As we approach the finale of our Dario Fo Season with Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! opening up in the Set Theatre on March 10th, we take a further look at the man behind the plays.
Dario Fo was born into a world of stories and has spent his life storytelling, culminating in his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1997. Born in 1926 near the Lago Maggiore in Northern Italy, the village of Fo’s childhood was a hive of storytelling, a place of smugglers and glassblowers, travelling storytellers and skilled puppeteers. This is the environment that Fo grew up in and it was one that also developed his knack for humorous irreverence of authority.
His father Felice was an amateur actor and that same strain of storytelling was a strong part of his family. In 1940 he moved to Milan to study architecture but as soon as he got involved in the piccoli teatri (small theatres) movement, his interest soon turned to constructing his own comic monologues and stories. He worked in revue and began to make his mark as a startlingly original comic and mime. He found a voice for his comic monologue on radio as a Poer Nano, a style of character he would continually adopt, a sort of foolish simpleton who in recounting Bible stores, gets things humorously wrong, often in a very satirical way.
The most important relationship of Fo’s life, both professional and personal, was cemented in 1954 when he married the beautiful and talented actress Franca Rame, who like Fo came from a strong theatrical lineage, having grown up in a family of travelling players and making her stage debut at the tender age of 8. Together, they took on and transformed Italy’s theatre scene over the subsequent 50 years.
Italy in the 50’ was a place of tight right wing censorship but at the first sign of any relaxation of the stifling laws, Fo would strike. It was his intention to attack the sacred cows in Italian life, the myths that ‘Fascism had imposed and Christian Democracy had preserved’. He had mixed together his love of commedia dell’arte, the form of improvisational physical theatre of the 16th century, with high spectacle and social commentary. His works were extremely popular with the masses but a familiar element of his career soon emerged: the authorities were nervous. Soon, the police were showing up at performances and scripts were being followed with pocket torches so as to ensure there were no deviations from the submitted texts.
Throughout the 60’s Fo built up a strong body of work and experimented with new modes and forms of theatre, all the while keeping a comic style and a strong sense of disregard for authority. In 1967, he put on his last performance for the bourgeois theatre, The Lady’s Not For Discarding, which saw him brought in for questioning for ‘offensive lines’ attacking a head of state, in this case the US President Lyndon Johnson. At this stage Fo was so fed up with the restrictions imposed on him by mainstream theatre that he decided to set up his own new movement, the co-operative Nuova Scena, a theatrical collective which brought new works to working class estates, factory clubs and trade union halls. It was theatre for those who did not attend theatre. Nuova Scena fizzled out in the early 70’s and in its place Fo and Rame set up La Comune, a company now politically linked to the new Left movement. It was this group that produced Fo’s Accidental Death Of An Anarchist in 1970. Both he and Rame became heavily involved in politics. This had an adverse affect as Rame was kidnapped and assaulted by a fascist gang commissioned by the federal police in 1973 and Fo himself was arrested in Sardinia for refusing to allow police be present at his rehearsals. He was no longer just an actor. He had crossed the divide of mere entertainer and was now a political figure who troubled the authorities gravely. Throughout the 70’s his work remained resolutely anti fascist, anti government, anti church, anti authority. Indeed, it still does.
Over the past 30 years, the importance of Fo’s work has become clear worldwide and despite travel restrictions, censorship and death threats, he and his plays have reached out all over the globe, not least in places where they can politically make the most impact. His Nobel Peace Price was validation of his impact, as was his listing in The Telegraph’s list of 100 Greatest Living Geniuses, where he was ranked joint 7th with Stephen Hawking.
Dario Fo currently lives with his family in a valley outside Perugia. His work still has the capacity to trouble, challenge and question the authorities and the political systems that govern us. Long may it continue.