Part of the process of staging a play is to make the familiar unfamiliar, to isolate elements so as to suggest reality, the familiar, in an unfamiliar way. Plays do not take place in the real world but in a created world, a world set in one isolated spot (the stage) with several specific individuals isolated from real life (characters) interacting in a manner that conveys thematic issues and concerns to the audience. Such communication is controlled in a way that real life is not. Issues are isolated from the extraneous and conveyed in a way that has been shaped by the playwright for maximum impact. In the play Conduct of Life by Maria Irene Fornes, the familiar is made unfamiliar first in the setting, which is suggested as a set of four horizontal planes selectively illuminated and selectively populated as characters move from one area to another, evoking images of life but not life itself.
Maria Irene Fornes was born in Havana, Cuba. She emigrated to the United Stats and became an American citizen. She was trained as an artist, but she began writing plays while she was living with Susan Sontag in the early 1960s. She developed into one of the most consistently innovative American playwrights of the age and worked in a range of styles. She has been viewed as a part of the feminist theater movement in the United States largely because she is female, but she does not so view herself. In the 1960s, she wrote primarily one-act plays and music-theater pieces that tended to be farcical and followed in the Absurdist tradition of Ionesco and Mrozek while at the same time expressing an ironic attitude about a number of American myths, such as the quest for economic success and the search for true love. In the 1970s, she moved away from her more light-hearted style and turned to plays that were often minimalist in their language. They often conveyed what Fornes sees as the isolation and anguish experienced by women through the centuries and often in a more minimalist style. Her style is important to the message she wants to convey:
Fornes works in an elliptical style, structuring her plays in short, haunting scenes whose images often burn in the darkness long after each blackout. She actively seeks to inject the spontaneous into her creative process: her first play was composed of scenes each of whose first line came from a different page of a cookbook (Griffiths and Woddis 114-115).
Dramatists often criticize society through the characters and situations they depict on stage. When they do so, they may approach the subject by looking through the world in which they live to what they believe the world should be. They may be writing at a turning point, an era in which social change is in the offing but which is being resisted by the dominant order. They may merely be commenting on aspects of the human condition which persist into their age and which they see as detrimental to society. Whatever their particular situation may be, playwrights criticize society by having characters who represent some social class or ideological position and by using symbolism as well as direct statement to make the audience see something they believe to be wrong. The characters need not themselves have the same realization or understanding of what is wrong in society, and indeed they may themselves represent some aspect of that wrong. One of the social goods analyzed in drama is justice and the human struggle for justice. The struggle for justice is often seen in terms of battling attempts to impose injustice on the part of society or other human beings. It may also be seen in cosmic terms as a quest for fairness on a universal level.
The minimalist set used in Conduct of Life is reminiscent of the set for Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, which has a set that also offers several rooms in a house visible at one and the same time, with walls that are transparent, and with rooms indicated by different levels. The rationale is somewhat different from that expressed by Fornes, for Miller wants the house to evoke a vision of memory and to allow the intersection of past and present in one place: "An air of the dream clings to the place, a dream rising out of reality" (Miller 428). Miller says that the kitchen on his set "seems actual enough, for there is a kitchen table with three chairs, and a refrigerator. But no other fixtures are seen" (Miller 428). This description would fit the kitchen in Fornes's play as well, for she is also suggesting rooms rather than showing them.
Both playwrights use the suggestion of a home as a setting for family interactions. The home setting in Conduct of Life serves to illustrate how the public and private interact in the home, and here the home includes a portion of a warehouse that makes the public and private all the closer together. The elements of the set are familiar, but the way they are set together and made visual makes them unfamiliar. Orlando is the public figure, the man who seeks a public life and who identifies himself as a man eager to get ahead, eager to achieve, so eager that he will "eliminate all obstacles" (Fornes 68). Indeed, his wife may be just one more obstacle, and if he must, he will eliminate her to allow him to "marry a woman in high circles" (Fornes 68).
The behavior of the characters in this setting also makes the familiar unfamiliar by twisting the expectations of the audience. Husband and wife might be expected to act in one way when they are in their home with a friend, as Orlando and Leticia are with Alejo in Scene 2, yet the two are antagonistic to one another in a rather extreme and ongoing manner. The introduction of characters in each scene is accompanied by a sense of shock for the viewer -- Orlando speaks to himself as if spurring himself on glory, Leticia and Orlando battle one another, Orlando rapes Nena, and the servant Olimpia seems to have all the power in her dealings with Leticia, though Leticia should be the mistress of the situation.
The scene shifts from place to place as different portions of the larger set are lighted and as characters come and go from one locale to another. The different parts of the set are both separate and connected at one and the same time. When one portion is used, it becomes central and identifies where the character are and what they are doing, but the other areas never completely disappear and so are always connected in the viewer's mind to the action seen. Orlando's actions toward Nena thus become connected to his behavior toward Leticia, just as his description of actions taken to torture enemies is connected as well.
Like the set, the action of the play is seemingly disjointed but at the same time interconnected because the same characters are seen in the same rooms. As noted, Fornes presents the action in a series of short scenes, in the nature of blackouts, a technique that makes the familiar unfamiliar by its speed and selectivity. Dramatically, the series of actions becomes one long action for the viewer, who therefore sees the scenes both one after another and as one long interconnected scene. The domesticity of the scenes in the kitchen, however, great the tension between husband and wife, create one sort of familiarity, and this is made very unfamiliar by the scenes between Orlando and his sex slave in the warehouse. Visually, these things are happening right beside one another, connected by a few steps.
Critic Steven Drukman points out how the plot unfolds on this minimalist set:
Set in the present in an unnamed Latin American country, The Conduct of Life tracks the unraveling of a man's behavior and spirit in the face of a violent, distrusting government. The man is Orlando... A lieutenant in the army who becomes increasingly distant from his older wife Leticia... And sexually forceful with Nena... A 12?year-old street urchin, as his military "service" demands ever more of him (Drukman 36).
Drukman further describes the power of the piece when he writes that "the playwright performs an act of brazen magic by attributing the most distinctive, triumphant voices to the women in the play, all of whom survive, however questionably, in spite of themselves" (Drukman 36). At the same time, Orlando expresses perhaps the most powerful communication when he is speaking to Nena about how he has treated her:
What I do to you is out of love. Out of want. It's not what you think. I wish you didn't have to be hurt. I don't do it out of hatred. It is not out of rage. It is love. It is a quiet feeling. It's a pleasure. It is quiet and it…