‘Gather round, people! Gather round! Hear ye! The jongleur is here! I am going to play a satire for you. I am going to joust with the lord of the land, for he is a great balloon, and I am going to burst him with the sharpness of my tongue. I shall tell you everything, how things come and go, and how it is not God who steals! It is those who steal and go unpunished… it is those who make big books of laws… They are the ones… And we must speak out, speak out. Listen, people, these rulers must be broken, they must be crushed…!
Mistero Buffo is a play that defies simple definitions. It’s a play only in the loosest sense; in fact it’s a collection of thematically linked monologues about the history of medieval Italian theatre. There's a single actor who narrates and plays several characters in a series of sketches based on medieval mystery plays. It’s neither a tragedy nor a comedy. It’s closer to non-fiction. In Italy this genre is known as theatre of narration, and Fo invented it when he wrote this in 1969. Although outside Italy this genre may not be widely known, in Italy it has inspired other performers, often politically motivated, to create their own theatre of narration about the social and political problems that plague Italian society.
Mistero Buffo is not exempt from polemics. In fact it embraces it. It's a confrontational play. It's also a work of archaeology, of literary criticism in the guise of fiction. Fo has had two major influences on his life: the Commedia Dell’Arte; and the earlier giullari, medieval wandering performers who criticised the church and the state in their one-man plays. Fo uses his own play to bring attention to a popular type of theatre that, according to the author, has always been kept on the margins by the official (state-approved) culture. In other words, this play is a revisionist history of Italian theatre as written by academics, and as one reads it, it becomes clear it's a very intimate theme for Fo.
At the same time the play is also a reflection about his work as a performer, satirist and agent provocateur; it's an artistic manifesto. When he speaks of the giullari who used their art to rile against the rich landowners and the corrupt bishops, he’s also talking about himself and of his struggles against the modern structures of power. Mistero Buffo, then, is a work that achieves a unity of non-fiction, fiction, political statement, and art.
The actor lectures, with the help of slides, about the history of medieval theatre to the audience. He begins with the giullari (singular giullare; for some reason the translator preferred to replace this foreign word for the equally foreign jongleur), wandering performers who staged one-man plays that mocked the landowners, the king, the nobility, the church. Fo admires and identifies himself with them. Perhaps because, like Fo, the giullari were hated by the powerful. According to the actor, in the 15th century the Church passed an edict that made the giullari illegal, allowing anyone to hunt them down. Fo, too, has had problems with the Italian government, the Church, the police, right-wing groups, and even the Communist Party.
Mystery, we learn, means “a play, a religious representation, a performance.” Mistero Buffo (Comic Mystery) is instead a grotesque performance:
As far back as the second and third centuries after Christ, people used to entertain themselves (and this was not merely a form of entertainment) by playing, performing dramas in a form which was both grotesque and laden with irony. The reason for this was that, for the people, the theatre, and especially grotesque theatre, has always been a primary means of expression, of communication, and also a vehicle for the development and spreading of ideas. The theatre was the spoken and dramatised newspaper of the people of that time.
The play introduces the social figures who were part of this world: the giullari, the milites (ancestors of the police), and the villeyns (the landless peasants created by God to be exploited by the rich landowners). The plays, the actor argues, meant to rouse the consciousnesses of the people, remember them of their dignity, and make them conscious of their servitude. This is how the actor describes the role of a giullare:
The jongleur used to turn up in the streets of the town, and reveal to the people their own condition – that of being beaten as well as taken for a ride. Because the law prescribed beatings as well as hangings. There were plenty of other examples of vicious laws like this. Anyway, the jongleur was a figure who, in the Middle Ages, was part of the people. As Muratori [Italian historian] says, the jongleur was born from the people, and from the people he took their anger in order to be able to give it back to them, mediated via the grotesque, through ‘reason’, in order that the people should gain greater awareness of their own condition.
A giullare would arrive in a town or village and perform his one-man play. Usually these consisted of apocryphal episodes from the Bible, like the mother who curses God after her son is killed in Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, only for the child to resurrect. Another play, for instance, showed the resurrection of Lazarus from the crowd’s perspective (a performance which demanded the actor play several characters), emphasizing the human reaction to the miracle and not the miracle itself. In “The Morality Play of the Blind Man and the Cripple,” the eponymous characters help each other overcome their difficulties by acting as one: the cripple becomes the blind man’s eyes, and the blind man his legs. This play served to remind people of the values of dignity and solidarity. Or as the actor puts it:
Anyway, at a certain moment, the blind man says: ‘Dignity does not lie in straight legs, or eyes that see; dignity is not having an employer to subject you.’ True freedom is the freedom of not having bosses – not only that I should be free, but that I should live in a world that is also free – where others have no bosses either. Just imagine it – all this in the around 1200-1300!
Naturally, we’re not taught this kind of thing in school, because it is extremely dangerous to let children know that away back in the Middle Ages poor people had realised a few things… knew they were being exploited…!
In the play “The Birth of the Jongleur,” we learn how this figure came into the world. A peasant was happy working his land until a greedy landowner stole the land from him. Left destitute, the peasant decides to kill himself. But right before he does it a trio of poor wretches arrive asking him for some food. Even in his miserable condition, the peasant shares whatever he has with them. Of course one of those wretches is Jesus Christ, who rewards the peasant with the gift of the tongue, to walk the world speaking out against the injustices committed by the rich and powerful:
‘I am Jesus Christ. I have come to give you the power of speech. And this tongue of yours will lash, and will slash like a sword, deflating inflated balloons all over the land. You will speak out against bosses, and crush them, so that others can understand and learn, so that others can laugh at them and make fun of them, because it is only with laughter that the bosses will be destroyed. When you laugh at the rulers, the ruler goes from being a mountain, to being a little molehill, and then nothingness. Here, I shall give you a kiss, and that will enable you to speak.’
The actor also reveals facts about real life Medieval popular heroes. Although Dario Fo is critical of the Catholic Church, he shows a lot of admiration for monks who tried to live true to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Amongst them there’s Segalello de Parma, a monk from the “Sackcloth” order of monks (true to their vow of poverty, they dressed in sackcloth), who went around the peasantry trying to start a revolution against the Church for failing to use its fortune to aid the poor:
Just imagine, in the Middle Ages, going round saying things like that: the land belongs to those who work it! You’d have to be raving mad to go round saying it even nowadays… so just imagine, in the Middle Ages! Anyway, they promptly arrested him and burned him at the stake, he himself and his whole brotherhood of ‘sackcloth’ Friars.
A follower named Fra’ Dolcino continued his master’s work and created a commune outside the laws of the landowners and the Church, called the Credenza (from credere, to believe) prompting a violent reaction against its members. Pope Boniface VIII (1230-1303), instigated by the nobility, dispatched thousands of Crusaders to crush this community.
A lot of Fo’s anger is directed at the social structures that shape our understanding of history, namely the educational system:
Needless to say, this history which I have briefly summarised for you, receives no mention in the history books used in our schools. This is of course quite natural. After all, who organises our educational system? Who decides what is to be taught? Who has a material interest in not letting certain things be known about? The employers, the landowners and the bourgeoisie. For as long as we continue to allow them, it’s obvious that they’ll carry on doing what they consider to be correct. Can you imagine what would happen if they all suddenly went crazy and began telling the history of how, in the 14th century, in Lombardy and Piedmont, there was a full-blooded revolution, during which, in the name of Jesus Christ, people began to set up communes in which all people were equal, everybody loved each other, and nobody exploited anyone else? What would happen? The children would get all excited, and start shouting: ‘Long Live Fra’ Dolcino! Down with the Pope!’ And, my goodness, this sort of thing cannot be allowed…!
Fo certainly exaggerates some points to make his thesis more seductive. Nevertheless, his revisionist history of Italy, which gives voice to the poor and the wretched, is essential to understanding the theatre of Dario Fo. He is a modern giullare, whose work reflects the world he lives in. If some writers worry about their works being timeless, Fo worries about being up to date on events. He writes quickly and furiously, literally taking ideas from newspapers. This means some of his plays date quickly, but this too is part of his art. Fo is not writing for posterity; he’s a modern clown, forcing us to look and laugh at the stupidity of the world we live in, the only one we have to live in, in the only moment that matters: now.
Although my favourite play by Dario Fo remains Accidental Death of an Anarchist, I consider Mistero Buffo the perfect introduction to this playwright. It’s obvious it’s a very personal play, one that not only shows him at the height of his satirical powers, but also explains what motivates him as an artist. To read Mistero Buffo is to understand who Dario Fo is.
For this review I used the Ed Emery translation collected in Dario Fo Plays: 1, published by Methuen.