María Irene Fornés (1930-2018) was born in Havana, Cuba, and first came to New York City in 1945. Her first play, Tango Palace, was produced in 1963. She wrote more than three dozen works for the stage.
María Irene Fornés in 2000.
Photo: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times
María Irene Fornés (Havana, Cuba/New York City, 1930-2018)
by Anne García-Romero from Fifty Key Figures in Latin American and Latinx Theatre, edited by Paola Hernández and Analola Santana (Routledge, 2022)
María Irene Fornés, considered by many to be the mother of Latinx playwriting, was an influential and award-winning playwright, director, and teacher. Born in Havana, Cuba, Fornés, the youngest of six children, immigrated to the United States in 1945 with her sister Margarita, and mother Carmen, a former schoolteacher. Earlier that year, her father Carlos, a low-level bureaucrat in Cuba’s civil service, died of a heart attack at the age of fifty-three. Fornés and her sister were raised by their mother in New York City, where she resided for the rest of her life. Fornés wrote and directed more than fifty plays that were produced throughout the United States and internationally including in Cuba, Peru, England, France, Germany, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, Russia, and India. Tango Palace (1963) was her first produced play and Letters from Cuba (2000) was her final play. She won an unprecedented nine Obie Awards and her play, What Of The Night? (1990) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. Fornés eschewed identity politics yet her work has been described as feminist, Latinx, lesbian, and avant gardist. She was also an influential educator, teaching playwriting across the US, and especially through her founding of the Hispanic Playwrights in Residence Lab (HPRL 1981-1992), at International Arts Relations (INTAR), a New York City theatre committed to producing works by Latinx writers, where she trained many celebrated Latinx playwrights of the late twentieth century. During her final years, Fornés suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, and was cared for by family, friends, former students, and colleagues, while she resided at the Amsterdam House in New York City, where she died in 2018. Her later years are poignantly captured in the award-winning documentary film, The Rest I Make Up (2018), directed by Michelle Memran.
Largely an autodidact, Fornés never completed high school after her arrival to New York City, yet she pursued an artistic path. In the early 1950s, she studied with Abstract Expressionist painter, Hans Hofmann (1889-1966), whose push-pull theory examining dynamic visual energies informed her future theatre work. In 1953, while painting in Paris, Fornés attended the original production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, directed by Roger Blin. At the time she did not speak French but was hugely inspired by the performance. She began writing in 1961 while in a relationship with writer Susan Sontag (1933-2004). To help Sontag with momentary writer’s block, she began writing a short story by opening a cookbook at random and using the first word of each sentence on the page as inspiration. When Fornés began writing plays, this use of found materials influenced her theatrical process. In the early 1960s, Fornés became a member of the Actors Studio Playwrights’ Unit, where she learned acting techniques from Lee Strasberg (1901-1982) and Gene Frankel (1919-2005) and applied their pursuit of replicating authentic human emotion and behavior to her playwriting.
Fornés’s groundbreaking and award-winning plays are celebrated for their powerful female characters, linguistic exactitude, culturally diverse narratives and theatrical experimentation. Her works often explore female characters searching for expression, empowerment and education. She believed that a playwright ought to write what intrigues her, which may or may not be related to her cultural background. Consequently, she created plays, through spare, poetic and visceral dialogue, that examined diverse cultural worlds including eight Anglo women preparing an educational fundraiser in 1935 New England (Fefu and Her Friends, 1977), a European family in Budapest confronting nuclear war (The Danube, 1982), a Cuban American family struggling to survive in the 1940s Bronx (Sarita, 1984), a military household in Latin America dealing with torture and oppression (The Conduct of Life, 1985) and British actors seeking to stage Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler in 1890s London (The Summer in Gossensass, 1998). Fornés experimented with theatrical forms to create site-specific works, plays that emphasized character exploration, and plays inspired by objects found at thrift shops and flea markets such as 1930s chiffon dresses (Fefu and Her Friends), a 1909 domestic servant’s diary (Evelyn Brown, A Diary, 1980), Hungarian language lesson records (The Danube) and an ironing board, axe and pitchfork (Mud, 1983).
As a key figure in the Off-Off Broadway movement, which generated numerous collectives, she championed experimental theatre creation through the co-founding of the New York Theatre Strategy (NYTS, 1973-1979), a collective that presented over twenty experimental works including her seminal play, Fefu and Her Friends. In 1978, several Off-Off Broadway playwrights, including Sam Shepard, Murray Mednick and herself, founded the Padua Hills Festival and Workshop (Padua, 1978-1995), in Southern California, which became an annual haven for the production and teaching of experimental playwriting. Fornés directed, wrote and taught at Padua, where she created early versions of plays such as The Danube, The Conduct of Life, Mud and Oscar and Bertha (1989). She would often develop a play at Padua and later stage the work in New York City or in a US regional theatre.
Fornés also explored the intersections between music and theatre. Her Obie award-winning 1965 musical, Promenade, for which she wrote the book and lyrics with music by Al Carmines, whimsically follows two escaped convicts as they careen through urban class conflict. It was produced Off-Broadway for 259 performances, the longest run in her production history. She collaborated with numerous composers such as Leon Odenz, who wrote songs for her play Sarita utilizing different musical styles, including guaguancó, guaracha, tango, bolero, swing boogie and gospel. Additionally, in 1997, Manual for a Desperate Crossing (Balseros/Rafters), an opera by Robert Ashley for which she wrote the libretto, considers the plight of Cuban émigrés who made the treacherous journey from Cuba to Florida aboard makeshift rafts.
In 1973, she directed a production of her play, Molly’s Dream, and from then on directed the original productions of all of her own plays. For Fornés, directing helped her achieve her playwriting vision. She combined a keen eye for detailed physical work with visual poetry and an environmental use of space. In Fefu and Her Friends, performed in a loft, Fornés utilized various spaces to serve as the living room, lawn, kitchen, study and bedroom of Fefu’s country home. During the play’s second part, she divided the audience into four groups that each migrated to the distinct spaces to witness the characters’ intimate conversations. In 1984, at Padua, she developed an early version of The Conduct of Life staging the play outdoors on a terrace overlooking a large field and a two-lane road. Additionally, Fornés directed her own adaptations of classic works by Calderón de la Barca, Chekhov and Ibsen.
As an influential playwriting teacher, she trained over forty playwrights at HPRL, whose works have largely shaped the field of Latinx theatre. Her innovative playwriting method encompasses an experiential practice based in physicality, orality and community, to help writers generate dynamic, new play material. The elements of the “Fornés playwriting method” include centering movement, guided visualization, basic drawing, found materials (aural, written and visual) and communal writing.
She wrote and directed her final play, Letters from Cuba (2000), based on letters from her brother Rafael, which was produced Off-Broadway during her residency at the Signature Theatre. While Fornés wrote primarily in English, several of her plays were also translated into Spanish and produced in the US and Latin America. Her work continues to be championed by artists and scholars who formed The Fornés Institute (www.fornesinstitute.com) that aims to preserve and amplify Fornés’s legacy through workshops, convenings and advocacy.
Letters from Cuba (2000)
The Summer in Gossensass (1998)
What of the Night?: comprised of four short plays: Nadine; Springtime; Lust; and Hunger (1989)
The Conduct of Life (1985)
The Danube (1982)
Fefu and Her Friends (1977)
Molly’s Dream (1973)
Tango Palace (1963)
Fefu and Her Friends. New York: PAJ Publications, 2017.
What of the Night?: Selected Plays New York: PAJ Publications, 2008.
Letters from Cuba and Other Plays. New York: PAJ Publications, 2007.
Promenade and Other Plays. New York, NY: PAJ Publications, 2002.
Alker, Gwendolyn. “Fornesian Animality: María Irene Fornés's Challenge to a Politics of Identity.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, 35.1 (2020): 9-28.
Cummings, Scott T. Maria Irene Fornes. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2013.
Delgado, Maria and Caridad Svich, eds. Conducting a Life: Reflections on the Theater of Maria Irene Fornes. New York: Smith and Kraus, 1999.
Fornés, María Irene, and Robb Creese. “I Write These Messages That Come.” The Drama Review: TDR, 2.4 (1977): 25-40.
García-Romero, Anne. The Fornes Frame: Contemporary Latina Playwrights and the Legacy of Maria Irene Fornes. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2016.
Kent, Assunta Bartolomucci. Maria Irene Fornes and Her Critics. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.
Marranca, Bonnie. “The Real Life of Maria Irene Fornes.” Performing Arts Journal, vol. 8, no. 1, 1984, pp. 29-34.
Moroff, Diane. Fornes: Theater in the Present Tense. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996.
Renganathan, Mala. Understanding Maria Irene Fornes’ Theatre. Champaign, Ill: Common Ground, 2010.
Robinson, Marc, ed. The Theatre of Maria Irene Fornes. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.
Svich, Caridad. “The Legacy of Maria Irene Fornes: A Collection of Impressions and Exercises.” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, 31.3 (2009): 1-32.