Dario Fo Essay - Fo, Dario (Vol. 109)

Fo, Dario (Vol. 109)

Introduction

Prizewinner

In bestowing the 1997 Nobel Prize for Literature on Italian dramatist, actor, and director Dario Fo, the Awards Committee said, "He if anyone merits the epithet of jester in the true meaning of that word. With a blend of laughter and gravity he opens our eyes to abuses and injustices in society and also the wider historical perspective in which they can be placed." The Committee's award is one of the most controversial decisions in the history of the Nobel Prize. While his broad farce, wild slapstick, and earthy irreverence have made him one of the world's most widely produced contemporary playwrights, Fo's political ideology as a proponent of proletarian revolution has earned him the enmity of the rich and powerful objects of his social and political satires. His style has also deeply divided critical response to his work along political lines. The Swedish Academy addressed this aspect of his work as well: "Fo is an extremely serious satirist with a multifaceted oeuvre. His independence and clear-sightedness have led him to take great risks, whose consequences he has been made to feel while at the same time experiencing enormous response from widely differing quarters." Such divergent groups as the Italian government and police, the Italian Communist Party, the Vatican, and the U.S. State Department have denounced and sanctioned Fo.

Fo's artistic style consists of elements as antipodal as the responses to his work. He draws on the venerable Italian traditions of the medieval giullari, itinerant street entertainers, and the more polished ensemble commedia dell'arte of the Renaissance to stage polemical works rooted in Marxist ideology. His own background mirrors his antiquarian sources. Fo began his career as an actor shortly after the end of World War II, performing one-man comedy shows in nightclubs and theaters. In the 1950s, in collaboration with his wife, actress Franca Rame, Fo established a touring company, and the couple appeared on Italian television in a popular comedy revue. By the 1960s, the couple was censored for the explicit political content of their routines, and Fo vowed to "stop playing the jester of the bourgeoisie." Amidst the social and political turmoil in Europe in 1968, Fo and Rame formed a new troupe under the sponsorship of the Italian Communist Party. Fo's criticism of the party bureaucracy, however, soon led to a split, and the Fos formed Il colletivo teatrale la comune in 1970.

La comune's explicit goal was to raise the...

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Principal Works

Gli arcangeli non giocano a flipper [Archangels Don't Play Pinball] (drama) 1959
Isabella, tre caravelle, e un cacciaballe [Isabella, Three Ships, and a Con Man] (drama) 1963
Mistero buffo [Comic Mystery] (drama) 1969
Morte accidentale di un anarchico [Accidental Death of an Anarchist] (drama) 1970
Tutti uniti! Tutti insieme! Ma scusa quello non e il padrone? [United We Stand! All Together Now! Oops, Isn't That the Boss?] (drama) 1972
Non si paga, non si paga [We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay!] (drama) 1974
Il Fanfani rapito (drama) 1975
La giullarata (drama) 1975
Storia della tigre [The Tale of a Tiger] (drama) 1977
Tutta casa, letto e chiesa [with Franca Rame; translation published as Orgasmo Adulto Escapes from the Zoo] (drama) 1978
Clacson, trombette e pernacchi [Trumpets and Raspberries; later About Face] (drama) 1981
Female Parts: One Woman Plays (with Franca Rame) (drama) 1981
The Open Couple—Wide Open Even (with Franca Rame) (drama) 1984
Quasi per caso una donna: Elisabetta [A Woman Almost by Chance: Elizabeth] (drama) 1984
Harlequin (drama) 1985
Manuale minimo dell'attore [Basic Handbook for the Actor] (essays) 1987
The Pope and the Witch (drama) 1989
Il diavolo con le zinne [The Devil with Boobs] (drama) 1997

Criticism

Ron Jenkins (essay date Spring 1986)

SOURCE: "The Roar of the Clown," in The Drama Review, Vol. 30, No. 1, Spring, 1986, pp. 171-80.

[In the following essay, Jenkins analyzes Fo's "fusion of subversive politics and poetic slapstick."]

The intellectual complexity and bacchanalian passions of Dario Fo's epic comedy are usually reduced in translation to the flatness of a political cartoon. Even successful productions like Rennie Davis' version of We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay! leave the audience with the impression of Fo as a clever satirist whose work can be comfortably categorized as political theater. This limited view ignores the subtler dimensions of Fo's talents. In their original versions Fo's plays are dense with poetic wordplay, visual references to medieval paintings, and sophisticated rhythmic structures that are lost by translators and directors who focus single-mindedly on Fo as a political clown.

Of course, there is a fundamentally political dimension to all of Fo's work, which includes mocking references to police brutality, government fraud, and social injustice. His recurring theatrical allusions to current events reflect Fo's commitment to a theater that is politically relevant, but during the three months that I traveled with him and his company, he rarely spoke explicitly about politics. Rehearsals, seminars, and casual mealtime conversations revolved around topics like the theatricality of regional dialects and the actor/audience relationship. Artistic concerns like these are linked to political issues, but Fo manages to make the connections without waving flags as blatantly as do some of his adaptors abroad. An actress in the New York production of We Won't Pay referred to it as a "spoon waving" version of the play, because she was directed to play the role of a housewife by standing on the edge of the stage and waving a spoon at the audience as she lectured them on the evils of capitalism.

Fo's outrage against political and social injustice emerges more obliquely, as in the moment at the dinner table when the company's electrical technician asked him if he believed that people spoke regional dialects because they were too ignorant to speak "proper Italian." Fo responded with a spirited defense of the inherent beauty of the dialects and an attack on the Italian school system's policy of branding the variations as inferior. In his plays Fo uses a poetic blend of regional dialects, and it is clear that the choice reflects his commitment to the celebration of working class popular culture. What Fo's audiences hear onstage, however, is not a didactic manifesto about the "language of the people," but a magnificent cascade of coarse poetry that is an indirect tribute to the lyricism of the dialects spoken in Italy's village markets.

Fo's fusion of subversive politics and poetic slapstick is exemplified in his portrayal of Harlequin. Having been sent by his master to fetch a love potion, Harlequin uses it himself in a visit to a prostitute. When he returns home, Harlequin's disobedience is betrayed by the fantastic and uncontrollable growth of his penis. Using his mimetic talents, Fo creates the illusion that his organ has become almost as big as Harlequin himself. To avoid detection he wraps it in a blanket and pretends it is a baby. All the women in the neighborhood coo and stroke it, resulting in a great comic situation. The focus of the comedy is ostensibly erotic, but at the heart of the piece is the servant's revolt against his patron, the refusal of the impoverished Harlequin to submit to the master's repressive rules. The humor is generated by the tension between Harlequin's fear of his tyrannical master and his pleasure over his enhanced potency. Fo's performance is an allegory of rebellion camouflaged behind a mask of crude buffoonery. The politics are clear, but they never overwhelm the piece's exquisite slapstick poetics.

Fo blends politics and art with an effortless eloquence that makes him a Brechtian clown. Frequently describing the style of his theater as "epic," Fo borrows Brecht's terminology, but his points of reference go back to the medieval town jesters (giullari) and the commedia dell'arte players who were the originators of Italy's epic comedy tradition. Looking to these models for inspiration, Fo has developed a modern style of epic performance that speaks to his audience with the immediacy of a newspaper editorial, shifts perspectives with the fluidity of cinematic montage, and pulsates with the rhythmic drive of a jazz improvisation.

A good example of Fo's epic clowning can be found in his play about the relationship between Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth, Elisabetta: Quasi per Caso una Donna. Shakespeare never appears on stage, but Fo, playing a maidservant, acts out the entire plot of Hamlet for the head of Elizabeth's secret police as he explains that it is a veiled satire of the Queen's regime. Playing all the parts himself, Fo uses gestures and gibberish to re-enact the high points of Shakespeare's tragedy in less than two minutes, as if the action were unfolding on high-speed film. The police captain is totally bewildered, and Fo has structured the episode so that the audience identifies the official's dullness with the thickheadedness of modern Italian police investigators. Angered by the abusive mockery of her policies, Elizabeth tries to prevent Fo from recounting his secondhand Hamlet, but the clown is unstoppable. When she grabs his left hand, he continues miming the story behind his back with his right hand, and when she manages to tie up both his arms, he continues gesturing with his feet. The comedy of the scene is rooted in the muscular rhythms of Fo's performance. The Queen's clumsy attempts at physical censorship are no match for the irrepressible satiric impulses of the clown.

This style of densely-layered comedy appears frequently in the plays that Fo writes for his theater ensemble, but the simplest way to isolate the essential techniques of Fo's epic clowning is to look at examples drawn from his solo comic performances. In one-man plays like Mistero Buffo, Fabulazzo Osceno, and Storia della Tigre Fo demonstrates most clearly his genius for creating theater that unites art and politics in a seamless comic blend. Among the key elements that give Fo's performances their distinctive power are his musically orchestrated rhythms, his montage-like use of multiple perspectives, and the intimately immediate quality of his relationship with his public.

When Fo directs rehearsals of his plays or critiques the work of his students, he always stresses the importance of rhythm. Fo is a musician as well as a playwright, and his theater flows with a dynamic musicality that is generated by the basic emotional impulses of the situations he enacts. For example, his portrayal of a starving man in The Grammelot of the Zanni is structured around the rhythms of hunger as experienced by a 14th-century peasant.

The hungry Zanni is so famished that he begins to eat his own body, popping his eyeballs into his mouth and slurping up his disemboweled intestines as if they were pasta in a bowl. The action could easily become mired in infantile grotesquerie, but Fo makes it comic by cannibalizing himself with the rhythmic joy of a big band leader in full swing. The body parts are devoured with tempos of building excitement that culminate in percussive burps or climactic sighs of contentment. Although the piece is extremely funny, there is nothing frivolous about the mood Fo's rhythms evoke. There is never any doubt that the man is in pain, that he suffers not only a hunger for food but also a hunger for dignity and justice.

After consuming himself, the peasant challenges the complacency of God and the audience by threatening to eat them next, but he gets side-tracked by the dream of cooking a feast in an overstocked kitchen. His delirious fantasies are accompanied by the syncopated sounds of gurgling stews and sizzling oils. Fo creates all the effects himself with musical vocalizations that resemble a jazz singer scatting his way through a song. The piece concludes when the famished man wakes up from his dream and satisfies his cravings by eating a fly. He...

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Pina Piccolo (essay date Summer 1988)

SOURCE: "Dario Fo's giullarate: Dialogic Parables in the Service of the Oppressed," in Italica, Vol. 65, No. 2, Summer, 1988, pp. 131-43.

[In the following essay, Piccolo focuses on the binary theatrical technique, giullarata, which alternates between a narrative voice and quotes from various characters, and examines the connection between dialogue structure and the type of knowledge it yields.]

The production of knowledge useful to the oppressed has been one of Dario Fo's foremost concerns throughout his career. While the grotesque has been his all-encompassing paradigm and demystification his main aim, in his post-1968 production Fo uses two distinct...

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Ed Emery (essay date November 1988)

SOURCE: "Dario Fo's Trumpets and Raspberries and the Tradition of Commedia," in The Commedia Dell'Arte: From the Renaissance to Dario Fo, November, 1988, pp. 330-34.

[In the essay below, Emery analyzes Fo's Trumpets and Raspberries in relation to the use of masks, the nature of characters, the use of stock gags, and the representation of power as in the commedia tradition and carnival celebrations.]

My subject is the Dario Fo play, Clacson, trombette e pernacchi, in its English translation, Trumpets and Raspberries.

The play presents, in farcical vein, a variation on the theme of the kidnaping and killing of Aldo Moro. This...

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Joseph Farrell (essay date November 1988)

SOURCE: "Dario Fo: Zanni and Giullare," in The Commedia Dell'Arte: From the Renaissance to Dario Fo, November, 1988, pp. 315-29.

[In the following essay, Farrell presents Fo as a political revolutionary but a theatrical conservative in that he employs traditional characters and styles dating from the Medieval performers, giullare, to promote his radical politics.]

The affection for, and identification with, figures from Italian theatrical tradition, be it Arlecchino or the giullare, are perfect illustrations of one of the most striking and paradoxical features of the work of Dario Fo—his relentless search for models from the past...

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Mimi D'Aponte (essay date December 1989)

SOURCE: "From Italian Roots to American Relevance: The Remarkable Theatre of Dario Fo," in Modern Drama, Vol. XXXII, No. 4, December, 1989, pp. 532-44.

[In the following essay, Fo is viewed as a successor to earlier twentieth-century "Italian geniuses of the comic spirit" Totò and Eduardo De Filippo.]

Clowns are grotesque blashpemers against all our pieties. That's why we need them. They're our alter egos.

                —Dario Fo, Cambridge, May 1987

Americans writing about theatre have been pronouncing Dario Fo's work extraordinary, whether for performance or political...

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Leah D. Frank (review date 24 November 1991)

SOURCE: "Dario Fo's Outraged Housewives," in New York Times, Long Island Weekly Section, November 24, 1991, p. 23.

[In the following review of the Arena Players Repertory Theater production of We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay!, Frank lauds the play's humor but finds the story itself lacking verisimilitude.]

Dario Fo is Western Europe's most widely produced playwright. This phenomenally successful Italian satirist, actor, painter, musician, cinematographer, director, set and costume designer and political activist has been in the forefront of world theater for the last 40 years.

His creative social commentary has been condemned by groups as divergent...

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J. L. Wing (essay date October 1993)

SOURCE: "The Iconicity of Absence: Dario Fo and the Radical Invisible," in Theatre Journal, Vol. 45, No. 3, October, 1993, pp. 303-15.

[In the following essay, Wing argues that, especially in his one-man skits, Fo causes the visible to become invisible, requiring the audience's participation to fill the gaps.]

In demonstration of the mysterious power of absence as a staging technique, Italian playwright/performer Dario Fo recounts an intriguing tale of a performance at a mental institution for "untreatable cases" in Turin, Italy. Fo was in the midst of a skit involving an archangel and a drunk, in which he, himself, played both characters, a task which compelled...

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Christopher Cairns (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Dario Fo and the commedia dell'arte," in Studies in the Commedia Dell'Arte, edited by David J. George and Christopher J. Gossip, University of Wales Press, 1993, pp. 247-265.

[In the following essay, Cairns focuses on Fo's 1985 Harlequin production and examines his contemporary adaptation of commedia techniques.]

The extraordinary vogue for the commedia dell'arte as a performance language in the contemporary theatre has given rise to two distinct conventions. First, the 'archaeological' reconstruction of the working methods, costumes, masks and relationships between the well-known stereotype characters, refined and polished to a high...

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Joel Schechter (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Dario Fo: Trumpets and Raspberries," in Satiric Impersonations: From Aristophanes to the Guerrilla Girls, Southern Illinois University Press, 1994, pp. 92-106.

[In a close examination of Fo's Trumpets and Raspberries and Almost by Chance a Woman: Elizabeth, Schechter argues for Fo's timeliness as a humorist and his identification as perhaps the last great theatrical satirist.]

Few comedians in our century besides Chaplin have been better known than Dario Fo. The Italian satirist's plays are staged around the world. He has directed comic opera at La Scala in Milan. His own one-man shows have been applauded everywhere from China to New...

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Celestine Bohlen (essay date 10 October 1997)

SOURCE: "Italy's Barbed Political Jester, Dario Fo, Wins Nobel Prize," in The New York Times, October 10, 1997, pp. A1, A10.

[In the following essay, Bohlen emphasizes the controversy created by the Nobel Committee's selection of Fo as the 1997 laureate in literature.]

Dario Fo, an iconoclastic Italian playwright-performer known for mixing wacky social farce with sharp political satire, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature today, to the guarded amazement of Italy's literary establishment and the outright dismay of the Vatican.

In its announcement of the $1 million prize, the Swedish Academy likened the 71-year-old Mr. Fo to the "jesters of the...

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Stephen Schwartz (essay date 13 October 1997)

SOURCE: "Foo on Fo, an Ignoble Prize Winner," in Wall Street Journal, October 13, 1997.

[Below, Schwartz identifies Fo as undeserving of the Nobel Prize because he has "dedicated his life to the promotion of everything discredited, despicable, and socially destructive in modern culture."]

In an incident reported in The Washington Post, and too good to have been invented, the famous writers at a Library of Congress luncheon last Thursday confessed they knew little or nothing about this year's Nobel laureate in literature, Italian theater performer Dario Fo. But one person recognized his name: Jane Alexander, outgoing head of the National Endowment for the Arts....

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Mel Gussow (essay date 15 October 1997)

SOURCE: "The Not-So-Accidental Recognition of an Anarchist," in The New York Times, October 15, 1997, p. E2.

[In the essay below, Gussow sees Fo's award as an expansion of the boundaries of literature, legitimation of the world of performance, and recognition of the contribution of comedy, especially political satire.]

When Dario Fo was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature last week, it was the first time the honor had been given to an actor and clown. Mr. Fo is, of course, also a playwright, but it is as a performer of his own comedies that he has achieved his greatest international celebrity. His primary distinction is in combining all his diverse theatrical...

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