play that they have not yet read. Performed through the Women's Project and Productions at the Judith Anderson Theatre in Manhattan, it received mixed reviews for its unusual perspective. College theater troupes continue to produce the plays of Fornés, and she has been known to travel from her home in New York to visit college campuses for lecture and discussion of her work. She also remains an active teacher of the subject at home and abroad.

As interest in Fornés' work continues to surface in the theatrical community, the playwright has been the subject of three books: Fornés: Theater in the Present Tense by Diane Lynn Moroff (1996), Maria Irene Fornés and her Critics by Assunta Bartolomucci Kent (1996), and The Theater of Maria Irene Fornés, edited by Marc Robinson (1999). All are noteworthy for students, directors, and actors exploring American theater and cultural and women's studies.

Her best-known plays include Promenade (1969), Fefu and Her Friends (1977), described by the playwright as "a breakthrough for me," and Mud (1983), which Bonnie Marranca calls a play centering on "the act of a woman coming to thought." Largely because they are products of workshops and have been performed off-and off-off-Broadway, Fornés' plays are often difficult to come by, many never having made it to publication.

Other Works:

The Widow (produced 1961, published as La Viuda). Tango Palace (also produced as There! You Died, 1963, published 1966). The Successful Life of 3: A Skit for Vaudeville (produced 1965, published 1971). The Office (produced 1966). A Vietnamese Wedding (produced 1967, published 1971). The Annunciation (produced 1967). Dr. Kheal (produced 1968, published 1971). The Red Burning Light; or, Mission XQ3 (produced 1968, published 1971). Molly's Dream (produced 1968, published 1971). Promenade and Other Plays (published 1971, includes Dr. Kheal; The Successful Life of 3; A Vietnamese Wedding; The Red Burning Light; and Molly's Dream). The Curse of the Langston House (produced 1972). Dance (produced 1972). Aurora (produced 1974). Cap-a-Pie (produced 1975). Washing (produced 1976). Lolita in the Garden (produced 1977). In Service (produced 1978). Eyes on the Harem (produced 1979). Evelyn Brown (a Diary) (produced 1980). Blood Wedding (translation and adaptation of García Lorca, 1980). Life Is a Dream (translation and adaptation of Calderón, 1981). A Visit (produced 1981). The Danube (1982, published 1986). Sarita (1984, published 1986). Abingdon Square (produced 1984). No Time (produced 1985). The Conduct of Life (1985, published 1986). Cold Air (translation and adaptation of Pinera, 1985). Drowning (1985, published 1986). Lovers and Keepers (produced 1986). The Trial of Joan of Arc on a Matter of Faith (produced 1986). The Mother (title later changed to Charley, produced 1986). Art (produced 1986). María Irene Fornés: Plays (1986, includes The Danube; Mud; Sarita; The Conduct of Life). Hunger (produced 1985). Three Pieces for a Warehouse (produced 1988). Springtime (1989, published 1991).

The manuscript collection of María Irene Fornés is in the Lincoln Center Library of the Performing Arts in New York City.


Brater, E., ed., Feminine Focus (1989). Chen, L., "Violence in the Spotlight: Exploring the Violent and Violated Female Characters in Selected Plays of Marsha Norman and María Irene Fornés" (thesis, 1993). Kent, A. B., María Irene Fornés and her Critics (1996). Moroff, D. L., Fornés: Theater inthe Present Tense (1996). Robinson, M., ed., The Theater of María Irene Fornés (1999). Redmond, J., ed., Theatrical Space (1987). Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights (1987).

Reference works:

American Women Dramatists of the Twentieth Century (1982). CA (1977, Online, 1999). CANR (1990). CLC (1986, 1990). Contemporary Dramatists (1973, 1977, 1982, 1988). DLB (1981). FC (1990). Hispanic Writers (1990). MTCW (1991). Notable Women in American Theatre (1989). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

NR (25 Feb. 1978). Newsday (9 Apr. 1998). Newsweek (4 June 1969). New York (18 Mar. 1985). NYT (5 June 1969, 14 Jan. 1978, 22 Jan. 1978, 25 Oct. 1983, 13 Mar. 1984). Performing Arts Journal (1983, 1984). Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present (1989). Theater (Winter 1985). VV (25 Jan. 1973, 23 Mar. 1977, 23 Jan. 1978, 29 Aug. 1986). Wisconsin State Journal (7 Nov. 1998).