Date: Fri, 10 Oct 97 09:25:31 CDT
Nobel stuns Italy's left-wing jester
London Times, 10 October 1997
I'm dedicating this post to RG Davis who, thirty or so years ago, led the SFMimeTroupe everywhere to present Fo's ideas to the crowds - and thereby to promote peace and justice.
DARIO FO, the Italian playwright and actor best known for his biting satires on the Establishment, for performances in the commedia dell'arte tradition and for regarding the old Italian Communist Party as too right-wing, was yesterday awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature by the Swedish Academy.
Signor Fo, 71, son of a station master, said: "I am flabbergasted." He was not alone: the theatre world was just as taken aback, particularly as Salman Rushdie and Arthur Miller had been strongly tipped to win.
In Britain at least, while Signor Fo has written more than 40 plays, he is most associated with The Accidental Death of an Anarchist about a railway worker who "accidentally" falls from the window of a Milan police station which was written as long ago as 1970. But for many, as one critic noted, he is "the people's artist" who breaks down barriers: on one occasion, a staggering 16,000 crammed into a sports hall in Turin to see his solo performance.
Despite his delight, even Signor Fo's publisher, Michael Earley of Methuen, was shocked. However much Signor Fo is "a first-class theatrical genius, we were never expecting this to happen", he said. He pointed out that the Nobel committee had often acted in mysterious ways. Mr Rushdie and Mr Miller were strongly tipped to win, but the Nobel organisers had told Mr Earley that they would be "too predictable, too popular".
Benedict Nightingale, theatre critic of The Times, has described Signor Fo as "one of the funniest playwrights and performers alive". But news of the Nobel came as "quite a surprise". He added: "What's interesting is that he's basically a performer. His roots go back to the commedia dell'arte tradition. He writes for himself and performs himself, sometimes with his wife. He's a brilliantly talented clown. This choice is a wayward one. It's rather lightweight."
Signor Fo's plays, which include Can't Pay? Won't Pay!, have been translated into dozens of languages. He has continued to perform despite a stroke that partly blinded him last year.
To say he has really lived is an understatement. During the war the playwright helped his father, a member of the Italian Resistance, to smuggle stranded Allied soldiers across the border into neutral Switzerland.
He has also suffered for the sake of his art: it is said that he has been jailed, beaten and threatened with assassination and has had homes and theatres bombed and burnt.
Humour is his weapon. His political outlook clearly is influenced by his background. His one-man Mistero Buffo is one of his masterpieces: its lampooning of the Roman Catholic Church through a retelling of the Gospels was premiered in 1969 and won him worldwide acclaim, as well as censure by Rome. The televised version, which was recorded and screened in 1977, was condemned by the Vatican as "the most blasphemous show in the history of television".
He has collaborated as both writer and performer on many of his works with his wife, Franca Rame, once called "Italy's Rita Hayworth". In 1968 they established a non-profit-making troupe with backing from the Italian Communist Party with a mission to entertain the working classes.
Signor Fo wrote plays for people in factories and workers' clubs, but found that they inspired audiences internationally. In 1970 he and his wife founded the political collective, La Comune, in Milan, writing plays such as Trumpets and Raspberries, The Pope and the Witch and Archangels Don't Play Pinball, satirising and savaging the Church, the State, corruption and drug addiction.
One critic said in 1992: "Political fervour may be on the wane in the 1990s, but Fo's plays manage to be as popular with regular theatre audiences as with his faithful followers. Legalisation of drugs is not a hot issue in this country, but the corruption of those in power is always with us."
Signor Fo once said: "I believe in making people look at problems through comedy. You can make an audience laugh just for the sake of having fun, or you can make them laugh about social subjects, the Establishment, the cliches around us.
"I prefer the last way. If you can make people laugh, you can open up their minds." He told The Times: "You remember things much better through laughter than through tears."