Posts Tagged ‘Maria Irene Fornes’


September 10th, 2009 No comments

I’ve been reading a book entitled New Playwriting Strategies: A Language-Based Approach to Playwriting by Paul C Castagno and liked it right off due to his focus on Bakhtin and the nature of polyvocal and multivocal texts.  Not that I am inherently just fascinated by these ideas in and of themselves, but for what they bring to an experience in the theater: characters who are complex, multidimensional, constantly shifting, identity is in flux.  As this book takes a language-based approach, so does it contain works by playwrights who really throw the rest of play creation in to flux as well.  For instance, I’m ready Native Speech by Eric Overmyer right now and am just blown away by not only the language variations in each character, but the collage of theatrical elements: the way a woman’s voice on the loud speaker announces a scene shift with subtlety and that scene shift happens without any dramatic re-set to the stage set, just simple movement through stage space–including the end of Act I, which is a Tableaux Vivant.

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari

This leads me to one of the things that fascinated me about Mud: each scene ends with a tableau, what Fornes describes as a “stage picture.”  Having only read, and not seen, the play, I can only imagine the effect of this, but it must be startling.  The end of a scene with a stage picture: 1) emphasizes spatial constructions; and 2) provides a contemplative moment; 3) shakes up the flow of the theater piece.

By emphasizing spatial constructions I mean that as an audience member I would be interested in the physical, spatial relationships between the characters on the stage–the blocking–where they are physically in relation to each other, to the room, etc.  Spatial constructions are part of what the theater is all about. Theater, by its nature, is a spatial art form; in fact, I just picked up a book that is all about the use of space in theater.  Distance is just as important as proximity.  A character’s proximity to another character, and that character’s reaction to that proximity, can speak volumes that dialogue cannot.  Humans are visual creatures and most of communication takes place through visual sign stimuli, not through language.  Recognizing this is part of making living theater, not just stale recitations or monologues.  Spatial constructions can also lead to layered meaning, or even contradictory meaning for instance, when a character tells another she is happy, while aggressively ironing clothes and slamming the iron down on the board.  In another Fornes play, which I detested, Sarita, the set itself is very like that in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, whose exaggerated, surreal set reflects the interior psychology of the main character.  The set description reads:

Livingroom in New York’s South Bronx…the proportions are not realistic. The ceiling is inordinately high. There are no windows except for a small one, ten feet high on each side wall…

Such as set casts a dominating influence over the action that takes place within.  Mud is similar, set in a “wooden room…on an earth promontory.” The room is so small and oppressive, the poverty in which the characters live, that the three characters barely have room to move around each other.

The freezes allow for contemplation.  This is something that generally only happens with breaks between Acts, if you believe people are actually contemplating and not just rushing out to smoke or drink or whatever.  The freezes in Mud last 8 seconds, allowing for consideration of not only the characters frozen on stage, but also the relationships between them and a review of what events occurred in the previous sequence.

The freezes shake the flow of the piece, not allowing for the rhythm or rush to get too far ahead of the audience; but it’s not as intrusive as a blackout, to which some people are opposed.

I’m currently working on a piece and I may experiment with tableaux in it; although I am interested in how Overmyer handles the transitions in Native Speech, too.

Mud feels like a mix between an Absurdist piece and an Expressionist piece.  Fornes originally studied painting and I think it is easy to see the influence that has had on how she envisions sets and space in her plays.  Read, for instance, the set notes on Mud:

The set is a wooden room which sits on an earth promontory.  The promontory is five feet high and covers the same periphery as the room. The wood has the color and texture of bone that has dried in the sun.  It is ashen and cold.  The earth in the promontory is red and soft and so is the earth around it.  There is no greenery.  Behind the promontory there is a vast blue sky…

And on she goes.  The visual contrast of the colors in this set is strong.  I have always been personally fascinated by the contrast of red and yellow; but the strong bone color is set off by the red of the earth and the blue of the sky–a contrast in elements as strong as the contrast between Mae’s desires and the mud in which she is stuck.

The physical set is not the only Absurdist/Expressionist element.  The language of the play is the equal to the physical set.

MAE: You don’t know numbers.

LLOYD: Yes I do. (He stands.) I’m Lloyd.  I have two pigs. My mother died. I was seven. My father left. He is dead. (He gets three coins from his pocket.) This is money. It’s mine. It’s three nickels. I’m Lloyd.  That’s arithmetic.

MAE: That is not arithmetic.

And much of the play is like that.  Simple sentences constructed of a noun, verb, and direct object.

 MAE: I’m pressing, jerk! What are you doing! I’m pressing.  What are you doing! (He looks away.) I’m pressing what are you doing! You’re a jerk. (She continues ironing.) I work.  See, I work. I’m working. I learned to work. I wake up and I work. Open my eyes and I work. I work. What do you do! Yeah, what do you do!–Work!

LLOYD: So what. (He sits in a corner on the floor.)

The use of language in this manner (very simple constructions, powerful images, high levels of repetition) create language equivalents to the visual design: that is, highly impressive images that stay with you and create a strong sense of character, event, and purpose.

Mud is a tough play, one that comes out and punches you in the mouth and makes you spit blood.

Palin and Fefu: a male-associated strategy of domination

September 7th, 2009 No comments

One of the more intriguing elements of Fefu is the relationship of certain actions against animals and Julia.

Taking up the Rifle

Taking up the Rifle

In Part 1 there is a conversation between Christina and Cindy in which Cindy relates the tale of Julia’s paralysis.  A hunter aimed at a deer and then shot it. Julia and the deer fell.  The deer was dead, but Julia had convulsions.  Julia was bleeding from her forehead, but it was not a bullet wound, and there was no other visible evidence of injury.  Julia rants in delirium. The paralysis is blamed on scar tissue on the brain from the fall: a petit mal.


Cindy relates what Julia said in her delirium:

“…she was persecuted.–That they tortured her…That they had tried her and that the shot was her execution. That she recanted because she wanted to live….That if she talked about it….to anyone…she would be tortured further and killed.” p18

The delirious statement by Julia above corresponds to her hallucinations later in The Bedroom, which serves as a fuller explanation of what Cindy relates.

At the end of the play, Fefu shoots and kills a rabbit.  This action again results in a wound on Julia’s forehead, but this time it seems as though Julia is finished, as her head “falls back.”  Just prior to the gun shot, Julia says, “I didn’t tell [Fefu] anything.  Did I?  I didn’t.”  Implying, per the quote above, that Julia was bound to silence about what she knew, punishable by death.

The question of interest for me here, though is that of the animals being shot and Julia being injured.

For the first part of my response to it, I’m going to point to Sir James G. Frazer1 and his work The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion.  In that work there are several stories that are recounted which have events that are similar, under a section entitled “The External Soul.”

Once, a warlock called Koshchei the Deathless carried off a princess and kept her prisoner in his golden castle. However, a prince made up to her one day as she was walking alone and disconsolate in the castle garden, and cheered by the prospect of escaping with him she went to the warlock and coaxed him with false and flattering words, saying:

“My dearest friend, tell me, I pray you, will you never die?”

“Certainly not,” says he.

“Well,” says she, “and where is your death? Is it in your dwelling?”

“To be sure it is,” says he, “it is in the broom under the threshold.”

Thereupon the princess seized the broom and threw it on the fire, but although the broom burned, the deathless warlock Koshchei remained alive; indeed not so much as a hair of him was singed.

Balked in her first attempt, the artful hussy pouted and said, “You do not love me true, for you have not told me where your death is; yet I am not angry, but love you with all my heart.”

With these fawning words she besought the warlock to tell her truly where his death was.

So he laughed and said, “Why do you wish to know? Well then, out of love I will tell you where it lies. In a certain field there stand three green oaks, and under the roots of the largest oak is a worm, and if ever this worm is found and crushed, that instant I shall die.”

When the princess heard these words, she went straight to her lover and told him all; and he searched till he found the oaks and dug up the worm and crushed it. Then he hurried to the warlock’s castle, but only to learn from the princess that the warlock was still alive. Then she fell to wheedling and coaxing Koshchei once more, and this time, overcome by her wiles, he opened his heart to her and told her the truth.

“My death,” said he, “is far from here and hard to find, on the wide ocean.  In that sea is an island, and on the island there grows a green oak, and beneath the oak is an iron chest, and in the chest is a small basket, and in the basket is a hare, and in the hare is a duck, and in the duck is an egg; and he who finds the egg and breaks it, kills me at the same time.”

The prince naturally procured the fateful egg and with it in his hands he confronted the deathless warlock. The monster would have killed him, but the prince began to squeeze the egg. At that the warlock shrieked with pain, and turning to the false princess, who stood by smirking and smiling,

“Was it not out of love for you,” said he, “that I told you where my death was? And is this the return you make to me?”

With that he grabbed at his sword, which hung from a peg on the wall; but before he could reach it, the prince had crushed the egg, and sure enough the deathless warlock found his death at the same moment.

There are many other stories of a similar sort which I will not repeat here, but the similarity is the nature of the soul being external to the person and that person’s existence being tied to the animal or object containing the soul.  Similar relationships are drawn between a witch/warlock and her/his familiar; and it should be noted that references to witchcraft are peppered amongst Fefu, the most obvious of which is Fefu’s story of the black cat that she feeds.  As a play with very strong feminist overtones, it is certain that the references to witches are there to point to men’s latent fears regarding the mystery and power of the female body.

With the above in mind, it is clear that the animals and Julia are connected.  We also know that there are two types of animals killed (a deer and rabbit) so there is no one type of animal with which Julia is associated–it would seem to be animals in general.  Although, there is no monopoly one the relationship between animals and people, the scene “In the Study” has Cindy reading from a magazine: “A lady in Africa divorced her husband because he was a cheetah.” p30. However, I will note that the animal in question here is a hunting animal, not a grazing animal.  So, the main question is, how is Julia related to animals or what does this connection mean?

For the second part of my response, a key comes from an article by Penny Faran2, who writes of Fornes:

By her own account, she began writing the play with two “fantasy” images in mind.  The first was of a “woman…who was talking to some friends [and then] took her rifle and shot her husband”; the second was a joke involving “two Mexicans speaking at a bullfight. One says to the other, ‘She is pretty, that one over there.’ The other says, ‘Which one?’ So the first one takes his rifle and shoots her.  He says, ‘That one, the one that falls.’” In the completed play, Fornes has brought these two startling premises together so that, however indirectly, Fefu shoots Julia rather than her husband Phillip and, in doing so, takes the place of the men in the “joke” who objectify women to the point of annihilation. p446

Faran goes on to point out that “taking up the gun is a male-associated strategy of domination” and that Julia’s observation that Fefu is hurting herself by firing the gun (in Part 1 of Fefu) is correct.

But the notion of the “objectification of women” and the notion that women have traditionally been viewed as passive creatures to men’s more active principle suggests that women, as are the deer and rabbit, subject to being acted upon and are defenseless against the male urge toward domination.  Julia is thus representative of this feminine principle and receives the action of the masculine principle against her.

This again highlights what may be a fundamental assertion that both Fefu and Julia are not only threatened by the male principle, but have harmed themselves, albeit in different ways: Fefu, by constantly acting the part of a man; Julia but allowing herself to become passive.  Again, this raises the notion of to what extent in the play that Emma offers an alternative vision of how women can succeed by redefining the terms of the conversation.

  1. Frazer, Sir James G. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion
  2. Farfan, Penelope. Feminism, Metatheatricality, and Mise en Scène in Maria Irene Fornes’s Fefu and Her Friends. Modern Drama 40 (1997): 442-453
  3. Previous Fefu post
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