“If I could give you each a kiss,” the parlormaid in Promenade tells the two escaped convicts who are its heroes, “you’d understand.” So she kisses them. “No,” she then says, “you still don’t understand.”
This wonderful joke, with its elegant letdown of a punchline, has always seemed to me an essence of the way María Irene Fornés, who died on Oct. 31, approached both life and theater. Let’s try this. If it doesn’t work, we can always try something else. The world offers an infinite supply of possibilities, and the theater seems to offer even more. The accelerated decision that makes the moment funny—the maid’s seemingly instant decision that her kisses have failed to promote understanding—displays both the wry shorthand that give Fornés’ plays their continuing astonishment, and a hint of her own strong personality. For Irene—everyone who knew her called her Irene—was an impatient soul, one who hated temporizing and evasion because they opened the door to falsity, which she abominated above all else. Once, as a guest on a panel I moderated for theater management students at Yale Drama School, she spoke testily of theaters that would turn down her current play while offering to commission some future work. “I don’t want to marry someone who says, ‘Maybe I’ll love you two years from now,’” she exclaimed. “I want to marry someone who loves me now.”
The analogy—a commissioning grant is like a marriage proposal—was typical of the clear-eyed, always surprising way in which Irene viewed the world. It did not occur to her, as it does to most of us, that her views ever needed self-censoring or altering for politeness’ sake. I recall being told of a feminist writers’ conference at which she aroused some fury, while on a panel debating whether a woman writer should make a specific effort to cultivate a female consciousness or not. Irene said no, because if you were a woman writer, your writing would naturally be bound up with your female identity. But, as always venturing past the conventional outlook, she added, “I mean, if you were a dog and you wrote plays, your plays would naturally be very dog-like.” Many women present did not appreciate the analogy, and I believe some shouting ensued.
Such controversies, which Irene periodically sparked, never perturbed her. My earliest involvement with her came when I was a grad student and she a playwright in residence at Yale Drama. It was the height of the Vietnam War, and Judson Poets’ Theater, with which Irene was affiliated, had put up an “Angry Arts Week” showing a variety of protest works. Irene, typically, declined to be drawn into the anger; she didn’t want, she told me, to write about people being shot and napalmed. Instead, she did some research and came up with an enchanting piece called A Vietnamese Wedding, in which three actors guide two volunteers from the audience through the steps of a traditional Vietnamese marriage ritual, with accompanying stories from the country’s folklore. I saw the Open Theatre perform it; later on I staged it myself, with fellow students, at the Yale Cabaret. The piece is head-spinning: Carried away by the charm and sweetness of its events, audiences literally forgot the horrors of the war—until a word or phrase in the text would remind them. Not for the first or the last time, Irene had thought her way to the other side of conventional lip-service anger, to make people grasp, in a new and more immediate way, the substance of the cultural heritage the war was destroying.
As her playwriting evolved and her directing skills increased, though faced with an ever-darkening world, Irene never let go of her need to see everything from the opposite of the facile way. When torture in Latin-American dictatorships was much in the news, she did not write a play about victimhood. Instead, in the heart-wrenching The Conduct of Life, she imagined conditions in the household of an officer who has joined the torture squad, chiefly for the sake of higher rank and better pay. Irene makes very clear that his hapless moral perplexity does not keep him from performing horrific acts; she wastes no false sympathy on him. Instead, she focuses on the three women of his household: his over-privileged yet troubled wife; the over-burdened, drudging cook; and a teenage girl whom the officer has abducted and sexually assaulted. It’s this last character, pure of heart despite what has been done to her, who alludes to the title, speaking of her wish to conduct her life without shame or cruelty.
Cruelty, psychological or physical, became an increasing concern of Irene’s as her playwriting burgeoned. The pivotal work at the center of her career, Fefu and Her Friends, is often spoken of as a “feminist” play. Yet it depicts a group of women, seeking a mutual purpose, driven apart by a multitude of tensions. An innovative structural tactic encapsulates their fragmentation: In the second of the play’s three acts, the audience is divided into four groups, led to different areas of the theater for the act’s four scenes, each of which is performed four times. Irene has planted an electrical shock—a monologue by a psychosomatically disabled woman—among these scenes. How you react to the remainder of the play depends in part on where in the sequence you receive this jolt. (And the opening speech of Act 3, significantly, discusses our inability to tell where someone else is coming from.) The psychosomatic Julia, who lost the use of her legs when she saw someone shoot a deer, is best friends with Fefu, the event’s stalwart, rational hostess. Fefu’s rage over Julia’s refusal to admit that she is capable of walking drives the play to its tragic ending. Deeply political and deeply troubling, the work is the antithesis of facile propaganda.
Propaganda was something Irene vehemently eschewed. Though almost every obituary has described her as a “political” playwright, her plays never editorialize. She simply presents situations, and always leaves room within them for paradoxes of stagecraft that reflect how the irrational impinges on the characters’ lives, and on ours. “A well-planned life is pitiful,” says the professor hero of her early monologue, Dr. Kheal. “Isn’t your life better if the firmament dabbles its silvery fingers in it?” Well, not always. A late scene in Irene’s The Danube is performed twice—once by the live actors who have performed the roles in all the other scenes, and once, with essentially the same dialogue and action, by puppets. There is one crucial difference: The characters are packing suitcases, to flee an encroaching ecological disaster. In the live version, they bring along a revolver. In making the puppet scene a gun-free zone, Irene left the possibility of peaceful survival open.
Before Fefu, Irene had gone through a period of artistic uncertainty during which, she once told me, she nearly gave up playwriting, The world has reaped rich rewards from her refusal to concede in her ongoing struggle with artistic form. In addition to the plays I’ve named above, Mud stands out as a seminal achievement: A woman, struggling to escape an untenable situation, finds herself increasingly trapped by her compassion for the two hapless men who dominate her life. Again, nothing is propagandized; the characters’ limited ability to articulate their thoughts never keeps us from feeling the full force of their emotions. Apart from being blown away by its first production, I remember telling Irene, “This is Ethan Frome with the genders reversed.” She asked me what that was and I explained that it was a short novel by Edith Wharton, on the reading list of many American high schools. “We don’t read Edith Wharton in Cuba,” she said. But she undoubtedly did so then, for shortly afterward came the powerfully moving Abingdon Square, again a story of a woman’s struggle for independence, to the sorrow of a man who seeks to domineer over her.
With the increased attention of colleges and resident theaters on these and the remarkable plays that followed, Irene was able to create a career for herself—as playwright, director, teacher—free of all but artistic constraints. Apart from the brief early explosion of Promenade, the commercial theater that dominates so much of America’s theatrical thinking never sought her out, and I doubt that it would have occurred to her to aim her works toward it. She had one brief brush with Broadway early on, when Jerome Robbins took up her first full-length play, The Office, attempting to stage it with Elaine May in the lead role. (The redoubtable cast also included Tony Lo Bianco, Doris Roberts, and Jack Weston.)
The Broadway opening never occurred. As Irene told me years later, she was so unhappy with the distance between what she had written and what was being performed onstage that she exercised her contractual prerogative to withdraw the script, and the venture folded after 10 previews. From then on, hers was the model of the artistic career that neither needed nor looked for commercial success. She practiced her art where art is valued—among her colleagues, her students, and audiences willing to venture with an artist in the realm of risk. She created extraordinary productions, and left behind her a string of works that I am convinced will last. “I do not think there will be very much poetry in the future,” a character in The Danube says gloomily. But if there is any, the works of María Irene Fornés will be on the short list. Its devotees, myself included, realize that not everyone will understand. Not even if we gave you each a kiss.