A New Documentary Captures Her Incredible Journey from Cuba to Paris to a Life in Greenwich Village
By Robert Heide
I first met the playwright extraordinaire Maria Irene Fornes in the Village in 1965 at the Caffe Cino on Cornelia Street where my play The Bed was having a successful run. She was introduced to me by H. M. (Harry) Koutoukas who brought her over from the Judson Poets’ Theater. Harry lived across the street from me on Christopher and now, several years after his death, there is a bronze plaque in his honor attached to the tree well in front of the building where the “quintessential Cino playwright” (as many called him) lived. After a chat over a cappuccino, Fornes told me she preferred being called just plain ‘Irene’ as opposed to ‘Maria Irene.’ At that time, Irene was having a great time of it at Judson with the musical Promenade which had a book by Irene and a score by the Reverend Al Carmines.
A true forthright thinker and intellectual, Fornes also possessed a sense of childlike wonder which charmed all those who encountered her, including myself. We became fast friends in the 1960s, 1970s, and onward, meeting at coffee shops in the Village as well as going to bars like the San Remo on MacDougal Street. That was a popular writers’ hangout for beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Maxwell Bodenheim, famous for the book My Life and Loves in Greenwich Village. Edward Albee was a regular at the Remo, and on one particular night, Irene and Edward toasted each other with Black Russians. Afterwards, they smashed their glasses on the tile floor. No one made a fuss, as this kind of wild behavior and madcap drinking was typical. Tennessee Williams often showed up, as did Living Theatre legend Judith Malina, sometimes with Leonard Bernstein and other notable celebrities.
For many years, Irene lived in an overcrowded loft filled with piles of books, crates of manuscripts, theater props, and other memorabilia at 1 Sheridan Square. That is where she first began writing her plays—40 in all—my favorite being Fefu and Her Friends, a feminist play about eight distraught women and the men who caused all the problems. It was the play to see in 1977, with audiences wandering from one space to another in a loft where a variety of encounters took place simultaneously. Other plays by Irene include: The Successful Life of 3 (1965); The Office (1966); Dr. Kheal (1968); Sarita (1984); What of the Night? (1990), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and Letters from Cuba (2000), presented that year in a retrospective of her career at the Signature Theatre.
Born in Cuba in 1930, Irene is the youngest of three brothers and two sisters. She initially went to Paris to study art in the early 1950s, joining famous expatriates like James Baldwin. There, she saw Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and began to try her hand at playwriting. Under the influence of the Theatre of the Absurd, Irene concentrated mainly on characterological nuance in an existential sense rather than through plot. In Paris, she fell in love with a writer and model named Harriet Sohmers. After that broke up, Irene began an intense and stormy love affair with Susan Sontag. Others followed but Irene seemed always to prefer to live her life as a loner.
At one point in the late 1970s, Irene teamed up with Julie Bovasso and Megan Terry to create a playwrights’ theatre called the New York Theatre Strategy. I became a member of this group, which included Ed Bullins, Paul Foster, Leonard Melfi, Ron Tavel, Roz Drexler, Rochelle Owens, Charles Ludlam, Jean-Claude van Itallie, Murray Mednick, Tom Eyen, Robert Patrick, William Hoffman, Sam Shepard, and others. My play Moon was presented in the first New York Theatre Strategy Festival under the auspices of Lynn Meadows at the Manhattan Theatre Club. The “strategy” of the group was to eliminate producers and middlemen and establish direct production grants to the playwright. With Theatre Strategy assistance, I produced my own play Suburban Tremens and Increased Occupancy at Westbeth Theatre Center. (I directed both by myself.)
Recently, Michal Gamily, the Director of La MaMa’s Coffeehouse Chronicles, asked me to participate in a panel of writers and actors honoring Maria Irene Fornes moderated by Gwendolyn Alker, the Director of Theater Studies at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts Drama Department. Winner of nine Obie Awards over the years, including a Lifetime Achievement accolade, Irene Fornes is now being acclaimed as one of America’s great playwrights. Recent productions include Mud, directed at the Actor’s Studio by Estelle Parsons, as well as The Danube, also directed by Parsons, and The Conduct of Life at HB Studio on Bank Street, directed by George Bartenieff.
To top all of this is the release of a new documentary entitled The Rest I Make Up, created by Michelle Memran in collaboration with Irene over the last 15 years. The film had its sold-out premier on February 16th at the Museum of Modern Art where the audience clapped and cheered with wild enthusiasm. Making stellar screen appearances are original Cino writers John Guare and Lanford Wilson. In the documentary, Edward Albee discusses the importance of Irene’s plays. Also showing up is Cino director Robert Dahdah of Dames at Sea and The Bed. The brilliant documentary focuses hard on Fornes’ battle with the beginnings of dementia, which began in 1998 and eventually overtook her. Still with us but in a state of forgetfulness, Irene is now under supervision in an assisted living facility. A highlight of the film is a return trip to Cuba to be with her family once again, made with a film crew in tow, including Memran.
For me, as an owner of a 1954 pink, Plymouth Belvedere convertible, it was fun to see the oddball, brightly painted 1950s cars still all over the streets of Havana. John Gilman and myself consistently maintained a relationship with Irene up until a few years back. We were delighted to see and hear Irene happily singing her own rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek.” Wonderful. She loved American popular music of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s which she heard on the radio and sang as a child in Cuba. After a night out on the town going to a theatre event or dinner, we would often sing these songs together, ending up at her doorstep doing a sing-along of her favorite, “Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene. I’ll see you in my dreams.”
Robert Heide is the author of Robert Heide 25 Plays, which was recently published by Michael Smith’s Fast Books Press. The book launch, with staged play readings, will take place on Wednesday, March 14th at 7:00 p.m. at HOWL! Arts (6 East 1st Street, at Extra Place). Admission is free.