Dario Fo is concerned above all with reviving a tradition of “popular” theater, presenting a satirical critique of modern society, especially of authority and the powers that be, and highlighting corruption and injustice. He is deeply involved in contemporary issues, and his texts remain flexible so as to reflect current changes (some plays—for example, Accidental Death of an Anarchist—present the critic with at least three, sometimes more, versions, differing slightly from one another, as the situation that engendered them changed and developed). Fo himself traces his inspiration back to the medieval giullare, the joker, who performed at fairs and in marketplaces, entertaining the people, expressing their complaints and grievances in a popular form of political satire (for which he was not infrequently persecuted or even executed by the authorities). In spite of the political content of his plays, however, Fo stresses the fact that he does not belong to any communist or Marxist party, because bureaucracy, in whatever guise, is “destructive.” As a modern-day giullare, beyond political commentary and satire, Fo aims at all times to entertain his audience, to make people laugh, “because laughter activates intelligence.” The label most often applied to Fo is that of “clown”: not so much a circus clown, although clownish antics often form part of his act, but a farcical Chaplinesque clown, with a sharp bite behind the laughter. Fo is a virtuoso performer of immense skill and dynamism, described as a superstar by enthusiastic reviewers. With the serious popular tradition of the giullare, he has combined the stage antics and tricks of the commedia dell’arte, along with its tradition of improvisation.
In what is a close working partnership with his wife, Franca Rame, he takes his theater to the working class, performing in labor halls, workers’ cooperatives, factories, and market squares. With his wife and members of his company, he has traveled widely abroad, arousing both enthusiasm and polemic. In 1981, he was awarded the Danish Sonnig Prize, and in 1987, he won an Obie Award. Nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1977, he won the Nobel Prizein Literature in 1997. According to Tony Kushner in The Nation, “Fo deserves to win the Nobel Prize for his life of theatrical activism, yes, his dedication to progressive politics. . . . Fo deserves to win because, as the Vatican . . . put it, he writes debatable texts. He has dedicated his genius to making everything he touches debatable.”