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An internationally acclaimed and widely produced political playwright, Dario Fo was born in the small town of San Giano on the shore of Lake Maggiore, Lombardy, in 1926. An outspoken but not doctrinaire Marxist, Fo has often created his dramatic works on the spur of the moment, to be used in specific political situations.

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Fo’s father was a railway worker and ardent antifascist. Fo was reared in a rural environment where he learned to appreciate both the traditional peasant culture of his mother and the political fight against fascism. Much of Fo’s childhood was spent listening to the traditional storytellers who could still be found in the remote areas of Lombardy. By the time he was in his teens, he had internalized a vast repertoire of traditional folk narratives. Following a brief time in the army, Fo studied architecture in Milan. Strongly attracted to the theater, however, he dropped out to become first a scene designer and then a performer.

Fo started writing plays at the age of eighteen, yet it was not until 1950 that his professional career began. He had performed for friends and fellow students with success and approached the then famous actor Franco Parenti, hoping to be invited to participate in a stage show Parenti was organizing. Parenti accepted, and a collaboration began that lasted four years. The Italian state radio invited him to do his own comical one-man show, Poer nano (poor dwarf), and in 1952 Fo and his “poor dwarf” took to the stage. Soon after, Fo, Parenti, and the actor Giustino Durano produced the famous revue Il dito nell’ occhio (a finger in the eye). Fo, arguably the most gifted actor-clown of his day, has throughout his career worked as an all-around theater man, writing plays and songs, directing, creating sets, and acting.

After a brief interlude in Rome, where he worked as a screenwriter, there followed years when Dario Fo wrote and starred with his wife, actress Franca Rame, who came from a popular theatrical touring family. Together, they embarked on a series of successful farces. Although they all included some social satire, these works are now known as his “bourgeois” comedies. The first was Ladri, manichini, e donne nude (thieves, dummies, and naked women), and six more followed in rapid succession. Then came the political turmoil of 1968, and Fo decided that the time had come for him to change from “the jester for the bourgeoisie” to “the jester for the proletariat.” When he decided to become the people’s court jester, Fo left the established theater behind and began a theatrical odyssey, touring Italy and, eventually, the rest of Europe.

Since the ingenious “clown-show” La signora è da buttare (throw the lady out), Fo’s plays have had a raw, uncompromising edge. The “lady” to be thrown out is American capitalism and imperialism. The play was produced when the Vietnam War was at its height, and Fo’s criticism of the United States is stinging. In the late 1960’s, Fo began working on what many consider his best play, the original and hysterically funny monologue Mistero buffo (comic mystery). With this work, he returns to his roots and takes his theater back to the people who created it. He builds the play around a series of medieval texts performed by the so-called giullari, wandering minstrels and comics who performed for the poor, satirizing the overlords and those in power. Fo dug the texts out of old documents and used them to demonstrate the historical and necessary opposition between poor and rich, between those inside and those outside the power structure. The medieval texts are juxtaposed with new texts, featuring conflicts between modern-day workers and bosses.

Fo and Rame have been in and out of favor in their native Italy. When the Left has been in political favor, they have been given positive media attention, but when the Christian Democrats reign the couple is...

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