DARIO FO 1926 – 2016
Was it coincidence that on the day the Nobel prize in literature was awarded to Bob Dylan, his fellow laureate Dario Fo died? Or was it Euterpe, the muse of lyric poetry (or music), passing the baton of jester-cum-minstrel?
Fo, the 1997 Nobel literature winner, was the supreme jongleur: the jester whose works wandered the world, from Argentina to Yugoslavia, Chile to South Africa, all the while, in the words of his Nobel citation, “scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden”.
Working in and extending the rich traditions of medieval strolling players and Italian commedia dell’arte, Fo was by the time of his Nobel arguably the world’s leading farceur and political dramatist. His Nobel lecture is among the most remarkable given, illustrated as it was with drawings of his own that vividly showed the assembled grandees how his mind — and his works — worked.
“For some time it’s been my habit to use images when preparing a speech: rather than write it down, I illustrate it. This allows me to improvise, to exercise my imagination — and to oblige you to use yours,” he explained.
He titled his address Contra Jogulatores Obloquentes (Against Jesters Who Defame and Insult), the name of a law issued by Emperor Frederick II in 1221 that allowed anyone to “commit violence against jesters without incurring punishment or sanction”. In his work as a playwright, actor, director, lyricist and singer (there’s the Dylan bit), and improvisator extraordinaire, Fo effectively made his modus operandi the ceaseless satirising of power, privilege and hypocrisy.
Even at 87, in the run-up to Italy’s general election of 2013, he had the vim to rail against new foes: “The banks mostly, and the big entrepreneurs. All those who hold the reins, ‘the show within a show’, that is those who — through the media, television and in other ways — make every effort to ensure that the people accept the conditions they find themselves in,” he said to Euronews.
He remained vigorous because he was half of a personal and professional partnership with the actress Franca Rame, his wife with whom he founded three performing companies over the years. Most significant of those was Collettivo Teatrale La Comune, which created two of Fo’s most famous works: Morte Accidentale di un Anarchico (1974; Accidental Death of an Anarchist, 1980) and Non Si Paga, Non Si Paga! (1974; We Can’t Pay? We Won’t Pay!, 1978).
Fo said of Accidental Death that it was “a grotesque farce about a tragic farce”. In it he offered proof that anarchist railway worker Giuseppi Pinelli did not fall from a fourth-floor window of police headquarters, as the authorities claimed, but was pushed.
It is a play that has terrible resonances with South Africa, for it calls to mind the death of activist Ahmed Timol on October 27 1971. The police account went that Timol, held at what was then John Vorster Square in Commissioner Street, Johannesburg, evaded his lone guard, one Sergeant J Rodrigues, and threw himself out of a window, having first opened that window to do so.
We Can’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! (also translated and known as Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!) might have been written about the economic and social crises gripping Greece and Italy in the past few years.
Italy’s economic depression of the early 1970s led to a social movement in which people took what they needed (or desired) from markets, paying only nominally in return. That system is in operation once more, and it’s no surprise that Fo was the leading ideological force behind standup comedian Beppe Grillo’s anti-establishment vanguard political party, the Five Star Movement.
The enduring force of the notion “Can’t pay? Won’t pay!” has seen it used as a rallying cry in English too, and its accession as such into English usage and dictionaries.
Despite his many theatre works as part of a collective, Fo’s best-known — and most reviled — work remains Mistero Buffo (1973; Comic Mystery), a solo work the text of which is improvised and permanently fluid, much of it changing with everyday events and each of its audiences. But it has constants: its unremitting attack on the Roman Catholic Church, the landed and the government of the day for oppressing people.
And always included in a Mistero Buffo performance are select scenes from the New Testament of the Bible, such as the resurrection of Lazarus (Fo addition: pickpockets filching from the witnesses to the miracle) and a reworked version of the tale of the crippled beggar who, according to Fo, avoids being healed by Christ rather than give up the tidy sums he makes because of his condition.
No wonder the Vatican fulminated; as an atheist, Fo revelled in the reaction.
Fo was so many things that he will forever evade neat categorisation. Slippery, shape-shifting, protean: joker man, jester supreme, writer and travelling player-manager like Shakespeare.
Perhaps, though, it is the figures of the giullari, the medieval strolling players, that Fo brings most to mind, travelling from subject to subject, rambling on a topic, strumming a note of discord, improvising harmonies and humour and felicities.
With him, always: Franca Rame. As he recounted in his Nobel lecture:
“So, we enacted these criminal farces to the kids at the universities, and they laughed their heads off. They would say of Franca and me: ‘They’re a riot, they come up with the most fantastic stories.’ Not for a moment, not even with an inkling in their spines, did they grasp that the stories we told were true.
“These encounters have strengthened us in our conviction that our job is — in keeping with the exhortation of the great Italian poet Savinio — ‘to tell our own story’. Our task as intellectuals, as persons who mount the pulpit or the stage, and who, most importantly, address to young people, our task is not just to teach them method, like how to use the arms, how to control breathing, how to use the stomach, the voice, the falsetto, the contracampo.
“It’s not enough to teach a technique or a style: we have to show them what is happening around us. They have to be able to tell their own story. A theatre, a literature, an artistic expression that does not speak for its own time has no relevance.”