America’s Mother of the Dramatic Avant-Garde

Posted by on December 9, 2019 in Dame designate, Literature, Theatre review, Women's equality issues | 0 comments

The Cuban-American avant-garde playwright, María Irene Fornés, has been paradoxically acclaimed as ‘the greatest yet least known female dramatist of our time.’ Such pre-eminent playwrights as Caryl Churchill, Lanford Wilson and Edward Albee claim her as both an inspiration and influence. From the first, she was always an iconoclast: as Wilson said, ‘Her work has no precedents, it isn’t derived from anything.’ Each of her plays inhabits its own world; each wholly distinct from the others.

Fornés was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1930 and arrived in New York City in 1945. At first she turned to painting and had formal education in abstract art. In 1954 she met writer and artist’s model Harriet Sohmes and began an affair with her. They moved to Paris to further their painting studies and it was seeing Beckett’s Waiting for Godot there that awoke her to the profound impact theatre could have.

When the relationship with Sohmes withered, Fornés moved back to New York and soon met and fell into a relationship with Susan Sontag. It was a fortuitous challenge to Sontag that started her writing – ‘If I hadn’t pretended to show Susan how easy it was…’ Still, it wasn’t until the 1960s that she wrote her first proper play, the absurdist two-hander Tango Palace. It rocketed her into the avant-garde and experimental theatre circles of New York, headed by such luminaries as Joseph Papp, founder of the Public Theatre.

Since then she has written more than forty plays, won nine Obie Awards and been a Pulitzer Prize finalist, but her work, though revered, is studied way more that it is performed. Finally there has been a rare revival of perhaps her finest work, Fefu and Her Friends, written back in 1977, at the acclaimed Theatre For A New Audience. As the New York Times put it: ‘Get ready for the masterwork no-one has seen.’

As in Tango Palace, Fornés is interested in character rather than plot. Indeed, Fefu has a gossamer-thin story – or rather, loose framing device – of eight women meeting in the eponymous character’s house to plan a school fundraising event.  It opens conventionally enough in Fefu’s stylish, circa 1935, drawing room and could simply be a traditional slice-of-life drama.  But we immediately realise it is more than as the words hit us like a barrage of challenging aphorisms. ‘My husband married me to have a constant reminder of how loathsome women are.’

Fornés herself said she was more concerned with ‘the mechanics of the mind, some kind of spiritual survival, a process of thought.’ Her plays slice deeply into the psychology of what it is to be human and, more specifically, to be a woman. In Fefu, the eight idiosyncratic women interact: loving, despairing, clashing and sparking off one another. For the most part, it passes the famous Bechdel test –as to whether a work of fiction features women who talk to one other about something other than men. The only male presences here are offstage, only mentioned in passing, like Fefu’s husband – whom she fires a shotgun at in a crackpot game of Russian roulette. Was it just a blank.…?

 A radical production

If the dialogue and some of the play’s business are intellectually unsettling, in the middle act the audience is literally unsettled. Split into four colour-coded clans, they are sent on a processional visit to four scenes-behind-the scenes. Lurking in the wings and behind the main set are a study, a kitchen, a croquet lawn, and, most disturbingly, a subterranean bedroom where a crippled character appears entombed deep beneath the Plexiglass stage. Actors move between these settings with split-second timing.

This kind of immersive or promenade theatre might now be, if not commonplace, hardly novel (think Punch Drunk’s Sleep No More or the Marcos musical Here Lies Love) but back in 1977 it was highly innovative.

The third act has the audience settled back in their seats – but no more comfortable in what they are experiencing. The crippled character appears able to walk; a lesbian affair may be being rekindled – and that shotgun remains a threateningly suspenseful presence. The closing scenes and the final tableau of the eight women topple the whole thing into the totally surreal.

Sadly Fornés died, aged 88, just a year before this faithful – and powerful – revival.  Such is her status in the cannon of playwrights that some divide their lives into BF and AF – before reading a Fornés play and after. She is revered as American theatre’s ‘Mother [of the] Avant Garde’ .

When Jeffrey Horowitz, the founder of the Theatre For A New Audience, was asked why this play was so rarely performed, he said, ‘it’s because she writes about women.’ And, indeed, this play centres wholly on its eight racially, culturally and intellectually diverse women. One suspects that it probably required the #metoo movement to prompt this compelling revival.

A 1hr 19min documentary on the life and work of Fornés, The Rest I Make Up, directed by Michelle Memran, was released in May 2018. Click here to see a trailer.

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