Fornés, María Irene

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María Irene Fornés

Cuban-born playwright María Irene Fornés (born 1930) is one of American theater's most acclaimed, yet relatively unknown, talents. Since the early 1960s, Fornés's Off-Broadway plays have raised timely political and philosophical questions with their scathing themes and absurdist touches, but it is her deft touch in writing dialogue in her second language that has made her a favorite with critics for decades. "Fornés' plays," noted an International Dictionary of Theater, essay, "locate themselves at that place where the mystery of the human condition and the enigma of human relationships reveal themselves in sudden, elusive, and often violent spasms."

Disliked Factory Work

María Fornés was born on May 14, 1930, in Havana, Cuba, in a book-filled home headed by her well-read father, a former bureaucrat. He died when she was in her early teens, and Fornés moved to New York City at the age of 15 with her mother and five sisters, leaving an older brother behind in Havana. As she recalled in a 2000 interview that appeared in the New York Times, "We had no means of support in Cuba. We came here for economic reasons. It might not be ideal, but you can work here and earn a living. In Cuba, it wasn't so. When we came here, there was no sadness whatsoever. My mother loved it. I thought I was in a Hollywood movie."

Initially, Fornés could not speak English and was forced to take a job on a ribbon-factory assembly line. Tiring of this rather quickly, she enrolled in English-language courses and eventually found work as a translator. She also worked as a doll maker before she turned her energies to painting, and spent three years in Europe. Her first experiences with the theater came in the late 1950s, when she found work as a costume designer for two local theater and performance groups.

Won Acclaim as Novice

By 1960, Fornés was sharing a New York apartment with Susan Sontag, who would soon emerge as a renowned critic and philosopher. When Sontag suffered a bout of writer's block, Fornés decided to try to write something herself. She spent the next 19 days writing her first play, The Widow, which was produced at New York's Actors' Studio in 1961. She won a John Hay Whitney Foundation fellowship soon afterward that enabled her to devote her time to writing more works for the stage, Her next work was Tango Palace in 1963, a chronicle of the battles between two male lovers before one slays the other in a bullfight. It was the first of her works to hit a nerve with critics, and soon Fornés was one of Off-Broadway's leading new playwrights.

The Successful Life of Three was the first of Fornés's works to deal with a romantic triangle. It was followed by a musical, Promenade, a comic tale of two prison escapees who return to their cells, dissatisfied with the chaos of life on the outside. For both, Fornés won the first of several Obie Awards, given annually by the Village Voice to the best Off-Broadway productions of the year. Granted a Yale University fellowship in 1967, she worked on A Vietnamese Wedding, a commentary on the U.S. war in Southeast Asia at the time. Dr. Kheal was the first of her plays to be seen by a London audience, a solo show in which the eccentric title character expounds his views about the origins of the universe. Critics liked the Surrealist elements in her style, a legacy of her previous career as a painter. "The dramatic situations of most of Fornés' work are warped and dreamlike," noted International Dictionary of Theater essay, "peppered with vivid, mysterious images."

Founded Theater Group

Molly's Dream, which debuted at a Boston University workshop in 1968, is one of Fornés's best-known plays. Molly is a saloon waitress whose shift is interrupted by dream sequences of herself as 1930s actress Marlene Dietrich. It appeared in the first published collection of Fornés's drama, Promenade and Other Plays, in 1971. Her reputation firmly established on the more experimental fringes of New York theater, Fornés became a co-founder of New York Theatre Strategy in 1972, which staged the works of rising new voices on the scene. It was home to the debut of another enduring work of hers, Fefu and Her Friends. The 1977 ensemble piece is set in 1935 in a New England home at which eight friends have gathered. Fornés used audience participation to illustrate its themes, and years later a writer for Back Stage, Glenda Frank, asserted that the Obie-winning play "revolutionized staging and became a feminist classic."

Around this same time, Fornés began serving as the director for the Hispanic Playwrights in Residence Lab at INTAR, the acronym by which International Arts Relations, a New York City Spanish-language theater group, is known. She continued to produce new works regularly, such as the The Danube from 1982, another favorite of fans of her work. The story is set in Budapest in 1938, and follows the doomed romance between a Hungarian woman and American man. Near the end, they come down with mysterious skin spots—possibly a reference to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS)—and the play ends with a blast that might be nuclear. She followed it with Mud, another tale of a trio of lovers. Its lead, Mae, is dispirited by her humdrum life in a small, Middle America town, and spurns one lover for another man; both prove slow-witted and abusive, however.

Delved into Latin American Junta

Fornés wrote another musical, Sarita, which was staged at INTAR, and continued to premier new works at the annual Padua Hills Festival in Claremont, California. In 1985, she won the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, the same year The Conduct of Life was produced at the Theatre for New York City. Another one of her better-known works, the story follows a brutal Latin American army officer whose wife believes his job may be to torture political dissidents. He mistreats her and enslaves a 12-year-old girl in their basement. Again, Fornés won the Obie for the best new play of the year for it, and it is one of the most frequently performed of her works. After seeing a New Orleans revival of it, American Theatre critic Nicole LaPorte found that its "scenes flow into one another like drifting thoughts. Yet amid these ambiguous spaces, the relations between the women in the play come vividly alive in a melding of realism and idealism that gives the play its force."

Abingdon Square won Fornés another Obie for the best new work of the season in 1988, and the following year she premiered Hunger, which dealt with the urban homeless and the nightmarish conditions of the city shelters in which they were forced to live. A 1992 musical, Terra Incognita, was staged at INTAR as part of the 500th-anniversary celebrations of Christopher Columbus's voyage to the Caribbean. Yet Fornés's works still remained largely unknown outside of a small New York avant-garde theater scene, but she did become the subject of more than one scholarly tome, including Fornés: Theater in the Present Tense a 1996 work by Diane Moroff. "It's not that she's just a ruthless experimenter," asserted American Theatre essayist Steven Drukman in a 2000 critique of her work. "It's more that she reinvents the Fornés play each time she writes one. No major playwright who has lasted so long can make the same claim." Yet even Drukman granted that her works were sometimes impenetrable. "The truth is this: Every critic who loves the plays of María Irene Fornés is also, in some small way, stymied by them," he confessed. "For us, too, the intoxication of a Fornés play in production turns to hangover when trying to synopsize the experience in journalistic prose, to provide interpretive closure, to pin each play down in words."

The only play that Fornés ever read before she began writing for the stage was Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, the story of a late nineteenth-century woman who chafes at the boundaries placed on her by marriage and a middle-class life. Fornés made the Ibsen classic the basis for her 1998 play, The Summer in Gossensass, in which two actresses in London eagerly await Ibsen's finished manuscript. Both are obsessed with the play, re-reading its scenes and delving into the characters. "The play is less concerned with telling a linear story," noted Advocate writer Don Shewey, "than with embodying the essential qualities that drive theater people—their self-dramatization, their restless exploration of ideas, their ecstatic devotion."

Honored by Signature Company

New York's acclaimed Signature Theater Company devoted its 1999–2000 season to Fornés's works, staging several of her plays and debuting a new one. In 1985's Drowning, based on a play by Anton Chekhov, Fornés presents a pair of odd, avuncular creatures that were described by New York Times critic Peter Marks as "gelatinous mounds of flesh" and resembling "tuskless walruses that have evolved into bipeds." One of them, Pea, has fallen in love with a woman based on her photograph in a newspaper, but when the two meet, she is horrified by his appearance. "The playlet is almost over," wrote Marks, "by the time you recover from the weird effect of the actors' swollen appearances.… One leaves the theater wondering where and when Ms. Fornés might next supply such a disturbing moment of emotional clarity."

The Signature Theater Company also staged Mud that season, Fornés's 1983 play about Mae and the two deplorable men in her life. Marks wrote favorably of the production in his a New York Times review, noting that "the crumbling world in which she slaves—the rooms of the house may be as dank and decrepit as prison cells, but there's always a Beckettesque pair of pants waiting for her to press—is the nightmare domain of martyred women everywhere." Signature's season included the Fornés play Enter the Night, which featured a playwright, Jack, who is convinced that he gave his late lover the AIDS virus that killed him. Two female friends struggle to convince him otherwise.

Won Record Ninth Obie

The Signature Theater season wrapped in 2000 with a new play from Fornés, Letters From Cuba, in which a New York City dancer, Fran, longs for her home and family back in Cuba. Elsewhere, on a rooftop in Cuba, her brother Luis reads her letters and also rues the political quagmire that separates their family. Fornés utilized some 200 letters from her own brother to write the work, and it won her a ninth Obie Award. Significantly, it was the first of Fornés's works to deal directly with her Cuban heritage, and as she admitted in a New York Times interview, "my brother is now 80. Rafael is the oldest and I am the youngest of six brothers and sisters. In the play, he is called Luis. I guess in some ways I have wanted to write about Cuba but I did not know exactly how."

Fornés's impact on a younger generation of writers was summed up by the words of Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Paula Vogel. "In the work of every American playwright at the end of the 20th century," the Advocate's Shewey quoted Vogel as saying, "there are only two stages: before she or he has read María Irene Fornés—and after." Fornés told the magazine that she has never aspired to genuine commercial success in the theater, and that the "fringe" label is fine with her. Otherwise, she told the Advocate, "people put claims on you and expect things of you. I've always liked being on the border." In 2002 Fornés received the PEN/Laura Pels Foundation Award and in 2003 she received the first MACHA Award for her exceptional work mentoring up-and-coming Latina writers.


Contemporary Dramatists, sixth edition, St. James Press, 1999.

Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale, 1996.

International Dictionary of Theater, Volume 2: Playwrights, St. James Press, 1993.


Advocate, May 26, 1998; November 9, 1999.

American Theatre, September 2000.

Back Stage, January 24, 1992; July 18, 1997; April 10, 1998; August 27, 1999; March 10, 2000; July 13, 2000; May 11, 2001; May 17, 2002; June 27, 2003.

Nation, April 6, 1985; April 23, 1988.

New York Times, September 27, 1999; December 13, 1999; February 27, 2000; May 29, 2003.

Variety, October 11, 1999; March 6, 2000.


Mackay, Maggie. "Maria Irene Fornes," Arts Council England, (June 7, 2004).