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NY Times, Oct. 14 2016
Dario Fo, Whose Plays Won Praise, Scorn and a Nobel, Dies at 90
By JONATHAN KANDELL
Dario Fo, the Italian playwright, director and performer whose
scathingly satirical work earned him both praise and condemnation, as
well as the 1997 Nobel Prize in Literature, died on Thursday in Milan.
He was 90.
His death was confirmed by his Italian publisher, Chiarelettere.
Mr. Fo wrote more than 80 plays, many of them in collaboration with his
wife, Franca Rame, who died in 2013, and his work was translated into
dozens of languages.
He was best known for two works: “Accidental Death of an Anarchist”
(1970), a play based on the case of an Italian railroad worker who was
either thrown or fell from the upper story of a Milan police station
while being questioned on suspicion of terrorism; and his one-man show
“Mistero Buffo” (“Comic Mystery”), written in 1969 and frequently
revised and updated in the decades that followed, taking wild comic aim
at politics and especially religion.
After a 1977 version of “Mistero Buffo” was broadcast in Italy, the
Vatican denounced it as “the most blasphemous show in the history of
The church’s attitude toward Mr. Fo had not mellowed a generation later,
when he was awarded the Nobel. “Giving the prize to someone who is also
the author of questionable works is beyond imagination,” the Vatican
newspaper L’Osservatore Romano said.
Many critics felt differently. “Imagine a cross between Bertolt Brecht
and Lenny Bruce and you may begin to have an idea of the scope of Fo’s
anarchic art,” Mel Gussow wrote in The New York Times in 1983.
Basing their art on the tradition of the medieval jester and the
improvisation techniques of commedia dell’arte, Mr. Fo and Ms. Rame
thrilled, dismayed and angered audiences around the world. Together they
staged thousands of performances, in conventional theaters, factories
occupied by striking workers, university sit-ins, city parks, prisons
and even deconsecrated churches.
Dario Fo in 2008 with a Swedish stamp commemorating his Nobel Prize for
literature. Credit Anders Wiklund/Scanpix, via Reuters
“We’ve had to endure abuse, assaults by the police, insults from the
right-thinking and violence,” Mr. Fo said in his Nobel lecture.
The worst episode occurred in 1973 — after a Fo play criticizing the
police was presented in Milan — when his wife was kidnapped, tortured
and raped by a fascist group later found to have links to members of the
carabinieri, the Italian federal police. But Mr. Fo and Ms. Rame riled
opponents across the political spectrum.
In 1968, Mr. Fo became persona non grata in much of Communist Europe
after he withdrew all rights to the performance of his plays in
Czechoslovakia to protest the Soviet-led invasion that toppled the
reform Communist government there.
He and his wife were also repeatedly denied entry into the United States
because of their ties to the Italian Communist Party.
The couple finally received a brief waiver for the 1984 Broadway opening
of “Accidental Death of an Anarchist.”
Mr. Fo attributed the State Department’s change of heart to the
intervention of President Ronald Reagan, a former actor. It was, Mr. Fo
said dryly, “the gesture of a colleague.” Two years later Mr. Fo and his
wife were again allowed to visit, this time to make their joint American
debut as performers.
Mr. Fo was nevertheless often critical of American military and economic
might and what he saw as its deleterious impact on the world. Days after
the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he drew considerable attention,
and condemnation for a widely circulated email in which he bluntly wrote:
“The great speculators wallow in an economy that every year kills tens
of millions of people with poverty — so what is 20,000 dead in New York?
Regardless of who carried out the massacre, this violence is the
legitimate daughter of the culture of violence, hunger and inhumane
Dario Fo was born on March 24, 1926, in the small northern Italian town
of Sangiano. His father, Felice, was a railway stationmaster, socialist
and amateur actor, and his mother, Pina Rota, wrote an acclaimed
autobiography, “Il Paese delle Rane” (“The Country of Frogs”), about her
As a child, Dario would travel in a horse-drawn wagon around the
countryside peddling vegetables with his maternal grandfather, who
attracted customers by telling them stories spliced with news accounts
and anecdotes about local events. Mr. Fo would later do much the same
Another important influence was the tragicomic narrative tradition of
the glass artisans near his native town.
“They were the old storytellers, the master glassblowers who taught me
and other children the craftsmanship, the art, of spinning fantastic
yarns,” Mr. Fo recalled in his Nobel speech. “We would listen to them,
bursting with laughter — laughter that would stick in our throats as the
tragic allusion that surmounted each sarcasm would dawn on us.”
In 1940, Mr. Fo moved to Milan to study at the Brera Fine Arts Academy.
During World War II, he was conscripted into the army but fled and went
into hiding with the help of his parents, who were active in the resistance.
His father helped Italian Jews and British prisoners of war escape into
Switzerland by train, while his mother tended to wounded partisans who
fought against Mussolini and against the Nazi occupation forces after
Mussolini was deposed in 1943.
After the war, Mr. Fo became a stage designer and was swept up by the
piccolo teatri (small theaters) movement, which emphasized improvised
monologues on social issues presented at affordable prices.
He met Ms. Rame in 1951 while they were acting in a Milanese theater
troupe. They married three years later. Their son, Jacopo, born in 1955,
became a left-wing political activist and a prolific writer, best known
for his 12-volume “Encyclopedia of Sublime Sex.” Mr. Fo is survived by
In the 1950s, Mr. Fo staged productions at the Piccolo Teatro in Milan,
though many of them were shut down because of opposition from
politicians and the church authorities. He also began writing
screenplays for Italian films and occasionally acting in them.
In 1962, Mr. Fo was hired by the Italian state television network, RAI,
to write, direct and host “Canzonissima,” a long-running variety show
that had a different host every year. Working with Ms. Rame, he wrote
sketches that introduced biting social commentary to the show.
His version of “Canzonissima” was extremely popular, but not with
everyone. Sketches that addressed worker safety and other serious issues
After a sketch about the Mafia killing of a journalist was aired — and
condemned by an Italian senator, who told Parliament that “the honor of
the Sicilian people is insulted by the claim that there exists a
criminal organization called the Mafia” — Mr. Fo and Ms. Rame received
death threats and were given police protection.
A final confrontation over censorship led them to walk off the show, and
they were barred from the network for 15 years.
Their work became even more politically radical in the 1970s, when they
formed the theater group Collettivo Teatrale La Comune. The company
presented the premiere of “Accidental Death of an Anarchist” in 1970 and
followed it with Mr. Fo’s “Fedayin” (1971), a play about the
Palestinian-Israeli conflict that included members of the Palestine
Liberation Organization in the cast.
In 1974 they staged “We Won’t Pay! We Won’t Pay!” (1974), a satire in
which housewives, angered by rising prices, steal food from a
supermarket and set off events that bring Milan to a standstill.
His work brought Mr. Fo increasing fame worldwide over the next two
decades, but even so the Nobel Prize came as a surprise to him and his
supporters; in their view his eclectic, unorthodox art and his
reputation as an onstage jester seemed far removed from the more
conventional oeuvre of other literature laureates.
But Mr. Fo was grateful, telling the Swedish Academy, “Yours is an act
of courage that borders on provocation.”
Throughout his long career, Mr. Fo encouraged directors in Italy and
around the world to tailor performances of his plays to local issues. “A
theater, a literature, an artistic expression that does not speak for
its own time,” he said in his Nobel lecture, “has no relevance.”
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