Dario Fo, the 20th century jester (1926-2016)


From the cover of Dario Fo a Milano: lazzi, sberleffi e dipinti (S950.c.201.296)

Writing this blogpost about Dario Fo, I am filled with emotion. Back in August, nearly two months before his death (and when he already knew his illness was terminal), the 90 year-old Italian actor, playwright, theatre director, stage designer, songwriter, painter and political activist performed on stage for two hours and finished the show singing. I was lucky enough to see him perform when he was “only” in his late 70s, and I still remember his incredible vitality and wit, his eyes shining with youthful enthusiasm, his humanity, irony and cutting words causing simultaneous laughter and deep reflection.

Dario Fo won the Nobel Prize in 1997 for “[emulating] the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden”. In line with this statement, he used the entirety of his prize money to set up a non-profit organization working to help people with disabilities. His most famous and iconic work, “Mistero buffo” (1969), is a series of monologues based on biblical themes, portraying social injustices and the abuses perpetrated by ecclesiastical hierarchies (it provoked a furious reaction from the Vatican when it was first shown on television in 1977). The monologues are told in “grammelot”, a language inspired by the medieval jesters’ improvisations, a parodic combination of sounds and intonations from an established language (Italian, French or English) and techniques of mimicry.  The Library holds a 2003 expanded edition updated with all the changes made over the years and in over 500 performances in Italy and abroad from 1969 to 2003 (740:79.d.200.4). An English translation is available at 1988.7.792. However, to truly gain a sense of Dario Fo’s work, one should also witness him in action. Here he is performing a piece about Zanni, a man so poor and starving that he would willingly eat himself. He dreams about cooking a lavish meal, only to wake up in despair:


Dario Fo and Franca Rame with their son Jacopo in 1962 (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Library’s holdings by and on Dario Fo are extensive and mostly in Italian (although we do also have many holdings in English and German), ranging from his plays (many also in English translation), interviews and critical works to his texts on theatre and performance, as well as exhibition catalogues of his own artistic works. Many of Fo’s works were written in collaboration with Franca Rame (1929-2013), his wife and muse for nearly 60 years. An actress, playwright and activist herself, Franca Rame was kidnapped and raped in the early Seventies by a group of neofascists, as retaliation for her political activism. The couple’s archive, containing photographs, manuscripts, video and audio records, drafts, drawings, contracts, articles and much more, has been digitised and can be found here and in the Library’s A-Z list of databases. Throughout their careers, Fo and Rame were often ostracised by the political mainstream and media in Italy because of their views. Nevertheless, they remained true to themselves and extremely active to the end, their story and art deeply intertwined with Italy’s history and society. They will remain a source of inspiration to many for years to come.

Clara Panozzo

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