World Literature

Dario Fo

 

BORN: 1926, San Giano, Lombardy, Italy

NATIONALITY: Italian

GENRE: Drama

MAJOR WORKS:

Archangels Don’t Play Pinball (1959)

He Who Steals Foot Is Lucky in Love (1961)

It’s Always the Devil’s Fault (1965)

Comic Mystery (1969)

Accidental Death of an Anarchist (1970)

 

 

Dario Fo. Fo, Dario, photograph. © Jerry Bauer. Reproduced by permission.

 

Overview

For more than fifty years, Italian playwright Dario Fo has been a central figure in theater. His preoccupation has always been to question and denounce the injustices imposed on human beings around the world, and although his theater has used comedy to expose the corruption, dishonesty, and arrogance of the powerful, he has always provoked serious reactions throughout the world. Fo’s ideological stance has always been accompanied by a personal commitment, beyond the theater, to help and support those who suffer.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Creativity in Family Tree. Fo was born in San Giano, Italy, on March 24, 1926. His father, Felice, was a railway stationmaster and a socialist, while his mother, Pina Rota, was an educated woman of peasant origin and tradition. Fo’s parents were not insensitive to the appeal of art and culture. His father was an amateur actor, and his mother had written a critically acclaimed autobiographical book, The Nation of Frogs (1970). Fo’s grandfather, Giuseppe Rota, was a natural-born storyteller and was also important to the boy’s development as a performer and playwright. In an early interview, Fo traced his own talent for theater and literature to this grandparent.

Interrupted Schooling. In 1940, Fo enrolled at the Accademia d’Arte di Brera to study architecture, but was unable to attend his courses because of the outbreak of World War II. The war in Europe began because of the territorial ambitions of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. Germany, which had been heavily penalized after losing World War I, sought to regain its stature and invested heavily in its military in the early 1930s. After Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Great Britain declared war on Germany. France, and later the United States, allied with Britain, to form the Allied Powers while Italy, among others, including Japan and various central and eastern European powers, allied with Germany to form the Axis Powers.

Italy was ruled by its own fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, for much of the war. However, defeats in Greece and North Africa and the invasion of Sicily by the United States and its allies, led to the end of Mussolini’s regime in July 1943. Italy was soon divided into two warring zones. One was in the south and controlled by the Allies, while the north, including Rome, was controlled by the Germans, who formed the Italian Social Republic with Mussolini as its head. German power eventually collapsed, and the Axis Powers lost the war. Mussolini was later executed for his role in the conflict.

This period is nonetheless important, because Fo befriended intellectuals who later dominated the landscape of Italian culture in the 1960s and 1970s. These friends included Carlo Lizzani, Elio Vittorini, Carlo Bo, and Gillo Pontecorvo. His family took an active part in the antifascist resistance, and Fo helped his father to smuggle refugees and Allied soldiers to Switzerland, while his mother cared for wounded partisans. After Italy was divided in 1943, Fo was conscripted into the army of the Italian Social Republic. He managed to escape, however, and hid until the end of the war.

Theatrical Beginnings. After the war, Fo continued his studies in Milan at the faculty of architecture of the Politecnico. He never completed his curriculum for graduation, but he got a part-time job as an assistant architect and began to draw theater scenes and to exhibit his paintings and drawings. He also began to frequent the Milan theatrical scene, where his encounter with the actor and theater manager Franco Parenti turned out to be decisive for his future career. Fo became involved in the ‘‘small theatre’’ (community theater) movement, where he performed improvised monologues. In 1950, he started to work for a theater company led by Parenti. In 1951, Fo performed ‘‘Poor Little Thing,’’ a series of satirical monologues, as part of the revue Seven Days in Milan at the Teatro Odeon in Milan. It was his first experience in an ‘‘official’’ theater. Parenti also introduced Fo into the Italian State Broadcasting Company, RAI, where Fo performed his monologues on the radio program Chicchirichi that year.

In 1953 and 1954, working in collaboration with Parenti and Giustino Durano, Fo was the author and actor of the shows A Finger in the Eye (1953) and Fit to Be Tied Up (1954), which were staged at the Piccolo Teatro of Milan. Both shows experienced censorship interference due to their anti-government content.

Brief Foray into Film. In 1955, Fo and his wife, Franca Rame, worked in movie production in Rome. Fo became a screenwriter and worked on many productions, having signed a contract with the Dino de Laurentiis Film Company. In 1956, he was the coauthor and lead actor of The Duffer. The film was a commercial failure.

In 1959, the Company Fo-Rame was established, and for the next nine years opened each theater season at the Odeon in Milan with a new play or show. In addition to taking part in her husband’s comedies, Rame took charge of the administrative responsibilities of the company, while Fo focused more on playwriting and acting.

Finding a Dramatic Voice. Fo’s activity as a dramatist had begun in the 1950s, when he wrote seven farces that were collected and performed later under the titles Thieves, Dummies and Naked Women (1958) and Final Gag (1958). He wrote his first three ‘‘regular’’ plays between 1959 and 1961: Archangels Don’t Play Pinball (1959), He Had Two Pistols with White and Black Eyes (1960), and He Who Steals a Foot Is Lucky in Love (1961). These early plays represent Fo’s willingness to find a personal and original voice in the theatrical panorama of Italian playwriting of the 1960s.

As Fo began finding his dramatic voice, Italy was recovering from the effects of World War II. When the war ended, Italy was poverty-stricken and politically fragmented. Reconstituted as a republic in 1946, the country soon adopted a new constitution, though it nearly collapsed because of the physical and economic devastation of the war. After receiving foreign assistance in the early 1950s, Italy rebounded economically and experienced unprecedented development through the 1950s and 1960s.

Political Revolution and ARCI. In Europe throughout the early twentieth century, many intellectuals and artists embraced communism and a viable, desirable alternative to the nationalistic totalitarian regimes of the past. The growing political dominance of the Soviet Union in eastern Europe after World War II caused many to reconsider their connection to the communist party. In Italy, many members and supporters of the Italian Communist Party abandoned the organization. Fo had never become a member of the Italian Communist Party, while Rame did, but regarded the group with the utmost interest and believed that the needs of the working class were best met through communism. For this reason, he decided to cooperate with ARCI (the Communist Party association for recreation and culture, with a membership of about one million). After dissolving the Company Fo-Rame, he founded the Company New Scene. The new company toured Italy and other countries to stage their works in places that reflected their social engagement, such as circuses, squares, culture clubs, university assembly halls, and factories occupied by striking workers.

Attacking America. During this period, Fo staged two new plays, Throw the Lady Out (1967) and Grand Pantomime with Flags and Small, Middle-Sized and Large Puppets (1968). Both plays are satires set in circuses, and both attack the United States for its capitalist, consumerist culture and its involvement in the Vietnam War. Comments made in the play about President John F. Kennedy’s assassination were considered so outrageous, especially in the United States, that President Lyndon Johnson and American authorities denied Fo a visa to enter the country. This prohibition remained in effect until 1986.

Fo's Masterpiece. The year 1969 was a crucial year for Fo’s art and career. He completed the first version of Comic Mystery, widely considered his masterpiece. The play drew criticism, however, on grounds of supposed irreverence and blasphemy.

A dramatic incident at the end of 1969 marked Fo both personally and artistically. A bomb killed nineteen people in a bank in Piazza Fontana, Milan. This brutal, anonymous attack started what became known as ‘‘the season of bombs,’’ a period of increased violence, killings, and bomb attacks in Italy. Fo believed high-ranking members of the government were behind the attacks. In 1970, he staged Accidental Death of an Anarchist, inspired by the Piazza Fontana incident and centering on the death of the anarchist Pino Pinelli at the police headquarters of Milan in 1969.

A New Play in a New Theater. In 1973, Fo, Rame, and the members of their theater company occupied an old abandoned building in Milan called Palazzina Liberty. After completely restoring it, including its theater, they opened the new structure in 1974 with We Can’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! This play, about a tax protest by housewives, features one of Fo’s most famous gags: two women steal regularly from a supermarket, concealing items under their overcoats as if they were pregnant.

Woman's Work. The works that followed had contemporary value: Fanfani Kidnapped (1975) was written against the background of the political election that year, and Mother’s Marijuana Is the Best (1976) deals with the increasing problem of drug use among young working-class Italians. Toward the end of the 1970s, Fo wrote for and with Rame a series of one-act plays and monologues about the female condition, including All House, Bed and Church (1977). This series of one-act plays was highly successful, even though Rame stated on opening night that perhaps the only flaw of the work was that Fo wrote most of it, and, his being ‘‘unequivocally a man’’ he was ‘‘unable to penetrate the contradictions, humiliations and harassments to which we [women] are subject.’’ Notwithstanding this flaw, the play series was staged all over Europe, Canada, and the United States.

As the cooperation in playwriting with Rame had been so fruitful, Fo continued the experience, producing more monologues for actors. In 1978, Fo completed the third version of Comic Mystery. He also rewrote and directed Story of a Soldier, based on Igor Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale (1918).

The Moro Affair Letters. Fo could not avoid being interested in the Moro Affair, probably the most shocking political crime in the history of the Italian Republic. In March 1978, a commando of the Red Brigades (a clandestine revolutionary Communist organization) kidnapped Aldo Moro, premier and leader of the Christian Democratic Party. The Tragedy of Aldo Moro, published in the periodical Quotidiano dei lavoratori in June 1979, is an intensely dramatic work, based on the letters Moro wrote from the place where he was kept. In spite of the interest of the theme and the considerable artistic value of the text, the play has never been performed publicly.

American Ban Lifted. American authorities suspended their ban on Fo’s entry into the country in 1984. Two years later he toured the United States, presenting his works and lecturing in many theaters and universities.

After The Pope and the Witch (1989)—a harsh criticism of the authorities managing the centers for drug addiction, prevention, and care—Fo turned to the issue of AIDS with Quiet! We Are All Falling! in 1990. He wrote Johan Padan and the Discovery of the Americas (1990), then turned to the sixteenth century to write an adaptation on the works of an anticlassist in Dario Fo Recites Ruzzante (1993). In 1993, Fo also wrote Mama! The Sans-Culottes!, a metaphorical play that is based on an actual event, an attempted coup d’etat in Italy by the military supported by sections of the Secret Service. Beginning with this play, Fo became more interested in problems regarding the Italian justice system, focusing particularly on the pressures exerted against judges who only wish to do their duty.

Illness and Recovery. On July 17, 1995, Fo was disabled and almost lost his sight because of an attack of cerebral ischemia (decreased supply of blood to the brain, often caused by blockage or obstruction of supplying blood vessels). He recovered within a year and returned to the stage in 1996 with The Emperor’s Bible, the Peasants’ Bible, derived, as the author has stated, from an ‘‘illuminated codex of the ninth century.’’ He also revisited corruption with his play The Devil with Tits (1997). Also in 1997, Fo was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, causing an uproar in some intellectual circles in Italy. Aside from the controversial nature of many of his plays, opponents felt that his work was mere clowning and did not have the literary merit to deserve the prize. Fo, delighted by the uproar, turned his Nobel lecture into another performance. With the money from the prize, Fo and Rame founded The Nobel for the Disabled, an organization dedicated to assisting the handicapped.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Fo presented several more themes of personal and public interest— including works on justice and The Holy Jester Francis (1999), which suggested St. Francis of Assisi was the first jester ever known. In 2007, Fo published his memoirs, My First Seven Years (Plus a Few More). The book shares his childhood in Italy and reiterates the greatest influences on his art. He continues to live in Italy and produce original works.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Fo's famous contemporaries include:

Don Arden (1926-2007): The English music manager who represented such artists and groups as Black Sabbath, Electric Light Orchestra (ELO), and Small Faces.

Cesar Chavez (1927-1993): The Mexican American farmworker who was also an activist and civil rights leader. He cofounded the National Farm Workers Association.

Robert Bly (1926-): An American poet and activist. He founded the Mythopoetic Men's Movement. Bly's books include Iron John: A Book about Men (1990).

Hugh Hefner (1926-): An American entrepreneur who is the famous founder of Playboy Enterprises.

Todd Matshikiza (1921-1968): A South African jazz pianist, composer, and activist who was instrumental in apartheid resistance efforts and who was subsequently exiled by the South African government. His works include the choral piece Makhapiphile (1953).

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Here are a few works by writers who have also written on themes of social injustice:

Freedom Songs (1991), a novel by Yvette Moore. In this novel for young adults, the author explores the life of one family living in the early 1960s and the impact of the civil rights movement on their lives.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), a novel by Harper Lee. In this novel, human dignity is nearly destroyed but restored when the humanitarian lawyer Atticus Finch goes to court.

Maus (1977), a graphic novel by Art Spiegelman. In this unusual but provocative format for the story of the Holocaust, the Jewish people are portrayed as mice and the Nazis are depicted as cats.

The U.S.A. Trilogy (1938), three novels by John Dos Passos. In this collection of three novels, the author uses innovative literary techniques to explore the development of America in the early twentieth century. The books examine such issues as the treatment of immigrants, urban blight, and the rise of unions.

 

Works in Literary Context

Influenced by his paternal grandfather’s story-telling ability as well as his own passion for current events, Fo’s themes are typically those that interest him personally and the contemporary society as a whole. The themes preferred by Fo, especially in later years, have been those that, above all, address the issues of injustice and discrimination in the world.

Comic Style for Serious Themes. Fo has always perceived himself as a modern jester, one who has assigned himself the task of denouncing—by means of jokes and mockery—what he finds wrong with society. Some of his most serious themes are treated in comic fashion by his using grotesque comedy or presenting in farce.

Quiet! We Are All Falling! can be defined as a grotesque situation comedy—in which a concoction of themes is dealt with in a way that enhances the monstrous features of power—even if people have become accustomed to them to a point that they have become unaware of their true nature. Grand Pantomime with Flags and Small, Middle-Sized and Large Puppets (1968) is a popular farce that starts to explore fascism and evolves into political slurs against the bourgeoisie (middle class), the military, and the Catholic hierarchy. He Had Two Pistols is farce, and at the same time it tends to evoke more the tones and atmospheres of dark or black comedy.

 

Works in Critical Context

Fo’s comedies have met with government censorship. Yet, many have also been received by the general public and by entertainment and literary critics with much respect and praise. His farce A Finger in the Eye was a critical and commercial success. Fit to Be Tied Up was frequently sold out. Other plays have not fared as well, such as He Who Steals a Foot Is Lucky in Love and It’s Always the Devil’s Fault.

He Who Steals a Foot Is Lucky in Love. In He Who Steals a Foot the myth of Apollo and Daphne is revisited, yet deprived of any classical dignity. It is cast in a farcical light that stresses the popular and possibly vulgar developments of the theme. This event triggers a freewheeling succession of misunderstandings, gags, and misrepresentations. Paolo Puppa, in his Dario Fo’s Theater: From the Stage to the Piazza (1978), regarded this comedy as the ‘‘most bookish’’ of Fo’s plays.

It's Always the Devil's Fault. In the 1965 It's Always the Devil’s Fault, Fo relies largely on quick-changing disguises and fast rhythm. The action develops without any delays until the farcical ending, when the play’s heretics rebel, claiming their long-denied rights. This play did not receive positive reviews from the critics. As Piero Novelli wrote in Gazzetta del Popolo, it was so overloaded with gags and scene changes that it created genuine confusion on stage.

 

Responses to Literature

1. Using you library and the Internet, research the elements of farce, grotesque comedy, and black comedy. How do Fo’s plays fit these categories?

2. While reading Fo’s plays, mark or highlight sections you think might be offensive to certain groups of people. Do you think Fo intended to be offensive? What purposes might giving offense serve?

3. Those interested in the social and political history of Europe following World War II should read Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 (2006), by Tony Judt. Judt, an academic historian, provides a highly readable and carefully researched portrait of the birth of modern Europe.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Farrell, Joseph, and Antonio Scuder, eds. Dario Fo: Stage, Text, and Tradition. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000.

Hirst, David. Dario Fo and Franca Rame. London: Macmillan, 1989.

Osterling, Anders. Nobel Prize for Literature Presentation Speech. Stockholm: Nobel Foundation, 1963.

Puppa, Paolo. Dario Fo’s Theater: From the Stage to the Piazza. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Periodicals

Cherici, Maurizio. Interview with Dario Fo. Il Corriera della Sera (July 2, 1993).

Novelli, Piero. Review of It’s Always the Devil’s Fault. Gazzetta del Popolo (September 11, 1965).

Publishers Weekly. Review of My First Seven Years (Plus a Few More) (August 14, 2006): 193.

Web Sites

Books and Writers. Dario Fo (1926-). Retrieved March 18, 2008, from http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/dariofo.htm.

Dario Fo and Franca Rame. Archivio. Retrieved March 18, 2008, from http://www.archivio.francarame.it/home.html.

Nobel Prize Foundation. Dario Fo Nobel Lecture. Retrieved March 18, 2008, from http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1997/fo-lecture-e.html.