The playwright and iconoclast María Irene Fornés
María Irene Fornés is not as well known as other playwrights. But this Cuban-American queer woman with a 40-year career had influenced other writers even as she blazed a trail of her own.
Fornés was also known for her two lovers: writer and artists’ model Harriet Sohmers Zwerling as well as writer Susan Sontag.
María Irene Fornés: From Cuba to the US
Fornés was born 14 May 1930 in Havana, Cuba to parents Carlos Fornés, a low-level civil service worker, and Carmen Collado Fornés, a teacher who loved books.
She grew up the youngest in a big family: two older sisters (Margarita and Carmencita) and three older brothers (Rafael, Hector, and Raul).
When her father died in 1945, she migrated to the US at the age of 15 with her mother and sister Margarita. She eventually became a US citizen in 1951.
Having only gotten elementary education, she worked for a while in the Capezio shoe factory. But she took classes to learn English and went on to become a translator.
At the age of 19, she took up a formal education in painting with the German-born American painter Hans Hofmann to learn abstract art.
Around 1954, she met Zwerling and they became a couple. She followed the writer-model to Paris, France to study painting.
It was there she was greatly affected by a French production of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” This was the start of her life-long relationship with theatre.
Her reaction to seeing the play was: “When I saw Beckett, I thought, Why did I have to see this to think I could do it?”
María Irene Fornés: From painting to writing
After three years in Paris, Fornés broke up with Zwerling and she moved back to the US in 1957. For a while, she worked as a textile designer in New York.
In 1959, she met Sontag and began to date her– as well as inspiring her to write. One time, she dared Sontag to write, and used a recipe as a story prompt.
Fornés told Ross Wetzsteon of the Village Voice in a 1986 interview: “I might never have thought of writing if I hadn’t pretended I was going to show Susan how easy it was.”
However, it took her until 1961 to create her first play, “la Vuida” or (The Widow), and her first English play two years later, “There! You Died” (Tango Palace).
Every year or two after that, she created a new play until the year 2000. In each one, she was involved in every aspect of the production.
Every play was quite different; her methods were unique and improvisational. This led to her to earn nine Obie Awards, a Pulitzer Prize short-list, and become a force in New York’s experimental Off-Broadway theatre.
In Michelle Memran’s documentary about her, “The Rest I Make Up,” Fornés declared: “Writing plays is not a way of earning a living, it’s a way of earning a life.”
María Irene Fornés: Spreading her teachings
In 1973, Fornés founded the New York Theatre Strategy to spread her avant garde approach. From the sixties to the nineties, she wrote more than 40 plays and translated and produced others.
She taught playwriting at the New York University, the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival in California, and the Intar Hispanic American Arts Center in Manhattan
In 1999, she was interviewed by Memran, a journalist, who later became her friend.
Though she wasn’t working in a formal sense, Fornés was inspired by the recordings of Memran’s Hi-8 camera– especially as the playwright was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2005.
These recordings eventually became part of the documentary, whose title is taken from the playwright’s statement on creativity: “I know everything. Half of it I really know. The rest I make up.”
She died at the age of 88 in October 30 last year at the Amsterdam Nursing Home in New York City.
As her legacy, many playwrights today like Tony Kushner, Paula Vogel, Sam Shepard, and Edward Albee cite her influence in their works.