Authors: Maria Irene Fornes

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Cuban-born American playwright

May 14, 1930

Havana, Cuba

Identity: Cuban American


Maria Irene Fornes was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1930. Her father did not believe in formal schooling, so she attended only the third through sixth grades. After her father’s death, she went to New York in 1945 with her widowed mother and became a naturalized American citizen in 1951. She worked at a variety of menial jobs. Her first artistic interest was painting, and in 1954 she began studying with Hans Hofmann. She spent three years in Europe in the mid-1950’s. During this time, she has said, she knew nothing about theater, but she did see the first production of Samuel Beckett’s En attendant Godot (1952; Waiting for Godot, 1954) in Paris, an experience that she has described as profound. She credits this performance and her reading of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (1890; English translation, 1891) with inspiring her to become a playwright several years later. {$I[A]Fornes, Maria Irene} {$I[geo]WOMEN;Fornes, Maria Irene} {$I[geo]CUBA;Fornes, Maria Irene} {$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Fornes, Maria Irene} {$I[geo]LATINO;Fornes, Maria Irene} {$I[tim]1930;Fornes, Maria Irene}

Maria Irene Fornes.

By Jennifer Lapinel-Spincken, CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Fornes returned to New York in 1957 and worked as a textile designer. She developed a relationship with Susan Sontag, who at that time wanted to become a writer. According to Fornes, she started writing as a kind of game to encourage Sontag; both women found success fairly rapidly. Fornes’s play There, You Died! was produced by the Actors’ Workshop in San Francisco in 1963. That same year, Fornes joined the playwriting unit of the Actors Studio in New York, which produced the same play under the title Tango Palace in 1964. In 1965 she won her first Obie (Off-Broadway award) for Distinguished Plays, for Promenade and The Successful Life of Three.

Although she is not as acclaimed in mainstream theater as her fans would like her to be, Fornes has been a force in Off-and Off-Off-Broadway theater. She has written more than forty plays, has directed many of her own and other productions, and has been actively involved in supporting other women and Latino playwrights. She cofounded the Women’s Theater Council in 1972, with the purpose of supporting the writing and production of new plays by American women. In 1978 she began teaching Playwrights Workshop at INTAR (International Arts Relations), and in 1981 she became director of INTAR’s Hispanic Playwrights-in-Residence Laboratory, a national program to support Hispanic playwrights.

She won additional Obies in 1977 (Playwriting, for Fefu and Her Friends), 1979 (Direction, for Eyes on the Harem), 1982 (Sustained Achievement), 1984 (Playwriting and Direction, for The Danube, Sarita, and Mud), 1985 (Playwriting, for The Conduct of Life), and 1988 (Best New American Play, for Abingdon Square). She has also been awarded numerous grants and fellowships (Guggenheim, Rockefeller, and the National Endowment for the Arts among them) and is sought after as a teacher and lecturer, both in the United States and abroad. In 1999 the Signature Theater Company in New York did a season-long retrospective of Fornes’s work. In 2002 she was given the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award recognizing a master American dramatist.

Critics and scholars find it impossible to compartmentalize the works of Fornes. Many regard her as a realistic playwright, but her plays also experiment with avant-garde techniques, expressionist and Cuban and American influences, and the influences of Ibsen, Beckett, and Bertolt Brecht. She eschews political and formal labels and emphasizes writing as a process of inventing, of always remaining on new ground. If the constant is her experimentation, the measure of her success is the number of contemporary playwrights who acknowledge her influence. Fellow dramatist Paula Vogel has noted that for these playwrights, there are only two stages—before and after reading Maria Irene Fornes.

Author Works Drama: The Widow, pr., pb. 1961 There, You Died!, pr. 1963, revised 1964, pb. 1971 (as Tango Palace) The Successful Life of Three, pr. 1965 Promenade, pr. 1965 (music by Al Carmines) The Office, pr. 1966 A Vietnamese Wedding, pr. 1967 The Annunciation, pr. 1967 Dr. Kheal, pr. 1968 The Red Burning Light: Or, Mission XQ3, pr. 1968 Molly’s Dream, pr. 1968 The Curse of Langston House, pr. 1972 Aurora, pr. 1974 Cap-a Pie, pr. 1975 Fefu and Her Friends, pr. 1977 Lolita in the Garden, pr. 1977 In Service, pr. 1978 Eyes on the Harem, pr. 1979 Evelyn Brown: A Diary, pr. 1980 Blood Wedding, pr. 1980 (adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s play) Life Is a Dream, pr. 1981 (adaptation of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s play) A Visit, pr. 1981 The Danube, pr. 1982 Mud, pr. 1983 Abingdon Square, pr. 1984 Sarita, pr. 1984 No Time, pr. 1984 The Conduct of Life, pr. 1985 Lovers and Keepers, pr. 1986 (music by Tito Puente) Drowning, pr. 1986 (adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s story) And What of the Night?, pr. 1989 Oscar and Bertha, pr. 1991 Enter the Night, pr. 1993 Balseros, pr. 1996 Summer in Gossensass, pr. 1998 Letters from Cuba, pr. 2000 Bibliography Delgado, Maria M., and Caridad Svetch, eds. Conducting a Life: Reflections on the Theatre of Maria Irene Fornes. Lyme, N.H.: Smith and Kraus, 1999. A collection of works on Fornes by those with whom she has worked in theater, those who have studied playwriting with her, and scholars and critics who have followed her career. Also included is an interview with Fornes, commenting on her life in theater since the 1960’s. Kent, Assunta Bartolomucci. Maria Irene Fornes and Her Critics. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. Kent traces Fornes’s work from the point of view of feminist criticism and explores how this criticism can and cannot be applied to her work. This book has a large section on feminist theory, as well as detailed sections on the plays and their reception, particularly Fefu and Her Friends and And What of the Night? Moroff, Diane Lynn. Fornes: Theater in the Present Tense. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996. A critical analysis of four of Fornes’s plays: Fefu and Her Friends, Mud, Sarita, and The Conduct of Life. Also contains chronologies of selected productions of plays, publications, and honors and awards that Fornes has received. Porterfield, Sally. “Black Cats and Green Trees: The Art of Maria Irene Fornes.” Modern Drama 43 (Summer, 2000): 204-212. Porterfield talks with the playwright and looks at some plays, trying to understand the “universe of Fornes’s artistic imagination.” Robinson, Marc, ed. The Theater of Maria Irene Fornes. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. A useful collection of critical essays on Fornes’s plays, reviews and essays on performances of those plays, and a selection of Fornes’s own writing on her work. Contains photographs of productions of fifteen of the plays. Robinson, Marc. The Other American Drama. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. Robinson places Fornes in a new genealogy of American drama, which regards plot as less important than other elements of the theater such as “language, gesture, and presence.” According to Robinson, Fornes’s plays have been underappreciated, and he sets out to rediscover how she uses the power of language to discover moments of individual truth.

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