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María Irene Fornés

María Irene Fornés
Fornés circa November 2011
Born(1930-05-14)May 14, 1930
DiedOctober 30, 2018(2018-10-30) (aged 88)
New York City, United States
CitizenshipAmerican (1951)
Occupation(s)Playwright, Director, Teacher
Organization(s)Hispanic Playwrights-in-Residence Laboratory, INTAR Theater
Notable work
Awards9 Obie Awards, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award

María Irene Fornés (May 14, 1930 – October 30, 2018) was a Cuban-American playwright, theater director, and teacher who worked in off-Broadway and experimental theater venues in the last four decades of the twentieth century. Her plays range widely in subject matter, but often depict characters with aspirations that belie their disadvantages. Fornés, who went by the name "Irene",[1] received nine Obie Theatre Awards[2] in various categories[a] and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for 1990.

New Yorker critic Hilton Als wrote in 2010 that she had done "more than her fair share in terms of changing the face of theatre". He added: "No matter how hard Fornés's subjects can be, her work sits in the ear like luxurious reason."[3] In a 2013 interview, Tony Kushner said: "She had terrifyingly high standards and was terribly blunt about what others did with her work. Her productions were unforgettable. She was really a magical maker of theater."[4]



Early years


Fornés was born on May 14, 1930, in Havana, Cuba,[5] the youngest of six children.[6] After her father Carlos Fornés died in 1945, she immigrated to the United States at the age of 15 with her mother[b] and one sister. She became a U.S. citizen in 1951.[8] When she first arrived in the US, Fornés worked in the Capezio shoe factory. Dissatisfied, she took classes to learn English and became a translator. At the age of 19, she became interested in painting and began her formal education in abstract art, studying with Hans Hofmann in New York City and Provincetown, Massachusetts.[9]

By 1954, Fornés had met the writer and artist's model Harriet Sohmers. They became lovers and moved to Paris where Fornés planned to study painting.[9] There she was struck by the world premiere production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. She later told an interviewer: "I didn't speak any French at all. But I understood the world in which it took place, I got the rhythm. And it turned my life upside down."[10] She lived with Sohmers in Paris for three years, and after their relationship ended Fornés returned to New York City in 1957.[11][12][13]

Early writing


Fornés's first step toward playwriting involved translating letters she brought with her from Cuba that were written to her great-grandfather from a cousin in Spain. She turned the letters into a play called La Viuda (The Widow, 1961). Never translated into English, it premiered in Spanish in New York. She never staged the play herself, and it is considered "a precursor" to her work as a playwright.[14]

In 1959, about the time she was working on La Viuda, Fornés entered into a romantic relationship with the writer Susan Sontag. Fornés later described how, in the spring of 1961, her career as a playwright was launched when she tried to help Sontag, who was frustrated by her inability to make progress on a novel she was writing. Fornés, by her own account, demonstrated how easy writing can be by sitting at their kitchen table and taking cues found at random in a cookbook to start a short story: "I might never have thought of writing if I hadn't pretended I was going to show Susan how easy it was."[6][14][15] Their relationship ended in 1963.[16]



The play considered her first as a playwright was There! You Died, first produced by San Francisco's Actor's Workshop in 1963. An absurdist two-character play, it was later renamed Tango Palace and produced in 1964 at New York City's Actors Studio.[3] The piece is an allegorical power struggle between the two central characters: Isidore, a clown, and Leopold, a naive youth. Like much of her writing, Tango Palace stresses character rather than plot.[17] With it, Fornés also established her production style, which required her participation in the entire staging process.

The Successful Life of 3 and Promenade followed in 1965. The pair earned Fornés her first Obie Award in 1965.[2] Both of the New York Times senior theater critics were enthusiastic in their reviews of Promenade. Clive Barnes called it "a joy from start to finish" and praised the show's "dexterity, wit and compassion".[18] Walter Kerr highlighted the collaboration of lyricist and composer along with the show's manipulation of stereotypes and Brechtian juxtapositions that left him admiring the mockery of conventions that evoked affection for those same conventions: "The tenderness is as actual as the slyness.... Inside a put-on, some old pleasures have been restored."[19]

She came close to having her work performed on Broadway in April 1966, when Jerome Robbins directed The Office starring Elaine May. But Fornes was so unhappy with how the production misrepresented her vision that she exercised her contractual right to withdraw the script. The show closed after ten previews and she never approached Broadway again.[20]

In Fefu and Her Friends (1977), Fornés begins and ends with the audience seated as a single group facing a traditional stage. But she also experimented with deconstructing the stage by setting scenes in four locations simultaneously and having the audience, divided into four groups, view each scene in turn. The scenes repeat until each group has seen all four scenes.[21] First produced by the New York Theater Strategy at the Relativity Media Lab, the play's eight women gather to plan a fundraising presentation, real women engaged in a banal activity. The play is considered to be feminist by critics and scholars, in that it offers a woman's perspective on female characters and their thoughts, feelings, and relationships.[22][23] Fornés called it "a pro-feminine play rather than a feminist play",[24] while one critic praises its exploration of the possibilities and risks of women's friendships.[1]

In 1982, Fornés earned a special Obie for Sustained Achievement; in 1984, she received two Obies for writing and for directing three of her own plays: The Danube (1982), Mud (1983), and Sarita (1984). Mud, first produced in 1983 at the Padua Hills Playwright's Festival in California,[25] explores the impoverished lives of Mae, Lloyd and Henry, who become involved in a love triangle. Fornés contrasts the desire to seek more in life with what is actually possible under given conditions. She described Mud as "a feminist play because the central character is a woman, and the theme is one that writers usually deal with through a male character.... It has nothing to do with men and women. It has to do with poverty and isolation and a mind. This mind is in the body of a female."[24] Mud exemplifies Fornés' familiar technique of portraying a female character's rise opposed by male characters. The piece also explores the way the mind experiences poverty and isolation.[22][23]

In Fornés' exploration of the world of Hispanic women in the US, the title character of Sarita begins in 1939 as a 13-year-old unwed mother in the South Bronx and at the end of the play enters a psychiatric hospital at the age of 21. Some dialogue is in Spanish as Sarita contends with the two men in her life, the exploitative Julio and her rescuer the Anglo Mark. Afro-Cuban religion and nostalgia for Cuba provide the drama's background. Distorted scenery in later scenes places Sarita in a context that reflects her psychological state.[26]

The Conduct of Life (1985) was another Obie winner, as was Abingdon Square (1988), both deemed Best New American Play.[2] Fornés was also a finalist for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Drama with her play And What of the Night?[27]

In 2000, Letters From Cuba had its premiere with the Signature Theatre Company in New York, which devoted its 1999-2000 season to her work.[c] It was the last play she completed before health problems ended her writing career. For the first time, Fornés drew upon personal experience. She had exchanged letters with her own brother in Cuba for 30 years, and in the play a young man in Cuba reads from his letters to his sister, a dancer in New York.[17] It lasts about an hour and is constructed of fragmentary moments, each scene just long enough to establish a mood. The heartache of separation is juxtaposed with the struggle of young artists and the ending offers an ecstatic resolution.[28] Letters From Cuba was recognized by the Obie Awards with a special citation for Fornés.[2]

Teaching and influence


In August 2018, as Fornes' death neared, a 12-hour marathon performance of excerpts from her works was staged at New York's Public Theater.[29][30]

Fornés became a recognized force in both Hispanic-American and experimental theatre in New York. Her greatest influence may have come through her legendary playwriting workshops, which she taught to aspiring writers across the globe. Locally in New York City, as the director of the INTAR Hispanic Playwrights-in-Residence Lab in the 1980s and early '90s, she mentored a generation of Latin playwrights, including Cherríe Moraga, Migdalia Cruz, Nilo Cruz, Caridad Svich, and Eduardo Machado.

Pulitzer Prize-winning writers Tony Kushner, Paula Vogel, Lanford Wilson, Sam Shepard, and Edward Albee credit Fornés as an inspiration and influence. "Her work has no precedents; it isn't derived from anything," Lanford Wilson once said of her, "she's the most original of us all." Paula Vogel contends: "In the work of every American playwright at the end of the 20th century, there are only two stages: before she has read Maria Irene Fornes and after." Tony Kushner concludes: "Every time I listen to Fornes, or read or see one of her plays, I feel this: she breathes, has always breathed, a finer, purer, sharper air."

At her death, Charles McNulty, theater critic of the Los Angeles Times, called her "the most influential American dramatist whose work hasn't become a staple of the mainstream repertoire" and added: "Although she was not as well-known as fellow theater maverick Sam Shepard, her playwriting exerted a similar magnetic pull on generations of theater artists inspired by her liberating example."[10]

Personal life


Fornés was a lesbian and included gays and lesbians in several of her plays. She said, however, that she was not focused on examining such characters: "Being gay is not like being of another species. If you're gay, you're a person. What interests me is the mental and organic life of an individual. I'm writing about how people deal with things as an individual, not as a member of a type."[31]

As Fornés' reputation grew in avant-garde circles, she became friendly with Norman Mailer and Joseph Papp and reconnected with Harriet Sohmers.

She was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2005[6] and lived the rest of her life in care facilities.[10] Fornés died at the Amsterdam Nursing Home in Manhattan on October 30, 2018.[4]

Documentary and adaptations


A documentary feature about Fornés called The Rest I Make Up by Michelle Memran was made in collaboration with Fornés. It focuses on her creative life in the years after she stopped writing due to dementia.[32][30] The film's title is a line from Promenade.[6] It premiered at Doc Fortnight 2018, the annual festival of New York's Museum of Modern Art.[33]

Philip Glass composed a 30-minute chamber opera for three singers accompanied by keyboard and harp based on Fornés' play Drowning.[34]



Direction, adaptation, and translation


Awards and recognition


See also



  1. ^ The Obie Awards do not use set categories but are adapted as circumstances require. Fornés' awards were for Direction (2), Playwrighting (2), Best New American Play (2), Distinguished Plays, Special Citation, and Sustained Achievement.[2]
  2. ^ Her mother Carmen remained a presence in her life. She attended the Obie Awards ceremony when passed the age of 100.[7]
  3. ^ The Signature Theatre opened its season with a double bill of Mud and Drowning, continued with the New York premiere of Enter the Night, and ended with the world premiere of Letters from Cuba directed by the author.[28]
  4. ^ Fornés constructed this piece from the hand-written diary of Evelyn Brown (1854–1934), who recorded her work at repetitive tasks in someone else's home in 1909 in rural Melvin Village, New Hampshire. Fornés described it as an "adaptation" of Brown's work.[36]
  5. ^ An enactment of the 1431 trial of Joan of Arc. "Sheila Dabney, an Obie-winning actress and a frequent collaborator, recalled being so affected by playing Joan of Arc in Ms. Fornés's A Matter of Faith that she would hide under the stage after performances, shellshocked and speechless. 'Instead of hitting anger in a surface kind of way, we'd explore it for a minute and twist on its ear and bend it back or open its jaws too wide,' she said."[29]


  1. ^ a b Janiak, Lily (March 15, 2022). "As ACT mounts 'Fefu,' let's insist on María Irene Fornés' place in the canon". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved September 27, 2022.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n "Obie Awards". American Theater Wing. Retrieved September 28, 2022.
  3. ^ a b Als, Hilton (March 22, 2010). "Critic's Notebook: Feminist Fatale". The New Yorker. Vol. 86, no. 5. p. 8.
  4. ^ a b Weber, Bruce (October 31, 2018). "María Irene Fornés, Writer of Spare, Poetic Plays, Dies at 88". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 2018-10-31. Retrieved October 31, 2018.
  5. ^ Cummings, Scott T. (2013). Maria Irene Fornes. Routledge Modern and Contemporary Dramatists. Routledge. pp. 5ff. ISBN 978-0-415-45434-6. Retrieved September 27, 2022.
  6. ^ a b c d Manby, Christine (December 2, 2018). "Maria Irene Fornes: Havana-born playwright who was a leading light of the Off Broadway avant garde". The Independent. Retrieved September 27, 2022.
  7. ^ "Ghosts of Obies Past". Village Voice. May 17, 2019. Retrieved September 27, 2022.
  8. ^ a b Strassler, Doug (September 14, 2009). "2009 NYIT Honorary Recipients Reached Out to Others to Help Themselves". New York Innovative Theatre Awards, Inc. Archived from the original on October 23, 2014. Retrieved August 23, 2012.
  9. ^ a b Gainor, J. Ellen, Stanton B. Garnier, Jr., and Martin Punchner. "Maria Irene Fornes b. 1930", The Norton Anthology of Drama, Vol. 2 – The Nineteenth Century to the Present. Ed. Peter Simon, et al., New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009. pp. 1231–34.
  10. ^ a b c McNulty, Charles (October 31, 2018). "Obie-winning playwright María Irene Fornés, a transformative off-Broadway figure, dies at 88". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved September 28, 2022.
  11. ^ Zwerling, Harriet Sohmers (November 2006). "Memories of Sontag: From an Ex-Pat's Diary". Retrieved December 30, 2012.
  12. ^ Rollyson, Carl; Paddock, Lisa (2000). Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon. W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 49–50.
  13. ^ Sontag, Susan (2008). Reborn: Journals and Notebooks 1947–1963. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. pp. 188–189.
  14. ^ a b Cummings, María Irene Fornés, p. 10
  15. ^ Ross Wetzsteon, 1986, Village Voice
  16. ^ "A glimpse of the private Susan Sontag". Korea Herald. April 20, 2012. Retrieved September 30, 2022.
  17. ^ a b Anne, Fliotsos, and Vierow Wendy. "Fornés, Maria Irene", American Women Stage Directors of the Twentieth Century, University of Illinois Press, 2008, pp. 179–89
  18. ^ Barnes, Clive (June 5, 1969). "Theater: 'Promenade,' Wickedly Amusing Musical". New York Times. Retrieved September 30, 2022.
  19. ^ Kerr, Walter (June 15, 1969). "Hooray! He Gives Us Back Our Past". New York Times. Retrieved September 30, 2022.
  20. ^ Feingold, Michael. "A Great Playwright's Odyssey". New York Stage Review. Retrieved September 29, 2022.
  21. ^ Fornes, Maria Irene (1978). "Play: Fefu and Her Friends". Performing Arts Journal. 2 (3): 112–140. doi:10.2307/3245376. JSTOR 3245376. S2CID 194891957.
  22. ^ a b Moroff, Diane Lynn (1996). Fornes: Theater in the Present Tense. University of Michigan Press.[page needed]
  23. ^ a b Gruber, William E. (1994). "The Characters of Maria Irene Fornes: Public and Private Identities". Missing Persons: Essays on Character and Characterization in Modern Drama. University of Georgia Press. pp. 155–81.
  24. ^ a b "María Irene Fornés". BOMB Magazine (Interview). Interviewed by Allen Frame. October 1, 1984. Retrieved May 17, 2013.
  25. ^ Telgen, Diane (1993). Notable Hispanic American Women. VNR AG. p. 162. ISBN 9780810375789.
  26. ^ Watson, Maida (1991). "The Search for Identity in the Theater of Three Cuban American Female Dramatists". Bilingual Review/La Revista Bilingüe. 16 (2/3): 188–96. JSTOR 25745070.
  27. ^ "Drama". The Pulitzer Prizes. Columbia University. Retrieved September 26, 2022.
  28. ^ a b Cummings, Scott T. (2000). "[Review of Letters from Cuba]". Theatre Journal. 52 (4): 563–65. doi:10.1353/tj.2000.0104. JSTOR 25068855. S2CID 191492276.
  29. ^ a b Chow, Andrew R. (August 23, 2018). "An Avant-Garde Theater Artist Gets Her Due". New York Times. Retrieved September 29, 2022.
  30. ^ a b Shaw, Helen (September 18, 2018). "And What of the Night? Helen Shaw on Maria Irene Fornes". Retrieved September 29, 2022.
  31. ^ Shewey, Don (November 9, 1999). "Her championship season - playwright María Irene Fornés". The Advocate – via The Free Library.
  32. ^ "The Rest I Make Up". Retrieved September 26, 2022.
  33. ^ Memran, Michelle (February 13, 2018). "One of our best American playwrights, María Irene Fornés is featured in new documentary" (Interview). Interviewed by Carmen Pelaez. NBC News.
  34. ^ Walls, Seth Colter (February 23, 2020). "Review: 'Drowning' Is a Philip Glass Opera for Just 99 Seats". New York Times. Retrieved September 26, 2022.
  35. ^ "Going Out Guide: City Scene". New York Times. May 9, 1975. Retrieved September 28, 2022.
  36. ^ "Program Information for Evelyn Brown: A Diary (selections)". Lewis Center. Princeton University. 2021. Retrieved September 28, 2022.
  37. ^ Tommasini, Anthony (April 12, 1997). "Taking on a Few Legends". New York Times. Retrieved September 29, 2022.
  38. ^ Van Gelder, Lawrence (April 23, 1998). "Where Ibsen First Met His 'Hedda'". New York Times. Retrieved September 29, 2022.
  39. ^ Fleming, John (May 19, 1997). "Adrift on a sea of drama". Tampa Bay Times. Retrieved September 28, 2022. There are 36 brief scenes, each a story told by the rafters.... Fornes dwelled on the deeper emotional issues of immigration: exhilaration and sadness, ambition and nostalgia, gain and loss.
  40. ^ Kakutani, Michiko (June 3, 1980). "Theater: Garcia Lorca". New York Times. Retrieved September 29, 2022.
  41. ^ Gussow, Mel (June 4, 1981). "Theater: Calderon's 'Life is Dream'". New York Times. Retrieved September 29, 2022.
  42. ^ Gussow, Mel (December 15, 1987). "Theater: 'Uncle Vanya'". New York Times. Retrieved September 29, 2022.
  43. ^ "María Irene Fornés." in Encyclopedia of World Biography. Detroit: Gale Biography In Context. 2005.
  44. ^ "Maria Irene Fornes". John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Retrieved September 28, 2022.
  45. ^ "Maria Irene Fornes". American Academy of Arts and Letters. Retrieved September 27, 2022.
  46. ^ "Cuomo Gives 12 Awards For Arts Achievement". New York Times. June 29, 1990. Retrieved September 28, 2022.
  47. ^ "The Robert Chesley Award for Lesbian and Gay Playwriting". Triangle Publishing. Retrieved September 27, 2022.

Further reading

  • Alker, Gwendolyn (2022). "María Irene Fornés," in 50 Key Figures in Queer US Theatre, eds. Jimmy A. Noriega and Jordan Schildcrout. Routledge, 2022, pp. 76-80.
  • Edward Field (2003). Introduction. Notes of a Nude Model and Other Pieces. By Zwerling, Harriet Sohmers. Spuyten Duyvil.
  • Fornés, María Irene (1977). ""I Write These Messages That Come."". The Drama Review: TDR. 21 (4): 25–40. doi:10.2307/1145134. JSTOR 1145134.
  • Austin, Gayle; Brooks, Colette; Fornes, Maria Irene; Wray, Elizabeth; Miles, Julia; Kellogg, Marjorie Bradley; Malpede, Karen; Schenkar, Joan; Cattaneo, Anne; Sklar, Roberta (1983). Austin, Gayle (ed.). "The 'Woman' Playwright Issue". Performing Arts Journal. 7 (3): 90–91. doi:10.2307/3245154. JSTOR 3245154. S2CID 194026042; statement by María Irene Fornés
  • García-Romero, Anne (2016). The Fornes Frame: Contemporary Latina Playwrights and the Legacy of Maria Irene Fornes. University of Arizona Press.
  • Kent, Assunta Bartolomucci (1996). Maria Irene Fornes and Her Critics. Praeger.
  • Robinson, Marc, ed. (1999). The Theater of Maria Irene Fornes. Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Sofer, Andrew (2005). "Maria Irene Fornes: Acts of Translation". In Krasner, David (ed.). A Companion to Twentieth-Century American Drama. Wiley Blackwell. pp. 440–455. doi:10.1002/9780470996805.ch27. ISBN 9780470996805.
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María Irene Fornés
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