If a queer Cuban-American woman wrote forty plays, was a finalist for the Pulitzer, and won nine Off-Broadway Obie Awards, over a career that spanned some forty years, you’d know her name, wouldn’t you?
What if that woman was also Susan Sontag’s lover, the “most intuitive playwright” Edward Albee had ever met, and the subject of an upcoming documentary premiering at MoMA’s Doc Fortnight Festival today?
Still not ringing any bells?
Perhaps that’s why a 1986 cover of The Village Voice called Maria Irene Fornes “America's Great Unknown Playwright.” Born in Cuba in 1930, Fornes had no formal education in theater, and only an elementary school education overall. She moved to New York City at the age of fifteen with her family. While working at the Capezio dance shoe factory, she learned English and became a translator. Around this time, she also studied abstract art with the famous German Abstract Expressionist painter, Hans Hofmann (whose students also included Lee Krasner and Ray Eames, among others).
But it wasn’t until she moved to Paris in 1954 — where she saw a French production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (and began dating Susan Sontag) — that Fornes realized she had a passion for creating theatrical works. Upon moving back to the United States, she would enter into a mutually inspiring relationship with Susan Sontag, but it would still be a few years before she produced her first play, 1961’s The Widow. From that point on, she would create at least one new play every year or two until the year 2000. I say create, rather than write, because according to everyone who worked with her, Fornes was intimately involved with every aspect of her productions, and frequently directed her works herself.
As both a playwright and a writing teacher, Fornes’ methods were improvisational and unique. Each play she wrote was a beast all its own – a sign of her far-ranging mind and refusal to be pigeonholed, according to the documentary’s director, Michelle Memran. Memran met Fornes in 1999, while working as a freelance journalist. In college, Memran said, she had read Fornes’ The Conduct of Life (a play which The Hollywood Reporter once described as a “challenging feminist critique of annihilating machismo”) and fallen in love. “Each scene was a revelation – the visceral writing, the exquisite detail, and authenticity of each character, each moment,” Memran says over email. She desperately wanted to know, “Who was this genius playwright I’d never heard of?” Luckily, when Memran moved to New York, Fornes was in the phone book. From their very first meeting, the two hit it off.
In the early aughts, Memran and Fornes would meet regularly in the West Village for coffee and conversation. Over the years, Fornes revealed that she was no longer being asked to write, direct, or even teach playwriting, which was shocking considering that according to Oskar Eustis,the Artistic Director of the acclaimed Public Theater, “Nobody has had the influence on American playwriting as a teacher that Irene has.”
What had changed? Memran suspects the answer lies in the “the mold and pile-up of dishes in her fridge” – the visual, visceral suggestions of a mind that had begun to wander farther and farther afield. Indeed, around 2005, Fornes was diagnosed with the early stages of dementia. Some might have seen this as a cruel trick of fate; time stealing the memories of a playwright who was already so little remembered. But Memran saw that Fornes was as creative and intellectually passionate as she had ever been, she was simply lacking an outlet. Then, one afternoon in 2003, Memran brought along a Hi-8 camera while the pair was hanging out at Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach. “When I turned it on, Irene lit up and immediately amplified her insatiable wit and charisma,” Memran remembers. “The second she called the camera ‘my beloved,’ a creative process began for us both.”
The result of that process is The Rest I Make Up, a tender exploration of Fornes’ life and the meaning of memory. The film cannot bring back Fornes’ own memories (in fact, over the course of it, we see her forget more and more, asking occasionally who Memran is and how long they’ve known each other). But it can begin the important process of restoring Fornes’ to our memories.
As for Fornes herself, Memran says that she is living in a nursing home in upper Manhattan, where she has “her good days and her bad days, like the rest of us.” Although she is rarely verbal, Fornes is responsive to “touch and music and friendly faces,” and Memran is “happy to meet anyone who’d like to spend some time with ‘La Maestra.’”
For those who can’t make it to Manhattan, thankfully, there are still Fornes’ plays, many of which are still in print. Memran believes that “reading one of them is not going to give people the quintessential ‘Fornes’ experience,” because there is no real quintessential Fornes – at least not on the page. But taken as a body, they capture the growth and change of an incredible artist over a formidable career. Dementia may have taken Fornes’ own memories, but collectively, by reading and remounting her work, we can keep the memory of Fornes alive and active.