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The Starfish and the Strange Attractor: Myth, Science, and Theatre as Laboratory in Maria Irene Fornes' ‘Mud’

  • Cara Gargano


Cara Gargano sees the plays of Maria Irene Fornes as reflecting ‘nucleate disorder in a system far from equilibrium’ – a theatrical response to the overturning by the new science of the Aristotelian as of the Newtonian paradigm. Comparing the wildly divergent critical interpretations of Fornes' Mud since its premiere in 1983, she suggests that in this overtly simple dramatization of a far from simple triangular relationship, Fornes ‘uses the theatrical space as her laboratory – a place to explore the interface between our society's construction of the world and our evolving artistic and scientific vision’. Cara Gargano is a writer, teacher, and choreographer who took her doctorate at the City University of New York, was on the faculty at the New York School of Ballet, and is presently Chair of the Department of Theatre, Film, and Dance at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University. She has written extensively on the Quebecoise playwright Marie Laberge, and her articles on performance, quantum mechanics, and chaos theory have been published in Modern Drama, L'Annuaire Théâtrale, and Dance and Research.



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Notes and References

1. I am indebted to Susan Kotwinkel, Michael Vanden Heuvel, Robert Brooks, and John Fleming for their generosity in sharing both their bibliographies and their papers, delivered at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education in San Francisco in August 1995; to Dean Wilcox for sharing his paper, delivered at the International Federation for Theatre Research in Montreal in May 1995; and to Richard Shindeldecker who graciously agreed to discuss some of these issues with me. I am especially grateful to Mala Renganathen for sharing with me the fruits of her Fulbright research.

2. Shlain, Leonard, Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light (New York: William Morrow, 1991).

3. See particularly Porush, David, ‘Making Chaos: Two Views of a New Science’, New England Review and Breadloaf Quarterly, XI, No. 4 (Summer 1990); Demastes, William W., ‘Re-inspecting the Crack in the Chimney: Chaos Theory from Ibsen to Stoppard’, New Theatre Quarterly, X, No. 39 (1994); Hayles, N. Katherine, ed., Chaos and Order: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

4. George, David E. R., ‘Quantum Theatre – Potential Theatre: a New Paradigm?New Theatre Quarterly, V, No. 18 (1989).

5. Schmitt, Natalie Crohn, Actors and Onlookers: Theatre and Twentieth-Century Scientific Views of Nature (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1990), p. 4.

6. Briggs, John, The Patterns of Chaos: Discovering a New Aesthetic of Art, Science, and Nature (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), p. 155.

7. Schmitt, Natalie Crohn, Actors and Onlookers: Theatre and Twentieth-Century Scientific Views of Nature (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1990).

8. See Riebling, Barbara, ‘Remodeling Truth, Power, and Society: Implications of Chaos Theory, Nonequilibrium Dynamics, and Systems Science for the Study of Politics and Literature’, in After Poststructuralism: Interdisciplinary and Literary Theory, ed. Easterlin, Nancy and Riebling, Barbara (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1993), p. 193.

9. Fornes, Maria Irene, Plays (New York: PAJ, 1986), p. 28. All further quotations are taken from this text.

10. The paradox of Wigner's friend, proposed by Eugene Wigner, is as follows: a friend, carrying out an experiment on a particle within a box, arrives at a result; upon completion of the experiment, another scientist appears who announces that he himself has been carrying out an experiment on the friend and the particle within a larger box. Quantum physics suggests that the results of the first experiment are dependent on the observation of the second. In other words, as Fred Alan Wolf puts it, ‘the friend and the particle owe their very existence to the professor's kind observation’ (p. 217).

11. Schrödinger posed his famous problem of the cat, placed within a box with a radioactive atom. Since the half-life of such an atom is one hour, at the end of an hour the probability of the cat being dead or alive is equal, and therefore within the closed box there are potentially two possible ‘editions’ of the cat. When the experimenter opens the box, he or she ‘determines’ the outcome by that action, and there is only one cat. (See Fred Alan Wolf, p. 189–91, for a fuller explanation.)

12. Ilya Prigogine ‘created theories to bridge the gap between biological and social scientific fields of enquiry’, wrote the committee for the Nobel Prize (as quoted in Dossey, op. cit., p. 82). The theory of dissipative structures shows how the second law of thermo-dynamics, which states that the world is moving towards entropy, can remain true in its ensemble and yet be superceded in specific instances. When chance fluctuations occur in nature they give rise spontaneously to new complex forms which ‘interact with the local environment by consuming energy from it.…Increasing complexity generates a need for increasing fragility. But ironically it is this feature of the dissipative structure that is the key to its further evolution towards greater complexity. For if the internal perturbation is great enough the system may undergo a sudden reorganization, a kind of shuffling, and “escape to a higher order”, organizing in a more complex way’ (Dossey, op. cit., p. 82–4).

13. Edward Lorenz's work in weather turbulence led to the formulation of a computer-generated pattern called a ‘strange attractor’ which demonstrates the way a dynamical system can be graphed. The plot of a strange attractor shows how a system can be chaotic and orderly at the same time, as a pattern emerges, whose path cannot be predicted accurately, but is attracted to a self-similar area.

14. Fractals, discovered by Benoit Mandelbrot, are non-linear, computer-generated phenomena, defined by John Briggs as the ‘patterns of chaos’.

15. Porush, op. cit.

16. Eliade, Mircea, Aspects du Mythe (Paris: Gallimard, 1963), p. 11.

17. Briggs, op. cit., p. 13.

18. Ibid., p. 14.

19. Robinson, Marc, The Other American Drama (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 89.

20. See ‘The Real Life of Maria Irene Fornes’, in Marranca, Bonnie, Theatre Writings (New York: PAJ, 1984), where Marranca makes some important points about Fornes' use of time and space, as it relates both to a Theatre of Images and to a sense of a new cosmology.

21. See Marranca, Bonnie, ‘The State of Grace: Maria Irene Fornes at Sixty-Two’, Performing Arts Journal, XIV (05 1992), where Marranca discusses Fornes' preoccupation with the theme of human evolution through knowledge, learning, and the act of writing.

22. Stewart, Ian, Does God Play Dice: the Mathematics of Chaos (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), p. 316.

23. Briggs, op. cit., p. 40.

24. Robinson, op. cit., p. 109.

25. Ibid., p. 110.

26. Dossey, Larry, Science, Time and Medicine (Boston: Shambhala, 1985).

27. Fornes, Maria Irene, Promenade and Other Plays (New York: PAJ, 1987), p. 130.

28. See Ubersfeld's, Anne work on ‘theatre within theatre’ in Lire le théâtre (Paris: Editions Sociales, 1977).

29. Quoted in George, op. cit., p. 178.

30. David E. R. George sees quantum theatre as ‘potential’ theatre in the sense of being both powerful and, in Heisenberg's sense, as ‘something standing in the middle between the idea of an event and the actual event, a strange kind of physical reality just in the middle between possibility and reality’. See George, op. cit., p. 178.

31. Ibid., p. 178.

32. Quoted in Stewart, op. cit., p. 242.


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