Dario Fo, who died on 13 October 2016, was a major international theatrical figure, and one who also had political commitment. His work was written for and about working-class issues and in 1997 this resulted in his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature because he ‘emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden’.
As a playwright, Fo’s plays made political points which could not be ignored, and they were translated and performed all over the world. His most frequently performed plays were Accidental Death of an Anarchist and Can’t Pay! Won’t Pay!, both of which were based on real life political events during the 1970s, and are performed regularly today. Fo researched his plays thoroughly, realising that good research is a basic necessity for a political play. In Can’t Pay! Won’t Pay! (Non si paga, non si paga), 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. Accidental Death of an Anarchist was based on the death in police custody of Giuseppe Pinelli.
Fo was a political activist all his life, following his father who was a committed anti-Fascist. His politics and commitment to the working class certainly informed his work as a writer, actor and theatre manager. Not originally from an acting family – his father was a carpenter – Fo became an actor as a student and teamed up with Franca Rame, later his wife. Rame came from a famous theatrical family, and he paid tribute to her talent, knowledge, and the way that she inspired him.
Neither of them wanted to perform only for the middle classes, and they used techniques which derived from the traditional Italian theatre to make their performances accessible to working-class audiences. The medieval giullari and their successors, the commedia dell’arte were touring companies which used improvisation, acrobatics, masks, mime, song, dance and clowning to entertain in market places. The commedia dell’arte were international, and even developed their own language to communicate with non-Italian speakers. They toured Europe, bringing back foreign influences to the Italian theatre.
They inspired Moliere and ended up at the court of Louis XIV, but they never lost their irreverence and were turned out of France for satirising the king’s mistress. Fo incorporated these techniques, of which he was a master, into his own work.
Fo was an inspired theatre manager. He and Rame formed companies which toured Italy and visited workplaces, community centres and other non-conventional theatre spaces. His liveliness, accessibility and humour and the long tradition which he valued so much 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). The political side of his life is explored in Dario Fo Revolutionary Theatre by Tom Behan (Pluto, 2000). 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.
Jacqueline Mulhallen is an actor and playwright and the author of Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary (Pluto 2015). She is touring with her one woman show Sylvia (about Sylvia Pankhurst) with Lynx Theatre and Poetry from March – May 2017.
Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary is available to buy from Pluto here.