A Kind of Theatrical Realism: An Emotional Landscape Based in the Realness
by Tina Satter
PEA: My god, what is it?
ROE: It’s a newspaper.
PEA: It is beautiful. (ROE nods.) May I touch it? (ROE nods. PEA touches the paper. A tear rolls down his face) This must be made by a person.
ROE: Yes, many of them. They put out a new one each day.
These opening lines of dialogue are from one of my very favorite pieces that Maria Irene Fornes wrote. A small play called Drowning, from a collection called Orchards where playwrights wrote short plays in response to Chekhov’s short stories.
Pea and Roe are heartbreaking and hilarious as described by Fornes in the first stage direction in the play: “Pea’s and Roe’s heads are large and shapeless, like potatoes. …They have warts on their faces and necks. Their bodies are also like potatoes.”
And this first tiny section of dialogue from a tiny play, encapsulates poetically and perfectly what Maria Irene Fornes does with her art. The way her writing excavates our senses over and over again. The way she holds up a delicate but earthy and honest mirror to our humanity and it’s reflection casts back micro heartbeats and macro intellectual considerations of self-discovery, difference, desire, and the sadness of our moments girded by an unrelenting hope drawn from our very existences.
When Fornes renders an odd potato creature moved to tears by seeing the object of a newspaper, then elevates the context with just eight words: “They put out a new one each day” she imbues language and life with a sense of possibility that is both banal and then wholly revelatory.
To those who are lucky enough to know Fornes’ words, ideas, and art—and many, many more should—we get access to what I definitively think art can and should do. Her plays open up the edges of ourselves and our present moments in ways that are utterly singular to each reader or audience member, but then reflect widely on the past, future, and present, to lead to this tweaking of what we thought we knew—which she presents to us. In my master’s thesis on Fornes I wrote at Reed College, I called this effect “theatricalized realism” – and what I believe Fornes did since she operated as writer and director was imbue the writing with a director’s incisive and highly imaginative use of all the tricks of theatrical thinking to crack open what our other sage master Mac Wellman calls the “already known.”
We need all the questioning, considering, and repurposing of the “already known” we can get.
From Fefu and Her Friends with it’s incredible rendering of an epic female landscape to the laser intense darkness of Mud, to my favorite of her plays, The Danube, that uses language in the most awesomely simple way to delineate what is also deceptively an epic of romance, family, and illness, I think that Fornes is always doing one thing: placing words on the page to be animated with performance in order to consider the ways we never stop trying to communicate all kinds of love. In some sense, it is that simple.
And why her plays, which are masterpieces, also have that simple, tight feeling in each one.
Near the end of Drowning, the character of Pea says:
“Do you know what it is to need someone? The feeling is so much deeper than words can ever say. Do you know what despair is? Anguish? What is it that makes someone a link between you and your own life?"
Fornes offers us this intangible link each time we read her work, with each play. Her words let us feel that which is deeper. Her theatrical creations are an ongoing link between ourselves and life.