Dario Fo, a rubber-limbed, goggle-eyd writer and performer whose onstage antics offended popes and presidents, bureaucrats and bamboozlers, con artists and conservatives of every stripe, died today at home in Milan. His death was confirmed by his Italian publisher, Chiaralette.
In 1997, the Swedish Academy extended Fo’s gadfly reach by awarding him the Nobel Prize in Literature, moving William Donohue, spokesman for the New York-based Catholic League, to write, “I am well aware of the extent to which literature has become thoroughly politicized and debased in the West. Giving the Nobel Prize in Literature to an anti-Catholic bigot, and to a man who describes his own scatological work as ‘grotesque,’ settles the issue: the deans of literature enjoy celebrating what the common folk regard as trash.”
Many others disagreed with that assessment of the author, often with his wife, Franca Rame, of such works as Accidental Death Of An Anarchist, Mistero Buffo and We Won’t Pay! We Won’t Pay! (also known as Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay). Merging the roustabout acting style of Italian commedia dell’arte and the scathing social satire of Molière, Fo and Rame were unapologetic anti-capitalists who routinely skewered power figures. The result was often blistering, and blisteringly funny, as the couples’ rare performances in New York and on tour demonstrated. They also were personally dangerous: Fo and Rame were always surveilled, often arrested, and not infrequently subject to violent threats and, indeed acts: After performing an anti-police show in Milan in 1973, Rame was kidnapped, tortured and raped by fascist thugs.
The couple, who worked as a unit, were themselves a study in contrasts, Rame a classic beauty with an elegant air; Fo a natural clown with a passing resemblance to Rodney Dangerfield. They took their theater to the streets of cities all around the world, and found kindred souls in New York with such companies as Theater For The New City and Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s Living Theatre. In 1984, producer Alexander Cohen brought the Arena Stage’s production of the 1970 Accidental Death Of An Anarchist, which had been adapted by American playwright Richard Nelson, to Broadway’s Belasco Theatre, where it closed after 20 performances.
From the beginning of their careers at Milan’s famed Piccolo Teatro, Fo and Rame, who died in 2013, used their platform to champion the rights of workers, poor people and the disenfranchised, and to protest establishments political, social and religious, often drawing stern rebukes and nearly as often infuriating even their most ardent supporters.
Accepting the Nobel, Fo remarked in words that find a strong echo in today’s announcement that Bob Dylan had won the Prize for Literature this year: “A theater, a literature, an artistic expression that does not speak for its own time,” he said, “has no relevance.”
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