Playwright and teacher Maria Irene Fornés died on Oct. 30 at the age of 88, leaving a legacy that includes the plays Fefu and Her Friends, The Conduct of Life, Sarita, and Abingdon Square, as well as countless students who credit her with changing their lives and the aesthetic possibilities of writing for the American theatre. This tribute includes snippets of some of Fornés's favorite songs; there's also a tribute from Luis Alfaro and one from Caridad Svich.
Quand elle me prend dans ses bras
elle me parle tout bas
Je vois la vie en rose
When she takes me in her arms
and speaks to me softly
I see a rose-colored life
—Edith Piaf, “La Vie en Rose”
I have always been good at missing deadlines.
In 1984, I missed the INTAR Hispanic-Playwrights-in-Residence Laboratory deadline by eight days. My lucky number. I heard that Maria Irene Fornés was the teacher. Not possible. The legendary, the impossibly avant-garde queen of downtown playwriting was teaching uptown? Teaching us Latinxes?
A message on my home phone invited me to interview with HER.
I walked into the tiny front office at INTAR’s 42nd Street Space and noticed a sweet-looking woman who, with a soft, Cuban-accented voice, invited me to have a seat.
“But I’m looking for Maria Irene Fornés…I have an interview.”
“Who do you think I am?”
I quickly took a seat.
“You look confused.”
“I am. I thought…but…I thought…you’d look…”
“Experimental. Like with flowing scarves and a cough from smoking unfiltered cigarettes.”
“Are you sure you just graduated from Columbia University?”
Having made a fool of myself, I waited for her to banish me.
“So why do you want to study with me?”
Something about her appearance kept me from answering. Then I realized she looked like my mother. The way her smile filled her eyes. The way she was so clearly unconcerned with what anyone said or thought. She had sharp carnivore eyes. I prepared to be chewed and churned into a lifeless chunk of mess.
“Because I have all these degrees in playwriting and I still don’t know how to write a play.”
“Oh, I know that. I read your play.”
She shook the script at me like she was fanning a flame. Uh oh.
“But why do you really want to learn? Here? With me?”
She smiled that beautiful, dangerous smile again.
“If I don’t learn how, I think I’ll die. I’m Puerto Rican from the Bronx and I don’t know where home is yet. But when I read your plays and now that I see you and I see how much you look like my mother—“
“She must be very, very beautiful.”
“Oh, yes. I don’t look anything like her.”
“You can come work with me.”
“You feel sorry for me?”
“Yes. We start on Monday. 9 a.m. The doors get locked so be on time.”
I continued to stare. She dismissed me with a wave of her hand.
“You can go now.”
“Okay. Thank you.”
I almost curtsied on the way out.
Todo aquélque piense que
la vida es desigual
Tiene que saber que no es así
Que la vida es una hermosura
hay que vivrla
All those who think
Life is unfair
Need to know it’s not like that
Life’s a beauty
You just have to live it
—Celia Cruz, “La Vida Es Un Carnaval”
The first few weeks of workshop as her assistant, I failed.
I failed at making coffee.
I failed at speaking Spanish.
“How can you not know your language?”
I failed in transcribing her workshop notes.
“I would never use a word like that.”
I failed in the writing.
That was the worst condemnation from La Maestra Maria Irene Fornés.
Every day after workshop I would go home and cry.
One day I couldn’t stop crying.
We did a sense memory exercise where we had to remember a place from before we were 10 where we were cut or wounded. I remembered the roof of our building where my friend was raped and then flung to the sidewalk. I remembered wanting to go to the funeral but not being able to. I remembered that feeling of mourning that I had to write about. No one cares about poor people, Puerto Ricans, and the burning Bronx. Maybe if I write about it they’ll remember. I wrote it all in that workshop and couldn’t control my tears as I wrote. Wrote and wrote.
After three hours of writing, Maria Irene asked me to read. I had stopped volunteering after all those fails. So I read. It was a piece I later called Sand. In the last paragraph I describe the neighborhood vigilante murder of the rapist.
“It’s funny when people from an island are scared of sand.”
Irene cried with me.
“Finally,” she said, “you’re telling the truth. Don’t ever stop.”
They’d part with all they’ve got, could they once more walk
With their best girl and have a twirl on the sidewalks of New York.
In 2009, my husband Jim, my daughter, Antonia, and I, drove to Oneonta to visit Irene for the first time in a nursing home.
Antonia wanted to know why Titi Irene lived so far away.
“That’s a good question,” I sighed.
When we got there, we went to the front desk and asked for Maria Irene Fornés. The receptionist said they didn’t have any Marias. Then she thought for a moment…
“Oh, you mean Mary Forns.”
“Uhmm, yes, I guess.”
She cheerfully led us to the dining room area filled with folks in various stages of aging. I saw the back of Irene’s head. She was sitting alone, at a table for four, singing to a CD playing American Children’s Songs.
East Side, West Side
All around the town
The tots sang Ring-a-Rosie
London Bridge is falling down
When she didn’t remember the words she just stopped, suspended in her own thoughts, but still conducting the music. We went up to her and handed her some flowers and a box of chocolates. She greeted us happily and asked Jim if he was her cousin, Albertico, from Cuba. Suddenly, she turned to me and asked me who I was. I told her.
“Migdalia Cruz?! Migdalia Cruz! The famous writer?”
“No, Irene, you’re the famous writer. You were my teacher.”
“Oh, was I a good teacher?”
She turned back to the table and motioned for us to sit.
Then she smiled.
“Look! I turn away for a moment and flowers and chocolates appear! Life is magic.”
Life with you sure has been, Irene.
On a cold Tuesday in New York, the theatre lost a magnificent voice, a perfect maker of imperfect, revolutionary plays. And a fine magician.
Te juro que te adoro
Y en nombre de este amor
Y por tu bien
te digo adios
I swear I adore you
And in the name of his love
And what’s best for you
I say goodbye
—Chavela Vargas, “Nosotros”
Migdalia Cruz’s more than 50 plays include Miriam’s Flowers, El Grito del Bronx, Fur, Another Part of the House, Salt, and Dreams of Home.