Dario Fo: Ideas That Outrage

Above Photo: Dario Fo.

Dario Fo, who died this past week, was a great playwright of the years of unrest and rebellion in the 1960s and ’70s. His plays such as Accidental Death of an Anarchist and Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! were hilariously cutting critiques of life under capitalism as it went into crisis. His style of theatre was like a Brecht play performed by the Marx Brothers in the age of TV. They even became long running hits in London’s West End.

Brian Mulligan, a teacher, writer and performer who was part of the “alternative comedy” scene of the 1980-90s, said:

“I saw Accidental Death of An Anarchist in London in 1980 – it only changed my life.

I’d studied Brecht and O’Casey whose great works of political theatre remain relevant but which were somehow not so immediately ours. Fo became ours and remained so – political comedy darker than I’d seen.

I researched Fo – his commitment to performing in factories, Union halls and political rallies; arrests by a state frightened at the power of his work; the kidnapping and beating of Franca Rame (his partner in all) by fascists, above all his updating of the commedia dell’arte/strolling players.

Another Fo piece – Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! – set in a supermarket where the customers refuse to pay increased prices was soon running in London too. It did the job: resistance to a hike in London bus fares used the slogan from the play on stickers to challenge the increase. So much for immediate impact…

Years later I sang satirical songs on the 24 hour vigil at the South African Embassy, on Nurses picket lines and Miners marches – aware I was following the tradition Fo introduced me too.

It seems that, like the Velvets’ first LP, many of the 1980 audience went on to produce art that challenged the status quo – a legacy indeed.”

Behind the praise and accolades that are currently being showered on Dario Fo by even the Italian prime minister, there are the real political circumstances in which Fo and his lifetime partner Franca Rame performed their work. This is best expressed by my late friend Tom Behan, in his biography Dario Fo – Revolutionary Theatre (Pluto 2000):

“Fo has been arrested, challenged to duels by right wing journalists, the object of over 40 court cases with accusations ranging from blasphemy, obscenity, slander, to subversion and for many years his performances ran the risk of bomb attacks from neo-fascists. Both his house and theatre have been firebombed. In 1973 Rame suffered even more: she was kidnapped, tortured and raped by neo-fascists.

In 1980 at the height of his success he was denied a visa to enter the United States, an action which led to a demonstration by artists and intellectuals including Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller and Martin Scorcese.”

When the Nobel Foundation awarded him the prize for literature in 1997 they said he “emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden”. When he received the prize he said the award was also for “the people in countries like Turkey, Afghanistan and Argentina who had been jailed for performing my plays. And for those people I met in factory occupations and on the way here today who said, “We’ve all won a bit of this prize”.

Fo’s consistent and passionate support for working class struggles was at the base of his popularity and inspiration. Fo never joined the Italian Communist Party (despite the Guardian claiming so when he won his Noble prize) and always denounced its Stalinism, reformism and bureaucracy. Indeed he became persona non grata in much of Stalinist Europe after he withdrew all rights to the performance of his plays in Czechoslovakia to protest the invasion in 1968.

As a child Dario followed his amateur actor father who worked on the railways, and absorbed oral storytelling traditions in taverns and town squares. He learned narrative techniques from his grandfather, a farmer who traveled the countryside telling satirical anecdotes about local news to attract customers to buy his produce. “They were the old storytellers, the master glassblowers who taught me and other children the craftsmanship, the art, of spinning fantastic yarns,” 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.”

As a student, he was called up to the army of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, but escaped, hid in an attic for the last few months of the war and helped the partisans smuggle people into Switzerland.

He first received praise and censure in 1953 for the play A Finger in the Eye. Some churches warned their parishioners not to go to see the play, which the atheist Fo described as “a satirical critique of every conceivable subject”.

In 1962 he was banned from TV for dealing with taboo subjects such as the mafia, building speculation and factory working conditions. The problem for the TV channel was he had built up an audience of 15 million in just seven weeks and spontaneous demonstrations happened at the TV studios when viewers heard he’d been banned.

Fo left conventional theatre in 1968 because of the mass movement which had exploded across much of western world and for the next ten years he performed with his company La Comune in their squatted theatre, in public squares and occupied factories. The company presented the premiere of Accidental Death of an Anarchist in 1970 and followed it with Fo’s Fedayin (1971), a play about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that included members of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the cast.

Franca Rame helped Fo write many of his plays, including his most celebrated work in Italy, Mistero Buffo (“A Comic Mystery”). Denounced as “the most blasphemous show ever transmitted on television” by the Vatican, it was a collection of short scenes depicting stories from the Bible as told by the powerless.

In Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! the price of food is so high that the women shoppers spontaneously liberate bags and bags of shopping under the noses of the shop managers. The trade union husbands in the factory hear about what is happening. They are suspicious of who is behind such an unlawful act. The communist shop steward is outraged by the behaviour but knows his wife wouldn’t get involved in such a “distraction from the class struggle”. Like the other women of course his wife is up to her neck in liberated goods and having to hide them from him.

Accidental Death of an Anarchist is about the real case of an anarchist rail worker arrested and questioned by police – who fell to his death from a 4th floor window of Milan’s police headquarters. The story follows an apparent lunatic who invades the police HQ and creates clever chaos causing the cops to cross examine each other and reveal the rotten core of the criminal justice system. The play premièred in Milan and has since been performed in more than 40 countries.

The West End production became so popular that it was produced on TV, and although the technology has dated and most modern productions pride themselves on incorporating up to the minute commentary, it has largely stood the test of time.

Fo didn’t mellow with age. Days after September 11, 2001, he wrote:

“The great speculators wallow in an economy that every year kills tens of millions of people with poverty – so what is 20,000 dead in New York? Regardless of who carried out the massacre, this violence is the legitimate daughter of the culture of violence, hunger and inhumane exploitation.”

Andrew Smith, who performed in a version of Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! which I directed, adds:

“One thing, I hope, is certain. We shall never have heard the last of Dario Fo. He not only commented on a world that was already turned upside-down but acted in the true sense of the word. How appropriate that such a playwright wrote about the bosses funeral. I hope his funeral is not appropriated in any way but is one of mirth, jollity, frippery and froppery and a healthy dose of satire. In a word: bathos. I loved the way he interceded with the medieval tradition and came right up to date with the modern buffoons and political mafia and mocked capitalism and supported struggle in word and deed.”

Earlier this year Fo said, “I still have ideas that I want to pursue, and this outrages me.”

A version of this article is also published at revolutionary socialism in the 21st century.