Issue 214 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1997 Copyright Socialist Review

Feature article: Workers' playtime

Tom Behan

This year's Nobel prize for literature has been won by a 71 year old playwright and actor who has been writing and performing for more than 40 For most of the the last 30 years his plays have been performed more than those of any other playwright in the world. In his home country of Italy it is estimated that 3 million people have seen him performing his most famous show, Mistero Buffo.

Popularity on this scale often leads to blandness, you might think. Well, think again. Dario Fo has been a revolutionary socialist for most of his adult life. In September this year he opened a demonstration of 800,000 trade unionists in Milan.

Given the prestige of the award and Fo's unrepentent socialism, commentators have felt obliged to try and define his politics. The Guardian got it wrong when it said that 'in Italy Fo is known primarily as a former member of the Communist Party'. Fo never joined the Italian CP (PCI). He is famous as an antagonist of the PCI.

He didn't win the Nobel prize for his politics, though. Apart from the sheer breadth and popularity of his plays, one of the main reasons behind this decision must be recognition of his amazing skill both as an actor and mime. I first saw him perform in front of a huge 15,000 crowd. The stage was totally bare. He performed Tale of a Tiger, a biting attack on the Chinese Communist Party's alliance with right wing nationalists during the 1920s. He performed for three hours, alone, with just a microphone taped to his chest. At the end he untaped the microphone and handed it over to speakers from the audience, and chaired a revolutionary political debate for the next 45 minutes.

As well as being a source of inspiration, Fo's commitment to the working class has also been repaid by workers' support. As early as 1962 he was banned from television for dealing with a whole series of taboo subjects: the Mafia, building speculation, and working conditions in factories. He refused to accept the censor's cuts and left the studio, causing a spontaneous demonstration once the news was announced the problem for the television channel was that he had built up an audience of 15 million in just seven weeks!

The reason for Fo's break with commercial theatre in 1968 had nothing to do with any belief in anarchism. A mass movement had exploded onto the streets, and for the next ten years Fo performed in his own squatted theatre, in big public squares or in occupied factories. It was these years in which he wrote and performed his best work, such as Accidental Death of an Anarchist (see below) and Mistero Buffo.

Many of Fo's plays, often using examples from Italian labour history, dealt directly with the issues of the mass movement whether to take the road of revolution or that of reform proposed by the Italian Communist Party. The Worker Knows 300 Words, the Boss Knows 1,000 That's Why He's the Boss argues that workers have to reclaim the revolutionary tradition represented by figures such as Antonio Gramsci, an early leader of the PCI. In 1969 the PCI daily called it 'crude, banal and sentimental'.

In 1971 United We Stand! All Together Now! Hang On, Isn't That the Boss? dealt with a factory occupation of 1920 which came close to a revolutionary uprising. He argues that the struggle was sold out by the main parties of the left and trade union leaders.

By the mid-1970s his shows had become so popular that it is widely believed that the huge success of one of his shows, Fanfani Kidnapped, dealt the decisive blow in the failed presidential campaign of top Christian Democrat politician Amintore Fanfani. When he returned to television in 1977 he encountered the wrath of another of his perennial enemies, the Vatican, which described his broadcast the medieval monologues of Mistero Buffo as 'the most blasphemous show in the history of television'.

The Italian establishment sometimes simply can't escape from his popularity. When the distinguished Neapolitan playwright Eduardo De Filippo died in the mid-1980s the government agreed to a state funeral. However, it didn't bargain on De Filippo stipulating that Fo give the funeral ovation. The Christian Democrat ministers had to go, but were seething with anger that the atheist Fo refused to enter and speak in the church, and so they showed their disrespect for both De Filippo and Fo by refusing to stay for his speech on the steps outside.

The mass movement had declined by the late 1970s and Fo therefore had less inspirational material to draw on. After writing and performing two or three plays a year, Fo wrote none at all from 1976 to 1981 as he tried to come to terms with a downturn in working class struggle. He became interested in women's issues, as well as producing plays by other authors such as Bertolt Brecht. He was increasingly obliged to return to the commercial theatrical circuit.

As his work started to be translated he also began to perform overseas. There was a degree of heckling and some walkouts when he performed in London in 1983, as some people thought they had bought a ticket to see a 'revivalist of classic Italian medieval theatre'. At one point he spontaneously launched into a satirical explanation for the real cause of the Falklands War. In 1985 the profits from his Roman shows were donated to the NUM. Still, he has had to face arrest for refusing to allow police to enter his shows, death threats and his wife, Franca Rame was raped and tortured by neo-Nazis.

In recent years the cutting edge of his plays has been blunted by the downturn in mass struggles, and health problems. His response to the prize, though, shows that he is far from being out of touch. His explanation for the award was that 'the system today no longer has any ideas. It is a recognition that awards all those who have fought and struggled.' And he continued, 'The phone calls which have moved me the most have been from Turkey, Afghanistan and Argentina, all from people who have ended up inside for having put on some of my plays. This Nobel prize is theirs as well.'

For English speaking audiences most of his plays are still to be performed. All of his plays are full of irreverent, biting political satire, in very direct language. His popularity around the world derives from the simple fact that he gives the working class a voice which is infinitely louder and richer than that of the establishment.

One of the fundamental components of Fo's work has been an attempt to break down the 'fourth wall' (the 'barrier' between the audience and the actors) of the theatre. Because of his popularity, and the fact that many of his shows are performed outside of the commercial circuit at reduced prices, his performances are normally crowded, and he often spends the first few minutes of his show directing people to empty seats and areas. He often has a drink in the foyer before the show, or talks with friends or striking workers in the audience, before walking on stage from the stalls.

In most of his plays there are two acts, but there are often three acts to his shows. The third act is not a 'performance' and takes place either during the interval or after the end of the final act: it is a discussion in which a striking worker is given the microphone to explain the situation and ask for support, with Fo either taking part in the discussion or just letting people speak for themselves. Alternatively, if the show is new the audience is asked to give its opinion. This constant feedback from a critical audience has meant continuous rewriting but has helped to sharpen his political message.

Much of Fo's work has involved resurrecting popular theatre. His rediscovery of popular medieval theatre has been focused on the role of the giullari, travelling comedians who performed to townspeople or peasants in public squares, an earlier tradition to the better known commedia dell'arte which tended to be a performance art practised solely within a major court of nobles. The giullari did not perform for the aristocracy or the church. Indeed they normally criticised their rulers and were sometimes executed or refused religious burial. According to Fo, giullari were particularly popular amongst the peasantry, as they often criticised the fact that peasants' lands had been seized by greedy landowners. Overall they were the 'illegitimate' or popular theatre of the period.

Fo has sometimes proudly defined himself as a modern giullare of the working class. It is not hard to see why: Fo would often perform Mistero Buffo, in medieval Italian, inside an occupied factory full of modern machinery. He will move from a medieval monologue about a pope or a peasant uprising, to discussing a strike or the latest example of government corruption. He has often described his work as 'throwaway theatre', in the sense that it not only needs to be constantly updated, but that if you are to break down the 'fourth wall' then you should comment on recent events. Consequently Fo often departs from the script and improvises some comments or sketch about current events. If he performs the same play after an interval of a few years the script is normally substantially different.

Some of his plays in translation capture the spirit of Fo, such as Accidental Death of An Anarchist, his most popular play in English. The origins of the play illustrate Fo's close relationship with the mass movement of the time. Modern terrorism began in Italy in December 1969, when a bomb exploded in a Milan bank, killing 16. The police immediately blamed the left and picked up an anarchist, Giuseppe Pinelli, who died 'accidentally' after jumping out of a fourth floor window at police headquarters. There were strong suspicions that the police had killed him and that the secret services had planted the bomb to discredit the left. Fo says 'During the spring of 1970 the comrades who were coming to see our shows workers, students and progressives were asking us to write a full-length piece on the Milan bombings and the murder of Pinelli.'

By the autumn of 1970 the police officer suspected of the murder had taken out a libel case against a left wing paper, Lotta Continua, in an attempt to muzzle all discussion. Fo and his theatre group realised they had to move quickly. Fo recalls, 'We decided not only that it was worth the effort to try, but that it was our duty as political militants. The important thing was to act and to act fast.' Often the group went to the libel trial in the morning, rehearsed these new bits of information in the afternoon, and integrated them into the show that evening.

The show was a smash hit in Milan, despite frequent bomb threats and police harassment. Problems continued on the tour, with police chiefs often leaning on theatre owners to refuse any bookings. This was another reason why Fo ended up playing to audiences in public squares and occupied factories. It is estimated that over a four year period a million people went to see the show. On one celebrated occasion Fo and the rest of the company dressed up as police officers and 'raided' the theatre they were about to perform in. The audience lined up and followed their orders, and some even started eating their address books to stop the police getting them, such was the tense climate of police repression and frameups. The origin of the play reveals not only Fo's general political purpose, but also the influence of Maoist ultra-leftism.

The success of Fo and this play has meant that the real issue, the fact that the bombers have never been convicted, has never ceased to be a public issue. Other anarchists were initially arrested for the bombing and then released, and there have been a series of cover ups and whitewashes when neo-fascists have been brought to trial. In 1987 the Socialist Party Milan council even tried to get the plaque commemorating Pinelli removed from outside the bank, and soon after Fo launched a revival of the play to remind people that the system still had many skeletons in the closet. The anger at the police cover up was such that the officer suspected of killing Pinelli, a prominent figure in the play, was murdered in 1972. Incredibly, one of the former members of Lotta Continua walked into a police station in 1988 and said he knew who had killed the officer. On the basis of his contradictory testimony alone, three ex-members of Lotta Continua were convicted, and lost their final appeal in February this year. All three, now in their 50s, were given 22 year sentences, an act of judicial revenge against the powerful revolutionary organisations which challenged the system in the 1970s.

With no other legal recourse available to them, the three have said they will start a hunger strike. Fo immediately condemned this scandal in his first press conference after winning the Nobel prize, and announced that a substantial amount of the prize money will be donated to the campaign for their release.


Return to Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page