Minstrel of the downtrodden

Through his alternative theatre, Dario Fo (1926-2016) tirelessly targeted four entities: fascist nationalism, elitist Catholicism, corporate capitalism and parliamentary communism.

Published : Oct 26, 2016 12:30 IST

Dario Fo at a campaign meeting for the election of Rome's mayor, on June 3.

Dario Fo at a campaign meeting for the election of Rome's mayor, on June 3.

THE exciting news of Bob Dylan winning this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature was followed, on the same day, October 13, by the sad news of the demise of Dario Fo, the Italian winner of the prize in 1997. The most striking commonality between these two laureates, apart from their avowed anti-imperialist commitment, is that they are primarily performers rather than authors, both trying to politically engage the world with their body and voice rather than with their “texts”. By honouring Dylan, almost two decades after honouring Fo, the Nobel Committee once again problematises the stage/page binary.

Fo had been a permanent rebel and a provocative anarchist in the Italian public sphere since the 1950s. Through his alternative theatre, he tirelessly targeted four entities: fascist nationalism, elitist Catholicism, corporate capitalism and parliamentary communism. The Italian political establishment labelled him a “theatre anarchist”, Catholic heavyweights denounced him as a “blasphemous lout”, a section of communists ridiculed him as an exponent of “comic communism”, and the capitalist United States denied him a visa to protect itself from his “red propaganda”. However, Fo never gave in to these giant walls that stand in the path of political transparency, individual freedom, freedom from exploitation, and revolutionary ideologies. Along with his oppositional theatre, he had been an inseparable part of radical mass movements in Italy from the second half of the last century. He never tried to dissociate himself from the disturbing realities and burning social issues around him. Fo never tried to keep his artistic-activist self away from the social environment or to create an intellectual halo around his political subjectivity. He always plunged into political controversies and swam against the regressive current. His intellectuality was always determined by his immediate sociopolitical environment. His socialist ideology taught him the lesson that art is for people’s sake. Therefore, he never got alienated from the people.

The writings of Karl Marx, Mao Zedong, Antonio Gramsci, and so on provided Fo with his ideological clarity and political orientation. Commenting on the early Marxist leanings and anti-establishment outlook in his theatre, Fo had declared: “Mine has always been a revolt, a rebellion against a hypocritical and deceitful order.” Later on, Marxist theatre practitioners such as Bertolt Brecht, Erwin Piscator and Vsevolod Meyerhold perfected his theatrical insights. Pan-European performance traditions of the Middle Ages such as the Commedia dell’Arte, the giullare and the zanni bestowed Fo with effective weaponry for piercing performances. His wife, colleague and playwright, Franca Rame, supported him and suffered all the consequent persecutions with him.

Fo was an all-round theatre genius. He was primarily a talented actor, besides being an impactful playwright, an amazing theatre director, an insightful theatre theorist and a hilarious mime. For Fo, theatre was not just a platform to express existential vicissitudes and psychological abstractions but was also a means to register dissenting political statements. His theatre was definitely a theatre of the oppressed, intending to arouse the audience’s consciousness against prevailing injustices and exploitation. Fo’s theatre took its raw material from people’s survival issues; he modified these issues theatrically and gave them back to the people in the form of political weapons to fight the perpetrators of exploitation and injustice. Accepting the Nobel Prize, Fo said: “Our task as intellectuals, as persons who mount the pulpit or stage, and who most importantly, address the young people, our task is not just to teach them method, like how to use the arms, how to control breathing, how to use the stomach, the voice, the falsetto, the contra compo. It is not enough to teach a technique or style; we have to show them what is happening around us. They have to be able to tell their own story. A theatre, a literature that does not speak for its own time has no relevance.”

When Brecht dismantled the sequential and structured narrative stylistics of theatre through his epic theatre, it brought about a revolution in the aesthetics of performance. Fo revolutionised theatre by directly attacking the abuse of power by the state, the materialism of spiritual institutions, dehumanising capitalism and the degeneration of revolutionary movements. By directly referring to the agents and institutions of oppression in his plays, Fo set a unique example of political and moral fortitude. His moral guts and political course were instrumental in shaping the cerebral ambience of post Second World War Italy.

Fo was born on March 24, 1926, in Sangiano, in the province of Varese, northern Italy, which had been a hub of art right from the Middle Ages. His father was a railway worker and part-time theatre actor. Fo’s mother had a peasant background. Fo was brought up amidst the children of Lombardian glass-blowers and fishermen whom he would listen to with intense curiosity for their tales of adventures, stories of hypocrisies of authorities, and stories of exploitation by factory bosses. From the working-class people around him, Fo got elementary lessons on the mechanics of storytelling and he was politicised by their experiential narratives. Initially, Fo trained to be a professional architect in Milan. His theatrical debut was in the piccolo teatri (small theatre) movements that performed improvised monologues in Italy in the 1950s. Right from the very beginning of his public appearances, Fo was a politically controversial figure. The scandalised Italian authorities had to cancel his radio programme “Cocorico” while it was being broadcast on RAI (Italian national radio) as he used biblical tales for political satire.

Proletarian concerns

With Archangels Don’t Play Pinball (1959), the Fo-Rame couple shot into international fame. Then they were invited to produce the popular television programme “Canzonissima” in 1962. But they left it unfinished as they refused to accept severe bowdlerisation of the programme. By now they had become celebrities in Italy. They had amazing success in the mainstream proscenium theatre with productions such as The Finger in the Eye (1953), for which they were accused of being the communist enemies of civilisation. Afterwards they produced He Had Two Guns (1960) and Columbus (1963), which exposed the collusion between fascism and capitalism, and the imperialist tendencies of totalitarian states respectively. Very soon Fo and Franca Rame decided to dissociate themselves from the mainstream structures of theatre culture because of the political passivity of their bourgeois audience and because of their empathy with proletarian concerns. Fo had realised that the bourgeoisie would not mind criticism of their own class if it was raised inside the theatrical structures they controlled. The artist-activist couple disengaged itself from such masochist circles realising that “[n]o longer could we act as intellectuals sitting comfortably within and above our own privileges, deigning in our goodness to deal with the predicament of the exploited. We had to place ourselves entirely at the service of the exploited, become their minstrels. Which meant going to work within the structures provided by the working class.”

After their much-considered departure from the mainstream bourgeois theatre in 1968, the couple set up a new acting company, Nuova Scena (New Scene), and started working in collaboration with case del popola (workers’ clubs) affiliated to the Italian Communist Party (PCI). Fo’s path-breaking play Mistero Buffo (1969) belongs to the period of his engagement with the PCI. Etymologically, the title means an “ironic grotesque performance” or a “farcical religious representation”. Mistero Buffo consists of 12 non-sequential monologues delivered in the subversive tone of the medieval itinerant minstrels. In these short vignettes, Fo radically retells apocryphal gospel stories from a peripheral point of view. In the process he demystifies and deconstructs popular Christian legends, thereby giving them a down-to-earth semantics devoid of any estranging glorifications.

Getting fed up with the adjustment policies of the official Left very soon, in 1970 Fo formed a new theatre collective, La Commune (The Group), and started aligning with radical fringe movements and anarchists in Italy. Even though they had bid adieu to the PCI, according to Tom Behan, Fo and his co-activists maintained: “Theatre only has a use if it is connected on the one hand to the masses and their just demands, and on the other hand to the organised vanguard; in order to become one of the thousand vehicles, one of the thousand weapons in the process of a socialist revolution.” Fo’s most radical and politically provoking plays such as Morte accidentale di un anarchico ( Accidental Death of an Anarchist , 1970), Non Si Paga! Non Si Paga! ( Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! , 1973) and Trombette e pernacchi ( Trumpets and Raspberries , 1981) are the theatrical byproducts of his final disengagement with parliamentary communism.

Accidental Death of an Anarchist is a typical agitprop play that intentionally unveils unpleasant truths about the repressive measures of the authoritarian Italian state apparatuses. It exposes the state-sponsored strategy of manufacturing terror to maintain the power status quo in the wake of popular unrest. In this play, through the protagonist, Maniac, Fo resolutely interrogates the men in power for their unconstitutional and immoral suppression of popular protests. By exposing the reality behind the custodial death of Giuseppe Pinelli, a railway worker and anarchist who was accused of planting a bomb in a bank in Milan, this propagandist play vividly demystifies the apparently incomprehensible political manoeuvrings of a manipulative regime that frequently attempts selective manslaughter to cover up its devastating failures on socioeconomic fronts.

Fo’s frank admission of political partisanship in favour of the oppressed class made his theatre direct, sharp, subversive and provoking. He never claimed any type of political neutrality nor did he hide from the public or from his spectators his political orientation towards socialist ideology.

His was a straight theatre in support of the working class and against exploitation. With his plays, he exposed religious falsehoods and cunningness and the complexities of repressive state apparatuses. His no-compromise theatre got him arrested over a dozen times in his homeland, subjected Franca Rame to kidnapping, torture and rape, provoked the Vatican to label Mistero Buffo “the most blasphemous show in the history of television”, and prompted the PCI to label his play The Worker Knows 300 Words, the Boss Knows 1,000, That’s Why He’s the Boss (1969) “crude, banal and sentimental”. Because of Fo’s anti-capitalist position, the U.S. barred his entry into the country in 1980 and 1984 under the pretext of protecting it from the spectre of communism.

Fo’s theatre was an exciting blend of tradition and modernity, seriousness and comedy, ideology and anarchism, and performance and propaganda. Stylistically, he was enormously traditional with no avant-garde experimentation and abstraction. Nevertheless, his artistic, moral and political mission of expressing the feelings of the marginalised sections made his plays absolutely contemporary. Fo’s theatrical incitements and political anarchism were rooted in socialist revolutionary ideology.

Theatre of protest

There are historical reasons why Fo made his theatre deliberately rude and irreverent. He largely imbibed as a method the performance tradition of the giullare . The giullare were medieval jesters who performed irreverent and grotesque short skits at country carnivals on the continent. Their performances were filled with vulgar speech and biting jibes aimed at the corrupt clergy and exploitative feudal lords of the time. They were the theatre anarchists of medieval Europe.

This legacy of theatre of protest, which existed in pre-capitalist European society, provided Fo with fresh tools for mockery and attack.

Fo reinvented and fused seamlessly in his plays the irreverent giullari performance legacy, the sophisticated techniques of slapstick farcical method of the Commedia dell’Arte tradition, and the zannian (peasant clowns) linguistic combination of dialecticism and onomatopoeia.

These traditions emboldened Fo to “emulate the jesters of Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden” (Nobel press release). Fovian theatre stood apart in its intelligent mix of the serious with the trivial, evoking laughter and anger simultaneously. The surprising blend of Gospels with topical issues in Mistero Buffo is a fine example of this peculiar faculty of Fo’s. However, Christ was always a hero for Fo.

Acknowledging Christ’s liberatory message, Fo attacked the elitist nature of institutionalised Christianity with its hierarchies and assorted pomp.

He rightly understood the fatal potential of humour more than any other modern playwright. On the employment of laughter as a weapon in his plays he said: “When the theatre is comic grotesque, it’s above all then you have to defend it because the theatre that makes people laugh is the theatre of human reasons” (Nobel Prize banquet speech). With equal vigour and gravity, Fo had lashed out at the manipulative culture of corporate mass media. He held the view that the mass media often manufactured and manipulated public opinion in the service of political and capital interests. Fit to be Tied (1954) and Grand Pantomime with Flags and Small and Middle-sized Puppets (1971) are examples of Fovian critique of the corporate mass media.

As Fo’s theatre was by design propagandist, the audience was the nucleus of his concern. Usually before the start of a performance, he would take the time to establish a rapport with his audience because he always believed that theatre was a means of communication and propaganda.

If a play was not able to put ideas across to the audience, Fo believed it was an utter failure. Therefore, Fo’s theatrical performances followed the pattern of lecture to demonstration to group discussion of topical social issues. He left no stone unturned to communicate his ideas to the audience.

To ensure maximum audience engagement, he would resort to numerous repetitions, simplifications, detailed explanations, etc., all of which were aimed at helping the audience absorb the sociopolitical content of his interactive theatre. He was of the opinion that “[t]he refusal to assist the audience to follow you is at heart an attitude of pure snobbishness practised by imbeciles; it conceals an insuperable inability, an inability to communicate”.

Vellikkeel Raghavan is a faculty member in the Department of English and Comparative Literature, Central University of Kerala, Kasargod. He holds a PhD in the political theatres of Dario Fo.

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