Maria Irene Fornes: Havana-born playwright who was a leading light of the Off Broadway avant garde

An ambitious artist with nine Obie awards to prove it, the Cuban-American was an inspiring figure and teacher to many of the industry's greats 

Christine Manby
Sunday 02 December 2018 20:18 GMT
Fornes in the 1970s. She wrote more than 40 plays and translated and produced many others
Fornes in the 1970s. She wrote more than 40 plays and translated and produced many others (Marcella Matarese Scuderi)

“Writing plays is not a way of earning a living, it’s a way of earning a life,” declared Cuban-American playwright Maria Irene Fornes, in Michelle Memran’s documentary, The Rest I Make Up.

Fornes, who has died aged 88, was a driving force in New York’s experimental Off-Broadway theatre scene. Though she had only an elementary school education, over the course of her career she won nine Obie awards and was short-listed for a Pulitzer. Through her playwriting workshops she shaped a whole generation of new writers. Fellow writer Paula Vogel wrote: “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.”

Fornes, who preferred to call herself Irene, was born in Havana, Cuba. She was the youngest of six. After the death of her father in 1945, she emigrated to the United States with her mother and one of her sisters. Upon arriving in the US, Fornes found work in a shoe factory but learned English in her spare time, with the aim of becoming a translator. She was also interested in art, and studied painting under renowned abstract expressionist Hans Hoffman in New York.

Fornes with filmmaker Michelle Memranin in Seattle in 2005 (Michelle Memran)
Fornes with filmmaker Michelle Memranin in Seattle in 2005 (Michelle Memran) (Michelle Memran)

Fornes became a US citizen at the age of 21, but three years later she followed her lover, writer Harriet Sohmers Zwerling, to Paris. When the relationship ended, Fornes returned to New York to work as a textile designer. She had become interested in theatre while living in France but it was not until she embarked on a relationship with Susan Sontag that she was inspired to turn her own creative talents to playwriting.

In fact, Fornés claimed she began to write to prove to Sontag, who was struggling to begin a novel, that writing really wasn’t so difficult. As the two women sat at their kitchen table one evening, Fornes wrote a short story using a recipe book as a prompt. In 1986, she told Ross Wetzsteon, of the Village Voice: “I might never have thought of writing if I hadn’t pretended I was going to show Susan how easy it was.”

As a result of that evening in 1961, Fornes turned a series of letters written by a Spanish cousin into a play called La Viuda (The Widow). Her first play in English came two years later; There! You Died, later renamed Tango Palace, was a two-hander between a clown and a young man. Michael Townsend Smith, who co-directed a production of Tango Palace with Fornes in 1973, described it as a “waspish gay pas de deux”. It set the tone for Fornes’s future work, focusing as it did on character over plot.

Just four years after she started writing “on a whim”, Fornes won her first Obie award for Promenade and The Successful Life of 3. Unlike many playwrights, she was keen to be involved in all aspects of her plays in production.

She used her skill as a visual artist in costume design, and directed her own work whenever she could. For that 1973 production of Tango Palace, Townsend Smith recalls how “Irene made the set out of bubble wrap she found on the street”.

That same year, she founded the New York Theatre Strategy, as a means of disseminating her avant garde approach. For her 1977 play, Fefu and Her Friends, Fornes pioneered the method of having scenes playing simultaneously in multiple locations in the theatre, with the audience divided into groups moving between the sets.

Fornes always focused strongly on her female characters; Fefu And Her Friends, which the LA Times called “a landmark of feminist playwriting”, explored female relationships through the eyes of eight women. It earned Fornes another Obie.

From the Sixties right through the Nineties, Fornes was prolific. She wrote more than 40 plays and translated and produced many others. She was director of the Hispanic Playwrights-in-Residence Laboratory at New York’s INTAR, one of the United States’ oldest Hispanic theatre companies. Her work was diverse and defied categorisation, which is perhaps why commercial success evaded her. Fornes wrote her final play, Letters From Cuba, in 2000. It earned her one last Obie.

Though she was no longer working in a formal sense, Fornes continued to inspire. Journalist Michelle Memran struck up a friendship with the playwright after interviewing her in 1999. Memran recorded their discussions about creativity on a Hi-8 camera, a process that became an important new creative outlet for Fornes as her memory began to fade.

After she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2005, Fornes continued to work with Memran, documenting what Memran described as “a remarkably creative period of her [Fornes’s] life”, until she eventually became too ill. Memran’s films formed the basis of the documentary The Rest I Make Up. The title is taken from a line in one of Fornes plays, Promenade, which perhaps sums up the playwright’s creative MO; “I know everything. Half of it I really know. The rest I make up.”

Maria Irene Fornes, playwright, born 14 May 1930, died 30 October, 2018

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