And What of the Night?

Helen Shaw on Maria Irene Fornes

Audience participants perform in Maria Irene Fornes’s A Vietnamese Wedding on August 27 at the Public Theater. Photo: Johnny Moreno.

SHE HAS A BEAUTIFUL CAT FACE—incredible feline cheekbones and a smile that reveals strangely changing teeth, sometimes fierce and snaggled and gold, sometimes smooth. She flirts with the camera as she sits at an outdoor café somewhere. The footage is casual. A voice asks, “Irene, does the camera make you uncomfortable?” She laughs.

No! I love it!
Don’t you understand?
The camera to me is my beloved
The one who understands me
The one who wants me always
and I give everything I have to the camera

If you’ve ever been cornered by a Maria Irene Fornes1 obsessive, you’ve heard her described as “the greatest playwright you’ve never heard of.” These obsessives are often other artists or academics: testimonials from other writers abound—Edward Albee, Tony Kushner, Paula Vogel—all refer to this Cuban-American emigré as a treasure of American literature; the great critic Marc Robinson argues in The Other American Drama that she (along with Adrienne Kennedy and Gertrude Stein) should be considered canonical, rather than the usual list of Salesman-loving white fellows.

Perhaps you have heard of her—in her thirty-year career Fornes has been internationally famous and won dozens of awards (nine Obies and a Pulitzer nomination). But it’s more likely you haven’t. Theatrical notoriety dies faster than mayflies, and unlike the other writers who sprang out of the Off-Off Broadway moment, she never found Broadway or Hollywood success. After the Off-Off Broadway Big Bang in the ’60s, the brilliant guys like Sam Shepard and Edward Albee found their ways uptown, but the brilliant women like Fornes and Kennedy stayed down in the Village, where there was less money, smaller audiences, darker venues. If people fall in love with her work now, it tends to be thanks to the academicization of the field, which turned a whole generation of theater makers into professors, who spend their classes passing their idols on.

Maria Irene Fornes, ca. 1940s. Photo courtesy of Maria Irene Fornes.

She is skipping down a Village street, keeping just ahead of the camera. She floats along in her jacket and loose pants, which totally engulf her tiny figure. She’s in her seventies; she looks five.

You move away from me I move away from you
My love for you is secret and it has to stay that way
I just improvised a song, isn’t it divine?
Melody…words…follow me, kid…

Some of those Fornes-drunk makers and academics came together in late August at the Public Theater to create a twelve-hour celebration, a marathon of readings, songs, scenes, and basic stagings of her wildly, chaotically catholic work. It was a who’s who kind of day. David Greenspan performed the Ionesco-ish lecture-play Dr. Kheal, which is full of foolishness and wisdom like “You name a dog and it comes; you name a truth and it vanishes.” Bill Camp, Orlando Pabotoy, and Kathleen Chalfant performed the Beckett-meets-Bosch Tango Palace, in which a fabulous prop-happy demiurge (Camp) hectors his creation (Pabotoy) into revolution. Nicole Lewis played Molly in an abbreviated version of Molly’s Dream, in which Michael Cerveris was a zonked cowboy kicking his heels in a surreal bar; after lunch, a supergroup including Chalfant, Ellen McLaughlin, Joan McIntosh, and Carmelita Tropicana read the mysterious Fefu and Her Friends, stumbling over its still mysterious complexity. In a day of wonderful pieces, the blazing comet was a near-perfect rendition of the bleakly funny love-and-violence triangle Mud, directed by JoAnne Akalaitis with Camp, Wendy vanden Heuvel (a staggering actress with Sam Shepard’s cowboy mouth), and Pabotoy. At the end of each scene, the actors and narrator (Karen Kandel) froze in place. It seemed to actually stop time—at one point, I worried I had had a stroke.

Sifiso Mabena, Deidre Donovan, Chloé Worthington, Gabriel Sloyer, and Nicole Lewis performing in Maria Irene Fornes’s Molly's Dream on August 27 at the Public Theater. Photo: Johnny Moreno.

Fornes is most known for this jungles-of-Madagascar quality, where there are a thousand species you think seem familiar but don’t have a name for. She wrote musicals; a melodrama, a comedy about dying from the thought of violence, an autobiographical epistolary play, a frightening one-act about torture and sexual slavery. Seen all together, though, you could see continuities and commonalities. As a teacher, Fornes introduced game-structure techniques for playwrights, borrowing them from the Judson Church pioneers and finding a way to share her deep well of inspiration with students. The secret: making contact by any means with the imagination, since it is abundant, fertile, ever-flourishing. Unsurprisingly, therefore, her great love of learning and teaching shines out of many of the plays. Also—passion in her plays is nearly always swift; there’s often a suitcase; some of her lightest and most hopeful plays end in ecstatic death.

In a book-lined apartment, her ex-lover Harriet Sohmers Zwirling says, “Everybody always fell in love with her, she was an arch flirt…I always called her Doña Juana!” She shows us a page where Irene wrote a poem to her, and she cries as she reads it.

I would like to die with you
because you will die singing
and you speak Spanish

At 11:30, Nathan Koci, the musical director, looked up from his piano before launching into another number from the 1965 Fornes masterpiece Promenade (music by Judson Church reverend and luminary Al Carmines). “Who’s been here all day?” he asked. More than forty hands went up. It’s hard to get a taste of Fornes and then leave, it turns out.

The day was organized in tandem with the Museum of Modern Art’s run of The Rest I Make Up, Michelle Memran’s exquisite film about her friendship with Fornes. She too got a taste and could not give her up—after Memran interviewed Fornes for an article in the late ’90s the pair began a twenty-year friendship. In 2003, Memran began to film their time together. Her tender document was made for and about a woman who couldn’t understand why she no longer wrote plays, the diary of a friendship between an admiring younger woman who remembers everything about Fornes and the genius herself, who had started to forget. Dementia steals more and more of her as the film goes on. The camera follows her to a doctor’s office. “How do you spell ‘loss’?” Fornes says—this from the woman who inspired the likes of Lanford Wilson and Eduardo Machado.

Lying in bed, she looks frail and elegant. She hasn’t written a play in many years, but her identity as a playwright is her tether to New York, to the people who recognize her on the street, to her sense of herself.

My profession is not to have a good memory
That is not what I am hired to do
you know)

(commanding) Bring in the woman with the memory!

Michelle Memran, The Rest I Make Up, 2018, color, sound, 79 minutes.

What is worse: forgetting or being forgotten? The film answers one way, the marathon answered another. The film is full of the poetry Fornes could no longer write down, and it is full of poetry—it rolls out of her effortlessly, the genie’s unending hoard. But because it’s ultimately a portrait of a person and not her work, it’s also unbearably sad. So much is gone beyond retrieving. Albee, who offers a testimonial, has since died. Memran and Fornes visit her beloved and much-missed family in Cuba; she jokes with her brother and nephew; she dances joyfully on a beach. A week later in Miami she can’t remember that they went. At a party at the Drama Book Shop, she goes over to embrace the founder of La MaMa, a silver-haired Ellen Stewart, who died in 2011. “Just seeing makes you makes me feel so connected,” Fornes says, a little worry in her voice. “This is a party for the Off-Off Broadway?” Stewart, also worried: “Evidently.”

In the shadow of this great sorrow, the marathon and its focus on the theater was a relief. There’s a bulwark of work there, and it has not been lost. A chorus of young students sang songs from Promenade (“I know everything; Half of it I really know, the rest I make up! The rest I make up!”), and it felt like true revival in both senses of the word. And the last thing our hosts said to us at the marathon was to remind us that Maria Irene Fornes is still alive. She’s in hospice in Amsterdam House, and if you’re in New York, and you want to go and visit her—to play her some music, to hold her hand—it would be a great kindness. Because despite being a blazing torch for the American theater, Fornes herself is sinking into the deep waters at the end of the world. When she was still in the middle depths, she was able to signal to those of us swimming closer to the surface. But now, they told us, she’s gone deeper down.

Good bye to the camera
Good bye, camera
Good bye, Michelle
Good bye, everyone
Good bye, beautiful country.

New York’s Public Theater held a twelve-hour marathon of Maria Irene Fornes’s work on August 27.


1. During her long career, Fornes did not use diacritical marks in her name, so I am following her policy, and that of her biographer/documentarian Michelle Memran.