Actor, playwright, theatre manger, activist: Dario Fo's legacy will live on, writes Jackie Mulhallen
On 13 October 2016, the day when the joyful news arrived that the Nobel Prize for Literature had been awarded to Bob Dylan, we were told the sad news that Dario Fo, who won that Nobel Prize himself in 1997, had died. Neither were conventional ‘literary’ prize winners but just as Dylan’s songs have continued to inspire succeeding generations of anti-war and anti-racist activists, Fo’s plays are frequently revived and find new relevance. Accidental Death of an Anarchist was based on an incident which happened in Italy, but murders in police custody and cover ups continue to happen, and until they don’t, the play will not be out of date. It was last seen in London in 2003, but in England alone it has been performed in Scarborough, Cornwall and Leicester since then, and also in India, Australia and California. Fo himself never stopped working, nor intended to. On 6 October he was to travel to Edinburgh to attend an exhibition of his art (Dancing with Colours, Whipping with Words) which runs until 30 October, but his illness prevented him.
Fo’s commitment to politics was never less than wholehearted and lifelong. His father was a committed anti-Fascist and in the Resistance, and Fo followed him in his views, becoming involved in leftwing politics when he moved to Milan as a student in the 1940s. In 2005 he ran for Mayor of Milan, and he remained committed to the working-class, and anti-war, anti-Fascist and climate change activity. At the same time, he had a total commitment to political theatre, which was neither opportunist nor superficial. While he himself did not have a theatre background, his wife Franca Rame came from a famous theatrical family, and he paid tribute to her talent, knowledge, and the way that she inspired him. Rame was no less an anti-Fascist, and was raped and tortured by Fascists in 1975.
Fo was a brilliant actor, mime and acrobat and a director of vision who gave back to the working classes a theatre which was irreverent, boisterous, noisy, using acrobatics, song, dancing, mime and clowning. He had performed with Rame, and, after their work on television was banned – despite overwhelming popularity – they formed theatre companies together and travelled round Italy. They did not use conventional theatre space or conventional techniques, but especially performed in workplaces and community halls. The idea of a theatre as an elite space for middle class audiences completely revolted him.
Fo’s plays made political points which could not be ignored, and they were translated and performed all over the world. Fo researched his plays thoroughly, realising that good research is a basic necessity for a political play. I saw a production of Can’t Pay! Won’t Pay! (Non si paga, non si paga) in a country town in Finland in 1978, shortly after it was produced in Italy. In this play, based on actual events, prices were spiralling so high that ordinary people could not afford them and decided that they would only pay the original price before the price hikes. Like Accidental Death of an Anarchist, this play continues to be performed - in England as recently as 2012 and in France in 2014!
Fo would refuse permission for his plays to be performed on occasions because he realised that they could be ruined in the hands of those who wanted them for an audience other than the working class one wrote for. The inspiration for his style came from the strolling medieval players, the giullari, who travelled from town to town, setting up in market places and playing to the crowd, the ordinary people they belonged to. The commedia dell’arte developed from this, using acrobatics, clowning and quick-witted improvisation in open-air performances. At a time when, in the theatre, women’s parts were played by men, a talented commedia actress, Isabella Andreini, was mourned all over Europe when she died young in 1604. The great commedia companies did perform at courts on occasions, but they never lost their irreverence. In fact the commedia were turned out of France at the end of the seventeenth century for supposedly insulting Louis XIV’s mistress.
Fo incorporated these techniques and this history into his own work, his liveliness, accessibility and humour drawing on a long tradition which is an inspiration to anyone interested in touring theatre for working class audiences. He wrote about them in a valuable book, translated into English by Joseph Farrell as The Tricks of the Trade (London: Methuen, 1991). In the 1990s, following a stroke, he renewed his interest in art and art history, ‘applying the same principles that lay behind his concept of ‘popular theatre’. As Joseph Farrell has said, ‘Fo’s habitat is tradition, but his instincts are popularising.’1
Many of the political theatre companies which flourished in this country in the 1970s were inspired by Fo. He will be greatly missed but he will also continue to inspire us.
1‘Dario Fo the Unknown Artist’, October 2016, shortly to be available on the Scottish Review of Books