Dario Fo Drama Analysis

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

One of the problems that faces agitprop theater is that of combining a militant political message with a powerful dramatic and artistic effect because each may tend to weaken the other. Dario Fo’s theater successfully maintains a balance between the two. Although the intensity and actuality of the political message, being too close to the bone, have created problems for the Fos in their own country, the effectiveness of their theater has contributed much to their popularity abroad, where the political implications are less specific. Fo’s theater is not nihilistic: It aims at making people think, and it does this chiefly through laughter because, as Rame says, when one laughs, one’s mind is suddenly opened to be “pierced by the nails of reason.” Fo’s laughter is the uneasy kind that goes naturally “with a degree of cynicism” that satire induces, or “a kind of grand guignol scream,” resulting from those “nails of reason” piercing one’s head.

It is sometimes asked whether, and to what extent, Fo’s statements, being so closely rooted in contemporary events, can be expected to retain their interest. Certain of Fo’s plays had somewhat fallen from favor by the beginning of the twenty-first century, but since this happens often in the case of plays that are never published, it is difficult to judge the possible reasons for the public’s loss of interest. Much of Fo’s theater continues to play to an ever-growing following. The recurring themes in his work, his protest against injustice and oppression, are at once contemporary expressions and universal concerns. Built on a series of contradictions, drawing together and carefully balancing disparate elements such as comedy and tragedy, farce, and political back-benching, Fo’s forcefully committed theater also emerges at all times as highly successful entertainment.

Archangels Don’t Play Pinball

After various one-act farces and playlets, Archangels Don’t Play Pinball, a three-act play with music and a traditional structure that approximates that of the well-made play, introduced Fo’s bourgeois period. As its title page notes, one of the main incidents is inspired by a short story by Augusto Frassineti, but the treatment is Fo’s own. Through a complex plot of farcical twists and reversals, surrealistic dream sequences, and stylized, balletlike stage business, Fo attacks the stupidity and narrow-mindedness of Italian bureaucratic red tape and the inefficiency and corruption of government ministers. The starting point of the play is a group of petty criminals, “good-natured, sulphuric louts, a kind of proletariat of the outer suburbs who survive on expedients.” They are responsible for introducing the main character, Lanky, to the girl of his dreams, the Blonde, through the elaborate theatrical practical joke they construct. Theater within theater, and a fusion to the point of confusion of theatricality and reality, are elements that would continue to run through Fo’s plays. Interesting also is the mention, for the first time in a Fo drama, of the giullare tradition, which would play such a dominant role in the development of his theater.

Aveva due pistole con gli occhi bianchi e neri

The underworld returned, but with gangsters, in Fo’s next play, Aveva due pistole con gli occhi bianchi e neri (he had two pistols with white and black eyes). The plot remains farcical, based on a “double” and a series of mistaken identities, and the play is again interspersed with musical numbers. The political satire is predominant, however, and in an interview Fo described the company’s difficulties with censorship (not for the last time in Fo’s career). Problems of madness and psychiatry, themes that recur in Fo’s theater, here make a brief appearance, as the main character struggles with amnesia and with the difficulty of establishing his identity in a psychiatric hospital. The influence of Bertolt Brecht can be clearly sensed in this play—an influence that causes Fo to refer to certain aspects of his drama as “epic.”

Isabella, tre caravelle e un cacciaballe

This influence can be found, too, in Isabella, tre caravelle e un cacciaballe (Isabella, three sailing ships, and a con man), a play in two acts and an interlude, which has certain similarities to Brecht’s Leben des Galileo (pr. 1943, revised 1947-1957; Life of Galileo, 1947), which had enjoyed a memorable production in Milan in the same season, although the way Fo’s Columbus comes into conflict with the established political powers differs from that of Brecht’s hero. Isabella, tre caravelle e un cacciaballe is a historical play that relies on detachment and distancing of the audience. Fo’s aim was to “dismantle a character who had been embalmed as a hero in school history books”; the critique of a Columbus, who is at once an intellectual and a political opportunist, a “sailor” and an “adventurer,” is developed in a highly satirical vein through a play-within-the-play. A recurring figure throughout Fo’s theater, that of the madman, or simple fool, is embodied in this play in Isabella’s daughter, Giovanna la Pazza (Joanna the Mad). Fo’s use of songs differs from Brecht’s, inasmuch as they are more strongly a means of political or social comment rather than part of the action.

Mistero Buffo

Mistero Buffo: Comic Mysteries is among the best-known and most popular of Fo’s works outside Italy. It has been described as the culmination of Fo’s research into popular culture. It consists of a series of texts developed over several years and divided into two sections. To the first part belong sketches such as “Bonifacio VIII,” a merciless satire of Pope Boniface VIII, attacked by Dante in the Inferno, but Fo also alludes to Pope John Paul II. “La resurrezione di Lazzaro” is presented from the point of view of the crowd as a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle not to be missed; “La nascita del giullare” describes how a victimized, downtrodden peasant, about to hang himself, is stopped by Christ, who praises him for resisting the tyranny of the authorities and gives him the gift of telling stories so that he may share his experiences with others and encourage them also to resistance and revolt.

The second part comprises sketches such as “Maria viene a conoscere della condanna imposta al figlio,” in which the Virgin Mary learns that the joyful crowds that she thought might be going to a wedding are in fact going to her son’s crucifixion; “Gioco del matto sotto la croce” is a gruesomely comic sketch dealing with the difficulties of driving in the nails at the Crucifixion, and an aborted attempt by the madman to rescue Jesus from the Cross. The historical aspect of these giullarate is emphasized by Fo’s introductions, complete with reproductions of ancient manuscripts or paintings; the contemporary message, on the other hand, is stressed by topical allusions that may change, if not always from one night to the next, at least over a period of weeks or months. The text is never definitive; it remains fluid. Fo is always responsive and flexible to dynamic interaction and intimate rapport with his audience.

Most of the texts are in a language that Fo describes as “fifteenth century Padano,” an amalgam of various Northern Italian dialects. Fo adapts these dialects, sometimes modernizes them, and invents words, so that the language functions as a codified system of sounds. Furthermore, it was in Mistero Buffo, in some of the sketches, that Fo introduced what he...

(The entire section is 3138 words.)