María Irene Fornés
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María Irene Fornés
Fornés c. November 2011
|Died||October 30, 2018 (aged 88)|
New York City, United States
|Occupation||Playwright, Director, Teacher|
|Organization||INTAR Hispanic Playwrights-in-Residence Laboratory INTAR (International Arts Relations, Inc.)|
|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 (May 14, 1930 – October 30, 2018) was a Cuban-American playwright and director, notable in off-off-Broadway in the 1960s. She was first inspired to write while living with Susan Sontag, whom she encouraged at a difficult moment in Sontag’s own writing career. Fornés’ plays range widely in subject-matter, but often relate to the impact of economic conditions on personal relationships. Fornés won many Obie Theatre Awards and was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Fornés was born in Havana, Cuba, and immigrated to the United States at the age of 15, with her mother, Carmen Collado Fornés and sister, Margarita Fornés Lapinel, after her father, Carlos Fornés, died in 1945. Irene has two older sisters, Margarita and Carmencita, and three older brothers, Rafael (noted cartoonist), Hector and Raul. She became a U.S. citizen in 1951. When she first arrived in America, 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.
By 1954, Fornés had met the writer and artist's model Harriet Sohmers. They became lovers, and she moved to Paris to live with Sohmers and study painting. There, she was greatly influenced by a French production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, though she had never read the play and did not understand French. This was the moment when she realized the powerful impact that theater could have, but she did not start writing until the early 1960s. She lived with Sohmers in Paris for three years, but the relationship ended before Fornés returned to New York City in 1957.
In 1959, Fornés met the writer Susan Sontag at a party and began a relationship that lasted several years. While Fornés was with Sontag, she began to write plays. In Scott Cummings's seminal book on Maria Irene Fornes, he writes: "By her own account, Fornes took up writing on a whim. In a 1986 Village Voice profile, Ross Wetzsteon recounts how on a Saturday night in the spring of 1961, Fornes and the writer Susan Sontag were hanging out in Greenwich Village looking for a party. When Sontag voiced frustration about a novel she wanted to write, Fornes insisted that they give up their evening plans, go back to the apartment they shared, sit down at the kitchen table, and just set to work. When they got home, as if to prove how simple it was, Fornes sat down to write, as well. With no experience and no idea how to start, she opened up a cookbook at random and started a short story using the first word of each sentence on the page. 'I might never have thought of writing if I hadn't pretended I was going to show Susan how easy it was.'"  Before this happened, though, Fornés's first step toward playwriting had been 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), which was never translated into English, but it was presented in Spanish in New York. She never staged the play herself, and according to Scott Cummings, "in her career, it stands more as a precursor than a first play."
Her first play, and the beginning of her career as a playwright, is considered to be a piece called 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. 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. With it, Fornés' also established her production style, being involved in the entire staging process. As Fornés' reputation grew in avant-garde circles, she became friendly with Norman Mailer and Joseph Papp and reconnected with Harriet Sohmers. Tango Palace was followed by The Successful Life of 3 and Promenade, for which she won her first Distinguished Plays Obie Award in 1965. Her work was championed by Performing Arts Journal (later PAJ).
In Fefu and Her Friends (1977), Fornés began to deconstruct the stage by setting scenes in multiple locations simultaneously throughout the theater. Four sets (a lawn, a study, a bedroom, and a kitchen) are used in Act II. The audience is divided into groups to watch each scene, then rotated to the next set; the scenes repeat until each group has seen all four scenes. First produced by the New York Theater Strategy at the Relativity Media Lab, the story follows eight women who appear to be engaging in mishaps with men, and it climaxes in a murder scene. Shifting her style toward naturalism, Fornés portrays her characters as real women. The play is considered to be feminist by critics and scholars, in that it focuses on female characters and their thoughts, feelings, and relationships and is told from a woman's perspective.
In 1982, Fornés earned a special Obie for Sustained Achievement; in 1984, she received Obies for writing and directing The Danube (1982), Mud (1983) and Sarita (1984). Mud, first produced in 1983 at the Padua Hills Playwright's Festival in California., 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. When critics complained of her pessimism, Fornés begged 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.
The Conduct of Life (1985) was another Obie winner, as was Abingdon Square (1988). Fornés was also a finalist for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Drama with her play And What of the Night? In 2000, Letters From Cuba had its premiere with the Signature Theater Company in New York, as part of their yearlong retrospective of her career. The play focuses on a young Cuban dancer living in New York who corresponds with her brother in Cuba. It is the first work Fornés identifies as drawn from personal experience, noting her nearly 30 years of exchanging letters with her own brother. Letters From Cuba, too, earned an Obie.
Fornés became a recognized force in both Hispanic-American and experimental theatre in New York, winning a total of nine Obie Awards. Arguably, though, Irene's greatest influence has 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. She received an honorary doctor of letters degree from Bates College in 1992.
Theater luminaries such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning writers Tony Kushner (Angels in America), Paula Vogel (How I Learned to Drive), Lanford Wilson (Talley's Folly), Sam Shepard (Buried Child), and Edward Albee (A Delicate Balance) 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."
A documentary feature about Fornés called The Rest I Make Up by Michelle Memran was made in collaboration with Fornés, and focuses on her creative life in the years after she stopped writing due to dementia.
- 1961 John Hay Whitney Foundation fellowship
- 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
- 2001 Robert Chesley Award
- 2002 PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award for a Master American Dramatist
- Weber, Bruce (October 31, 2018). "María Irene Fornés, Writer of Spare, Poetic Plays, Dies at 88". nytimes.com. Archived from the original on 2018-10-31. Retrieved October 31, 2018.
- Scott T. Cummings (2013). Maria Irene Fornes. Routledge. pp. 5–. ISBN 978-0-415-45434-6.
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- (Wetzsteon, 1986)
- Als, Hilton. "Feminist Fatale", New Yorker, March 22, 2010, Vol. 86, Issue 5, p. 8
- Anne, Fliotsos, and Vierow Wendy. "Fornés, Maria Irene", American Women Stage Directors of the Twentieth Century, University of Illinois Press, 2008, pp. 179–89
- Fornes, Maria Irene (1978). "Play: Fefu and Her Friends". Performing Arts Journal. 2 (3): 112–140. doi:10.2307/3245376. JSTOR 3245376. S2CID 194891957.
- Diane, Moroff Lynn. Fornes Theater in the Present Tense, The University of Michigan Press, 1996.
- 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
- Telgen, Diane (1993). Notable Hispanic American Women. VNR AG. ISBN 9780810375789.
- Frame, Allen. "Interview with María Irene Fornés" BOMB Magazine Fall, 1984. Retrieved May 17, 2013.
- "The Pulitzer Prizes: Drama", the Pulitzer Prizes, Columbia University, accessed August 28, 2012-08-27
- "Search the Obies", The Village Voice, accessed August 24, 2012
- "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 Fornés: Routledge Modern and Contemporary Dramatists, Routledge (2013)
- Als, Hilton (22 March 2010). "Critic's Notebook: Feminist Fatale". The New Yorker. 86 (5): 8. Retrieved April 1, 2011.
- Field, Edward. Introduction to "Notes of a Nude Model" by Harriet Sohmers Zwerling, Spuyten Duyvil (2003)
- García-Romero, Anne. The Fornes Frame: Contemporary Latina Playwrights and the Legacy of Maria Irene Fornes. University of Arizona Press, 2016.
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- María Irene Fornés official website
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- Profile of Fornés at Brown University
- BOMB Magazine interview with María Irene Fornés by Allen Frame (Fall, 1984)
- María Irene Fornés at the Internet Off-Broadway Database
- Maria Irene Fornes Papers at Fales Library and Special Collections at New York University Special Collections