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.