“Am I the only survivor?” The question pops into the conversation innocent and unexpected, the way someone might ask whether it’s still raining outside. But when Maria Irene Fornes wonders aloud whether she is the only playwright from the Off-Off-Broadway movement still writing for the theater some 35 years later, she raises a question that might inspire a dozen dissertations—about the changing nature of America’s avant-garde, about the almost complete commodification of ’60s counterculture, about her own remarkable body of work, about the way she has redefined American drama as profoundly as Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller.
That’s not, of course, what Fornes means to do. She just really wants to know. “Sam writes now and then,” she suggests, ticking off Shepard as one fellow traveler along the old Judson Church–La Mama–Caffe Cino circuit. “And Richard Foreman never stopped.” But Fornes is the only one who has persisted—and flourished—without a personal stash of funds or a move into commercial theater or film. From Tango Palace, her dark Beckettian vaudeville of 1963, to Summer in Gossensass, her Ibsen-tinged take on the giddiness of interpretation, presented in New York last year, Fornes has continued to open her imagination and pull out stark and elegant, formally inventive, thoroughly unpredictable new plays—nearly 40 of them.
Is that what explains how she, alone among American playwrights, can offer three New York premieres in a retrospective season at the Signature Theatre? “Maybe it means I have nothing else to do,” she says, punctuating the mostly sincere remark with a wry little grin and then changing the subject. The Signature series begins this week with Mud, directed by David Esbjornson, in its first New York revival since it opened, under Fornes’s direction, at Theater for the New City in 1983 (and garnered one of her eight Obies). Describing what he calls the “moral obligation” to produce Fornes at the Signature, which builds a season around a single playwright each year, artistic director James Houghton says he admires how her work is “funny, tough, relentlessly truthful, and full of surprises,” all at the same time. “She’s a perfect example of why this company should exist.”
Mud is one of several beautiful and painful plays Fornes wrote in the 1980s in which a woman’s inchoate desire for fulfillment disturbs her world, and thus destroys her—though no such description can capture the tonal contradictions and emotional depths of these works, much less the vast differences among them. At once tender and blunt, Fornes’s plays can seem self-evident, almost simple in their lack of elaborate plotting, though mystery pulses at their core. Lights can pop up and then off for a scene in which, in conventional terms, nothing happens: a woman and the two men she lives with clear the table and she sits down to read; a woman stands alone, gaze focused over the audience. Yet these diurnal gestures can be as consequential as the regicides of grand dramas. Event gathers quietly in Fornes, massing in small actions and spare language, erupting in the space between what characters know they need and what they can’t quite articulate. “Lloyd doesn’t like learning things,” says Mae, of her illiterate mate in Mud. “I like learning things,” he replies. And Mae asks, “Why don’t you then?” And Lloyd answers, “What is it I haven’t learned?”
“Irene reminds me of Kleist,” says playwright Tony Kushner, who credits seeing her plays in the ’70s with his sense that theater could be a serious, exciting art form. “Like Kleist’s, her work is both intensely private, closed, elusive, and at the same time incredibly political.” That last adjective is one Fornes doesn’t like to attach to her work, at least when it suggests that a play is declaring a social view or lending itself to a particular identity politics. Though she regards her work as political in the sense that she is drawn to characters who suffer, she resents being regarded specifically as a Cuban or lesbian or feminist or Hispanic playwright (though she’s not reluctant to claim such identities for her person). It’s not just that such labels produce narrow readings of her plays; they rankle the egolessness that is at the heart of her writing by suggesting that she is interested in expressing some aspect of her self in her plays. “I never feel that I want to write something,” she explains. “Something is there and I respond to it. Creativity can’t have any restriction or instruction. It’s like dreams. If you say you want to dream about this or that, it won’t come out.”
That openness probably accounts for the disarming whimsy that runs through Fornes’s work—the quirky connections of logic, the silly non sequiturs, what the late Ross Wetzsteon once called the “matter-of-fact surrealism.” They’re found even in her darkest plays. Mud will be presented at the Signature on a double bill with Drowning, a brief drama whose forlorn protagonists are potatoes.
Enter the Night, a 1993 work never produced here that explores fantasy and affection among three friends, opens in November, directed by Sonja Moser. And in February, Fornes will direct a new play, still in process. “I’m just getting acquainted with the characters,” she says. “I’m getting warmed up into the way they see things and how they talk about things.” What she does know is that they are artists living in the Village in the ’60s facing the bliss and despair of creativity. “What happened the other day is that one of the characters started telling another one about an affair a friend of theirs is having.”
It happened? “That’s how it seems when I’m writing,” she says. Indeed, Fornes works—and in classes at Intar, Yale, NYU, and elsewhere, has taught a generation of playwrights to work—by clearing her mind with yoga-inspired movement, then waiting for characters to take shape in her imagination. She simply writes down what they say and do. (She becomes an exacting editor in a later rewriting process.) Fornes has devised a series of exercises to prod the imagination. She’ll open a book randomly and pull a line from it. She’ll find an object to suggest a scene—like the wooden chairs, ironing board, and hoe she bought at a flea market and shaped Mud around. She’ll visualize a substance and see who emerges from it—Drowning‘s blobs of humanity oozed out of a viscous puddle of muck. No doubt it’s this way of working that explains what playwright Suzan-Lori Parks finds inspiring in Fornes’s work: “It seems attached to basic bodily functions.”
Fornes offers her own precise bodily image: “Writing is like your fingerprints,” she says. “You have no idea what they look like, but wherever you go, you are leaving your mark.”