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Reviewed by:
  • Maria Irene Fornes and Her Critics, and: Fornes: Theater in the Present Tenses
  • Beth Cleary
Maria Irene Fornes and Her Critics. By Assunta Bartolomucci Kent. Contributions in Drama and Theatre Studies Series, No. 70. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996; pp. x + 256. $55.00 cloth.
Fornes: Theater in the Present Tense. By Diane Lynn Moroff. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1996; pp. x + 168. $34.50 cloth.

From the bizarre dance of figures in the early plays like Tango Palace and Promenade, to the sweet, fraught community of women in Fefu and her Friends, violent men of Mud and Conduct of Life, and entropic millenial vision in What of the Night?, Fornes has challenged readers, directors and audiences, to illuminate “the darkness of our compliance” (Fefu and Her Friends [New York: PAJ, 1978], 48), to find “a way to save us from standing in line” (What of the Night? in Women on the Verge: Seven Avant-Garde Plays, ed. Rosette C. Lamont [New York: Applause, 1993], 228).

The trick in appraising Fornes is in developing a narrative/analytical voice which preserves the erratic rhythms of the texts themselves. Until now, perhaps because of that challenge, Fornes’s work has only been the subject of single critical essays. The two books under consideration here break ground in their attempts to sustain these strange pleasures over several linked chapters. Diane Lynn Moroff chooses to work from inside of her major plays, offering theoretical linkages across texts which constitutes a theory of Fornes’s dramaturgy in performance. Assunta Bartolomucci Kent works from the outside in, treating Fornes as a writer-activist whose aesthetic innovations are fundamentally linked to “unconventional social politics” (3). The approaches are far apart and they persuade toward very different conclusions about Fornes’s dramaturgical strategies.

Diane Lynn Moroff’s study, Theater in the Present Tense, uses Fornes’s plays as evidence of a career-long preoccupation with theatricality, inside and outside the performance space. “Fornes’s characters talk, pose, and posture incessantly,” Moroff reminds, “and Fornes’s theater lends significance to those ‘small’ acts with scrupulous theatrical framing” (3). She proposes a theory of “present tense,” which she will develop through close readings of four major Fornes plays. This theory accords equal value to the things, bodies, voices, and dissonances of Fornes’s theatrical worlds. Although this premise is not startling, there are careful analyses of Fefu, Mud, Sarita and Conduct of Life. Moroff makes productive use of other critical writings on the plays, explicating what is helpful in each analysis, and acknowledging when a critic becomes overly concerned with the categories that Fornes defies.

Moroff’s work is feminist, and her theory of “present tense” is materialist, though inflected more by phenomenology than Marxism. In each of her chapters on separate plays, Moroff offers new readings of character and strategy which often are vivid and illuminating. For instance, she makes an important reclamatory gesture in her chapter on Fefu when she asserts that the play’s narrative design is evidence of “a women’s stage, constructed as such both thematically and formally” (35). Countering well-known analyses which have read the absence of men to be a virtual “presence” in Fefu, Moroff argues: “The existence of men in the lives of these women, outside of this theater, need not be denied, but the influences of men and their social and economic potency pass through the conduit of the women’s understanding . . . here the women are self-narrated” (36).

Moroff foregrounds female characters’ self-narration in all of the plays she studies. In her chapter on Mud, she argues that Mae is a fledgling playwright and scenic designer, who is trying out the possibilities of narration as her literacy increases and as she reorganizes the “blocking patterns” of her dwelling space. This delightful image is not only appropriate to the play’s explicit subject—language—but could prove useful to a director of Mud seeking to highlight the metatheatrical structures in this play. Moroff’s attention to the figural associations on the page is occasionally at odds with the material realities of language in performance—especially in Mud, where simple sentences dominate despite Mae’s...

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