Dario Fo 1926-
Nobel Prize-winning playwright, director, and actor Dario Fo is one of the most controversial figures in Italian theater. Through his avant-garde comedic stage productions—the spirit of which has been likened to that of such diverse artists as German plawright Bertolt Brecht and American comedians Lenny Bruce and the Marx Brothers—Fo reacts against injustice, discredits symbols of authority, and espouses a progressive left-wing political theory. Although his works were banned and censored in both Europe and the United States for years, by the mid-1980s Fo gained prominence as one of the most widely produced contemporary Italian playwrights outside of his native country.
Fo was born in San Giano, Lombardy, Italy, the son of Felice (a railroad stationmaster) and Pina Rota Fo. Young Fo began refining his animated method of storytelling as a child, listening to the tales told by the locals in San Giano. After leaving Milan's Academy of Fine Arts without earning a degree, Fo wrote and performed with several improvisational theatrical groups. He first earned acclaim as a playwright in 1953 with Il dito nell'occhio (A Finger in the Eye), a socially satiric production that presented Marxist ideas against a circus-like background. His 1954 attack on the Italian government in I sani de legare (A Madhouse for the Sane), in which Fo labeled several government officials fascist sympathizers, resulted in the cutting of some material from the original script and the mandated presence of state inspectors at each performance of the play to insure that the country's strict libel laws were not violated. Also in 1954, Fo married the actress Franca Rame, with whom he began to collaborate. The couple established a touring company and appeared on Italian television in a popular comedy revue.
By the 1960s Fo and Rame were censored for the explicit political content of their routines, and Fo vowed to "stop playing the jester of the bourgeoisie." Amid the social and political turmoil in Europe in 1968, the couple formed a new troupe, Nuova Scena, under the sponsorship of the Italian Communist Party. Fo first performed Mistero Buffo, generally considered his greatest and most controversial play, in 1969. Fo's criticism of the Communist party bureaucracy soon led to a split with Nuova Scena, and Fo and Rame formed Il colletivo teatrale la comune in 1970. Fo's best-known works come from the early years of this group, whose explicit goal was to raise the consciousness of the working classes and encourage the overthrow of the bourgeois state to bring about a socialist government. Fo's strong sense of justice prompted him to compose the absurdist play Morte accidentale di un anarchico (Accidental Death of an Anarchist) in response to the 1969 death of anarchist railway man Giuseppi Pinelli. The play was a smash hit in Italy, playing to huge crowds for more than four years. When officials pressured a theater in Bologna to halt plans for production, the work was alternatively staged in a sports stadium for an audience of more than six thousand people.
In 1980 and 1984 Fo and Rame were denied visas to the United States because of their alleged involvement in fund-raising activities for an Italian terrorist organization. The couple dismissed the accusation and maintained their innocence. Through the efforts of civil libertarian and cultural groups in Europe and the United States, Fo and Rame ultimately received visas, and Mistero Buffo finally opened in New York in the spring of 1986. Throughout his career Fo has been the recipient of numerous prizes, including the Sonning Award, Denmark (1981), an Obie Award (1987), and a Nobel Prize in Literature (1997).
Fo's artistic style 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 signature piece, Mistero Buffo, first produced in 1969, consists of a series of skits that satirize Italy's institutions of power, including the government and the Pope, as well as farcical inversions of traditional folk tales and biblical morality lessons. Broad international acclaim came with Morte accidentale di un anarchico in 1970. This was Fo's first play to be produced in both England and the United States. The work concerns the death of the railway worker Guiseppi Pinelli. The death was apparently connected to efforts by right-wing extremists in Italy's military and secret service agencies to discredit the Italian Communist party by staging a series of seemingly leftist-engineered bombings. The railway worker was implicated in the worst of these bombings, the 1969 massacre at Milan's Agricultural Bank. While being held for interrogation, Pinelli fell—it was later shown that he was pushed—from the fourth-floor window of Milan's police headquarters. In his play Fo introduces a stock medieval character, the maniac, into the investigation of the bombing to illuminate the truth. Fo's other works include Non si paga, non si paga (We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay!), a farce lampooning consumer economics, and Clacson, trombette e pernacchi (produced as Trumpets and Raspberries in England and About Face in the United States) a reworking of the Aldo Moro kidnapping into a satire on capitalist/worker relations. Since the 1980s Fo has increasingly collaborated with Franca Rame, and their productions have featured Rame's feminist perspective while focusing on male/female relationships. Fo explained the more personal focus of these works when he said, "In the face of the failure of revolutionary ideals, the basic problem is how people relate to one another." Because all of Fo's works rely so heavily on improvisation and audience interaction, each production bears only a general similarity to its published text.
In bestowing the 1997 Nobel Prize for Literature on Fo, the Awards Committee said, "He if anyone merits the epithet of jester in the true meaning of mat 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 has earned him the enmity of the rich and powerful objects of his 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 all denounced and sanctioned Fo.
In its zany humor and slapstick exaggeration, Fo's work has been compared with that of Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, and Monty Python. His biting satire and scatological humor have led many to liken him to Lenny Bruce. Some critics have praised Fo's abilities as both writer and performer. "Imagine a cross between Bertolt Brecht and Lenny Bruce, and you may begin to have an idea of the scope of Fo's anarchic wit," said Mel Gussow in The New York Times in 1983. Responding to Fo's receipt of the Nobel Prize, Italy's best-known theater director, Giorgio Strehler, said, "With Dario Fo, we feel honored as Europeans and as men of the theater." Fo's own response to receiving the award bears no trace of his onstage jester persona: "I'm flabbergasted," he is reported to have said. "I'd be a hypocrite if I told you that I counted on it. I didn't. I didn't expect it at all."