María Irene Fornés, Writer of Spare, Poetic Plays, Dies at 88

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[Many thanks to Don Walicek for bringing this item to our attention.] Bruce Weber (The New York Times) reports on acclaimed Cuban-born playwright María Irene Fornés, who recently passed away.

María Irene Fornés, a Cuban-born American playwright whose spare, poetic and emotionally forceful works were hallmarks of experimental theater for four decades, died on Tuesday in Manhattan. She was 88. Her death, at the Amsterdam Nursing Home, was confirmed by the playwright Migdalia Cruz, a friend and former student of Ms. Fornés’s. She had had Alzheimer’s disease for some time.

A favorite of many critics, theater scholars and fellow playwrights, who often declared that her achievements far outstripped her fame, Ms. Fornés came to playwriting relatively late — her first artistic pursuit was painting — and never earned the popular regard of contemporaries like Edward AlbeeSam ShepardJohn Guare and Lanford Wilson. Her plays earned eight Obie awards, the Off Broadway equivalent of the Tonys, and she was given an Obie for lifetime achievement in 1982. But her only work to appear on Broadway, a 1966 comedy called “The Office,” directed by Jerome Robbins, closed in previews.

Still, over a long career during which she wrote dozens of plays, many of which she directed herself, and fostered the high-minded idea of the sovereign playwright by producing experimental plays and teaching a generation of younger playwrights, Ms. Fornés gained a reputation within the theater world as an underrecognized genius.  “She’s not spoken of as an important American playwright, and she should be,” the playwright Tony Kushner said in an interview for this obituary in 2013, adding: “She had terrifyingly high standards and was terribly blunt about what others did with her work. Her productions were unforgettable. She was really a magical maker of theater.”

Ms. Fornés (pronounced for-NESS) made a name for herself early in her career with antic and allusive work that drew on the renegade, absurdist spirit of the 1960s and helped define Off Off Broadway and the American avant-garde. Later, as her work became less surreal and more resonant, she became known for her sparse dialogue; brief, seemingly disjointed scenes; emotionally fraught, often threatening circumstances; and her use of strikingly suggestive set designs and choreography. [. . .]

“Irene was a pioneer in the American theater, though innovation was not her goal,” James Houghton, the founding artistic director of Signature, said in an email in 2013. (Mr. Houghton died in 2016.) “She merely wrote from her gut, creating highly theatrical, impactful and visceral work.”

In late August, the Public Theater in Manhattan staged a 12-hour marathon of staged readings of Ms. Fornés’s work, led by the director JoAnne Akalaitis. In an interview with The Times, Ms. Akalaitis placed Ms. Fornés “in the pantheon of the great writers like Beckett or Pinter or Caryl Churchill” but said she was not as well known as she deserved to be because she “simply fell through the cracks.” [. . .]

María Irene Fornés was born in Havana on May 14, 1930. Her family was poor, and she had little formal education, though her parents were book lovers and her mother, Carmen, taught school. Her father, Carlos, a low-level Civil Service worker, died shortly before she moved with her mother and a sister to New York City in 1945. Ms. Fornés held a variety of jobs, including one in a factory that made medals for the military. Taking up painting, she studied for a time with the Abstract Expressionist Hans Hofmann, whose “push-pull” theory of painting — that the juxtaposition of abstract forms and their surrounding space creates a sense of depth and movement — influenced her work as a playwright and director.

“I compose my plays guided not by story line but more by energies that take place within each scene, and the energies that take place within one scene and the scene that follows,” she said in 1990. “It’s like Hofmann’s push-pull in that the narrative doesn’t control how the play proceeds, but the development of the energies within the play.” In the 1950s Ms. Fornés lived in Europe, mostly in Paris, where she was inspired, she said, by the original production of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.”

She taught playwriting at New York University, the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival in California, the Intar Hispanic American Arts Center in Manhattan and elsewhere. The playwrights Paula VogelSarah RuhlNilo Cruz and Eduardo Machado, among others, credit her as an influence.

“I taught with her at N.Y.U.,” Mr. Kushner said, “and every grad student I worked with told me she had changed their lives.”

For full article, see The New York Times.

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