Theatre

Dario Fo’s Politics of Subversive Laughter

Fo’s grotesque farces and satirical comedies on serious political themes ensured that his audience kept laughing even though he was laying bare the injustices and hypocrisies of the system.

Dario Fo. Credit: Edoardo Forneris/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Dario Fo. Credit: Edoardo Forneris/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Very few people will dispute that Dario Fo, who died on October 13 at the age of 90, was the most significant figure in the history of political theatre since Meyerhold, Piscator and Brecht. Like them, he worked closely with revolutionary groups and movements and devised productions to further their cause.

The theatre that he practised was at once hilarious and provocative, full of theatricality, sharp political commentary and, as such, one of the finest examples of contemporary radical theatre.

Fo was an uncompromisingly political artist, who endeavoured throughout to use his art and serve specific political purposes. He sought to develop a kind of theatre which would reflect, document and actively participated in the collective life and struggles of its audience. Thereby, it became a form of collaborative political action.

Working not from some liberal, populist viewpoint but from what Brecht called a “fighting conception of people and popularity”, Fo recognised that to be able to reach out to large masses and to speak to them directly, it is not enough to merely put their problems and concerns on stage but that one must also try to do so in the idiom of people’s own traditions.

Theatrical technique

With this objective, Fo retrieved traditional forms of plebeian culture from centuries of feudal and bourgeois suppression, neglect and scorn – in particular, the socially subversive traditions of the strolling players (guillari or jongleurs) and the story tellers (the fabulatori). He refashioned these forms for contemporary usage and modelled his performance based on them. Fo closely identified with the strolling players of the middle ages drawing his own views of theatre from their example. He said:

The jongleur went from place to place, clowning in the square in pieces which were grotesque attacks on the powerful….[He] was a figure who came from the people, and who from the people drew anger and transmitted it through the medium of the grotesque. For the people, the theatre has always been the chief medium of expression, of communication, but also of provocation and agitation through ideas. The theatre is the spoken newspaper of the people in dramatic form.

Fo’s grotesque farces and satirical comedies on serious political themes ensured that his audience kept laughing while also making them see – ideally with a sense of indignation – the injustices and hypocrisies of the system. In terms of his performance skills, Fo was often described – and, indeed, described himself – as a clown. But he was a subversive clown who irreverently mocked the sanctimonious seriousness of the existing institutions and values.

In one of his several statements about the nature of his own theatre, Fo said:

I do the same thing as a clown. I just put some drops of absurdity in this calm and tranquil liquid which is society, and the reactions reveal things that were hidden before the absurdity brought them into the open.

That is why most of his plays centrally involve clown-like characters whom he obviously created for himself. These clown-figures – among whom the madman of The Accidental Death of an Anarchist, is perhaps the best-known example – make us laugh at figures of authority and by representing the exercise of power as a grotesque farce, demolish their supposed sacredness.

Fo’s brilliance in combining urgent political concerns with elements of storytelling, pantomime and grotesque farce, made his plays simultaneously provocative and highly entertaining. It allowed them to embody and communicate what Terry Eagleton describes in another context as “the vulgar cheerfulness of social hope.”

This kind of theatre encourages the spectators to an objective and active contemplation of serious issues. According to Fo, his theatre, like traditional, sub-cultural forms, uses grotesque farces because satirical laughter helps avoid the danger of catharsis.” He did not want the anger and outrage at the injustices of the system to be purged from his audiences but wanted them to remain there inside the spectators, “free and ready to act without hesitation, as the time of fight arrives.”

It is for this reason that Fo, for example, constructed Anarchist – a play which arose out of the real tragedy of the custodial death of an innocent person – as an open-ended “tragic farce.” True to this paradoxical categorisation, the play offers a hilarious but nonetheless disturbing experience. It is through the grotesque antics of a madman (who is a quick-change artist, indeed a ‘hysteromaniac,’ a clown), that the hypocrisy and the brutality of a police state are so scathingly exposed.

The non-illusionism of the form prevents any easy, self-righteous and moralistic response just as the absence of a neatly defined or rounded conclusion to the dramatised action makes it necessary that the performance is completed by what Fo called a “third act” of discussion among the audience and the performers.

Persecution

It is not surprising that theatre as radical as this has also been the target of hostility. Besides the fact that his theatre upset the settled conventional notions of what art should or should not be, they also felt threatened by his powerful characterization of class and of the “sacred” institutions of bourgeois society – the police, the judiciary, the media and religion. Fo had begun his career in the theatre at a time when the Italian state was trying to brutally suppress all left-wing dissent. This was the period when, in the wake of the cold war between the capitalist west and the communist east in Europe, the Left in Italy was constantly under attack.

Fo and his associates, too, were subjected to constant harassment and attacks from the censors, the police, the clergy and the fascists. During the 1960s, their scripts and performances were severely scrutinised by the censors and, during tours, invited hostile responses from the local police chiefs and the clergy who urged their parishioners to boycott the shows.

Persecution and harassment continued through the subsequent decades as well: Fo’s group was removed from their theatre in Milan, Fo was arrested, performances were picketed and stoned, and so on. However, the most outrageous of attempts at intimidation was in 1973 when Franca Rame, Fo’s wife and professional collaborator, was kidnapped from a Milan street, subjected to physical violence and gangraped by a group of neo-fascists.

It is a measure of her and Fo’s commitment that they continued to write and perform incisively political plays. Rame even scripted and performed an immensely moving and powerful one-woman autobiographical monologue on her traumatic experience called I Don’t Move, I Don’t Scream, My Voice is Gone.

Fo’s career in theatre began soon after the war as a mainstream theatre artist. By the mid-1960s, he was established as one of the most frequently produced and commercially successful living playwrights in all of Europe. Fo and Rame were at the height of their popularity when Italy, like other countries of Western Europe and North America, was going through a politically turbulent period. The state was becoming more repressive in the wake of an increasingly militant anti-authoritarian movements by students, intellectuals and workers.

Fo’s plays and revues from this period, written and performed with his characteristic profusion of humour and irony, reflected the political conditions of the time. He was writing for the conventional circuit and for middle-class audiences. But his theatre was growing more political. Fo described his plays from this period as “the most paradoxical contradictions of the Christian Democrat state”. They were poignant and unsparing in their satirisation of contemporary politics and society.

Theatre of the proletariat

However, despite the massive popularity of their shows and the material prosperity that it brought them, Fo and Rame had begun to feel increasingly uncomfortable about the contradiction between their political views and their professional location within the bourgeois entertainment circuit. This location, they now realised, inhibited the full and frank expression of their political views and made it difficult for them, as Fo described it,

to perform in theatres where everything including seating arrangements reflected class divisions…. Above all, staying in bourgeois theatre became more and more contradictory in terms of what was starting to be understood in that period. The most coherent choice for intellectuals was to leave their gilded ghetto and put themselves at the service of the movement.

Resolving that they will no longer act as minstrels of the bourgeoisie” but serve as “minstrels of the working class,” Fo and Rame withdrew from the conventional theatre circuit.

It is significant that the first public presentation that Fo undertook after his break with the bourgeois theatre was his celebrated one-man show, Mistero Buffo. He offered it at the State University of Milan in support of the massive student and working-class upheaval known as the Hot Autumn of 1969. All alone on a bare stage, he was able to bring a whole range of characters and situations to life through his performance. After that first show in Milan, which was more in the nature of a public reading, Fo gave hundreds of performances of this play in Italy and abroad. It is estimated that in Italy alone more than three million people saw it. The play’s title, which can be translated as ‘comic mystery’, harks back, on the one hand, to the dramatic representations of Biblical stories as performed by itinerant plebeian performers of the middle ages, and on the other, to Mayakovsky’s Mysteriya Buf, a morality play ridiculing capitalism.

Fo’s text seeks to reclaim some of the materials and artistic strategies of the medieval players from centuries of scorn and mystification. This loosely structured text strings together a variety of stories and songs drawn from diverse traditional sources. These are interspersed with Fo’s satirical comments, analytical speeches and sacrilegious jokes. In performing it, Fo adapted it to new situations, adding new materials and contemporary political reference.

As Rame once remarked, “Besides being a play, Mistero Buffo is also a living newspaper, continuously incorporating current news events and political and cultural satire into performances.” However, despite fresh improvisations and additions, its basic text comprises a set of “sacred” stories which become highly subvert orthodox religion in Fo’s irreverent re-telling of them. It is primarily for this reason that the production upset many. It attracted vicious criticism from the right-wingers, fascists and the Roman Catholic Church. The Vatican denounced it as “the most blasphemous show in the history of the world television.”

In late 1968, Fo and Rame founded a theatre collective called the New Scene, which was formally described in a resolution as “a collective of militants who put themselves at the service of revolutionary forces.” Fo and Rame began to use their art as a political weapon to be wielded by and in favour of political struggles. They devised plays and shows for specific political occasions and took them to wherever the struggle was. These they called “intervention” shows. In order to be able to perform anywhere and under any condition – occupied factories, market squares, factory gates, sports stadia, and so on – they developed a simple production style which eschewed all trappings of a conventional, naturalistic stage production.

Perhaps the most important and politically significant innovation dating from this period was what Fo calls the “third act” ­– that is, a discussion with the audience following a performance. Fo and Rame now performed to huge audiences of workers, political activists and students. Everywhere at the end of the show, they would talk directly to the spectators and invite them to voice their views on the show. Usually impassioned and polemical, these discussions and debates sometimes lasted until the small hours of the morning and turned every theatrical show into a veritable public meeting. These discussions often led to substantial modification of the script.

Moving further to the Left

One of the features of new radicalism in the 1960s was the split within the Left between pro-Soviet and pro-Chinese (or Maoist) ideological line, usually termed, respectively, as “revisionist” and “revolutionary”. By 1970, Fo and Rame’s relationship with the “revisionist” Italian Communist Party (PCI) had begun to decline. Influenced by the ideas of the “revolutionary” left, they had been attacking the political positions of the party frequently in their productions and post-performance discussions. The breaking point came in 1970 when the party denounced them and prohibited them the use of the working-class cultural venues that it controlled.

This break with the PCI also caused an ideological rift within the New Scene and eventually the company split into two. While the majority of members chose to continue with the New Scene, a minority, led by Fo and Rame, broke off in 1972 and formed a new collective called La Commune.

This change also meant a change in the political and social composition of their audience. Their audience now was no longer exclusively working class but a mixed one which included intellectuals, students, middle-class theatre enthusiasts, activists of the “revolutionary” left, as well as workers. Aided by the organised groups of Italy’s far-left as well as by Fo’s fame and popularity, the Commune, which had begun as a small cultural collective rapidly grew in strength and soon became a popular movement of nationwide influence. With local branches coming up in different towns and cities, it also helped something like an alternative theatre circuit to emerge.

Rame and Fo continued to write and produce “intervention” shows on burning national and international questions. Among the best known “intervention” shows were The Accidental Death of an Anarchist (1970) and the internationally acclaimed and performed play Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay! (1974).

The Anarchist was a response to the state’s attempt to blame Lotta Continua (a far-left group) for a right-wing terrorist bombing and to the cover up of custodial death of an innocent man. During the court trial of the case, Fo’s theatre functioned not only as a form of political action but also as a “living newspaper” which countered the official propaganda. Describing the process of its evolution, Fo stated:

The play was commissioned by our audience which wanted to investigate the event. While we performed it, the framed trial against Lotta Continua was taking place. The defence lawyers would come to us with daily updates on the proceedings and each night we incorporated that news into the show. In fact, we always try to give space to the sort of facts that ordinary media channels neglect to mention.

It is for this reason that Fo’s theatre can also be described as what is called “documentary clowning”, the tradition of which goes back to the famous Russian clown Vladimir Durov and continues through Charlie Chaplin.

The other famous “intervention” play Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay! was written and performed all over Italy in the wake of a spate of what came to be known as “proletarian shopping.” By the end of 1973, Italy was in the grip of severe economic crisis with acute recession, widespread unemployment and galloping inflation. This caused lower-income consumers to resort to what was called autoridizzioni (self-reduction) and to refuse to pay more than what they felt was the right price for things. Beginning in Turin, the autoridizzioni movement grew in strength and popularity and spread to other parts of Italy. This inspired Fo’s play. Based on a hilariously farcical plot, the play concerns a group of working-class women who, faced with a hike in prices of food items, help themselves to whatever they want from the supermarket. To hide the fact from their “moralistic” husbands, they conceal the stolen things inside their skirts and pretend to be ‘suddenly’ pregnant. The play, thus, deals with a form of civil disobedience and has therefore been adapted to many different situations throughout the world.

By the mid-1970s the massive explosion of radical activism which had overtaken Western Europe and North America had waned and Italy’s “revolutionary left” had begun to decline and disintegrate. The prospects of a revolution that had seemed to loom so prominently on the political horizons during the late 1960s had receded significantly and the left-wing ideas seemed to have become less popular. Fo and Rame were also obliged to return to the conventional theatre circuit because, by the end of the 1970s, the alternative theatre circuit that they had helped develop had virtually disappeared.

Fo’s most important work was done in (and sustained by) a climate of euphoric revolutionism and struggle. With the waning of that period and the advent of an unmistakably right-wing tilt in the political balance in Europe, his drama too seemed to lose some of its political edge, its immediacy and militancy. For, some of his subsequent plays, although still politically significant, seem to lack the urgency and the sense of militant activism of his earlier plays.

Nonetheless, Fo and Rame were not seasonal artists and neither were they seasonal Marxists. They could not possibly stop writing or performing politically meaningful plays just because history had taken a sharp turn to the Right. It is remarkable how they continued to fight against the general condition of despair and to seek urgent political subjects for their work. Fo’s The Tiger (1978), an allegorical monologue based on a Chinese fable, reflected his unflinching optimism at a time when all seemed lost. The play takes a fresh and critical look at the revolutionary left, even Maoism, with its moral that unthinking loyalty to anything, even to a political party, is the enemy of reason and of revolution. Similarly, the farcical comedy Trumpets and Raspberries (1981) was written in response to the Aldo Moro murder. It satirised both left-wing adventurism and the anti-people character of the capitalist state that causes terrorism to come in to being in the first place.

Remarkably, the award of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1997 did not make any difference to Fo’s political commitment. He continued to use his art to serve and respond to political causes. Fo was ardently committed to a politics of social change. His quest was for a politically significant and genuinely contemporary form of people’s theatre, which he tried to achieve by building upon the artistic vitality of the forms and traditions of pre-bourgeois sub-culture. His endeavour throughout was to give voice to the lived experiences, aspirations, and concerns of the oppressed sections of the society. The particular phase of radical ferment which produced Fo is over. Leftwing resistance is no longer trendy. If one were to believe the postmodern prophets of the “end of history,” “end of ideology,” and the consequent death of the “transgressive” kind of political art, Fo’s could well be the last great example of his kind in the West. However, the radical political theatre has often been pronounced dead in the past too.

Equally often, it has risen, phoenix-like, from the ashes during periods of intense political struggle and protest. The growing awareness of the inequities and contradictions inherent in the new, unipolar world order could be a hopeful sign in this respect.