Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Dario Fo

Dario Fo is one of my favorite living playwrights.

To speak of Fo as a playwright, however, is reductive. He’s also stage director, art director, costume designer, composer and actor. Few playwrights probably have the near total control Fo has over the final result of his performances. He's a playwright I admire immensely, not just for his humor and talent, but also for the social and political content of his plays.

Fo was born in Italy, in 1926, and grew up amidst fishermen, artisans and travelling salesmen, listening to their tales and absorbing their dialects, which would later help him develop the grammelot he uses in his plays, a mixture of onomatopoeia, dialect, made-up words and mimicry. Grammelot is a sort of universal language developed in the 16th century by the Commedia dell’Arte theatre. Since at the time Italy had dozens of dialects, the wandering theatrical companies had to make themselves understandable wherever they went. This made-up language, aided by expressive gestures, managed to convey meaning to whoever watched their performances. Fo has revived this tradition from popular theatre for plays like Mistero Buffo and Elizabeth: Almost by Chance a Woman.

Fo reached adulthood during World War II and was conscripted to the Italian army, joining the paratroopers. Fo preferred not to desert lest he endangered his father, who was involved in antifascist activities.

After the war, Fo graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts of Brera in 1950, with a degree in architecture, which has come in handy in designing and building the sets of his plays. He then went on to work on TV and radio as an actor and author of satirical plays.

In 1954 Fo married the actress Franca Rame, who has been an important companion throughout his career: usually Fo writes his female roles for her and both have also co-written many plays and monologues for her dealing with the role of women in contemporary society. The book A Woman Alone collects several of these monologues.

As I pointed out already, Fo’s theatre is steeped in the tradition of the Commedia Dell’Arte. But he also draws from the tradition of the giullari, the Medieval wandering performers who disrespected, mocked and criticized church and state with their popular style of satirical humor. Fo is mainly a comedian, a specialist in satires and farces. He’s also a militant communist who uses his art as a weapon against social injustices. He writes according to Santeuil's dictum: castigat ridendo mores (comedy criticises customs through humor). Fo believes that laughter is a powerful tool to open the minds of people and make them receptive to ideas rejected by society. So even though he can be fiercely political, his plays seldom read like sermons.

According to Franca Rame, they were having trouble with the authorities as early as 1953, with Fo’s first play, Il dito nell'occhio. This was the time of Mario Scelba’s government, a period of “total censorship,” in the words of Rame. The church advised people not to see their plays, policemen watched them closely, businessmen refused to rent them buildings, and inspectors in the crowd paid attention to each word the actors uttered to make sure they didn’t deviate from the script that had been previously approved by censors. This was only ten years after the fall of Mussolini. Wherever they went, however, they always met with the support of students and workers. Their plays struck a chord with them since they reflected their concerns and aspirations.

Fo was successful in the fifties as an actor but he soon got tired of working for bourgeois middle-class theaters. Fo and Rame abandoned the mainstream circuit. They had realized that operating within the mainstream was limiting the reach of their artistic vision: the bourgeois didn’t mind their criticism because it operated within channels they controlled. Rame has likened this to the medieval king who allowed the jester to speak truths just to prove he was tolerant, but only so long as the jester remained within the limits of the tolerable. The couple realized they weren’t making a dent so they took their plays to where they’d have a greater impact.

In the sixties they were staging plays in alternative places like factories, circus tents, and parking lots, drawing huge crowds of working class people. They were also successful in the workers’ social clubs, an Italian institution created by the Italian Communist Party at the beginning of the 20th century (fans of Italian cinema will remember such a place in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Novecento). Initially the response was lukewarm: for the workers they were just another couple of intellectuals come to play at being revolutionaries. Rame claims that they managed to break the ice by building their own sets in front of the workers, proving they weren’t just intellectuals afraid of picking up tools and getting their hands dirty.

From 1964 to 1968 they had the highest earnings amongst the major companies in Italy, and they also charged the lowest prices. In their first year, they staged plays in over 80 workers' clubs, in factories and other unexpected places. They estimate they performed before over 200,000 workers. From them they drove inspiration for new ideas, situations, plots and even ways of expressing themselves.

In spite of his militancy, Fo has also had trouble with the Italian Communist Party. The ICP, according to Rame, didn’t like what they were doing: they were suspicious of the workers’ intelligence, she claims, and of their freedom to express themselves, which says a lot about the ICP: they wanted to be the voice of the workers, but the workers had to think what the party wanted them to think. And now these clowns had come along, asking them to share their ideas, to raise their voices, to express themselves, to speak up for themselves, outside the channels the ICP controlled. Fo also clashed with the conservative views the ICP had over topics like sexuality and social reforms; the ICP had no patience for a playwright who revelled in polemics. The history of the relationship between the couple and the ICP is a sad story about internal struggles for power and mistrust.

Fo’s first great success was Mistero Buffo, written in 1969, which attracted an audience of one million during the two and a half years he toured it around Italy. It's an unusual play, written just for one actor, who reproduces a long monologue, mixing lectures about history, religion and politics with one-man performances of medieval mystery plays. It’s Fo’s most innovative play, a way of expanding the possibilities of theater to encompass non-fiction. It’s been dubbed Theater of Narrative and has inspired other Italian playwrights and performance artists.

Accidental Death of an Anarchist followed in 1970, concerning the mystery surrounding the death of Giuseppe Pinelli, an anarchist wrongly accused of terrorism who fell from a police precinct window. Fo wrote it to help the Left-wing communist newspaper Lotta Continua, which had been charged with libel after accusing the police of murder. This work method would accompany Fo for most of his career: he’d start from something real, like a newspaper article, reshape it through his artistic imagination, and send it back into the world, as a searing indictment against power and public institutions.

Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! Was written in 1974 in support of the autoriduzione movement: basically, faced with inflation, people decided to take things from the stores and supermarkets and pay only what they could afford (as a personal aside, I think this is an idea that should be tried out again in modern times).

His 1981 play Trumpets and Raspberries explores a theme dear to Fo because it’s a cornerstone of the Commedia Dell’Arte: mixed identities. Agnelli, the Fiat director, is confused with a terrorist whom they think has kidnapped Agnelli. The play was written in reaction to the 1978 assassination of prime-minister Aldo Moro, kidnapped by left-wing terrorists. Some believe the Italian government decided to sacrifice Moro instead of negotiating to save his life just to prove it was hard on terrorists. The irony of the play, of course, is that since Agnelli is a rich businessman the government uses all its resources to save him, proving where the real power in democracy lies. 

Abducting Diana, evidently translated into English in order to capitalise on Princess Diana's name (the protagonist is named Francesca in the original play), was written in 1987 and follows a pair of kidnappers who get more than they bargained for when they try to kidnap a media mogul.

The Pope and the Witch, written in 1989, tackles abortion and AIDS and has the Pope as the protagonist. Unfortunately it's hard to find his plays in English from the 1990s onwards; even though he received the Nobel Prize in 1997, there hasn't been a systematic translation and collection of his plays.

But from these examples, I hope you'll agree Fo is a writer always living in the moment, unafraid of becoming dated, perhaps because he has an inexhaustible imagination for new farcical situations. According to Rame, Fo can write up to three plays a year, in spite of all his tribulations. He writes on the fly, always up to date on current events. He's more interested in participating in the living world than writing a timeless, artistic play.

Fo’s theatre is built on situations, not characters. Hence his emphasis on improvisation and his belief that the plays are open works, free to be constantly changed with each new performance. For this reason it’s difficult to speak of a definitive edition of his texts. Fo himself encourages translators to change the political content of his plays to reflect the receiving countries’ hottest topics. This approach to open plays is another mark of the influence the Commedia Dell’Arte has had on Fo and is based on the lazzi, or comic routines or improvisation around which an actor can build many diverse performances from a basic idea or plotline.

Dario Fo received the Nobel Prize in 1997. He had been previously considered for it in 1975. This surprised and enraged many people who consider Fo a minor performer, a lightweight playwright of no importance in the history of Italian or world theatre. But consider this: in his lifetime Fo has been hounded by the government, the Catholic Church, the police, the Mafia, right-wing groups, and even the Communist Party. Fo was once arrested for making fun of an American president. Franca Rame was kidnapped and raped by a right-wing group in 1972. Their early career met censorship and obstructions at every turn. Today they fight the censorship of the Berlusconi-owned Italian mass media. Think about that for a moment: so much anger directed at a lightweight playwright? So much trouble to silence a writer who has nothing of value to say? The opposition Fo has met in the last fifty years is a grim testament to the importance of his work, of his voice as a denouncer of crimes and injustices, and of his ability to rouse consciousnesses. More importantly, it’s a dishonest struggle: after all the government and the church have billions in money, the mass media, the educational system, and the police at their disposal. They are ridiculously powerful. Dario Fo only has humor in his arsenal. But the disparity proves that humor, as the Medieval giullari taught Fo, is more than sufficient to upset and hurt the powerful.

Recommended Plays:

1958: The Virtuous Burglar
1969: Mistero Buffo
1970: Accidental Death of an Anarchist
1974: Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!
1981: Trumpets and Raspberries
1983: The Open Couple
1984: Elizabeth: Almost by Chance a Woman
1985: One Was Nude and One Wore Tails
1986: An Ordinary Day
1987: Abducting Diana
1989: The Pope and the Witch

I’m greatly indebted to Stuart Hood and Franca Rame for their introductions to the two volumes of the Dario Fo Plays, published by Methuen. Many of the facts of this short biography came from them, as well as from my own readings of Dario Fo’s plays.

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