Dario Fo Fo, Dario (Vol. 32) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dario Fo 1929–

Italian dramatist.

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 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."

Geoff Brown

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.

J. W. Lambert

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗

John Lahr

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


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Benedict Nightingale

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.∗

Mel Gussow

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Edith Oliver

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Benedict Nightingale

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Benedict Nightingale

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Frank Rich

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Mel Gussow

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert Brustein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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