Fo’s theatre dealt with none of the ‘weighty’ questions of the human condition, just the laying bare of the insides of the system of exploitation and oppression, with laugh-till-you-cry satire.
“The worker knows a hundred words and the owner a thousand. That is one reason the owner dominates. Culture is a mode of domination. Without a counterhegemonic culture there can be no revolution.” – Dario Fo
Dario Fo, the creator of biting farces that exposed the depredations of capitalism, died on the same day that Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature. This seemed oddly fitting. If Dylan is a singer more than a writer, Fo, in his own estimation, was an actor above all. Along with his comrade, co-actor, collaborator, muse and wife, Franca Rame (who passed away in 2013), Fo created masterpieces for the modern political stage, including Mistero Buffo, The Accidental Death of an Anarchist and Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!
Fo and Rame’s theatre was over the top and explosively funny, but with an undercurrent of tragedy. In Mistero Buffo (a one-man show), for example, there is one section where Fo shows us a hungry man who eats his own entrails (among other things). I’ve seen it on YouTube and even though I do not understand Italian, I can’t decide whether to laugh at Fo’s incredible portrayal, his manic energy, his unrivalled use of mimicry, mime, onomatopoeic words, sound effects and gibberish or to cry at the unfolding tragedy or indeed to feel horrified.
Fo’s theatre shocked the artistic establishment. It tore apart the prudery of society in its use of obscenity and sexuality, especially when performed by a woman. It showed how capitalism, the church and the mafia were interconnected. His theatre was wildly popular. It was dangerous.
When Mistero Buffo was telecast, the Vatican denounced it as “the most blasphemous show in the history of television.” In 1973, Rame was raped and tortured by a fascist group that was later found to have connections with the Italian police. For about 15 years, the US didn’t allow Fo and Rame to enter the country. At various points, they received death threats, had their theatre attacked, faced censorship and were condemned by the powers that be. But Fo and Rame carried on regardless, performing thousands of times in factory yards, at university protests, in parks and open spaces, prisons and even deconsecrated churches.
Fo’s theatrical practice emerged from traditions of popular farce. He considered the popular to be subversive in itself. Popular performance traditions from all over the world speak of the same essential themes: hunger, the struggle for survival and human dignity. They poke fun at the powers that be – the priest, the policeman and the landlord. Though he was very much the inheritor of the tradition of communist, proletarian playmaking in the line of Meyerhold, Mayakovsky, Piscator and Brecht, Fo identified most of all with the playwrights of medieval Europe – Shakespeare, of course, but even more with Molière and Ruzzante (who Fo thought had never been given his real due). With these two, Fo’s theatre shared a deep contempt for the refinements of taste and the etiquette of bourgeois theatre. As the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci, who Fo drew a lot from, said, the bourgeois has three hours to kill between dinner and bedtime, so theatre for him is something between a digestive and an aphrodisiac.
For Fo, theatre was neither of these nor was it an analgesic or a tranquilizer. His theatre dealt with none of the ‘weighty’ questions of the human condition. They did not bemoan the fate of Man left desolate in the arid landscape after the death of God. They did not mine the depths of the human psyche nor did they ponder the impossibility of communication in a world where every person was an isolated atom. His plays have no exalted metaphysical meaning nor do they represent the psychedelic imaginations of a fevered, uber creative, genius artist. There is no subtext to be uncovered nor is there any great meaning to be fathomed in the silences and pauses between words. There is just the laying bare of the insides of the system of exploitation and oppression, the capital-criminal-church complex, with side-splitting, rip-roaring, laugh-till-you-cry satire.
Fo won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1997. He insisted that the prize belonged in equal measure to Rame. She insisted that wasn’t true and that she was content to be the pedestal under the statue. Coming from a feminist and communist militant, this was an uncharacteristically modest, almost coy statement. But then coyness is by definition performative, served on a delicate porcelain plate for someone else’s consumption. When performed by a woman of Rame’s mettle, coyness became a statement against patriarchy.
The Nobel Committee needed Fo to give his speech at least three weeks before the ceremony, to allow time for translation. What they received by fax, three days in advance, were a few pages of drawings and doodles, with a word or two written prominently on top. Fo was not being facetious. He had never given a written speech in his life. He was an actor and all his lectures were extemporized and performed. He had an unparalleled command over the techniques of commedia dell’ arte. He had encyclopedic knowledge of the popular traditions of the Italian Renaissance. He was, in other words, a man of immense erudition. What he had sent by fax were his real notes. The lecture was in his head. These were his cue sheets.
There were fears that Fo might “do a Sartre” on the Nobel committee and reject the prize. He did nothing of the kind. On the contrary, when Rame declared her inability to attend the ceremony because of a pre-existing schedule of performances, he hired a jet to make sure she got to Rome in time for their flight to Stockholm. In his speech, he performed, to great effect, an extract from Ruzzante and followed it up by reciting a poem by Mayakovsky – only to reveal, the following day, that he had improvised the poem on the spot and that even though he had made it up, he believed Mayakovsky would’ve been rather pleased.
The Nobel citation had called him a “jester.” He was determined to prove them right.
Sudhanva Deshpande is an actor and director with Jana Natya Manch, New Delhi, and an editor with LeftWord Books.