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Theatre Topics 11.2 (2001) 187-204

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Six Small Thoughts on Fornes,
the Problem of Intention, and Willfulness

Sarah Ruhl

1. Fornes and the Capitalist Motive

The chief defect of all previous materialism . . . is that the object, reality, what we apprehend through our senses, is understood only in the form of object or contemplation; but not as sensuous human activity, as practice; not subjectively.

--Karl Marx, "Theses on Feuerbach" (243)

By the time the monotheistic motive has become embodied in a structure of world empire, it has usually been transformed into its secular analogue, the monetary motive. . . . It serves the needs of empire precisely because it "transcends" religious motives, hence making for a "tolerant" commerce among men whose religious vocabularies of motivation differ widely.

--Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives (44)

Maria Irene Fornes's discourse at a playwriting workshop I attended in Mexico often turned to the subject of intention:

American actors are taught to have objectives--what does your character want from the other character, etc. That is business.When I deal with other people, I don't want something from them, I want a rapport. Some people say that's an objective--it's not--it's a sensation of well-being. . . . Life is not constantly about wanting to get something from somebody else. Life is about pleasure.1

Her critique of theatrical intention, of seeing people as fungible objects, either useful or useless, might also seem to be a critique of capitalism. An industrialized capitalist country views people in terms of how useful they can be--human interactions are reduced to a profit motive, "motive" being a key term. Fornes has also said, "People who see the theatre are middle-class people who want their values confirmed. Why do they need their values confirmed by the theatre? Everyone confirms their values. The family play, the business play, in which a businessman can either act honorably and make money or else make lots of [End Page 187] money and screw the world." Fornes could be talking about, for example, America's most produced play, A Christmas Carol, popularized under the New Deal when Roosevelt made a point of reading it aloud on Christmas Eve in the White House. Roosevelt said privately that the New Deal was doing a better turn for capitalists than its critics supposed: by skimming a little money off the top, the system could be preserved. The "business play" in America is codified every year wherever Scrooge enacts his Great Transformation and gives Bob Cratchit a raise, while maintaining the means of production.

One might argue that Fornes is launching a Marxist critique of such plays, and of the way in which the capitalist culture views human relations and the will. Fornes says, "In the United States, when you wake up in the morning and don't know what you're going to do, you're a slob. If you wake up and have an imbecile thing planned, you know you're okay." So, too, in American dramaturgy, a play without a motive at the center is called bad names whereas a mediocre play with "an imbecile plan" tends to pass muster.

Fornes's critique of the business play, of the Conflicted Capitalist Protagonist with a motive, and of the whole attitude that there's something criminal about waking up in the morning without a plan, might suggest a Marxist alternative. And yet, in a sense, the question "what does the character want?" is also the ultimate question for a Marxist. The good materialist wants to know the difference between what people want and what people need, and how to go about getting what one wants and needs in the physical world. The theatrics of intention as outlined by the ultimate capitalist and the ultimate materialist might look, oddly enough, quite similar. They both suggest money or power as the motive force in human transactions.

Fornes's relationship to Marxism is complex and by no means transparent:

One day they passed an anti-Castro manifesto around that we were supposed to sign. It...


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