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- Fornés, Irene
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María Irene Fornés (1930-2018) was a self-identified queer Cuban-American playwright and director and leading figure in the avant-garde “off-off-Broadway” theater scene.1 Fornés wrote over forty original plays – many of which she also directed – and was the recipient of nine Off-Broadway Theater (Obie) Awards and a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. Alongside her writing and directing, Fornés was known for her innovative acting and playwrighting exercises, as well as her long teaching career in which she specifically mentored up-and-coming Hispanic playwrights. She taught at institutions such as New York University, the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival in California, and the INTAR Hispanic American Arts Center in Manhattan as the Director of its Playwrights-in-Residence Laboratory (1981-1992), among other roles. From 1973 to 1979, she was the managing director of the New York Theatre Strategy, an organization that was dedicated to producing experimental works. Despite being such a prolific writer, Fornés was not well known even within playwriting circles; in 2013, the playwright Tony Kushner stated, “She’s not spoken of as an important American playwright, and she should be” (qtd. in Weber) and the 1986 cover of The Village Voice named her “America’s Greatest Unknown Playwright.”
Fornés, known as Irene to her friends, was born on May 14th, 1930, in Havana, Cuba. Her mother, a schoolteacher, and her father, a Civil Service worker, were of modest financial means and had six children (three boys and three girls), Irene being the youngest. The pair both had a love of books and shared this with their children. In 1945, Fornés’s father died and her mother, Carmen Collado Fornés, immigrated to the United States with the fifteen-year-old Fornés and her older sister, Margarita. Having little education, Fornés’s first job was at the Capezio shoe factory in New York City; however, she was quickly dissatisfied with the job and learned English so that she could become a translator. By age nineteen, she had become increasingly interested in painting and decided to study abstract art in New York and Provincetown, Massachusetts, alongside the noted abstract-expressionist painter Hans Hofmann. In 1954, Fornés left the U.S. and relocated to Europe, where she lived, mainly in Paris, for three years. She had begun a romantic relationship with the writer and artists’ model, Harriet Sohmers, and relocated largely to be with her as well as to study painting. While in Paris Fornés saw the original French production of Samuel Beckett’s "Waiting for Godot" and was moved by the play despite the fact that she did not understand French and was unfamiliar with the play beforehand, but, nonetheless, the power of theater was apparent to her from this moment forward. The relationship between Fornés and Sohmers broke down and, in 1957, Fornés returned to New York.
In 1959, Fornés began a relationship with the late famed writer and critic Susan Sontag – before she had made a name for herself – and the relationship catalyzed the beginning of both of their writerly careers, although, for Fornés, her journey into writing began rather by chance as Scott Cummings, author of a 2013 monograph on Fornés relates: “By her own account, Fornés took up writing on a whim” (10). The story goes that in 1961 while out in Greenwich Village on a Saturday night looking for a party, Sontag complained to Fornés about wanting to begin writing a novel but found herself unable because of writer’s block. Fornés pushed her to begin regardless and claimed that she would write with Sontag in order to prove how easy it was, and they returned to their apartment there and then to begin. Fornés, however, struggled and resorted to picking up a cookbook from the shelf and forcing herself to form sentences using the first and last words on a given page. This spontaneous and organic way of creating would turn out to stick with Fornés for the entirety of her career; she later relayed, “There was no significance, really, but I tried to connect them. I realized that when you're blocked, you have to just accept anything, even if it doesn't make sense, because you can make it make sense. For what you write to have its own spirit, it's important not to focus on a desired result” (qtd. in Obejas). Though for Fornés the immediate result of that evening was a short story that she deemed insignificant, Sontag began an essay that was later published, initiating her career as a critic. The long-term result for Fornés was that she acquired a daily practice of writing and eventually her first fully-fleshed out characters emerged; she recalled, “They spoke very spontaneously. They were very clear, very vivid. I'd listen, then write a little scene. The next day, I did the same thing … I realized then that characters live in you, in your imagination. You don't really invent them or decide what they say” (qtd. in Obejas). In 1963, her first play, "There! You Died" – renamed "Tango Palace" in 1964 – was produced by San Francisco's Actors Workshop and then by New York City's Actors Studio.2
From the mid-1960s onwards, Fornés’s avant-garde style began to gain her a reputation, despite the fact that her plays vary dramatically in terms of time period, setting, and types of protagonists. After "Tango Palace" Fornés wrote "The Successful Life of 3" and then teamed up with the composer Al Carmines to write "Promenade," which is a musical that earned Fornés her first Obie in 1965. Fornés’s distinctive way of directing actors, staging sets, and experimenting with audience experiences came to be recognized as equally emblematic of her artistic oeuvre as her writing was. Marc Robinson, author of "The Theater of María Irene Fornés" (1999), stated in 2013, “It’s hard to separate Fornés the writer from Fornés the director [as] for her there was no division between writing dialogue for a character and thinking how the actor playing that character would hold her hands onstage, or where the chair would be placed, or how the light would fall at the end of the scene. She was also a master of stage silence” (qtd. in Weber). An example of her innovation would be her direction of perhaps her best-known play, "Fefu and her Friends" (1977), which is a feminist play set in the 1930s about the rivalries, conflicts, and sympathies between eight women. The second act has four different sets around the theater and the actors perform four scenes simultaneously while the audience is split into four groups and each group rotates between scenes until they have viewed all four performances. Examples of her playwrighting exercises, as related by Tabitha Parry Collins, included “seeing and using a movement, an object, or a written line to begin a scene and then watching the rest of the story unfold [and] drawing words or scenes out of a hat and then writing a script based around those concepts.” An inability to wed Fornés to a single, distinct, or consistent style is unfortunately why she is less remembered than she should be, as many have pointed out. The scholar Patricia Ybarra, for example, stated “One irony about Irene - given how intuitive she was - is that the primary attention she’s gotten in her life has been as much through academic scholarship as it has been through professional theater, just because she didn’t conform very easily to commercial norms of… playwriting” (qtd. in Lee).
In the early to mid-2000s, Fornés was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and had to give up writing because of her depreciating memory. Her last play was "Letters from Cuba" (2000), which was based on letters sent to her by one of her brothers who remained in Havana when she moved to the U.S. In 2018, however, filmmaker Michelle Memran released a documentary portrait of Fornés that had been fifteen years in the making. Mainly filmed between 2003 and 2006, the documentary is a collaborative project that chronicles the friendship between the two women. Fornés was diagnosed during filming, some viewing her predicament, as Hugh Ryan describes, as “a cruel trick of fate; time stealing the memories of a playwright who was already so little remembered.” Conversely, Memran felt that Fornés’s ever-creative mind simply lacked an outlet and felt the film could provide her with that. Eventually, however, filming had to end when Fornés’s condition worsened; Memran stated, “When she stopped recognizing what we’re doing, for me the collaboration was no longer. I wanted the film to be as much Irene’s as it was mine, and there was a sense of maintaining her dignity” (qtd. in Lee). Fornés lived out the remainder of her life in a nursing home in upper Manhattan – frequently visited by friends and family – and passed away on October 30th, 2018. She is survived by seventeen nieces and nephews.
UGrow Fellow for the Department of Manuscripts and Archives Management, 2019-2020
1. The “off-off-Broadway” movement began in 1958 as part of an anti-commercial and experimental form of theater and drama. As opposed to large New York City Broadway theaters and still substantial off-Broadway theaters, off-off-Broadway theaters are very small and usually have less than 100 seats.
2. Fornés did write a play before "There! You Died"/"Tango Palace" called "La Viuda" (The Widow) in 1961, which was based on letters written to her great-grandfather in Cuba from a cousin in Spain that she later translated. The play was staged in Spanish in New York and never translated into English; Fornés had no role in the staging of the play and for this reason Cummings comments, “in her career, it stands more as a precursor than a first play” (10).
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Biographical note by Laura Bass, June 2020.
Additional biographical research by Rebeca J. González, May 2020.
Collins, Tabitha Parry. “ A Pedagogy of Embodiment: The Life and Work of Queer Playwright Maria Irene Fornés.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, journaldialogue.org/musings/a-pedagogy-of-embodiment-the-life-and-work-of-queer-playwright-maria-irene-fornes/.
Cummings, Scott T. Maria Irene Fornes. Routledge, 2013.
Lee, Grayson. “Documentary chronicles life of late playwright Maria Irene Fornes.” Brown Daily Herald, 21 Feb. 2019, www.browndailyherald.com/2019/02/21/documentary-chronicles-life-of-late-playwright-maria-irene-fornes/.
Obejas, Achy. “The Story of Her Life.” Chicago Tribune, 18 April 2000, www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2000-04-18-0004180059-story.html.
Ryan, Hugh. “Themstory: Susan Sontag Loved Her, Yet Time Has Overlooked This Brilliant Queer Playwright.” Hugh Ryan, 25 April 2018, www.hughryan.org/recent-work/2018/4/25/themstory-susan-sontag-loved-her-yet-time-has-overlooked-this-brilliant-queer-playwright.