Italian playwright Dario Fo (born 1926) is known for his satirical and often controversial works. He was awarded the 1997 Nobel Prize in Literature.
Although he has been hailed by critics worldwide for his acting abilities and especially for his artful, satirical works that convey his leftist ideology, Italian playwright Dario Fo was an unexpected winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Literature. Fo, who according to the press release from the Swedish Academy, "emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden," was by his own admission "amazed" to learn that he had won the prestigious award, according to an article by Chicago Tribune contributor Tom Hundley. The Nobel committee's choice was indeed unpopular among many segments of the world population, especially with the Italian government and with the Roman Catholic Church, which have both been favorite targets of Fo's in such works as A Madhouse for the Sane and Mistero buffo. According to an article by the New York Times's Celestine Bohlen, "the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano said it was flabbergasted by [Fo's] selection. 'Giving the prize to someone who is also the author of questionable works is beyond all imagination,' the paper said."
Fo was born on March 24, 1926, in San Giano, a small fishing village in northern Italy where his father, Felice, was a railroad stationmaster and part-time actor. His father and the local storytellers provided the young Fo with his first lessons in the art of dramatic presentation, and he emulated their animated gestures and vocalizations in his own acting performances. He attended the Academia di Belle Arti (Academy of Fine Arts) in Milan, but left without earning a degree, instead opting to write plays and perform with several improvisational theatre groups. Fo's first success as a playwright came with his 1953 work, Il dito nell'occhio (A Finger in the Eye), which was a social satire that presented Marxist concepts with a circus-like backdrop.
Fo became an outspoken opponent of the Italian government with his 1954 play, I sani de legare (A Madhouse for the Sane), which charged several government officials with being fascist sympathizers; the government ordered Fo to cut some of the original material from his script and mandated the presence of state inspectors at each performance of the play to ensure that Italian libel laws were not being broken. Between 1956 and 1958 Fo worked as a screenwriter in Rome, but he returned to the stage and began to produce, along with his wife, actress and playwright Franca Rame, a less conspicuously political variety of satirical plays. Of the works produced during this period of his career, Fo's best is considered by many to be 1959's Gli arcangeli non giocano a flipper (Archangels Don't Play Pinball), which was the first of his plays to be staged outside of Italy.
In 1968 Fo and Rame, with the support of the Italian communist party, formed Nuova Scena, a nonprofit theatre organization whose works were aimed at the working class audience; the couple's decision to form the group was prompted by their rejection of the theatrical establishment. Nuova Scena productions were marked by an intensely radical tone and dealt with political issues of the time. In one such work, 1968's Grande pantomima con bandiere e pupazzi piccoli e medi (Grand Pantomime with Flags and Small and Medium-Sized Puppets), Fo took a satirical look at Italy's political history following World War II, depicting the way in which he believed the communist party had given in to the temptation of capitalism; the Italian communist party withdrew its support of Nuova Scena following the production of Grand Pantomime, and Fo and Rame formed Il Colletive Teatrale La Comune, known as La Comune, in 1970.
Fo was highly popular during the 1960s, perhaps due to the prevailing feelings of social and political upheaval that marked that decade and provided him with exposure to a much broader audience than any with which he had previously been acquainted. Mistero buffo (The Comic Mystery), considered by many to be Fo's foremost work for the stage as well as his most controversial, was first produced in 1969. Although the actual script is improvised and thus changes with each performance, the narrative always involves a depiction of events based upon the gospels of the Bible's New Testament presented in a disparaging manner that accuses the Catholic church, landowners, and the government of persecuting the masses. Fo took the idea for this play from the Middle Ages, when traveling performers known as giullari would enact medieval mystery plays in the streets; in Fo's production, a single actor Fo himself performs the series of sketches on an empty stage, introducing each segment with a short prologue and linking them together, portraying as many as a dozen characters at one time. The parables from the gospels portrayed in Mistero buffo include the resurrection of Lazarus, with pickpockets who steal from those who witness the miracle, the story of a crippled man who avoids Jesus' healing power because he makes a good living as a beggar, and a scornful depiction of the corrupt activities of Pope Boniface VIII.
Mistero buffo was broadcast on television in 1977, and, according to an Atlantic Monthly article by Charles C. Mann, the Vatican proclaimed the work to be "the most blasphemous" program ever televised; Fo was, as Mann reported, delighted with the church officials' response. Despite the church's disapproval, or perhaps because of it, Mistero buffo was a popular success throughout Europe; when it was performed in London in 1983, the revenue brought in by the play was enough to save the theatre in which it was produced from financial ruin. Fo and Rame were eventually given permission to enter the United States in 1986, after having been denied visas in both 1980 and 1984 because of reports that they had helped to raise funds to support an Italian terrorist organization; the couple denied taking part in any such activities. Mistero buffo opened in New York City in the spring of 1986, and was hailed by the New York Times's Ron Jenkins as "a brilliant one-man version of biblical legends and church history" whose humor "echo[es] the rhythms of revolt."
In response to the premature death of anarchist railway worker Giuseppi Pinelli in 1969, Fo composed the absurdist play Morte accidentale di un anarchico (Accidental Death of an Anarchist), which was the only one of his plays produced during his La Comune period to become an enduring favorite and a popular success. Pinelli's death was, Fo believed, the result of a plot by right-wing extremist members of the Italian military and secret service to undermine the credibility of the Italian Communist party by executing a string of bombings and making it appear that they were the work of leftist terrorists. Pinelli was charged with the 1969 bombing of the Agricultural Bank of Milan, one of the most devastating of the bombings that killed numerous innocent bystanders. At some point during the time in which the railway worker was held for interrogation by police in Milan, he fell later it was argued that he was pushed from a window on the fourth floor of police headquarters.
In Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Fo's play based on the events surrounding Pinelli's death, Fo uses a character known as the maniac to reveal the attempts by the police to cover up the truth. In an article in American Theatre, Fo observed: "When I injected absurdity into the situation, the lies became apparent. The maniac plays the role of the judge, taking the logic of the authorities to their absurd extremes." In this way, Fo was able to demonstrate that Pinelli was murdered, and could not have died accidentally as the police maintained. Los Angeles Times contributor John Lahr reported that around the time Accidental Death of an Anarchist was first staged Fo was assaulted and imprisoned and Rame was kidnapped and brutalized as punishment for their part in exposing the police cover-up.
Accidental Death of an Anarchist was enormously popular in Italy, and attracted large audiences during the four years following its first production. In a review of the play in New Society, John Lahr proclaimed it "loud, vulgar, kinetic, scurrilous, smart, [and] sensational…. Everything theatre should be." Although the play was also popular in London, where it ran successfully for two and a half years, it failed to win over audiences in the United States in 1984, when it opened and closed within a matter of months.
Most commentators assert that Fo's plays are not as popular with American audiences as they are with European audiences because they are loosely translated into English or performed in Italian, and because they are based upon historical, political, and social events that even if they are known to Americans are not as significant to them as they are to Europeans. New York Times contributor Mel Gussow contended that "dealing with topical Italian materials in colloquial Italian language … presents problems for adapters and directors." Specifically, critics faulted as distracting the use of an onstage translator during an American performance of Mistero buffo, and characterized a production based upon the English translation of Accidental Death of an Anarchist as considerably less effective than the original Italian production. The New York Times's Frank Rich declared that the insertion of puns based on contemporary American occurrences into the script of Accidental Death by adapter Richard Nelson served to "wreck the play's farcical structure and jolt both audience and cast out of its intended grip."
During the 1980s Fo collaborated extensively with Rame, and the couple produced several plays with distinctly feminist themes. Their most successful of these plays was Tutta casa, letto e chiesa, which is comprised of eight monologues that focus on women's position in a male-dominated society. The work, which includes a varying number and combination of the eight monologues in each production, was performed in England and the United States under several different titles, including Woman Plays, Female Parts, and Orgasmo Adulto Escapes from the Zoo. According to the Washington Post's David Richards, who reviewed an American production of the play, although the play is admirably candid, because it depicts a brand of sexism practiced more commonly in Italy, the play "may have lost some of its punch crossing the Atlantic," noting that to American audiences "the women in Orgasmo seem to be fighting battles that have long been conceded on these shores." Another of Fo and Rame's woman-centered plays, 1974's No se paga! No se paga! (We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay!), concerns a group of homemakers who organize a boycott of their local supermarket to protest its outrageous prices; this play was a moderate success in the United States when it was produced Off-Broadway in 1980 and enjoyed a fairly lengthy run.
Fo has continued to produce works that provoke anger and controversy. His 1992 play, The Pope and the Witch, which has as its subject a news conference during which the Pope, as described by New York Times contributor Celestine Bohlen, "confuses a children's gathering in St. Peter's Square with an abortion rights rally," incited fury among Catholics worldwide. His 1997 play, Devil with Boobs, is, according to Bohlen, "a comedy set in the Renaissance featuring a zealous judge and a woman possessed by the devil." Fo has also continued to appear in productions of his works, and his acting style has been compared to that of the members of the comedy troupe Monty Python, but most often Fo as an actor is "compared to the comedian Lenny Bruce for his activism, scatological humor, sarcasm and barely submerged bitterness," as New York Times contributor Rick Lyman related. Nevertheless, Lyman continued, a comparison between Bruce and Fo "ignores a chameleonlike aspect to [Fo's] performances that recalls [comedian] Sid Caesar. In a style reminiscent of Mr. Caesar's double-talk routines, Mr. Fo uses a gibberish called 'grammelot,' often accompanied by a 'translator.' The language is a jumble of syllables that evokes, without actually simulating, Italian, French and American technological jargon."
Because his works have invited such tremendous controversy throughout the world, and because although some of his plays have been successful outside of Italy he is by far more popular and well-known to Italians than to the rest of the world, it was a shock to many when it was announced that Fo would receive the 1997 Nobel Prize for Literature. The announcement, according to the New York Times's Bohlen, was greeted with "the guarded amazement of Italy's literary establishment and the outright dismay of the Vatican." In its press release, published on the Nobel Prize Internet Archive, the Swedish Academy declared that Fo's plays "simultaneously amuse, engage and provide perspectives…. Hisisan oeuvre of impressive artistic vitality and range." Despite the furor surrounding his selection as a Nobel laureate, Fo has maintained his characteristic irreverence; as related in an unsigned article in the Chicago Tribune covering his news conference to discuss his prize, Fo remarked on the controversy surrounding his selection: "God is a jester because he bitterly disappointed a lot of people, including the Vatican newspaper. I feel almost guilty, but it was a great joke on them." Fo's plans as a Nobel laureate have included using his status to promote the fight for civil rights in such countries as China, Algeria, Turkey, and Argentina, and donating portions of his $1 million prize to the movement to ban the use of land mines and to aid the legal defense of three men Fo has steadfastly proclaimed their innocence prosecuted for the 1971 murder of the police officer who was in charge of interrogating Giuseppe Pinelli, the railway worker whose death was the inspiration for Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist. At the time he announced his intentions for his prize money, Fo had already outlined a sequel to Accidental Death based upon one of the accused men's struggle to prove his innocence.
American Theatre, June 1986.
Atlantic Monthly, September 1985.
Chicago Tribune, October 9, 1997; October 10, 1997; October 11, 1997; November 6, 1997.
Los Angeles Times, January 16, 1983; January 21, 1983.
New Society, March 13, 1980, pp. 559-60.
New York Times, December 18, 1980; April 17, 1983; August 5, 1983; August 14, 1983; August 27, 1983; February 15, 1984; October 31, 1984; November 16, 1984; May 29, 1986; May 30, 1986; May 9, 1987; November 27, 1987; October 10, 1997.
Washington Post, August 27, 1983; November 17, 1984; January 17, 1985; June 12, 1986.
Nobel Prize Internet Archive, http://www.almaz.com (October 9, 1997).
Swedish Academy Press Release, The Permanent Secretary, Nobel Prize Internet Archive, http://www.almaz.com (October 9, 1997).