Saturday, 13 April 2013

And Now, Franca Rame!

Whoever has been following my blog since the beginning knows of my admiration for Dario Fo, the Italian playwright who received the Nobel Prize in 1997. Since starting this blog I’ve written extensively about Fo. In fact I find him such an irresistible figure I’ve dusted off my mouldy Italian skills to read him in the original. It’s been a journey of discovery. Part of that journey included gaining a greater understanding of and sympathy for the role France Rame, Fo’s wife, plays in his life and work. Since the ‘50s, when they married, Fo’s female roles have been written for her. And Franca, who began her theatrical career as an actress in a travelling company, has, since marrying him, gone on to become a respected playwright in her own right. The one collection of her plays in English, A Woman Alone, attests to her talent and versatility.

Today, however, I’m here to write about her life rather than work. I’ve been meaning to write about Franca for a long time. In the book-long interview, Il Mondo Secondo Fo, the Nobel Laureate was very candid about her importance in his life, as working partner, moral support, friend and muse. He never understates his love for her. That perhaps explains why he isn’t afraid of her own success. Many male writers have tried to suppress the voices of their wives and partners, afraid their success would eclipse their own, but in Fo’s case it’s the opposite. A few years ago he encouraged Franca to write her autobiography, which she did. True to her identity as a playwright, the book was written as a series of monologues in a stage play. Dario, who wrote the illustrations for the books, pops in once in a while to fill in some parts of the story, but Una Vita All’Improvvisa (2009) is mostly Franca’s turn under the spotlight.

All’improvvisa is a theatre expression that comes from the commedia dell’arte tradition and means performing the subject outside the text, to improvise without diverging from the plot. Franca grew up in a family of itinerant actors who still used the traditional techniques of Italian theatre. The Rame company was composed of two brothers’ families: there was Domenico, Franca’s father and leader, and Tommaso, her uncle. Domenico Rame was an important man and respected actor, “who besides that fulfilled in Italy the role of president of every itinerant mime company, of the circuses, of the funfairs, and outdoor shows.” Thanks to “interventions in the several competent ministries he had succeeded in making the whole class of circus workers and itinerant comedians accepted into a professional category, which could finally enjoy tax deductions, bureaucratic recognition and, even if only slightly, subsidies and royalties on authors’ rights.” Franca’s mother, in turn, was called Emilia, and was an elementary school teacher in Bobbio before meeting Domenico. Emilia’s father was a land surveyor, her mother a housewife. A job as teacher was a social conquest for the time, and like her sisters she was supposed to have married respectable husbands who could secure their future. Instead one day arrived in Bobbio Domenico, a “travelling puppeteer,” with his siblings Tommaso and Stella, and the patriarch, Pio, a man who admired Garibaldi so much he wore a beard and hat just like the famous general.

Emilia and Domenico first met during Carnival. They fell in love but after a brief stay in Bobbio he left with the company to set up a show elsewhere. Over a year they exchanged love letters, and then Domenico returned to marry her, much to Emilia’s shame. Leaving Bobbio, the school teacher applied all her energies in being accepted in the Rame company. Although she knew nothing of puppetry, she helped create a new wardrobe for the wooden marionettes. This was happening at the end of World War I. Italy was undergoing many social changes, unemployment was high, the working class was adhering to socialism and fight for a better life. Tommaso was a socialist and managed to change the traditional puppet shows to incorporate themes of the class struggle. Because of this the company was constantly harassed by the police, which threatened to confiscate the puppets and close down their show. (It is darkly ironic that Franca and Fo would run into the same problems with the police in the decades after World War II; disturbing how little changed.)

Then with the rise of cinema as popular entertainment, Domenico predicted that the puppet theatre was on its death throes, and so the company decided to hang up the puppets and start performing the texts themselves. According to Franca, these puppets can now be seen at La Scala Theatre Museum, in Milan, relics of the history of Italian theatre. With the new changes, Emilia, who had never acted before, became the company’s first actress:

An actress who by day took care of her kids, helped them study, tidied the house, administered the company as if it were a normal family enterprise. And at night, going up the stage, she transformed into Juliette and Tosca, and Suora Bianca from I figli di nessuno, and Fantine from Les Miserables, all roles that gradually we daughters and cousins, one after another, also later performed.

In their transition to real life acting they achieved great success, Franca owes it to Domenico’s idea “to recapture all the stage tricks of the puppet show and apply them to the theatre of actors,” using ‘techniques from the Sixteenth century’ belonging to traditional theatre. Their success was unexpected but immense and they became one of the most popular companies in Italy, ‘forced’ to work 363 days a year. “On Sundays the company split into two and made two shows, afternoon and evening.” They toured all across Italy, inside La Balorda, a bus that was considered part of the family.

How did we move about? For instance we arrived in a small town or village like Parabiago, we rented a house for the family, we made a visit to the authorities to pay our respects, explain our intentions, our work, in sum we made ourselves known. We met also the owners of theatres, whether they be priests or managers, and we made our debut. My father immediately got in touch with the many mayors or priests of the surrounding counties, in order to have the possibility of working every day. We only rested on the Good Friday and the 2, day of the dead. (Rame means November 2, celebrated in Italy as the Day of the Dead).

In the company Emilia had the title of regiora, or “the one who runs the community.” There was clear separation of tasks according to sex. The women “took care of the costumes and worked together finding stage props; furthermore, they worried about choosing and managing the several places to rent; my mother, in particular, oversaw the education of us children and introduced us to show-business, teaching us the roles.” As for the men, they “organized the tours, chose the texts, dealt with the managers and theatre owners, took care of advertising the shows, loaded our little bus, La Balorda, drove it, set up the stages, the lights and everything related to the production.”

Regarding the plays they staged, there was an incredible freedom in their choices. “Like all travelling companies, ours also showed a bill vast and varied in repertoire: comedies, historical dramas, modern works and even scripts taken from successful novels.” When the show exceeded the members of the company, they hired actors for the male roles and also involved amateurs. The company had more women than men and that made things complicated since, as Franca observes, theatre has more roles for men than women and they couldn’t keep performing only “works like Three Sisters by Chekov, The Merry Wives of Windsor by Shakespeare or Lysistrata by Aristophanes.”

Censorship by the local priests was a constant menace. A significant detail is that they administered the local theatres where the plays were performed and could stop companies from working in them. Domenico solved this matter once and for all. During Mussolini’s regime, after a priest interrupted a performance of Giordano Bruno, Franca’s father decided to create their own moving theatre, fully dismountable, so that no one could tell them anymore where they could perform their plays.

Franca was born in 1929 and made her stage debut at the age of three, playing an angel in a play about Judas, during the Good Friday. Her role was to say to Judas, “Repent treacherous Judas, who for thirty silver coins you have sold your Master! Repent! Repent!” Of course on the day of the show she made a total mess of it. Judas was being played by Tommaso. Still too young to understand what a performance was, when she saw her uncle shouting and crying in distress, rather than stay in character she jumps into his arms and hugs him, the only way she, a child, knew to make him feel better. Although at first no one knew what to do, Tommaso improvised with a great reply: “God, you are great! To this horrible sinner you have sent consolation… a little angel… you stretch out your hand to me… No, no, I don’t deserve it!” Then trying to untangle himself from Franca’s hug, he ran into the backstage looking for a tree to hang himself. The audience burst into applause at the new twist on the story. This is theatre all’improvvisa.

Franca was a happy child, save for difficulties in mixing with other girls in school. There was a social stigma against theatre people, and to make it worse Franca was squint-eyed, the kind of thing kids love to pick on. She relates a time, however, during Easter, when she made up with her classmates by offering them hand-made gifts. Much like Emilia had earned her role in the company.

The Rame company continued to perform during World War II, and Franca witnessed the arrival of the Allies in Italy, in 1943. She remembers with shame the fact she, like other multitudes, ran to the American soldiers in hopes of receiving cigarettes and chocolates. On top of all the problems the war caused them, they had been separated from Enrico, who had been sent to a concentration camp, and had to walk hundreds of kilometres back to his family at the end of the war.

Franca defines herself as one of the last survivors of the theatre all’Italiana. When she was passing these memoirs into paper, the world of the itinerant actors was beginning to disappear, so this book is not just autobiography but history and elegy. She herself made a break with her family’s tradition when, in 1950, she tried her luck in revues. Moving to Milan, this is the time in her life when she became interested in news and contemporary events and started developing a social and political consciousness. Prior to this, she writes, she didn’t have the habit of reading newspapers. It was also in Milan that she met Dario Fo. Like it happened with Domenico and Emilia, after falling in love each went his own way before meeting again to marry. Prior to marrying, Franca had an abortion because, brought up as a Catholic, she was afraid of the shame to her family and especially her mother, a devout Catholic. To make her happy, they had a church service. Ironically Emilia was opposed to Franca marrying an actor, even though she herself had married a travelling puppeteer. Married in 1954, their son, Jacopo, would be born in 1955.

At this point the book overlaps a lot with the material in Il Mondo Secondo Fo. In the fifties the two start working together and not long after they have their first clashes with censorship and police authorities. These early plays were satires about contemporary politics and class struggle. At the time in Italy plays were heavily censored: the companies had to submit the texts to receive approval before staging it, and after the approval nothing in the text could be changed. In the crowds inspectors followed the lines of the actors while perusing copies of the approved texts, making sure they were followed to a tee. Franca explains how Fo drove the inspectors mad because his improvisational style eschewed words in favour of body language to express ideas and situations.

Franca and Fo never showed interest in having film careers, but in 1956 starred in a movie together, a comedy called Lo Svitato. The movie wasn’t well-received at the time and the couple decided to stick to theatre. However the movie led to an enthusiastic theatre manager inviting Fo to writing a play for his theatre, L’Odeon, in Milan. And so he wrote what is considered his first great play, Archangels don’t play pinball. (I have yet to read it.) The play’s success in turn led to their being invited, in 1962, to perform in the RAI TV show Canzonissima. A revue show that combined comical sketches with dancing and singing, it was one of Italy’s most popular TV shows. But Fo and Franca decided to use it to discuss contemporary topics and poke fun at businessmen, industrialists, and capitalists. Much to the chagrin of the powers that be, the show was an instant hit with the working classes and absorbed into the quotidian, becoming the kind of stuff office employees and factory workers talked about around the water cooler. In their episodes they tackled work-related accidents, the dehumanization of modern labour, and the Mafia (which the government at the time still refused to admit existed). In the seventh and final episode, they brought to the fore the lack of safety regulation in construction sites and the high rate of work-related deadly accidents, and that was the final straw. The government pressured the channel to cancelling the show, and the couple was banned from TV for almost twenty years.

So in 1963 they were back in the Odeon, performing their plays, but according to Franca “suddenly we were aware that our audience had extraordinarily increased in size and enthusiasm.” Although TV was off limits to them, they were going to prove they didn’t need the conventional channels to reach an audience. Instead they stopped catering to the bourgeois people and to the “enlightened that remained strangers to the world of the subjugated.” They went on the road and started performing in the Case del Popolo, left-wing institutions that promoted popular culture, and other unusual places like factories and parking lots. One of the shows they performed during this time was called Grande pantomima con bandiere e pupazzi piccolo e medi (Great pantomime with flags and small- and medium-sized puppets), complete with a giant head of Mussolini from whose mouth several other figures burst out, the insane forefather of one of the best segments in Federico Fellini’s Amarcord.

Although they also started working closer with the Italian Communist Party, soon they became personae non gratae because the IPC didn’t like the plays making the workers think too much for themselves, since that was the exclusive purview of the Party. After the performances Fo and Franca always invited the audience to discuss the plays and the workers voiced their ideas and experiences, which they in turn transformed into new plays. The communists frequently tried to sabotage their work. The powers that be weren’t happy either and police harassment continued.

This was also the period when they became international stars, attracting with their Italian tour the attention of American magazines, and being visited by Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s The Living Theatre company. TLT was touring in Europe at the time, after they had run, in New York, into many of the problems Franca and Dario were running into in Italy. (Incidentally, The Living Theatre, of which I knew nothing about until reading this book, seems fascinating in its own right.) Academia was also becoming critically interested in their work.

Many of the plays Franca discusses during this period, going from the late ‘60s to the early ‘80s, have been reviewed by me before. One did catch my attention: Guerra di popolo in Cile (The People’s War in Chile, 1973), written in support of President Allende and an invective against Pinochet’s regime. The play started with Fo being on stage, doing his usual comical routines. Then he moved to the situation in Chile, and cops started harassing him. Anxiety slowly grew in the room as policemen produced a list of people who had to go the precinct. More worryingly a radio on the stage began transmitting news that a coup was underway in Italy. When tension reached its peak, Fo revealed that the policemen on the stage were just actors. The play was less a play than a happening. Considering that Italy at the time was a powder-keg and many feared that at any moment a coup could well overthrow the government, this hoax was easier to pull off than if it had been performed, for instance, in New York.

Not long after this stunt, though, Fo was arrested by real cops. This was the price he was willing to pay for his political engagement. Still the worst was reserved for Franca. One day in 1973 she was kidnapped and raped by a right-wing group. The episode is described at length in the book, and she later turned it into a monologue titled The Rape, included in A Woman Alone. The seventies were particularly hard for the couple. Persecuted by the fascists, Jacopo had to go school under police protection. And because landlords feared bombings, no one dared rent them rooms in Milan.

In the ‘80s they travelled across the world, and even visited the USA, and their work gained greater recognition. In 1997 Dario Fo received the Nobel Prize. Franca reveals that he donated the money to associations working with handicapped people.

The book concludes with Franca describing her misadventures as a senator of a short-lived term between 2006 and 2008, representing the party Italy of Values, a centrist anti-corruption party. Everything you’ve heard about Italian politics is true, in fact it’s impossible for gross misrepresentations to be worse than reality. Italian politics is its own caricature at the same time it’s chillingly real. Franca’s memoirs of the Italian Senate won’t change anyone’s opinions of a country where politicians like Silvio Berlusconi and Giulio Andreotti have been key players for decades: it’s as corrupt and alienated from the quotidian as it is said, a group of self-serving arrivistes who use politics to attain money and influence, a discredited institution where scandals don’t destroy one’s chances of always returning to power, over and over again. Franca felt deeply miserable and useless amidst these people who sole interest was to preserve their power rather than serve Italy. In her resignation letter she wrote:

Moreover, I felt temporarily loaned to institutionalized politics, while I have spent my entire life in the cultural and also social battle, in the political one made of movements, as a citizen and a committed woman. And this was and is the term I feel the electors invested upon me: to lend a contribution, a voice, a hope, an experience, which coming from society would be heard and perhaps at times accepted by the parliamentary institutions.

After 19 months I must state, with respect, but also with bitterness, that those institutions have seemed to me impenetrable and indifferent to any look, proposal, and external solicitation, that is, not coming from someone who’s an organic expression of a party or of a group of organized interests.

Franca felt like an outsider in the Senate, and I think her unhappy experience with real politics serves as a good example of why artists should never mix too closely with the conventional political institutions, but should work instead with grass-root movements and as engaged citizens rather than professional politicians.

At the age of 83, Franca Rame continues to work in the theatre with Dario Fo and to be involved in several social causes and movements. 

This book was read for the Women Challenge.


  1. Fascinating narrative!

    Among the many intriguing points was the conversion of puppet shows into live, human performances. It never ceases to amaze me how art develops and evolves.

    1. Brian, yes, Franca has had quite a fascinating live. I enjoyed learning about it from her own words.

      Her family had been puppeteers for generations, and her grandfather was sad to hang up the old puppets. But that was life. In the end things turned up fine for them.