The Death of Maria Irene Fornes, Genius Greenwich Village Playwright—1930-2018
By John Gilman
Maria Irene Fornes, known to her friends and peers as just Irene Fornes, was unpretentious and fun loving, but at heart a serious playwright. For many years Irene lived in a loft-sized apartment filled with books stacked to the ceiling as well as theater memorabilia, programs and 8×10 glossy resume pictures of actors she had nurtured and worked with.
It is odd to me and my partner Robert Heide that Irene passed away on Halloween (or was it mischief night? No matter) because on Halloween for many years we would accompany her from the Village across town to the Theater for the New City where the three of us and several other playwrights would don Judge’s outfits which consisted of high hats and black robes to function as ‘celebrity’ costume judges. Crossing town from Sixth Avenue to First Avenue was a difficult chore, both due to the big parade and the costume freaks who were everywhere, trick or treating or screeching, screaming and laughing in keeping with that crazy witchcraft night. Returning home to the West Village with Irene was a joyful romp with a stopover somewhere for a glass of pink wine. At her front door at One Sheridan Square where we think a bronze plaque should be put up to honor her legacy, Robert and I would serenade her with the folk song made popular by the Weavers which went “…goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene, I’ll see you in my dreams.” To us—calling ourselves ‘The Three Musketeers’ during these Halloweens and other outings it was all about love- love—LOVE!
This past Halloween we learned that Irene, our good friend and theatrical cohort had died at age 88 in a rest home uptown where she had been living with Alzheimer’s dementia. That night with heavy hearts we prepared for our stint as celebrity judges at the theater, but the artistic director of TNC, Crystal Field, who had also heard the news of Irene’s death over the radio, said, in the tradition of the theater, “Well, we’ve got to get on with the show.” She was referring to the big theater in the TNC complex that was filled with eager beavers looking to win a prize. When Crystal called out the name Robert Heide, after stating his accomplishments to the teeming midnight crowd, Robert stepped forward to the microphone to announce that Irene had left this world. He spontaneously began to sing into the mike “Goodnight Irene, Goodnight’ and to his and everyone else’s surprise the madcap costumed partygoers joined in on the song. It was as if Irene was somewhere there— many of us were choked up and for all it was a vivid night to remember.
Irene was given a Village Voice Lifetime Achievement Obie Award in 1982 as a playwright mover and shaker in theater. She had also won nine other Obie Awards for her plays, most of which she also directed. Among her most famous works is Fefu and Her Friends, which was originally performed in 1977. In that play, presented in a big space, audiences were led in small groups into a series of rooms where a variety of scenes with actors were presented. Others of her best plays include The Successful Life of Three and her last entitled Letters From Cuba about her brother, which was produced by the Signature Theater Company in 2000. Recently the Actor’s Studio presented two plays, both directed by Estelle Parsons, Mud and The Danube and the actor George Bartenieff directed Conduct of Life at H. B. Studios on Bank Street. In the late 1970s Irene with the playwright and actress Julie Bovasso founded the New York Theater Strategy with the idea of funding playwrights with grant money to produce their own plays, obviating the need for outside producers. Many playwrights, on their own turf, in locations of their own choosing, were able to produce their own plays. In 1978 I was paid to be the production coordinator of two plays—Suburban Tremens and Increased Occupancy written and directed by Robert Heide, which we produced with Theater Strategy funding at the theater at Westbeth with great success and artistic satisfaction.
A documentary film entitled The Rest I Make Up, created by Michelle Memran with Irene Fornes, premiered in February of this year at the Museum of Modern Art. An enthusiastic crowd applauded the film wildly, it being a full account of the life of Irene Fornes from her early years in Cuba to the 1950s in Paris, and including her stormy love affair with the writer Susan Sontag. It also treated with compassion the gradual dementia, which began in 1998, that Irene was suffering during the 15 years it took to complete. The documentary had several screenings in August at MOMA in conjunction with a twelve-hour marathon of her work performed at the Public Theater in Manhattan. Last summer at a special Saturday Coffeehouse Chronicle at LaMama, Irene was also honored with staged readings of her plays and appreciations from her peers, including from Robert Heide who spoke of his special relationship over the years with the iconoclastic Irene who shunned Broadway after her first play, The Office, was shut down before it opened back in the 1960s. She found homes for her original, unique and experimental work at places like the Judson Poet’s Theater and at Theater for the New City and LaMama. With the release of the new documentary, more of her plays will be done and more people will be able to see her work, hopefully now, never to be forgotten.