María Irene Fornés

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María Irene Fornés
María Irene Fornés (2012).jpg
Fornés c. November 2011
Born (1930-05-14) May 14, 1930 (age 87)
Havana, Cuba
Citizenship American (1951)
Occupation Playwright, Director, Teacher
Organization INTAR Hispanic Playwrights-in-Residence Laboratory INTAR (International Arts Relations, Inc.)
Notable work
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 who was a leading figure of the Off-Off-Broadway movement in the 1960s. Always an iconoclast, each of Fornés's plays was its own world, all vastly different from each other. Whereas contemporary playwrights developed a signature style, the critical factor identifying a Fornés play is not tone or structure, but an intense, relentless and compassionate examination of the human condition-- especially the way intimate personal relationships are impacted and infected by economic conditions.

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? in 1990. Other notable works include Fefu and Her Friends, Mud, Sarita, and Letters from Cuba. Fornés became known in both Hispanic-American and experimental theatre in New York, winning a total of nine Obie Awards.

Fornés is also recognized as a brilliant and exacting director and one of our time's most significant teachers of playwriting. Her methodology was influenced by acting exercises she encountered at the Actor's Studio, and focused on getting writers into their bodies and creative unconscious minds in order to become intimate with their imaginations.

Fornés's preferred name is Irene. While more recent scholarship uses diacritical marks on her name, she herself did not use them when she was writing and publishing professionally. A documentary feature about Fornés called The Rest I Make Up by Michelle Memran was made in collaboration with Irene and focuses on her creative life in the years after she stopped writing due to dementia.


Early life[edit]

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, as she prefers to be called, 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.[1] 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.[2]

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.[2] 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 actually 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.[3]


In 1959, Fornés met the writer Susan Sontag at a party and began a relationship that lasted several years. It was while Fornés was with Sontag that 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.'" (Wetzsteon, 1986)

But before this happened, 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's definitive book on Fornés, "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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[1] Her work was championed by Performing Arts Journal (later PAJ).[citation needed]

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.[6] 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.[7][8]

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.,[9] explores the impoverished lives of Mae, Lloyd and Henry, who become involved in a dysfunctional love triangle in which gender roles are reversed. 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.[10]

"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.[7][8]

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?[11] 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. "Letters" 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," too, earned an Obie.[5]

Fornés became a recognized force in both Hispanic-American and experimental theatre in New York, winning a total of nine Obie Awards.[12] She received an honorary Doctor of Letters Degree from Bates College in 1992.[1] She was stricken with dementia in or before 1998. Her sister, Margarita Lapinel, cared for her in the early years of dementia. This care was taken over by her other sister Carmencita Nute until the time that she needed a greater degree of care in a facility.[citation needed] A petition to move her to New York to be closer to her admirers in the theater community was signed by over 2,700 people by February 2013.[13] Nilo Cruz studied with her.[1]

Writing style[edit]

Fornés' plays address social and personal issues, while removing the playwright from the work itself.[citation needed] She employs avant-garde techniques explored in the early years of the Off-off-Broadway movement,[citation needed] including innovative form, immersive and multi-site performance, feminist perspectives, and a realism that embraces allegorical elements.[citation needed] Rather than seeing drama as conflict, Fornés has said she views the theater as a place to stage experience, so that the spectator can "receive" it and achieve "identification" with the characters.[7] Fornés was intrigued by people and events in her everyday life. Fornés started all her writing with free thought typing then she would draw on her personal experiences and develop characters that she could feel within herself.She was fascinated by her nephews and niece and picked up the unique language used by them when playing or arguing. Fornés was clearly enamored with the nickname Fefu (Niece Jennifer Lapinel) and this became part of her work.



  • 1961 John Hay Whitney Foundation fellowship[14]
  • 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[12]
  • 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 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. ^ Als, Hilton. "Feminist Fatale", New Yorker, March 22, 2010, Vol. 86, Issue 5, p. 8
  5. ^ 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
  6. ^ Fornes, Maria Irene (1978). "Play: Fefu and Her Friends". Performing Arts Journal. 2 (3): 112–140. doi:10.2307/3245376. 
  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. ^ Telgen, Diane (1993). Notable Hispanic American Women. VNR AG. ISBN 9780810375789. 
  10. ^ Frame, Allen. "Interview with María Irene Fornés" BOMB Magazine Fall, 1984. Retrieved May 17, 2013.
  11. ^ "The Pulitzer Prizes: Drama", The Pulitzer Prizes, Columbia University, accessed August 28, 2012-08-27
  12. ^ a b "Search the Obies", The Village Voice, accessed August 24, 2012
  13. ^ Kozinn, Allan. "Theater World Friends Bring Ailing Playwright Closer to Home", New York Times, February 6, 2013, accessed October 13, 2014.
  14. ^ "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)

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]