“A theater, a literature, an artistic expression that does not speak for its own time has no relevance.” – Dario Fo
Dario Fo, the Italian playwright, director and performer whose scathingly satirical work earned him both praise and condemnation, as well as the 1997 Nobel Prize in Literature, died on 13 October 2016 in Milan. He was 90.
His death was confirmed by his Italian publisher, Chiarelettere.
Mr. Fo wrote more than 80 plays, many of them in collaboration with his wife, Franca Rame, who died in 2013, and his work was translated into about 30 languages.
He was best known for “Accidental Death of an Anarchist” (1970), a play based on the case of an Italian railroad worker who was either thrown or fell from the upper story of a Milan police station while being questioned on suspicion of terrorism, and for his one-man show “Mistero Buffo” (“Comic Mystery”), written in 1969 and frequently revised and updated over the next 30 years, taking wild comic aim at politics and, especially, religion.
The church’s attitude toward Mr. Fo had not mellowed a generation later, when he was awarded the Nobel. “Giving the prize to someone who is also the author of questionable works is beyond imagination,” the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano said.
Many critics felt differently. “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,” Mel Gussow wrote in The New York Times in 1983.
Basing their art on the tradition of the medieval jester and the improvisation techniques of commedia dell’arte, Mr. Fo and Ms. Rame thrilled, dismayed and angered audiences around the world. Together they staged thousands of performances, in conventional theaters, factories occupied by striking workers, university sit-ins, city parks, prisons and even deconsecrated churches.
“We’ve had to endure abuse, assaults by the police, insults from the right-thinking and violence,” Mr. Fo said in his Nobel lecture.
The worst episode occurred in 1973 — after a Fo play criticizing the police was presented in Milan — when his wife was kidnapped, tortured and raped by a fascist group later found to have links to members of the carabinieri, the Italian federal police. But Mr. Fo and Ms. Rame riled opponents across the political spectrum.
In 1968, Mr. Fo became persona non grata in much of Communist Europe after he withdrew all rights to the performance of his plays in Czechoslovakia to protest the Soviet-led invasion that toppled the reform Communist government there.
He and his wife were also repeatedly denied entry into the United States because of their ties to the Italian Communist Party.
The couple finally received a brief waiver for the 1984 Broadway opening of “Accidental Death of an Anarchist.”
Mr. Fo attributed the State Department’s change of heart to the intervention of President Ronald Reagan, a former actor. It was, Mr. Fo said dryly, “the gesture of a colleague.” Two years later Mr. Fo and his wife were again allowed to visit, this time to make their joint American debut as performers.
Dario Fo was born on March 24, 1926, in the small northern Italian town of Sangiano. His father, Felice, was a railway stationmaster, socialist and amateur actor, and his mother, Pina Rota, wrote an acclaimed autobiography, “Il Paese delle Rane” (“The Country of Frogs”), about her peasant family.
As a child, Dario would travel in a horse-drawn wagon around the countryside peddling vegetables with his maternal grandfather, who attracted customers by telling them stories spliced with news accounts and anecdotes about local events. Mr. Fo would later do much the same thing onstage.
Another important influence on his artistic development was the tragicomic narrative tradition of the glass artisans near his native town.
“They were the old storytellers, the master glassblowers who taught me and other children the craftsmanship, the art, of spinning fantastic yarns,” Mr. Fo recalled in his Nobel speech. “We would listen to them, bursting with laughter — laughter that would stick in our throats as the tragic allusion that surmounted each sarcasm would dawn on us.”
In 1940, Mr. Fo moved to Milan to study at the Brera Fine Arts Academy. During World War II, he was conscripted into the army but fled and went into hiding with the help of his parents, who were active in the resistance.
His father helped Italian Jews and British prisoners of war escape into Switzerland by train, while his mother tended to wounded partisans who fought against Mussolini, and against the Nazi occupation forces after Mussolini was deposed in 1943.
After the war, Mr. Fo became a stage designer and was swept up by the piccolo teatri, or small theaters, movement, which emphasized improvised monologues on social issues that were presented at affordable prices.
He met Ms. Rame in 1951, while they were acting in a Milanese theater troupe. They married three years later. Their son, Jacopo, born in 1955, became a left-wing political activist and a prolific writer, best known for his 12-volume “Encyclopedia of Sublime Sex.” Mr. Fo is survived by his son.
In the 1950s, Mr. Fo staged productions at the Piccolo Teatro in Milan, though many of them were shut down because of opposition from politicians and church authorities. He also began writing screenplays for, and occasionally acting in, Italian films.
In 1962, Mr. Fo was hired by the Italian state television network, RAI, to write, direct and host “Canzonissima,” a long-running variety show that had a different host every year.
Working with Ms. Rame, he wrote sketches that introduced a note of gritty realism and biting social commentary to a show previously considered light entertainment.
His version of “Canzonissima” was extremely popular, but not with everyone. Sketches that addressed worker safety and other serious issues were censored.
After a sketch about the Mafia killing of a journalist was aired — and condemned by an Italian senator, who told Parliament that “the honor of the Sicilian people is insulted by the claim that there exists a criminal organization called the Mafia” — Mr. Fo and Ms. Rame received death threats and were given police protection.
After a confrontation over censorship that led them to walk off the show, they were barred from the network for 15 years.
In the 1970s, Mr. Fo and Ms. Rame formed the theater group Collettivo Teatrale La Comune, and their work became even more politically radical.
The company presented the premiere of “Accidental Death of an Anarchist” in 1970 and followed it with Mr. Fo’s “Fedayin” (1971), a play about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that included performers who were members of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and “We Won’t Pay! We Won’t Pay!” (1974), a bitter satire in which housewives angered by rising prices steal food from a supermarket and set off events that bring Milan to a standstill.
Despite his spreading worldwide fame over the next two decades, the Nobel Prize came as a surprise to Mr. Fo and many of his supporters, because his eclectic, unorthodox art and his reputation as an onstage jester seemed far removed from the more conventional oeuvre of other literature laureates.
“Yours is an act of courage that borders on provocation,” Mr. Fo told the Swedish Academy.
Throughout his long career, Mr. Fo encouraged directors in Italy and around the world to tailor performances of his plays to local issues. “A theater, a literature, an artistic expression that does not speak for its own time,” he said in his Nobel lecture, “has no relevance.”