The Conduct Of Life by Maria Irene Fornes

Maria Irene Fornes emerged as perhaps the most prominent female voice from the revolutionary off-Broadway playwrights, directors, and producers of the 1960s with a string of award-winning plays in the 1970s and 1980s. Her plays make "lyrical poetry out of bodies and props, framing narrative scenes within scenes often silent, or accompanied by music alone, wherein thought and emotion are worked out and conveyed through the image itself" (Diane Lynn Moroff, Fornes: Theater in the Present Tense [Michigan, 1996], 2). "She embodies the off-off-Broadway ethic," writes Scott T. Cummings, "one dedicated to a direct, intimate, and sometimes visceral meeting of audience and theatrical event. Her twenty-five-year career represents a unique maturation of that ethic beyond its early communal preoccupations into a highly personal artistic vision" ("Maria Irene Fornes," American Playwrights since 1945, ed. Kolin [Greenwood, 1989], 111). Bonnie Marranca, who has written on Fornes numerous times, has posited that her plays "distill" the drama "to its essence": "Instead of the usual situation in which a character uses dialogue or action to explain what he or she is doing and why, her characters exist in the world by their very act of trying to understand it" ("The Real Life of Maria Irene Fornes," PAJ 8 [1984], no. 1: 29).

The Conduct of Life follows a series of interactions among Orlando, Leticia, Olimpia, and Nena in which power relationships are negotiated and defined. Reclining in his basement as Nena "is curled up on the floor," Orlando equates "love" and "want" and defines them as "a desire to destroy and to see things destroyed and to see the inside of them" (scene 13). Love, gain, success, power, and extraordinary violence are continually conflated and confused by the characters.

Gender, class, and violence are inextricable linked in the play. Stacy Wolf has suggested that it is not only rape that functions as the dominant metaphor of The Conduct of Life, but "unfulfilled female desire… as well." She continues, regarding the final moments of the play in which Orlando questions Leticia regarding her lover as he would a political prisoner, "at that moment, he perceives her as a sexual/male, since her autonomy and sexual activity threaten to re-position him as feminized. In an attempt to reassert his own sexuality he puts his hand in her blouse; refusing to be feminized, Leticia shoots him, temporarily positioning herself as active/male. That she forces Nena to accept responsibility for the crime reinforces the circulation of power along lines of class as well as gender" ("Re/presenting Gender, Re/presenting Violence: Feminism, Form, and the Plays of Maria Irene Fornes," Theatre Studies 37 [1992]: 29-30).

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