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Dario Fo 1929–
Fo is one of the world's most widely produced contemporary playwrights. Critic Suzanne Cowan notes, "To give a full account of Dario Fo's theatrical career would really be tantamount to writing a history of post-war Italy, because his work can only be understood as a continuous, uniquely creative response to the major social and political development of the past thirty years." Politically, Fo is a proponent of proletarian revolution, but he eventually broke with the Communist party when he thought that its aims were diverging from the best interests of the working class. Artistically, he advocates taking advantage of Italy's heritage of popular theater, including in his works elements of the circus, the minstrel show, puppetry, mime, regional dialects, and commedia dell'arte. Richard Sogliuzzo explains how these two concerns work together: "In Fo's theatre, the medium is undoubtedly the message: a proletarian revolution to be accomplished by utilizing theatrical traditions born of the people." Fo and Franca Rame, his actress-wife and sometime-collaborator, have toured their plays extensively in Europe, usually playing the lead roles themselves. However, the strong political nature of their work has until recently prevented their plays from being produced in England and the United States. The couple have twice been denied permission to enter the United States.
The zany humor for which Fo is noted has always been integral to his work, but his political commitment developed gradually. Shortly after the end of World War II, Fo began performing original one-man comedy shows in nightclubs and other commercial theaters. His first nationally known production, II dito nell'occhio (1953), attempted to convey Marxist ideas, but they were mostly obscured by the visually spectacular, circus-like aspects of the show. When Compagnia Dario Fo-Franca Rame, the Fos's first touring company, was established in 1958, social satire was their forte; only later did they turn to political satire. During this period, the couple also performed on television in a popular comedy revue, but they were eventually censored for being too vocal about their leftist political views. Around the same time, Fo produced La signora e da buttare (1967), which was a turning point in his career. His first explicitly political play and his last to be produced in a commercial theater for many years, La signora e da buttare has a circus setting, a frenetic pace, and many gesture and movement gags. The title means "the lady is for the scrapheap" and refers to the circus owner, who represents American imperialism and capitalism.
In response to the turbulent political and social climate of the 1960s, Fo vowed to "stop playing the jester of the bourgeoisie." He renounced commercial theater entirely in favor of a theater which could act as an instrument of social change. In 1968 he and Rame formed another touring troupe, Nuova Scena, under the auspices of the Italian Communist Party. To appeal to his new proletarian audience, Fo simplified his works. Many were allegories which used puppets to represent political movements. In Grande pantomima con bandiere e pupazzi piccoli e medi (1968), a satire of Italian history during the twenty-five years following World War II, a beautiful woman, rep-resenting capitalism, is born out of a giant monster puppet, fascism, and seduces a giant dragon puppet, communism. Although Fo was working with the Communist party at this time, he did not hesitate to criticize its bureaucratic structure and its tendency towards reform rather than revolution. The Party withdrew its support from Nuova Scena, and in 1970 Fo and Rame formed a new company, I1 Collettivo Teatrale La Comune.
La Comune's goal was to...
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raise the consciousness of the working classes, to encourage them to overthrow the bourgeois state, and to bring about a socialist government. Plays from the La Comune period tended to be highly topical. For instance,Guerra di popolo in Cile (1973) is about the people's war in Chile, Fedayn (1971) concerns the Palestinian problem, and Morte accidentale di un anarchico (1970; Accidental Death of an Anarchist) is a farcical rendering of the cover-up which followed the police murder of anarchist Giuseppe Pinelli. Because of their topicality, most of the La Comune plays were short-lived, but Accidental Death of an Anarchist has achieved sustained and international popularity. It is Fo's first play to receive a professional production both in England and in the United States. Because La Comune performances relied extensively on improvisation and audience interaction, published texts of these plays tend to be unrepresentative of what is seen onstage.
In recent years, Fo has collaborated more extensively with Rame and produced strongly feminist plays. These works concentrate on family and male-female relationships yet retain their political context. The couple's most successful collaboration has been Tutta casa, letto e chiesa, a series of eight monologues, some serious and some humorous, which focus on the position of women in society. The pieces have been performed in the United States and England in various combinations and under such various titles as One Woman Plays (1981), Female Parts (1982), and Orgasmo Adulto Escapes from the Zoo (1983). Another Fo comedy which is both domestic and political, No se paga! No se paga! (1974; We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay!), is about housewives who organize a supermarket boycott to protest exorbitant prices. In a 1984 interview, Fo compared the male-female relationship in the family unit with the bourgeois-proletariat relationship in society. He explained the personal nature of the later plays by saying, "In the face of the failure of revolutionary ideals, the basic problem is how people relate to one another."
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[Accidental Death of an Anarchist produces] situations which are half farce, half nightmare and completely deplorable. The play is steeped in fact, drawing on the death of railway worker Giuseppe Pinelli, a noted anarchist, who was arrested for his part in the bomb massacre at the Agricultural Bank (14 dead) and later 'fell' (ie was pushed) to his death from the fourth floor of the Milan police headquarters on 16 December 1969.
However, Fo's play … also demonstrates that Italy is the home of Commedia dell'arte, that ancient popular brand of theatre with its broad physical clowning revolving around the activities of well-known stereotypes, from the lustful greedy old man Pantalone to the darting acrobatic servant Harlequin. And it was a shrewd move of Dario Fo … to apply the genre to contemporary political ends. On the one hand, it gives the mass audience something to latch on to and enjoy apart from the slogans and dialectic: characters who collide with each other, get their fingers trapped in filing cabinets or assume silly disguises with wooden legs, wooden hands and joke cigars, are funny whatever their political stance. On the other hand—and this may not be intentional—the framework of popular farce makes political theatre's natural, yet wearying, insistence that characters adopt fixed, embattled positions seem like an essential comic strategy. Hectoring, humourless political theatre may be a joy to the converted (and anathema to those converted in the opposite direction), but it can be simply annoying to the millions of confused waverers.
It would be difficult to be very annoyed here…. This is obviously planned as a show with spirit rather than polish. And the unfolding plot has its own powerful fascination—with the Maniac impersonating a legal luminary sent to investigate the police reports of 'accidental death' and letting the cock-eyed band of inspectors and superintendents condemn themselves by their own tangled words and actions. (pp. 30-1)
Geoff Brown, in a review of "Accidental Death of an Anarchist," in Plays and Players, Vol. 26, No. 8, May, 1979, pp. 30-1.
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I went off to see Einer fur alle, alle fur einen … with no great hopes…. But Signor Fo, however dubious his political common-sense has been in the past, tells us in the programme that he soon grasped the fact that documentary and … didactic plays were death to real theatre. And this piece is a splendid example of how to make political theatre enjoyable. It deals with the Italian scene between 1911 and the outbreak, as one may call it, of Fascism. The stage casually embodies a lorry taking away those arrested, a police station replete with easily distracted police chief, a dress-shop, and a modest home. It shows us the petty authorities of the old regime turning into the petty but lethal tyrants of the new. But it does all this with an exuberant mixture of fun and good-humoured satire. The shade of Beattie Bryant hovers over the young bride getting a dressmaker's assistant to take her through a Communist catechism as she tries on her wedding-dress; joyful bursts of rumti-tum, and launchings into 'O sole mio', send up Italian triviality with infectious glee; the example of Brecht and Weill injects a few pointed and extremely tuneful ballads…. At times affectionate, at times bitter, often lurching into excellent farce (I hope I may be allowed to quote my favourite line, when the hero is being disguised as a widow—'Watch it girls, his arse is his Achilles heel'), the piece is never, never sour.
J. W. Lambert, "Globetrotting Theatre," in Drama, No. 133, Summer, 1979, pp. 12-20.∗
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Dario Fo, the Italian comedian and playwright, whose hilarious Accidental Death of an Anarchist … savages the brutality of the Italian police, uses the clown's hijinks to do gorgeous battle with officialdom….
As a clown and an activist, Fo has discovered in farce a strategy for emotionally detaching both audience and actors from the tragic issues his plays debate. "In farce," he says, "you have the possibility of going beyond the character. You can comment on the situation while you're in it." Political laughter wants to disenchant; and farce's artificiality keeps the audience from being spellbound. The play becomes not only a criticism of life but of theatre.
Fo introduces a maniac into police headquarters and lets him turn the tables on authority to put the story right while spelling out the establishment's "strategy of tension." True to archetype, this prankster is a man of many names and disguises, a poltergeist in baggy pants ("I can injure without visible signs"), who frees his comrades by throwing their police files out of the window.
The maniac is a whirlwind of comic invention. He shares with all tricksters the seeming ability to detach parts of his body from himself. As in Joe Orton's Loot (Fo's brother in mayhem), the maniac's false eye falls out and they have great fun finding it. And as if to clinch the purity of Fo's comic impulse, the clown's emblem—his vestigial phallus—miraculously appears in the form of the maniac's wooden leg, at once a literal and figurative "third leg" which is always banging up against the detectives….
With sight gags, pratfalls and the occasional boffo burlesque exchange ("I gave three lectures a week. Roman Law. Ecclesiastical Law. Denis Law …"), the maniac gets down to the trenchant business of picking the police testimony to pieces. He impersonates a judge trying to get the record straight; but the real court of appeal is laughter. It's a good test for the clown's malicious appetite for revenge. By the end of act one, the police, terrified of losing their jobs, have come up with three different versions of events, each more preposterous than the next. (p. 559)
It's wonderful mayhem, with the maniac in complete control of his bumptious mischief. He tells them "to show a human heart behind the tangle of lies you have left in your wake." He forces them to sing, and they must sing a song of anarchy ("We have but one thought, revolution is in our hearts"). It's a noisy, rousing song; and the first act ends with its delicious irony. As Shaw wrote in Misalliance: "Anarchism is a game at which the police can beat you."
Political theatre and the clown's protean personality find their apotheosis in Fo's shrewd finale. Amid the tumult of confused identities, violent chases and biting one-liners. Fo is debating all sides of the question of reform or revolution. (pp. 559-60)
The clown may not be the right person to follow to the barricades, but no one has a better strategy for making subversive ideas irresistible on stage. The clown substitutes playfulness for polemic, imagination for gullibility. Although the West End venue slightly mutes its high spirits, Accidental Death of an Anarchist is a loud, vulgar, kinetic, scurrilous, smart, sensational show. In other words, everything theatre should be. (p. 560)
John Lahr, "A Playful Polemic," in New Society, Vol. 51, No. 910, March 13, 1980, pp. 559-60.
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[In Accidental Death of an Anarchist] Fo's method is to manoeuvre the police into becoming increasingly desperate with their own verbal petards. Was the suspect so badly bullied that he committed suicide? No, he wasn't, it was a very good humoured interrogation. Did he jump out of the window from sheer happiness, then? Well, no, not exactly…. So the questions continue until the truth is blurted out: Pinelli was pushed.
It is a sombre conclusion. An atrocity has been committed, and one that we ourselves can hardly dismiss as a hot-blooded Mediterranean aberration…. And yet the inquisitor is a blend of trickster and clown, whose iconoclastic glee and eccentric camouflage (at one point, believe it or not, Long John Silver minus only the parrot) both proclaim his origins as the zanni of Italian commedia dell'arte; the police are strutting or tumbling grotesques, a ripe bunch of gorgonzola Cheeses; and one of the play's many comic ideas actually turns out to be a variation on the Python sketch about the killer joke, which it is death to hear….
In short, it's funny, but always purposefully so. We listen to the cross-examination of Fo's villains for some of the same reasons we listen to the arguments in a Stoppard play, because we are ribbed and jollied into doing so; and the cross-examination has real content. However, there's also a danger that such a style may disguise the nature of the pill it's sugaring, and perhaps this happens at the play's end. I, for one, don't like someone manipulating me into the position of cheerfully consenting to the murder of my social enemies, even if those enemies (as a wittily horrific dénouement makes clear) would cheerfully murder you and me, should we get to know too much about them. Dario Fo is said to be distressed by some of the recent actions of the Red Brigades, and would not. I am sure, give his personal imprimatur to the assassination of Aldo Moro. But it may be that a play like this, tolerating and even encouraging political violence, yet extracting the nastiness from it by a burlesque presentation, makes such events marginally more likely.
Benedict Nightingale, "Calls-to-Arms," in New Statesman, Vol. 99, No. 2556, March 14, 1980, p. 405.∗
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If you are deflated by thoughts of inflation, if you have ever looked at the price of food in the supermarket or glanced at a menu in a restaurant and decided that we had suddenly moved to a different, less rewarding monetary system, then Dario Fo's "We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay!" should fill you with laughs of recognition…. Mr. Fo's manic farce should be obligatory viewing for anyone battling, i.e., succumbing to, the high cost of living.
For the purposes of his incautious cautionary tale, Mr. Fo, who is Italy's most celebrated and most controversial contemporary playwright, takes a typical Italian family, typical, that is, from Vittorio de Sica movies. Giovanni works, Antonia scrimps. He shouts, she slaves. She lives to cook his dinner and he carries chauvinism as a tattoo on his heart.
One day Antonia and her sister housewives, fed up with rising prices, stage an impromptu strike in a supermarket….
What ensues is a madcap travesty of kitchen-sink comedies, which also manages to shoot satiric darts at the police, government bureaucracy, unions, the welfare state and masculine domestic privilege. "We Won't Pay!" has the outrage of that moment in the movie "Network" when Peter Finch shouted, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore."
Such is the impact of Mr. Fo's humor that he seduces an audience into responding to the most indelicate comic situations. Try to keep from smiling when Giovanni tells the crazy tragic story of a dog with an electronic hearing aid. The performance I attended was filled with older matinee ladies. Many of them seemed about to capsize with laughter, with only the merest squirm of embarrassment at Mr. Fo's occasional spiciness. The fact is that he tickled them in their pocketbooks….
In common with Mr. Fo's "Accidental Death of an Anarchist," a long-running London comedy hit about the violence that government can inflict on concerned citizens, "We Won't Pay!" is the work of a social reformer with a fractured funnybone.
Mel Gussow, "'We Won't Pay!' Comedy on Consumerism," in The New York Times, December 18, 1980, p. C30.
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A play about inflation could hardly be more topical, and although it was written in 1974, Dario Fo's Italian farce, "We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay!," is as up-to-date as the morning paper's supermarket ads. There's an abundance of laughs in this leftwing blast at economic imbalance….
"We Won't Pay!" shows a masterful hand at farcical plotting and comic characterization, plus a distinctively European political underpinning. Few American playwrights have much overt commitment to any political viewpoint, left, right or center, so Fo's radical anticapitalistic didacticism is at least fresh….
It's also very funny. The story turns on a consumers' revolt by lire-starved workingclass housewives in Milan who pilfer large quantities of overpriced food, then try to hide it from investigating cops by stuffing it under their dresses and claiming pregnancy. The central femme character, an Italian cousin of one of Brecht's proletarian heroines, is also forced to hide the booty from her law-abiding factory-worker husband. In time, however, the husband sees the radical light, and the play concludes as the characters herald imminent Socialist Utopia….
The labyrinthine plot developments are smoothly meshed into the author's propagandistic theme, which is nitty-gritty Marxist.
Humm., in a review of "We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay!" in Variety, December 24, 1980, p. 62.
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There is every indication of comic ingenuity in "We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay!," a farce…. [A director's note in the program says], "In this play there are a number of stories, which are related to the socio-economic conditions of inflation, retold within the structure of a household comedy…." Fortunately, Fo—whatever his odd theories about drama, and whatever his political allegiances—is much friskier than his director. There are indeed a number of tales in "We Won't Pay!," but they are more snippets and broken threads than long strands. Like all farces, pre- and post-Marx, the play is a matter of abrupt turns of action, quirky notions, and, even in translation … a smattering of funny lines. At the opening, the housewives enter, loaded down with bags of food looted from a local supermarket. Much conversation about inflation and rebellion. A policeman enters, and we're off—into a scramble of false pregnancy (the falsity being rice, pasta, a bottle of olives, and other provender concealed under a belted coat); premature birth (the bottle of olives breaks); the summoning of an ambulance; rabbit-head-and-birdseed soup; the Pope and the Pill (along with off-the-cuff, and inept, impersonations); unpaid bills for rent, gas, and electricity, and their consequences. Everybody is broke, and everybody is spunky; there is no question about our sympathies.
Edith Oliver, in a review of "We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay!" in The New Yorker, Vol. LVII, No. 1, February 23, 1981, p. 88.
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The rude view of Dario Fo is that he is, in the current jargon, an unabashed pill-coater. That is, he inveigles us into swallowing his radical nostra by plastering them with funny lines, entertaining business, and farcical rough-and-tumble ultimately derived from the commedia dell'arte. It sounds pretty indigestible, not to say dubiously therapeutic; and so it would no doubt prove in practice, if his humour really were external rather than innate, imposed rather than intrinsic. As it happens, though, the rude view isn't the fair one. More often than his critics care to recognise, the humour is functional, not decorative. What mainly amuses us about Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist is also what shocks and disturbs us: the increasingly distraught antics of the Milanese cops as, prodded, needled and mocked by an updated version of the 16th-century zanni, they devise increasingly idiotic excuses for the defenestration of a political prisoner.
The same can be said for the bulk of the feminist monologues … [which constitute One Woman Plays. In Waking Up, a] wife leaps out of bed late for work, erroneously dusts the baby's bottom with parmesan cheese, finds she's lost the house-key, and launches into a blundering search which comically but also pointedly demonstrates the pressures under which she's expected to live. Even the last-gasp denouement, that it's really Sunday and the factory is closed, is rather more than the sort of punch-line that used to end revue sketches in the days when revue sketches used to have ends. Similarly, another overwrought wife isn't just indulging in verbal horseplay or Stoppardesque parody of newspaper headlines when she jokes about 'orgasm' sounding like a cross between an orang-outang and a cataclysm: 'nun at zoo attacked by crazed orgasm.' She's coping with her own nervous feeling about something she's never experienced.
These are tiny examples; but they and others cumulatively produce an identikit picture it would be self-indulgent to call paranoid, anachronistic or (a subtler objection) less relevant to Britain than to macho Italy. This capsule woman is expected to go out to work, yet also cook, clean, look after the tots, and treat her husband's whims as sacrosanct. Sex is a whambam business, leaving her feeling like a pinball machine without the freedom to go into tilt when crudely manhandled. If she resists, she's an uptight bitch; and when she finds herself a more considerate, egalitarian lover, he hasn't the self-control to save her from pregnancy, parturition, and reactivation of the cycle that consigns her to domestic serfdom….
[The] plays are rather more than comically-couched whingeings and blubberings on behalf of the victim sex. Indeed, another justification of the funhouse style is that it at once suggests and reflects a pep, a resilience, in their protagonists…. And in the evening's coda, a terse and distinctly unfunny version of Medea, resilience becomes defiance, and a brand of defiance which reminds us that the jokesmith Fo is also the somewhat chilling revolutionary who ended Accidental Death by recommending the murder of admittedly corrupt policemen. Jason, treacherous husband, is responsible for laws which 'imprison us women in a cage and hang children round our necks to keep us quiet'. So he and they must be resisted in the ultimate way, by exemplary infanticide. 'Die and let a new woman be born,' rasps [one character] …, and she repeats, in case we missed the point, 'a new woman! A new woman!' It's a resounding call to arms, a ringing declaration of belief in the grand feminist end; but it would, I suspect, echo more happily in the ears of most humane people if the means, weapons and victims recommended weren't children.
Benedict Nightingale, "Bitter Pill," in New Statesman, Vol. 102, No. 2624, July 3, 1981, p. 22.∗
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[In Can't Pay? Won't Pay! (also performed as We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay!), the] fun, though considerable and expertly staged, spirals too far beyond what it more or less remains in Accidental Death and One-Woman Plays, the logical reflection, illustration and exploration of subject and theme. Specifically, would the 'respectable' CP member really convince himself that the stolen vegetables his rebellious wife has stuffed up her jumper are actually a pregnancy transplant? He and his friend emerge as morons, scarcely the Fo view of workers. Whether for this reason, its tendency to repetition and prolixity, or something else, the play's political clout proves less than we've come to expect of a writer whose very name has a combative ring, akin to Agamemnon Enemy or Xerxes Thug. (pp. 23-4)
Benedict Nightingale, "A Spare Man," in New Statesman, Vol. 102. No. 2629, August 7, 1981, pp. 23-4.∗
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In these wide open, permissive, seen and heard it all before '80s, is it possible for a play to be "a direct political intervention" in or a "radical criticism" of society? Italian wife-and-husband playwriting team Franca Rame and Dario Fo make a good case for the possibility, though it isn't entirely convincing and is probably more valid in Italy where women are more restricted by men, state and church than in the U.S.
"Female Parts" is made up of two farcically satirical one-act plays, "A Woman Alone" and "The Same Old Story."…
The two plays … are avowedly feminist. They go beyond propaganda, however. Written with vigor and lusty humor, they have theatricality and dramatic life. Though not for Broadway, there should be a place for them off-Broadway, at more-daring regional theatres, and on campuses.
"A Woman Alone" is the more obvious of the two. In it a dizzy blonde wife, locked in her apartment by her husband, unburdens herself to the new tenant opposite her window….
There's nothing new as feminism goes, but the play makes valid points, and is often riotously funny. It's probably 10 minutes too long for its content, and it could easily degenerate into noisy hysteria….
"The Same Old Story" is shorter, bolder, far more imaginative and more genuinely jolting. It takes place on a small wooden platform that substitutes for, among other things, a bed and an examination couch. Alone and fully dressed in tights, boots, fatigue jacket and headband,… [the central character] skillfully avoids obscenity while simulating copulation with a militant-radical comrade, an examination for pregnancy prior to a possible abortion, childbirth and sordid other matters.
It's not drawing-room comedy and won't be seen on network tv but it's often honest and funny and, again, vividly illustrates feminist beliefs….
Rame and Fo may be political, radical critics of society. More important, they are real playwrights….
Mart., in a review of "Female Parts," in Variety, August 4, 1982, p. 62.
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The plays [which make up "Orgasmo Adulto Escapes from the Zoo"] are uncompromising in their convictions. And yet we sit … [in the theater] with the sinking sensation that "Orgasmo Adulto" isn't provoking the laughter, thought or outrage it intends….
The concerns of all eight pieces are similar. As the actress explains in a chatty, relaxed prologue, "Orgasmo Adulto" is "an entertainment about the condition of women"—or, more specifically, about how "we're all prisoners of the male organ." The characters are usually oppressed wives and mothers who strike back as best they can at the male "devil" and the "tail" that this devil wears "in front."
This is reasonable subject matter, but the Fo-Rame approach to it here seems limited and tired. Most of the plays … express a dogmatic, Freudian determinism reminiscent of Lina Wertmuller films like "Swept Away" and "Seven Beauties": The imagery of castration and excrement predominate as we continually witness the wages of male sexual aggression. Worse, Mr. Fo and Miss Rame don't cloak this theme in the scabrous black humor that might rehabilitate it. The mode is more often conventional (and obvious) farce, typified by a gag in which a woman slams a door on her lover's most vulnerable appendage.
The other ideological aspects of "Orgasmo Adulto" are also primitively stated. Unlike Caryl Churchill, who finds novel ways to dramatize her connections between capitalism and male supremacy, Mr. Fo and Miss Rame gives us a radicalized, overlong slice of "I Love Lucy" slapstick in which a wife who has "everything" in the way of housekeeping appliances is literally a prisoner in her own home….
As was the case with the other Fo play thus far seen in New York, "We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay!," it's possible that something has been lost in the English adaptation…. Maybe, too, the distance separating Italy's socio-sexual landscape from ours is just too vast…. American audiences may find themselves listening to unsophisticated lectures that don't travel well. Such matters as a woman's right to abortion or to a liberated role in lovemaking are melodramatically argued as if they were taboo topics never broached in a theater before. In a similar manner, simulated sex and scatological language are italicized constantly, apparently on the rather sexist assumption that men will be startled to see a woman engage in such ostensibly male prerogatives….
The material's repetitiveness can emerge as a deadening whininess; the attempts to tap into the plays' indigenous, folkloric Italian roots are intermittent.
Frank Rich, "Estelle Parsons in 'Orgasmo Adulto'," in The New York Times, August 5, 1983, p. 3.
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As playwright monologist and public personality, Dario Fo is an impertinent iconoclast, provoking officialdom at the same time that he is tickling his audience. Among contemporary playwrights who are concerned with the theater of politics—writers as diverse as Fernando Arrabal, David Hare and Caryl Churchill—Fo has distinguished himself not only as an author but as a performer of his own work. Imagine a cross between Bertolt Brecht and Lenny Bruce and you may begin to have an idea of the scope of Fo's anarchic art. In common with Brecht, he is seeking social change; in common with Bruce, he is often scatological and blasphemous….
Though the Fo-Rame sketches [in "Adulto Orgasmo Escapes From the Zoo"] were supposedly written in the 70's, to American eyes they seem decades out of date—simplistic outbursts against woman's incarceration in bed and kitchen by boorish men. Perhaps more than anything, they are an indication of the repressive state of women in Italy.
Only two of the eight pieces are of more than marginal interest, "A Woman Alone" and a brief, folkloric version of "Medea."
The other six monologues are a potpourri of vaudeville skits, attenuated confessionals and small jokes…. As explorations of the obsessions of singular women, they are not, for example, in a class with Jane Martin's "Talking With." There is, in fact, a limit to the performance artistry that anyone … can bring to bear on such insubstantial reflections.
Fo is funniest and most challenging in the plays he has written by himself on more broadly political subjects—in "We Won't Pay," "Accidental Death" and "About Face." These three could be regarded as a kind of informal trilogy, as discorsi on consumerism, corruption and capitalism. Each is concerned with the subjugation of individuals by ruling authority, with the battle between the haves and the have-nots. Though they are originally addressed to the Italian populace and derive from specific local events, they achieve a more general perspective in performance….
The most recent of the trio, "About Face," is filled with scandalous assaults on governmental and bureaucratic interference. As with many of Fo's plays, it begins with a fact—in this case, the kidnapping of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro—and then does a leap into fantasy. Fo imagines that the wealthy Agnelli has been snatched by the Red Brigades, is hurt in a traffic accident and is mistaken for the Fiat worker who rescues him. In plastic surgery, he is given a replica of the rescuer's face, and the evening becomes a careening comedy about mistaken identity, medical quackery, industrial pettifoggery and myopic constabulary. Along the way, Fo suggests that the plutocrat might have engineered his own kidnapping, which would have been a case of "self-terrorism." Acting as theatrical caricaturist, Fo reaches his hilarious high in "About Face" when a mob of secret agents bug an apartment by hiding inside the furniture. (p. 3)
When one reads Fo, it is difficult to envision this scene and the full panoply of his humor. In performance, "About Face,"… becomes the theatrical equivalent of an animated cartoon. In contrast to other politically concerned playwrights, Fo is more scenarist than dramatist. In that sense, he can be compared with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which, led by a playwright, devises scenarios on public issues and elaborates on them in production. (p. 11)
Mel Gussow, "Dario Fo's Barbed Wit Is Aimed at Many Targets," in The New York Times, August 14, 1983, pp. 3, 11.
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I am not very fond of one-man plays. Or one-woman, one-trained-seal, one-anything plays…. Generally speaking, there is something demoralizing about going to theatrical solos—like being invited to dine off paper plates.
There are, however, exceptions: if the performer is great, the material is marvelous, or the situation, though dramatic, calls for a monologue—say, the story of Jonah. A little of all three of these conditions obtains in Orgasmo Adulto Escapes From the Zoo….
[These] eight plays are definitely not Communist propaganda; they are feminist propaganda. They are monologues for women…. There are three incidental male roles, but they are non-speaking, because the men are dumb in every sense, as well as deaf to reason. (p. 42)
Contrasto for a Solo Voice is about a peasant lass who contrives, for one night at any rate, to take (I am using a euphemism; the plays revel in obscenity and scatology) her lover rather than be taken by him. The Freak Mamma is about a crazy-seeming mother who enters a church and goes to confession in the hope of escaping the pursuing cops, and tells of a series of transformations she underwent while watching over her Red Brigades son, which took her from Communism to Maoism, from punk to radical feminism.
These, [along with Waking Up and A Woman Alone], are the chiefly comic plays. The more serious ones include We All Have the Same Story, a symbolic fairy tale about the dual nature of woman as factitious angel and repressed hellion, and about how she must come to terms with her suppressed rebelliousness by releasing and digesting it before she can be whole. Monologue of a Whore in a Lunatic Asylum is the extorted confession of a factory-worker-cum-whore much abused by men, whom a woman doctor has strapped into a sort of psychiatric electric chair that, with mild shocks, forces her to tell the story of her politicization into a violent anarchist feminist. It Happens Tomorrow offers the immobile, spotlighted face of a woman, while her impersonal voice on tape relates her torture as a political prisoner, resulting in near-death. Medea is an alleged rural Italian version of the story told by Euripides, often couched in words closely approximating the original, but placing the emphasis on a more contemporary feminist interpretation of the celebrated infanticide.
As feminist agit-prop for the Italy of the seventies (when most of these pieces were written), this may have been pretty incendiary stuff; for today's America, it is rather passé. Though anti-E.R.A. women may still find it shocking, the rest will consider it mild and obsolescent, as flat as yesterday's beer or yesteryear's revolutions. The men in the audience, being of the kind that frequents such entertainments, find the anti-male jokes and tirades (many of them deserved) hugely amusing, especially if they have a simplistic sense of humor. The more serious playlets (each evening contains two), which have moments of wry merriment, tend to be more interesting because they function more clearly on two levels. Though the comic ones, in turn, have some serious elements in them, these are not enough for an added dimension. On the whole, the satire—sexual or political—is broad and sophomoric; still, there are flashes when something happens: A joke comes alive, a homely truth hits home, an absurdist situation takes on a hallucinatory, surreal reality. But, alas, what vastitudes of stale cake between the raisins d'être. (pp. 42-3)
But, seriously, dear Franca Rame and Dario Fo: One-character plays—is that what theater is fo'? (p. 43)
John Simon, "Eight," in New York Magazine, Vol. 16, No. 32, August 15, 1983, pp. 42-3.
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Dario Fo is a high-spirited Italian dramatist in an Aristophanic tradition who writes plays as if Karl Marx and Groucho Marx were contending for his soul. The result of this unlikely struggle is a species of left-wing political farce, a rare theatrical form regularly practiced in this country only by the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Fo has two reigning passions, not always well integrated in his work—a passion for justice and a passion for the absurd. In We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay!, for example, a play about a consumer's strike in a proletarian district of Milan, he alternates hilarious adultery comedy with such long-winded anticapitalist tirades that even those who share his political position wish he'd get off the stump and back to his raunchy high jinks.
With Accidental Death of an Anarchist …, however, he has found a most congenial parable, where politics is the root of the comedy rather than a didactic graft or transplant. The absurdity in this play is human organization itself. Fo's targets are the corrupt practices of government bureaucracies and state-sponsored agencies, and he has a delicious time ridiculing the evasions and lies of civic functionaries. As a result, Accidental Death of an Anarchist is more radical than even Fo may have intended, for the satire embraces all inhibiting systems, including those of the Eastern bloc. Despite his Communist rhetoric, Fo is, like most comic artists, an anarchist, his enemy being any structure that would restrict the exuberant physical life of humanity. (p. 25)
[The] thin plot is really a pretext for an extraordinary series of riffs and ripostes, as the Fool lampoons, satirizes, and generally unbalances his ludicrously outclassed antagonists. A clone of Groucho, his mockery is a compound of nerve, wit, gall, and energy, as he mangles syntax and logic, confirming the surreal relationship between words and objects. It was Antonin Artaud who first noticed affinities between anarchism and farce—in an essay written, as a matter of fact, on the Marx Brothers. Identifying what he called "the dangerous aspect of all these funny jokes."… Artaud saw the liberating nature of laughter and the revolutionary impulses of anarchism to be one and the same. In Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Fo acknowledges similar links as he conducts a revolt of the body against the state, assaulting all restraints—moral, social, or political—on the irrepressible nature of free men. (pp. 25-6)
Robert Brustein, "Exploding an Anarchist Play," in The New Republic, Vol. 191, No. 25, December 17, 1984, pp. 25-6.