Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Dario Fo: Trumpets and Raspberries

Thaaat… creeetin of an Inspeeector… is convinced that I kiiidnapped myself… an autoterrorist!

Ah, never say Dario Fo hasn’t enriched the world with new vocabulary. Sure, he’s no Shakespeare, but he’s capable of a good neologism too, although it’s hard to conceive new contexts to use autoterrorist in. Fo invents an absurd word that can only be used in his absurd play. There’s something almost genial about that.

I love Dario Fo, but I don’t want to turn this blog into a forum for his ideas, so this will be my final review of his plays for the time being. I also believe, in my limited knowledge of his work, that Trumpets and Raspberries (1981) marks the apogee of his career. Although Fo operates within very narrow themes, I’ve tried to review plays that don’t repeat themselves and that show a progression of interests: Mistero Buffo is about religion; Accidental Death of an Anarchist, police brutality; Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!, civil disobedience. After dismantling modern society piece by piece, Trumpets and Raspberries finishes this analysis with the playwright’s clearest statement about where he thinks the true power of a capitalist democracy resides. Later plays like The Pope and the Witch and Abducting Diana, although interesting, just repeat the same themes. So this is a good place to stop.

The play opens with Rosa visiting her husband, Antonio, all bandaged up at the hospital. He’s been badly disfigured in a car accident and the doctor needs her to identify him. She’s initially mad at him because he left her to live with Lucia, “one of those intellectuals who are always trying to teach us, the working class, everything.” As Rosa starts recounting their life to the doctor, the real Antonio addresses the audience to avoid a misunderstanding: the bandaged man is in fact Gianni Agnelli, the boss of FIAT, the famous Italian car manufacturer. (To make it clear, there really was a Gianni Agnelli, who really was the director of FIAT, which really did make cars; my dad had one). In order to fill in the gaps in the narrative, he explains to Lucia, who joins him onstage, that one day he was cheating her with yet another woman, outside the factory, when he saw one car chasing another one. They both swerved off the road and fell in a ditch. Antonio ran to the crash site and helped a man out of the car. The passengers in the other car opened fire and then ran away. Antonio took the badly burnt man to the hospital, wrapped in his jacket, and then ran away for fear the authorities would blame him. That’s how Agnelli ends up being mistaken for him. Now Antonio is hiding at Lucia’s because the police are looking for Agnelli and suspect Antonio, a member of the Communist Party, played a role in his kidnapping. To make things worse, Agnelli is a bit amnesiac. I know what you’re thinking, this is a bit convoluted; but you can’t just drop autoterrorist in the middle of any story. Actually, the play is really easy to follow and hilarious too. Fo’s plays are usually built around misunderstandings and mixed identities, tropes he inherited from the Commedia Dell’Arte. What amazes me is that he seems to have an inexhaustible ability to dress them up in different ways and for diverse ends.

Here a lot of the humour is at Agnelli’s expenses. Dario Fo seems to think he’s the source of all evil in the world, a genuine moustache-twirling villain, for the sole reason of being rich. The scenes where he’s at the hospital, for instance, undergoing speech therapy underlie Fo’s criticism of him, namely his detachment from the working class:

DOCTOR: There, that’s just perfect! And now, say: gastric… gastropod…
DOUBLE: Gaaastric, gaasopo…
DOCTOR: No, articulate it properly: gas-tero-pod…
DOUBLE: Troppo… gastopo… Braaa, Brooo, Bray!
DOCTOR: Silence! And now say: astronaut, concupiscence, manumission.
ROSA: But Professor, have you gone mad? What are these words that you’re making him say? He’s never going to say words like that… He’s a worker… Make him say the words that he’s going to use every day: wage packet, lay-offs, redundancies… Astronaut? Why, we don’t even know one!

It’s not just the gulf between the rich and poor he’s observing him. As Fo sees it, Agnelli is also incapable of knowing what it feels to be Antonio, as this Monty Python-esque dialogue shows:

EXAMINING MAGISTRATE: What work did you do at FIAT?
DOUBLE: Labouring… Work… Labour…
DOUBLE: Work… Labour?
DOUBLE: These words have no meaning for me…

Ha ha, Agnelli doesn’t even know what working means. Ah, what a hateful idiot!

This fan of Dario Fo concedes it’s not the deepest of observations. On the other hand, I very much believe in using literature for personal vendettas, as a means to give body to unattainable desires. And if it’s true that this sounds a bit petty, it’s also true a lot of Italian workers probably thought the same of Agnelli. Remember that Fo drinks at the source of popular theatre, which was often a means to let off pressure. Said plays gave shape to the downtrodden masse’s greatest desires, whether it was becoming rich, marrying a princess, or simply seeing evil punished. It’s the stuff of fables and Hollywood. And even great writers aren’t immune to its lure. One of my favourite texts José Saramago ever wrote was a short-story about the dictator António Salazar falling from the chair that eventually killed him. The short-story is just a slow-motion description of the fall and the aging dictator damaging his head (recently it’s been revealed that he may actually have fallen in the bathtub, a less noble end; I think Saramago would have enjoyed that version even more), sadistically revelling in the minor details of his head wound. Writers can be petty people, God bless them.

Fortunately even Fo must be conscious these jokes are a bit thin because he doesn’t dwell on them. What he’s really interested in is exploring the social effects of Agnelli’s disappearance. When the newspapers report that he’s been kidnapped, the Pope offers to take his place because he’s too important for Italy to lose. Now Fo’s getting at a more salient point, which is fully developed at the end of the play. But before Agnelli’s located, the police, and several secret agents from around the world, start monitoring Rosa’s house for clues. Fo’s point about police brutality in Accidental Death of an Anarchist has evolved into a critique of the police state where the ends justify suspending citizens’ rights to privacy. Once again, Fo was ahead of his time by a few decades.

When Agnelli recovers his memory he indeed hides at Rosa’s to test a theory; he wants to know what ‘value’ he has for the government. And this is where a brief lesson on Italian political history becomes necessary. In 1978, the Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro was kidnapped by the Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades), a left-wing terrorist group, and executed after fifty-five days of captivity. During that period Moro sent letters to his family and the government, urging it to negotiate with the terrorists. The state, however, decided to sacrifice Moro in order to make a show of force.

Agnelli, then, wants to find out whether he’ll be sacrificed too. For that reason he sends letters to the newspapers, claiming to be captive of terrorists who demand the amnesty of 32 political prisoners in return for his release. And this is where Fo, once again, proves to be chillingly actual. In an age when banks get bailouts and the gap between the rich and the poor widens, when salaries decrease while corporations report record profits, I think even the most politically indifferent people won’t fail to see a grain of truth in Agnelli’s words:

Get it into your heads: I am the state! The capital which I represent is the state! It is my dignity that you must save, even at the cost of your own lives! How could they think of sacrificing me, in order to save the state? For I am the state!

In a play where cops and secret agents abound, it’s significant that the only person who gets shot, twice, is a judge. What is Fo saying? That the concept of justice is fragile when power is concentrated in the hands of a few? That democratic institutions like courts are powerless to curb the power of capital? The play’s finale is sombre, one of Fo’s most downbeat endings because it offers no hope. At least in Accidental of Death of an Anarchist, there was the hope the Maniac would restore justice; and Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! ends with Giovanni losing many of his illusions about society and politics and taking a more active role in changing his condition. Trumpets and Raspberries ends with the bleak suggestion that everyone’s trapped in a damaged society with no way out. But perhaps that’s part of the author’s point, to throw so much despair at the reader that it’ll wrest him out of his conformity and create a way out. One can only hope.

This review was based on the translation by R.C. McAvoy and A. M. Giugni, contained in Dario Fo: Plays I, published by Methuen.

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