María Irene Fornés–who went by Irene–was born on May 14, 1930 in Havana, Cuba, the youngest of six children born to Carmen Collado Fornés and Carlos Fornés. Her mother had been a school teacher; her father was a low-level civil service employee.
Fornés grew up in Havana, the capital of Cuba. It is a major port city, commercial hub, and the largest metropolis in the Caribbean. While the Cuban Revolution of 1959, led by Fidel Castro, hadn’t yet occurred, the issues that caused it were brewing during her early years. There was ongoing conflict between the ruling oligarchy in Cuba, which was backed by the United States, and a coalition of others seeking better wages, more rights, and social justice in the nation. The Great Depression contributed to ongoing economic difficulties as well.
Fornés was raised in what she described as “an artistic environment,” telling the audience at a 1994 Dramatists Guild event,
My father set up contests and games where we would write a poem and then everyone voted on who wrote the best one. Or we all sang the same song and then we voted on who gave the best rendition. None of us could sing…So my interest in art was a question of personal pleasure.
At her father’s urging, she entered Havana Business School in her early teens to gain secretarial skills, but soon dropped out to pursue the violin.
Carlos Fornés died from a heart attack in 1945, prompting Carmen Fornés to immigrate to the United States that year, taking 15-year-old Fornés and her sister, 16-year-old Margarita, with her. In 2000, Fornés told The New York Times,
We had no means of support in Cuba. We came here for economic reasons. It might not be ideal, but you can work here and earn a living. In Cuba, it wasn't so. When we came here, there was no sadness whatsoever. My mother loved it. I thought I was in a Hollywood movie.
Fornés did not complete high school in New York. Instead, she worked in a shoe factory. She also studied visual arts, notably painting with Hans Hoffman, a German-born painter who immigrated to the United States in 1930. Hoffman’s work synthesized the techniques he had studied and practiced in Europe–Cubism, Fauvism, Expressionism, and Surrealism–into what became Abstract Expression. He focused on using color and shape to create the illusion of movement, space, and depth on a two-dimensional canvas, a concept that influenced Fornés’s visual approach to directing. Hoffman is remembered as both an influential artist and influential teacher, a path Fornés herself would repeat in her lifetime.
Fornés attributed much of her approach to creating theatre to her time studying with Hoffman, telling the Dramatists Guild in 1994:
The years I spent painting were of enormous value for me as a playwright because theater is a visual art. But also because, in painting, composition and juxtaposition are very important, while in playwriting the tendency for literalness makes it difficult to develop a sophisticated sense of structure. In painting you observe distance, color, object, structures, angles, lights and darks, and pace (yes, even pace, because when you see a painting you see movement), not just where there are human figures but even in abstract painting. You notice the space between things – where he or she is in relation to the table, the chair, the vase, the door. In theater it’s the same. The position of things, the space between the character and the wall, the distance from the back, from the left, from the chair—these are not things you can interpret in a psychological way. I don’t mean that if the dog is far from the master, it means that the dog is angry at the master. The relationships of things in space is intangible. It is aesthetic but it is also spiritual. And it is felt with as much power as the words they speak.
Fornés's career as a playwright was sparked by several events. While pursuing visual art (and a romance with Harriet Sohmers Zwerling) in Paris in 1953, she saw the original production of Waiting for Godot in French, a language she did not understand. She also cited the 1958 Off-Broadway production of Ulysses in Nighttown, an adaptation of a chapter from James Joyce’s Ulysses that featured Zero Mostel, as another inspiring experience. Her first foray into writing, in 1961, was an exercise in artistic solidarity with writer Susan Sontag, her partner at the time. Sontag was experiencing writer’s block and Fornés “began writing a short story by opening a cookbook at random and using the first word of each sentence on the page as inspiration,” as recounted in her biography by The Fornés Institute. She would continue to use found objects as inspiration for her plays: second-hand furniture, a servant’s diary, and a language-learning record all became the starting point for plays.
Fornés’s first play, La Viuda (The Widow), was inspired by letters from a cousin and was written in Spanish, though she would go on to write mostly in English. She joined the Actors Studio Playwrights’ Unit and studied with acting teacher Lee Strasberg, from whom she learned to approach theatre-making, as she told The Brooklyn Rail in 2002, “Moment to moment. Do not think about where your character is going. The moment you do, it’s over. I have never once in writing a play given a thought about what the scene’s about or what I want to say to the audience.”
Fornés quickly became a force in the emerging Off-Off-Broadway theatre scene of the early ‘60s. In Off-Off-Broadway theatre spaces, located in cafes and churches, playwrights like Fornés, Lanford Wilson, and Sam Shepherd created experimental, non-commercial, and abstract works, and presented them for audiences who paid little. In 1985 she told The Village Voice, “What draws me to theater is the adventure. Working Off-Off-Broadway I can do a play as often as I want, as often as my endurance permits. That is the greatest riches I can ask for.”
Fornés’s breakthrough came quickly, in 1965, with successful productions of both There, You Died! (later retitled The Successful Life of Three) and the musical Promenade for which she wrote the book and lyrics. The New York Times critic hailed Fornés’s writing in Promenade as having a “Dada zaniness” and “topsy-turvy Brechtian morality.” She won her first of nine Obies that year.
The following year Fornés had her sole Broadway production, though her play, The Office, directed by Jerome Robbins, closed in previews. Writing a decade later in the journal The Drama Review, Fornés reflected on how The Office shaped her understanding of herself as a playwright,
I never try to reproduce a real character. I did, in fact, try to reproduce real people that I knew in one play, "The Office"…I felt that I lacked the objectivity to make the play really sharp and for me to be sure exactly what I was doing.
In her lifetime Fornés would author over 35 plays, five with musical collaborators.
Though she had previously directed some of her own work, Fornés shifted to directing all of her own premieres after a 1973 production of her 1968 play Molly’s Dream, with music by Cosmos Savage. As she explained in a 1984 interview with Bomb,
When you write a play you are in such intimate relationship with it…Because in the process of creating a character or a world, one has to be humble, one has to allow for the play's images to take over...You have this very profound connection with it, and suddenly somebody who doesn't know anything about it (who immediately starts reading the play thinking, "What do I want to do with it?") comes and starts working on it and tells you how he is going to do things.
Fornés brought her experience as a visual artist to her work as a director, collaborating closely with designers (and sometimes designing herself) to create stage spaces that often felt two-dimensional, with precise placement of actors, objects, architecture, and design elements. Many of her plays include extremely short scenes that encapsulate a single moment, as in a snapshot or painting.
Fornés co-founded New York Theatre Strategy in 1973, with a mission of providing space playwrights to experiment. She was also co-founder of the Padua Hills Festival and Workshop, which produced new, site-specific works in Claremont, California, from 1978-1995.
Fornés’s most famous work may be the 1977 play Fefu and Her Friends, which inaugurated a more realistic period in her writing. Set in a house in New England in 1935, the eight female characters rehearse a presentation they’re planning to give for a charity event. Fornés directed the original production so that the four scenes of the play’s middle portion are played simultaneously, in different areas of the theatre, and the audience physically rotates through the space, an innovative concept at the time. The play is noted also for its themes of women’s sexuality, feminism, and control.
Fornés wrote some of her most ambitious and celebrated works in the 1980s: Mud, a love triangle about an impoverished, rural woman’s quest for self-improvement through education; Sarita, about a young Latina’s experience of desire in the Bronx in the 1940s; The Conduct of Life, about the women in a violent military officer’s home during a brutal dictatorship in an unnamed Latin American country; and Pulitzer Prize-nominated What of the Night?, a series of four connected one-act plays that follows members of a family from 1938 until 1989 as they survive in a difficult, realistic vision of America.
Fornés wrote characters of all kinds. As a writer, she resisted labels, telling The New York Times in 2000, “I don't feel any responsibility [to Cubans or Cuban-Americans] at all. If I write something about Hispanic people, it's because I am attracted to writing about it. It may sound selfish, but in my workshops I teach people to write about whatever comes to their minds.” When asked about her work as a lesbian playwright in 1999 by The Advocate, she continued that theme, "Being gay is not like being of another species. If you're gay, you're a person. What interests me is the mental and organic life of an individual. I'm writing about how people deal with things as an individual, not as a member of a type."
As a teacher, though, she spoke of the importance of training the next generation of Latinx playwrights, telling Bomb in 1984,
I think everybody should feel, in general, very concerned about a whole generation of people who come to this country from Latin America and because of their lack of connection with the arts don’t document their existence. They don’t document how they think, how they see. There is a spirit that is very special, like the spirits of any immigrant group, but other immigrant groups, perhaps because of their background, have had a need to document their spirit, their way of doing things, their way of reacting to things.
Fornés taught playwriting at the INTAR Hispanic Playwrights in Residence Lab, which she founded, from 1981-1992, and at many other organizations. Among the playwrights Fornés taught are Migdalia Cruz, Caridad Svitch, Nilo Cruz, Anne García-Romero, Karen Zacarías, Elaine Romero, Cusi Cram, Luis Alfaro, Eduardo Machado and many others. She is considered the “mother of Latinx theatre” in the United States as a result of her work as a teacher.
In 1999-2000 Fornés was the subject of a season-long retrospective at Signature Theatre, which produced four of her works: a double bill of Mud alongside Drowning, her adaptation of a Chekov short story; Enter the Night, a 1993 play; and a premiere of what would be her final play, Letters from Cuba, inspired by her correspondence with her eldest brother, who remained in Cuba throughout his life.
In her final years, Fornés had Alzheimer’s disease. Her friends, family, and her theatre community worked to provide her with a comfortable and supportive living environment. Fornés’s friend and filmmaker Michelle Memran documented Fornés’s creative life through her battle with dementia in the 2018 film The Rest I Make Up. She passed away in Manhattan in 2018 at the age of 88.
Sarita opened Off-Broadway at INTAR Theatre, on West 42nd Street in Theater Row, on January 18, 1984. It was directed by Fornés and starred Sheila Dabney as Sarita. Dabney won the 1984 Obie Award for her performance. Lighting designer and frequent Fornés collaborator Anne Millitello won an Obie that year for Sustained Excellence of Lighting Design, and Fornés herself won for both playwriting and direction. The Obies cited three of her plays that were produced that year—Sarita, The Danube, and Mud–in the award.
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“84.” Obie Awards, American Theatre Wing, n.d.
Alfaro, Luis. “La Maestra Fornés Has Left the Room, but What a Room!” AMERICAN THEATRE, Theatre Communications Group, 7 Nov. 2018.
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.
Barnes, Clive. “Theater: ‘Promenade,’ Wickedly Amusing Musical.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 5 June 1969.
Kozinn, Allan. “Theater World Friends Bring Ailing Playwright Closer to Home.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 6 Feb. 2013.
“Maria Irene Fornés Biography.” Fornés Institute, Latinx Theatre Commons, n.d.
“Maria Irene Fornés and Allen Frame.” BOMB, Fall, 1984, No. 10 (Fall, 1984), pp. 28-30.
Marranca, Bonnie. “The Real Life of Maria Irene Fornés.” Performing Arts Journal, 1984, Vol. 8, No. 1 (1984), pp. 29-34.
Memran, Michelle. “Moment to Moment: With Maria Irene Fornés, Autumn 2002.” The Brooklyn Rail, 25 Feb. 2008.
“Remembering María Irene Fornés.” Dramatists Guild, Dramatists Guild of America, Inc., 31 Oct. 2018.
Smith, Michael. “The Good Scene: Off Off-Broadway.” The Tulane Drama Review, Summer, 1966, Vol. 10, No. 4 (Summer, 1966), pp. 159-176.
Svich, Caridad. “Fornés and the Magic in the Room.” AMERICAN THEATRE, Theatre Communications Group, 7 Nov. 2018.
Svich, Caridad, et al. “The Legacy of Maria Irene Fornés: A Collection of Impressions and Exercises.” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art , Sep., 2009, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Sep., 2009), pp. 1-32.
Weber, Bruce. “María Irene Fornés, Writer of Spare, Poetic Plays, Dies at 88.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 31 Oct. 2018.
“What It Means to Be Both Cuban and American.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 27 Feb. 2000.