Sunday, 5 August 2012

Dario Fo, in his own words

Today I bring a mishmash of quotes and tidbits from an Italian book I read a few weeks ago. Sometime ago I wrote a short introduction/biography of Dario Fo, Nobel Prize Laureate, playwright extraordinaire and master satirist. But I relied heavily on data from English introductions to his work and on Wikipedia. I really hate relying on Wikipedia for anything. So I figured I had to read Dario Fo talking about himself. Using my mediocre knowledge of the Italian language, and with a trusty dictionary by my side, I read Il Mondo Secondo Fo (2007). This is a book-long interview conducted by Giuseppina Manin and broken down into thematic sections: childhood, family, marriage to Franca Rame, Nobel Prize, political activism, et cetera. As far as I can tell, Manin is an Italian Dario Fo scholar and editor who’s worked with him on some books, mainly Il paese dei misteri buffi.

Il mondo second Fo is a short book, less than 200 pages, but it’s a massive dump of Fo-related information. It’s a treasure trove for his fans because it covers a lot of ground about his life and goes into areas of his work that are frequently neglected,  besides illuminating and clarifying certain facts I was already familiar but in a vague sort of way. I’m not going to write another introduction to him, I’m just handpicking bits to give an overall idea of the book.

It opens with Fo, in his eighties, reflecting about old age. “On the one hand,” he says, “it makes you trip over words, you feel like details of your memory are missing; on the other hand it gives you a greater freedom, a greater irony. When you’re old you are what you are. You don’t have to prove anything to others anymore.” Although, after reading the book, it’s clear even when he was young he never worried about proving himself to others; he was always his own independent self, never backing away from a fight with censorship, the church, the government, the communist party, et cetera.

Fo and Rame live in a mansion designed by himself – he’s an architect, after all – and filled with masks, hundreds of masks. He explains their importance in his work. “When you put on the mask you can no longer lie,” he admonishes. “In any latitude, since the dawn of civilization, the mask is born with man. Being able to hide one’s own identity and assume another one is a marvellous gift, it grants you an otherwise inaccessible freedom. Because the mask conceals individuality, the relative, the fleeting, and instead reveals the universal, the unnameable. It covers features, alters the voice, and releases only one thing: the truth. Wearing it, the actors, but also common people, have the right to say what they think. It’s not me at all speaking, it’s the ‘other’, that strange face that I have borrowed for a few hours.”

Dario Fo has always championed theatre as a protest tool, a weapon against complacency, and he’s aware of its power in history. “It’s not by accident that actors and giullari [the wandering medieval performers] have always been persecuted, intimidated, buried outside church walls. The powerful fear those who perform on a stage their dark faces. And they’re wise to do so. A laugh in the right place can be enough to bury them all.” It’s questionable if laughter is really that powerful, but Fo has been persecuted and censored many times, so maybe he’s on to something. As a modern day giullari trying to raise socio-political awareness about many topics, Fo has a very particular view of art. “All my life I’ve never written just to entertain, I’ve always tried to include in my texts that fissure capable of destabilizing certainties, of casting doubts over opinions, of creating indignation, of opening minds a bit. Everything else, beauty for beauty’s sake, art for art’s sake, they don’t interest me.” Somehow I always thought Fo wasn’t one to worry a lot about aesthetics considerations, which isn’t to say his plays aren’t beautiful works of art.

In the book there’s a lot of information about his childhood, which he claims was a happy one. There’s in fact too much information: I don’t think anyone really needs to know that he came out with the placenta around him, and that that’s a sign of good fortune where he was born. He also describes his first sexual adventure: it includes him and a girl inside a rowing boat, in the middle of a lake. Fo learned a lot about telling stories from the people he knew in his village. He says his people lived a nocturnal existence there: these people were smugglers who operated by night, fishermen who had to cast their nets early in the morning, and workers from glass factories that kept the furnaces burning day and night. From them he learned that a rich popular culture existed. Also, his mother was reputedly a witch.

During World War II he joined the army in order not to put his father, an anti-fascist activist, in danger. He worked as a medic, picking up the dead and wounded from the battle fields. He then applied to join a parachuting division, but during training he deserted and stayed hidden for months in the mountains, living in caves. He explains that because of this he feels solidarity with Günter Grass for choosing to keep his military service a secret for many decades.

Regarding Franca Rame, it was love at first sight. They first met in 1951 when they worked together in a revue called Sette Giorni a Milano, and Rame was already a famous actress by then. Although he was crazy about her he thought she was out of his league. She was constantly surrounded by rich suitors, and Fo was dirt poor. He tried to ignore her, to pretend she didn’t exist, which wasn’t easy since they saw each other every day. In the end, however, it was Rame who took the initiative. “One day, right on the backstage, she approaches, pushes me against a wall and kisses me.” They married in 1954.

His formative years were quite interesting. In art school he met great artists like Giorgio de Chirico. He got a job as a waiter in a café where the old masters went to talk after classes, just so he could listen to their conversations, since he was too poor to be an actual client there. After the war, he and his friends concocted a hoax to convince people that Picasso was visiting Italy. He had a short career as a film actor but didn’t find it useful to say what he wanted to say, although he was in high demand. However, he did work in building the sets and the props for Vittorio de Sica’s adorable movie Miracle in Milan (1951). His film friends included Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti and Paolo Pasolini, with whom he almost made a movie about the start of World War I. As a huge fan of The Postman and Life is Beautiful, I’m happy he considered Massimo Troisi a great actor and that he’s friends with Roberto Benigni.

Fo and Rame are famous communists. For many years Fo and Rame were forbidden from entering the USA because of their political beliefs. Many artists, including Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer and Martin Scorsese, campaigned to get the ban lifted. Ironically it was right-wing and anti-communist crusader Ronald Reagan who issued them visas that allowed them to enter the USA for the first time in 1984, “probably out of an old sense of solidarity between actors,” Fo jokes. But Fo also had problems with the Soviet Union. After the invasion of Czechoslovakia, Fo officially forbid his plays from being performed in Eastern Bloc countries, as a way of protest. Another irony is that although Fo’s plays were anti-capitalist, even when they were performed in the USSR, they suffered censorship – although Fo is anti-capitalist and pro-communism, the fact is his plays are first and foremost critical of all authorities, so in Soviet Russia they worked as parables against the state. During the ‘70s and ‘80s, his plays were performed in the East only clandestinely, with his blessing.

Because of Czechoslovakia he also fell out of favour with the Italian Communist Party (ICP). Apparently you couldn’t be a good communist if you didn’t approve of Russian tanks marching over Prague. So the ICP started to sabotage his shows. This led Fo to search for new places to perform his plays in, which is how he ended up performing in factories, stadiums, even circuses, and also how he strengthened his ties with the working class.

There are curious facts about the origins of his plays. For instance, he had his idea for Accidental Death of an Anarchist after meeting a madman in a park who told him how he enjoyed stealing identities for fun and pretending to be other people. This chance encounter led him to create the Madman of the play. As for Mistero Buffo, he explains that at the time there was an academic debate in Italy over whether or not such a thing as popular culture existed. Considering his childhood listening to the tales of his people, Fo decided to prove that this type of culture indeed existed and that it had as much value as academic culture. So he started researching the history of popular theatre, which is how he came up with Mistero Buffo.

Although Fo is famous for his open plays and for urging directors to change the texts depending on which country they’re performed, and even though he himself constantly rewrites them to keep them up to date and socially relevant, he sneers at the idea of improvisation. “Theatrical improvisation is false. For an actor, there’s nothing more tiring, more elaborate, more rehearsed, than improvising. To give the illusion of doing it for real, it’s necessary to learn how to follow very precise schemes. Like in blues or in jazz… to make the variations, you have to respect the note sheet. Theatre is like music, geometry, mathematics. If you don’t respect its rules, you ruin everything.”

Another thing I didn’t know is that Dario Fo is also a renowned art historian in Italy. He’s written books on several topics:

Giovanni Boccaccio, the author of The Decameron:

The 15th century painter Andrea Mantegna:

And Raphael:

And Caravaggio:

And the role of the obscene in art:

None of these books have been translated into English, although I’m thinking of reading them in Italian. It’s a new facet of his work that is worth exploring.

I also love this quote on Jesus Christ. “How can you not be fascinated by such a personality? Whether he’s the son of God or not, it matters little to me. What matters to me, what I’m interested about in Christ, is his being a human person. A man like us. But capable of an extraordinary freedom, courage, open-mindedness. A man who said, when democracy wasn’t even a thinkable idea, that we’re all equal, who excludes the rich from the Kingdom of Heaven, who considers fools, the oppressed, those thirsty for justice to be saints… and then his extraordinary attitude towards women. At a time when they didn’t even count socially speaking, Christ grants them complete human dignity. In the restricted group of his followers women have always had a huge dimension.” He then he blames patriarchal organized Church for turning women into second-class citizens again. So he doesn’t hate Christ, or even religion, he just thinks organized religion is rubbish. Interestingly, his views on Christ resemble something José Saramago said when the novel Cain came out, namely that every writer, even if he doesn’t believe in God, must in one way or another deal with the figure of Jesus Christ in his work.

There is a lot more in Il Mondo Secondo Fo, but alas!, I can’t transcribe the whole book. Here’s hoping those who love Dario Fo as much as I do can one day get hold of this lovely book.


  1. This sounds like a very good and fun autobiography. I tend to agree that the theatre can be very, very powerful. Those who hold power and control in this world are right to fear it! It sounds as if Fo understands that.

    Once upon a time I had a passable grasp upon written Italian but I am terribly rusty these days. I could give this a go in its native language. It might help me in reawaken my ability!

    1. After studying Italian for three years in college, I'm still not fluent, but with a dictionary I manage to get by. It's really given me access to many new books.

      I'm glad you've enjoyed this, Brian; have you read his plays? They're very, very good.

  2. I have not read them but I will put them on my list!