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Mistero Buffo: Comic Mysteries stands as Fo’s most important one-person play. The playwright drew on religious and secular stories, and he played all the roles in the tradition of a medieval jongleur who presents the underdog’s disrespect for authority. For many characters Fo created a language culled from northern Italian dialects. Mixing the sacred and the burlesque, the episodes subvert accepted wisdom and challenge entrenched authority. Among the play’s twelve episodes is a key text, “The Birth of the Jongleur,” in which the jongleur figure is a serf whose land is taken from him, and whose family is destroyed through the tyranny of a feudal lord aided by the Church. The despairing peasant is saved from suicide by the appearance of an antiestablishment Christ, disguised as a stranger, who endows him with hope and the eloquence to spread the message to the oppressed underling to oppose the rich and powerful. His mission is political—to be the articulate spokesman for the exploited. The theme is repeated in a companion piece, “The Birth of the Villeyn,” as the master of a serf born from an ass’s rectum is advised by an angel to treat him harshly since he has no soul, thus predicting the underling’s sad future.

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Other gospel stories bear similar approaches and themes. The title characters of “The Morality Play of the Blind Man and the Cripple,” meeting Christ en route to Calvary, attempt to flee to avoid his miraculously curing their afflictions and thus restoring them to a master’s subjugation. A miracle is demythicized in “The Wedding Feast at Cana” by a bibulous peasant who describes the event as a drunken party, and in “The Resurrection of Lazarus,” as peasants describe a fairground spectacle with graphic references to the smell and sight of Lazarus’s decomposing, worm-ridden body. “Boniface VIII” illustrates the capacity of a vain, supercilious pope to oscillate between arrogance and humility when confronted by Christ carrying the cross.

The play contains four texts about the Passion, two of which display the irreverence of the common-man jongleur toward sacred events. As the Fool in “Death of the Fool,” the jongleur plays cards at the inn housing the Last Supper, distracting and seducing Death, who is embodied as a grieving virgin who has come to take Christ away, but is diverted from her purpose. The same figure in “The Fool Beneath the Cross” wins Christ’s body on the cross only to have the body...

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