Passion and Presence: Maria Irene Fornes, 1930–2018

In 1999, in an interview I conducted with Maria Irene Fornes on the eve of a ...

In 1999, in an interview I conducted with Maria Irene Fornes on the eve of a retrospective season of her work at New York’s Signature Theatre, she wondered, “Am I the only survivor?” At the time, she reckoned she was the last remaining pioneer of Off-Off-Broadway who was still writing regularly for the stage, and certainly the only one who, without a cushion of personal wealth, hadn’t moved into film, TV or commercial theater.1

At that point, Fornes had won eight of her eventual nine Obie Awards for playwriting and directing, and had already been teaching for a couple of decades, counting among her scores of adoring (and successful) students Luis Alfaro, Migdalia Cruz, Holly Hughes, David Henry Hwang, Eduardo Machado, Caridad Svich, and Carmelita Tropicana. Tony Kushner once declared that “America has produced no dramatist of greater importance”; Paula Vogel, that “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.”

But soon after I did that interview, Fornes’s surfacing Alzheimer’s stalled her productivity, then quickly stopped it altogether. Within a year, she’d written the last of her plays, and for the last dozen years, until her death on October 30, she resided in care facilities. Theater folks and friends had rallied around Fornes, who had no partner or children, to provide the support she deserved, understanding all too well why noncommercial artists have long been icons of the gig economy precariat.

They also helped galvanize a thrilling surge of renewed interest in Fornes’s work and legacy—new productions of her plays, the two-year-old Fornés Institute (part of the Latinx Theatre Commons), a 12-hour marathon of staged readings that took place at the Public Theater in August, and, not least, an exquisite documentary portrait of Fornes by the first-time filmmaker Michelle Memran, The Rest I Make Up.2 (The title comes from one of the songs in Promenade, Fornes’s whimsical 1965 musical, created with the composer Al Carmines: “I know everything. Half of it I really know. The rest I make up.”)

In one of many arresting scenes in The Rest I Make Up, Fornes stands on a corner outside her apartment on Sheridan Square and gazes silently into the distance as traffic whooshes past. She has just run into two of her downtown theater colleagues—the playwrights John Guare and Constance Congdon—who then scurried off on their separate ways, leaving Fornes looking puzzled. “The things we take for granted,” she says in her typically cheery cadence when Memran’s off-camera voice asks her what she’s thinking. “We see each other two seconds—a very nice couple of seconds—greeting, and then goodbye, goodbye, and that’s the end of it.”

It’s the end of the encounter, to be sure, but more than that, too. As often happens in the film—and in Fornes’s plays—this brief episode compresses rich thematic layers into a single sparkling moment. In an instant, we sense Fornes confronting many endings: the fading of the counterculture that, half a century earlier, had given life to these writers’ early plays in that very neighborhood; the waning of a Greenwich Village hospitable to, and even defined by, artists who created rich community there; Fornes’s personal past vanishing both because, after all, that’s what pasts do, and even more so because, then in her 70s, she is losing her memory to Alzheimer’s.

But there’s little pathos here. As in her plays, Fornes’s capacious curiosity always crowds out sentimentality—she’d rather ponder the strangeness of a new situation than invite pity—and Memran, some 45 years her junior, shows just how enchanting Fornes’s worldview remains as the two journey into a tender friendship over a decade of filming.

In more than 40 works of disparate styles written between 1961 and 2000, Fornes invented new forms to explore passion, cruelty, kindness, creativity, grief, love, and endurance.

The Rest I Make Up enjoyed a sold-out week-long run at New York’s Museum of Modern Art at the end of August and, a month later, it won both Best Documentary (Jury Award) and the AARP Illinois Silver Image Award at the Reeling Chicago LGBTQ+ Film Festival. Having screened in Boston, Coral Gables, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and elsewhere over the last couple of months, it will soon be shown in Portland and Buffalo. While the movie doesn’t flinch from the sadness of Fornes’s decline—we see her joyfully visiting her brother and his family in her birth city of Havana and then, right after the trip, see her in Miami, stunned to hear that she’d just spent two weeks in Cuba—it nonetheless leaves the viewer feeling exhilarated, bringing us into the creative aura of a lively, unassailable imagination, where fantasy yields profound insight and matter-of-fact directness stirs up intense emotion.

These are the same qualities that made Fornes such a great playwright, director, and teacher of playwriting. In works of disparate styles written between 1961 and 2000—more than 40 of them—she invented new forms to explore passion, cruelty, kindness, creativity, grief, love, and endurance, as well as the tragic, and hilarious, stubbornness of human attachments. She always wrote guided by a vision of the work in performance, even with particular actors in mind, and typically directed the premieres of her plays. She had pursued painting as a young adult (studying with the early abstract expressionist Hans Hoffman) and, like a jeweler setting gems, built crisp, indelible stage compositions into her plays.

Though Fornes wrote in English—she came to the US at age 15, in 1945—she credited her bilingualism with endowing the language of her plays with what she once called, in an interview with Maria M. Delgado, an “off-center quality that is not exactly deliberate, but that I have not tried to change because I know its origin lies in the temperament and language of my birth.”

It’s hard to characterize Fornes’s plays generally without misrepresenting them. To highlight the stark, staccato visual images and the directness of the dialogue in her masterpieces of the 1980s—a kind of lyrical formalism—is unfairly to snub the more comic, fanciful plays or the vaudevillian ones or the musicals or the epics.

“There is no signature to my work,” she told me in 1999. “It is more like if you think of a plant with roots, trunk, then many branches. It has that. Everything comes through the center and manifests itself in different ways.” As far back as 1986, the critic Ross Wetzsteon suggested (in a riveting Village Voice profile of Fornes) that it was precisely because of this continuous experimentation and lack of a fixed style that Fornes had not captured the attention of the “casual theatergoer and middlebrow critic” and the fame their regard could confer. By the time they catch on to her, he wrote, “she has already moved on.”

You couldn’t have asked for more invigorating evidence of Fornes’s constant exploration of theatrical form than the 12-hour marathon of staged readings of Fornes’s plays that enthralled a couple hundred spectators on August 27 at the Public Theater—about 50 of whom stayed for the entire event, I reckoned when, with the clock nearing the closing hour of midnight, the musical director for the event, Nathan Koci, asked us to raise our hands. Produced by the director JoAnne Akalaitis, the day offered 18 plays, in whole or part, performed by some of downtown’s most illustrious actors (some 60 actors, in all). It began with the absurdist comic lecture Dr. Kheal (1968) and ended with full-blast numbers from Promenade.

I was most struck by a strain of profound political concern running through the plays, especially given that Fornes always disavowed any association with that word as it is typically applied to the arts. While she gamely participated on panels about queer writing, never shied from calling herself a feminist, took pleasure in her Cubanness, and dedicated herself to mentoring two generations of Latinx playwrights (among others), Fornes refused to attach any identity or ideological labels to her work. She felt they invited narrow, even a priori readings of the plays—determined before the work was experienced—and worse, ran counter to the egolessness at the heart of her process. “Creativity can’t have any restriction or instruction,” she told me. “It’s like dreams. If you say you want to dream about this or that, it won’t come out.”

Still, what did come out from the depths of her unconscious imagination—how to access that mysterious wellspring was what she taught—was an affinity for the vulnerable. Often, it’s amply clear that misogyny or poverty or both produce her characters’ unbearable circumstances, but there’s too much tenderness, and often caprice, for her works to hew to any doctrine or program.

The marathon presented, for instance, an astonishingly moving 1967 work, A Vietnamese Wedding. Written for a week-long protest against the American war in Vietnam called “Angry Arts Week,” it was likely, I daresay, the only contribution that didn’t traffic in anger. Simply and lovingly, it asks four “readers” to narrate a Vietnamese folktale about love and explain the elements and procedures of a traditional Vietnamese marriage ceremony. Meanwhile, the readers pull people from the audience to silently enact the roles and rites they describe; the rest of us become the wedding guests. The result is a stunning exercise in empathy and distance.

Fornes’s work always produced a heightened sense of the theatrical present, an awareness of being willingly suspended in a space beyond worldly time.

The Danube (1982), another play presented in full at the marathon, also evokes the impact of worldly violence on the mundane. As was often her wont, Fornes was inspired by found objects, in this case, 78 LPs she’d picked up in a thrift store, containing Hungarian lessons. A simple love story plays out between an American in Budapest in 1938 and a local woman he meets. Scratchy instructions from the language records direct their dialogue—they repeat its flat pleasantries with a parallel lack of inflection—as their romance develops. Meanwhile, something mysterious sickens them: first the characters acquire coughs, then they weaken, then wear gas-masks, then, represented by puppets, they pack to flee. Language itself falls apart.

When I first saw this play, in Fornes’s production 35 years ago, it obliquely evoked the stakes of nuclear attack, on top of the creeping fascism of its setting. Today, it displaced my hobbling despair over climate destruction and our own creeping fascism into a different, unfamiliar emotional space that I still can’t name, but which is productively more open, if raw.

And so I might recount the abiding impact, on that marathon day, of the revolutionary Fefu and Her Friends (1977), which Fornes proudly claimed to be “plotless” because, she once told the critic and publisher Bonnie Marranca, it “doesn’t deal with the mechanics of the practical arrangement of life but deals with the mechanics of the mind, some kind of spiritual survival, a process of thought.” Or of the way the shifts between past and present tenses, English and Spanish, first and third person in Manual for a Desperate Crossing (Balseros/Rafters) (1997) produce the tidal turbulence of the story it tells about 10s of thousands of Cubans fleeing their homes by boat in 1994. Or of the sustained terror of Conduct of Life (1985), in which Leticia, the wife of a repressive regime’s torturer, seeks education and learns from a book that the impact of war “is felt principally in the economic realm,” even as we see its brutal prosecution in her own home. Or of the two men in Mud (1983) braying and bleating as they call after Mae, the woman both love, as she fatally seeks a way out of a life she regards as merely animalistic. And more.

But perhaps the most fortifying feeling of the marathon—along with symposia at Princeton and New York University last spring and some recent productions—was the sense that a new generation is taking up the care and cause of Fornes’s work. That the work will have the renewed life it—and we—need.

Visiting her sister in Miami after the trip to Cuba depicted in The Rest I Make Up, the playwright rejects her doctor’s suggestion that she move there rather than live by herself. It’s a pleasant enough place, Fornes says, “pretending to be a city, so organized … decorative,” but “if I live in a place where there’s no theater community, I am just a nice person living here.” Playwrights need to see their work produced. Otherwise, “it’s like cooking a meal when there’s nobody to eat,” she explains. “A play that’s on paper is completely incomplete.” She laughs at her phrase: “Completely incomplete! It sounds peculiar.” At that point, she hadn’t been writing for five years, she is astounded to learn. But she was not wrong about the need for community.

For the past five and a half years, thanks to the intervention of friends like Memran, the arts journalist Randy Gener, and Fornes’s agent, Morgan Jenness, Fornes lived within visiting range of her community, at the Amsterdam Nursing Home in Manhattan, where black-and-white production photos of her plays adorned the walls, blessing her like the St. Jude card taped above her bed. Some of her many awards hung on the walls, too, along with snapshots of friends and pictures of Fornes at various points in her life, her black eyes always shining, her gap-toothed smile always flirty.

Even as her faculties declined, there was something strangely heartening about spending time with her, sad though it was. Fornes’s work always produced a heightened sense of the theatrical present, an awareness of being willingly suspended in a space beyond worldly time. Fornes’s partner in the 1960s—“the love of my life,” she says, growing teary in The Rest I Make Up—taught us not to make a metaphor of illness. But Sontag’s admonition notwithstanding, I can’t help feeling that visiting her was a lesson in presence. Past and future did not exist for Fornes, as far as she was able to let us know, at least. The moment—more visceral than cognitive—was all.


From “Sister Love: The Letters of Audre Lorde...

By Mecca Jamilah Sullivan

In the late 1980s, I was privileged to participate for several months in Fornes’s famous playwriting workshop at Intar Hispanic American Art Center. The three-hour sessions began with some 20 minutes of stretching and breathing exercises, before we seated ourselves around a large table, did a little Zen breathing, and then wrote for a couple of hours, silently, save for the scratch of pen against paper and the occasional prompt from Fornes: a random line of dialogue, an object, a place. The physical exercise mattered not just it because it freed our minds, but because she regarded writing as a carnal enterprise. “The stronger a character is,” she told us one day, “the more I feel as if their voice is in my chest. I feel a contraction in my throat when I’m writing or I find I may be mouthing or gesturing along.”

Another day, we took up our places at the table, sat quietly for a while, and then she spoke. “Imagine one of your organs. Describe it,” she instructed. She gave us some time to write before her sweet, almost singsong voice broke in again. “Hand it to someone you trust.”


This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus. icon

  1. Her one foray into Broadway was a 1966 comedy called The Office, which closed in previews, but it left its director, the great Broadway showman Jerome Robbins, with an impression of Fornes as “one of the most original voices in America,” whose “compassion differentiates her work from most of the current and defiant theatrical outlook.”
  2. In her byline, Fornes did not use diacritics, and I follow her longstanding practice, though some scholars and theater-makers choose to include them.
Featured image: A still from The Rest I Make Up (2018), directed by Michelle Memran