María Irene Fornés

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María Irene Fornés
Maria Irene Thanksgiving.jpg
Fornés c. November 2011
Born (1930-05-14) May 14, 1930 (age 84)
Havana, Cuba
Citizenship American (1951)
Occupation Playwright, Artist
Organization INTAR Hispanic Playwrights-in-Residence Laboratory
Notable work(s)
Partner(s) Harriet Sohmers, Susan Sontag
Awards 9 Obie Awards, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award

María Irene Fornés (born May 14, 1930) is a Cuban-American avant garde playwright and director was a leading figure of the Off-Off-Broadway movement in the 1960s. Fornés' themes focused on poverty and feminism. Moreover, on personal and artistic levels, her lesbian identity has been central to her art.

In 1965, she won her first Distinguished Plays Obie Award for Promenade and The Successful Life of 3. She was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize with her play And What of the Night? Other notable works include Fefu and Her Friends, Mud, Letters from Cuba and Sarita. Fornés became known in both Hispanic-American and experimental theatre in New York, winning a total of nine Obie Awards.


Early life[edit]

Fornés was born in Havana, Cuba, and emigrated to the United States at the age of 14, with her mother, Carmen Collado Fornés and sister, Margarita Fornés Lapinel, after her father, Carlos Fornés, died in 1945. She became a U.S. citizen in 1951.[1] When she first arrived in America, Fornés worked in the Capezio factory. Dissatisfied by this work, she took classes to learn English. Later, she became a translator. At the age of 19, she formed an interest in painting and began her formal education in abstract art. During this time, she studied with artist Hans Hofmann in New York City and Provincetown, Massachusetts.[2]

IBy 1954, Fornés had met the writer and artist's model Harriet Sohmers, who was visiting New York. They became lovers, and she moved to Paris to live with Sohmers and to study painting.[2] There, she was greatly influenced by a French production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, even though she never read the play nor did she understand French. This event shifted her creative ambitions towards playwriting.[2] She lived with Sohmers in Paris for three years, after which Sohmers lived with writer Susan Sontag.[3]


In 1957, Fornés returned to New York City. In 1959, when Sontag returned to New York, Fornés and Sontag began a seven-year-long relationship and moved in together.[4] They encouraged each other to write.[2] Fornés's first play was titled The Widow (1961).[2] Her next major piece was There! You Died, first produced by San Francisco's Actors 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.[5] The piece is an allegorical power struggle between the two central characters: Isidore, a clown, and Leopold, a naive youth. This play established Fornés' theatrical production style, in which she was involved in the entire staging process. Like much of her writing during this time, Tango Palace stresses character rather than plot.[6] In the wake of this, Fornés' reputation grew in avant-garde circles, and she became friendly with Norman Mailer and Joseph Papp and reconnected with old friends like Harriet Sohmers Zwerling.[citation needed] Her work was later championed by Performing Arts Journal (later PAJ).[citation needed] Tango Palace was followed by The Successful Life of 3 and Promenade in 1965, for which she won her first Distinguished Plays Obie Award.[1]

In Fefu and Her Friends (1977), Fornés deconstructs the familiar stage, removing the fourth wall and staging scenes in multiple locations simultaneously throughout the theater. Four sets (a lawn, a study, a bedroom and a kitchen) are used in the second Act. The audience is divided into groups to watch each scene, then they rotate to the next set, as the scene is repeated until each group has seen all four scenes.[citation needed] First produced in 1977 by the New York Theater Strategy at the Relativity Media Lab, its story concerns eight women who, on the surface, appear to be engaging in mishaps with men, and it climaxes in a murder scene. It is a feminist play that focuses on female characters and their thoughts, feelings and interrelationships and is told from a woman's perspective. Fornés portrays these characters as real women, in a shift in her play-writing style to realism and naturalism in settings, characters and situations.[7][8]

The Danube (1982), Mud (1983) and Sarita (1984) earned an Obie in 1984. Mud, was first produced in 1983 at the Padua Hills Playwright's Festival in California.[citation needed] Set in a poverty-stricken environment, the play explores the lives of Mae, Lloyd and Henry, who all involved in a dysfunctional love triangle where gender roles are reversed. Fornés contrasts those who are content and those who seek more in their lives. While some had criticized these plays for their pessimism and lack of hope, Fornés begs to differ:

A lot of people have said to me about Mud and Sarita that they like it, they feel very much, but they feel at the very end there is a hole. “What are you saying?” they ask. “That there’s no hope?” One of the critics said of Mud that it’s saying there’s no way out. I wasn’t saying any such thing. Even though Sarita has a tragic ending—she kills her lover and then goes crazy and to a mental institution—I’m not saying any such thing! I’m showing what could happen. Precisely. I’m giving them an example of what is possible.[9]

The play exemplifies her familiar technique of portraying the female character's rise opposed by male characters. Education plays a central role of Mae's decision making process and her relationship with Henry. The piece also explores the way the mind experiences poverty and isolation.[7][8] The Conduct of Life (1985) was another Obie winner, as was Abingdon Square (1988). She was also a finalist for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Drama with her play And What of the Night?[10] Letters From Cuba had its premiere with the Signature Theater Company in New York in 2000. The play focuses on a young female Cuban dancer living in New York who corresponds with her brother in Cuba. The play is the first that Fornés identified as being drawn from her own personal experience of nearly 30 years of letter writing with her brother. It earned an Obie.[6]

Fornés became known in both Hispanic-American and experimental theatre in New York, winning a total of nine Obie Awards in the playwriting and directing categories.[11] She also taught playwriting and continued to direct plays and to mentor younger playwrights. Nilo Cruz studied with her.[1] She received an honorary Doctor of Letters Degree from Bates College in 1992.[1]

Writing style[edit]

Fornés' plays address social and personal issues, while removing the playwright from the work itself.[citation needed] Her writing style employs avant-garde techniques developed in the early years of the Off-off-Broadway movement.[citation needed] Her experimental techniques include modern form, feminist perspectives, realism and allegorical elements.[citation needed] The spectator's identification and empathy with characters is seen as the core of Fornés' theatrical philosophy.[citation needed] She viewed the theater as a place in which to stage experience so that the spectator can "receive" that experience and achieve "identification."[7]



  • 1961 John Hay Whitney Foundation fellowship[12]
  • 1965 Obie Award for Distinguished Plays: Promenade and The Successful Life of 3
  • 1977 Obie Award for Playwrighting: Fefu and Her Friends
  • 1979 Obie Award for Directing: Eyes on the Harem
  • 1982 Obie Award for Sustained Achievement
  • 1984 Two Obie Awards for 1) Playwrighting and 2) Directing: The Danube, Sarita and Mud
  • 1985 Obie Award for Best New American Play: The Conduct of Life
  • 1985 American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters
  • 1986 Playwrights U.S.A. Award for translation of Cold Air
  • 1988 Obie Award for Best New American Play: Abingdon Square
  • 2000 Obie Award – Special Citations: "Letters From Cuba"
  • 1990 New York State Governor's Arts Award[11]
  • 2001 Robert Chesley Award
  • 2002 PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award for a Master American Dramatist

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Strassler, Doug "2009 NYIT Honorary Recipients Reached Out to Others to Help Themselves", New York Innovative Theatre Awards, Inc., September 14, 2009, accessed August 23, 2012
  2. ^ a b c d e 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.
  3. ^ Zwerling, Harriet Sohmers. "Memories of Sontag: From an Ex-Pat’s Diary", November 2006, accessed December 30, 2012; Rollyson, pp. 45–50; and Sontag, pp. 188–189
  4. ^ Moore, Patrick. "Susan Sontag and a Case of Curious Silence", Los Angeles Times, January 4, 2005, accessed December 18, 2012
  5. ^ Als, Hilton. "Feminist Fatale", New Yorker, March 22, 2010, Vol. 86, Issue 5, p. 8
  6. ^ a b Anne, Fliotsos, and Vierow Wendy. "Fornes, Maria Irene", American Women Stage Directors of the Twentieth Century, University of Illinois Press, 2008, pp. 179–89
  7. ^ a b c Diane, Moroff Lynn. Fornes Theater in the Present Tense, The University of Michigan Press, 1996.
  8. ^ a b William, Gruber E. "The Characters of Maria Irene Fornes: Public and Private Identities", Missing Persons Character and Characterization in Modern Drama, The University of Georgia Press, 1994, pp. 155–81
  9. ^ Frame, Allen. "Interview with María Irene Fornés" BOMB Magazine Fall, 1984. Retrieved May 17, 2013.
  10. ^ "The Pulitzer Prizes: Drama", The Pulitzer Prizes, Columbia University, accessed August 28, 2012-08-27
  11. ^ a b "Search the Obies", The Village Voice, accessed August 24, 2012
  12. ^ "María Irene Fornés." in Encyclopedia of World Biography. Detroit: Gale Biography In Context. 2005. 


  • Rollyson, Carl and Lisa Paddock. Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon, W. W. Norton & Company (2000)
  • Sontag, Susan. Reborn: Journals and Notebooks 1947–1963, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2008)
  • Cummings, Scott T. Maria Irene Fornes: Routledge Modern and Contemporary Dramatists, Routledge (2013)

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]