Cuban-American playwright María Irene Fornés, the recipient of nine Obie Awards and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, passed away at age 88 October 30 in Manhattan. Her death was confirmed to The New York Times by a friend and former student, the playwright Migdalia Cruz.
Born in Cuba May 14, 1930, Fornés came to New York City in 1945 at the age of 15. She was at the forefront of the Off-Off-Broadway experimental theatre movement of the 1960s. Known to many as “Mother Avant-Garde,” she wrote and directed over 40 plays throughout her prolific career, was an inspirational teacher to many, and the director of the Hispanic Playwrights-in-Residence Laboratory at INTAR in New York City.
Her first play, Tango Palace, was produced in 1963. Among her works were Letters From Cuba; Dr. Kheal; A Vietnamese Wedding; Tango Palace; Molly’s Dream; The Conduct of Life; Mud; Drowning; The Danube; Balseros; Fefu and Her Friends; The Successful Life of 3; and And What of the Night?, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer in 1990. Her play The Office, featuring music by Robert Prince and direction by Jerome Robbins, was seen on Broadway in 1966.
Fornés left her mark on some of the most formidable playwrights in American history, including Paula Vogel ("If it hadn't been for Fornes' The Danube, there'd be no Baltimore Waltz," Vogel says), John Guare, and Edward Albee.
In his book María Irene Fornés, scholar Scott T. Cummings drew on her body of work, personal research, and over two decades of interviews to make the case for Fornés as the most influential female American dramatist of the 20th century. After starting her career as a painter, the book also details her "accidental" path to writing.
As told in Cummings’ book, Fornés and writer Susan Sontag were together one evening and Sontag complained about her struggles with a novel she was writing. Fornés decided they would not go out but stay in and write. “As if to prove how simple it was, Fornés sat down to write as well. With no experience and no idea how to start, she opened up a cookbook at random and started a short story using the first word of each sentence on the page,” he wrote. Fornés claims: “I might never have thought of writing if I hadn’t pretended I was going to show Susan how easy it was.”
Several of Fornés' plays were seen over the summer at The Public Theater's marathon of staged readings of works by the playwright. The free event was in celebration of the release of Michelle Memran’s The Rest I Make Up, a documentary detailing Fornes' life, which screened at the Museum of Modern Art in August.
In addition to nine Obies (including a Sustained Achievement award), Fornés was also the recipient of a Distinguished Artists Award from the National Endowment for the Arts, Rockefeller Foundation grants, a Guggenheim grant, an award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, a Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Literary Award, and a New York State Governor's Arts Award. In addition to directing most of her own plays, Fornés directed plays by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov, and many more.
Fornés was scheduled to be inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame at The 48th Annual Theater Hall of Fame for Lifetime Achievement in the American Theater Induction Ceremony, November 12 at the Gershwin Theatre.
See Fornés in the trailer for The Rest I Make Up below.