Even before the headlines filled with the announcement of Bob Dylan’s winning the Nobel Prize for Literature for 2016, another great Nobel Laureate for literature quietly exited the world stage on the same day, at the age of 90, leaving behind his genius, an astonishing range of creativity, satarical wit and comic sense combined with a deep humanity.
With comedy I can search for the profound.
Dario Fo was an Italian playwright and actor, a comedian, as well as a singer, songwriter, mime, theatre director, set-designer (often painting his own sets), whose plays have been translated and performed widely across the world. He began writing novels at the age of 88 and published five. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1997 for his plays, most famously Accidental Death Of An Anarchist, Mistero Buffo, and Tale of a Tiger.
Misterio Buffo, (Comic Mystery) one of Fo’s most celebrated solo pieces, was performed for several decades. Hugely popular as it was controversial, it earned the condemnation of the church for blasphemy. Built as a series of short one-act plays, of stories enacted by a jester playing multiple roles, as in a medieval troupe, they were in fact a modern retelling of the mystery or Passion plays narrating the life and times of Christ.
“A theatre, a literature, an artistic expression that does not speak for its own time,” he would say in his Nobel Lecture, “has no relevance.” Indeed the Nobel Foundation awarded him the prize for emulating “the jesters of the Middle Ages in scrounging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden.” The Vatican newspaper responded by saying that: “Giving the prize to someone who is also the author of questionable works is beyond imagination.” In turn, Fo congratulated the Nobel Foundation for “an act of courage that borders on provocation,” making life his theatre.
Fo’s creative energy and subversive humour found remarkable play in his Nobel lecture, which is peppered with drawings and notes, with the playwright inviting his audience to turn the pages of the script along with him to follow the different aspects of his artistic journey.
Acccidental Death Of An Anarchist, described as a tragic comedy about a tragic farce, remains his most renowned play, based on the famous Pinelli case where a man is wrongly accused and “accidentally” dies while in custody. Fo’s takes on crime and corruption and the injustice of the state in the play led to bans, abuse and assault by the authorities, while across the seas he was repeatedly denied entry to the United States for his affiliation with the Italian Left before the play finally opened in Broadway.
Fo’s ability to turn tragedy and danger around with a powerful comic sense is perhaps his gift to the universal human spirit as well as the versatility with which he adapted his plays to local conditions as he toured. The Tale of a Tiger is a dramatic monologue which grew out of Fo’s visit to China. It is a story of a wounded Red Army soldier who contracts gangrene and is left behind by his regiment in the mountains to die.
Terrified, the man seeks shelter and finally comes upon a cave at night only to discover that it is inhabited by a tigress who had just lost her cub and demands that he suckle her. It is a hilarious exploration of fear and paranoia at many levels, social, political and human, as man and tiger negotiate for space. The soldier gradually overcomes his disgust and terror and suckles her even as she licks his wounds and cures him of the disease.
I saw The Tale of a Tiger in Auroville soon after Dario Fo won the Nobel. It played in French by a masked Belgian actor, both man and tiger, in a very rudimentary outdoor setting at night with only a few ground lights. The cave was improvised out of thatch, from where the soldier emerged from time to time, hysterical, his masked face in full light. In the semi darkness, it was the magnified voice and roars, mostly not seen, that became the character through which we could see in all the action inside the cave, as well as the comical and tender nuances of the negotiations between the soldier and the tiger.
But no account of Dario Fo’s life and work can be complete without mentioning Franca Rame, his wife, also an actor and an artistic partner with whom he founded his own theatre company and with whom he shared his subversive, anti-establishment commitments. Rame played in his works, vetted his scripts and sometimes co-wrote with him and remained an essential part of his creations and struggles. At the end of his Nobel lecture he would dedicate half the prize to her. “Without her at my side, where she has been for a lifetime, I would never have accomplished the work you have seen fit to honour.” Rame passed away three years ago, in 2013 and it is said that Fo was in a hurry to complete his work and leave. He remained active till a few weeks prior to his death.
“Our homeland is the whole world. Our law is liberty.” So it was and will be for Dario Fo and his work, for it was “a revolution from our hearts.”
Anu Majumdar's books include fiction, non-fiction, YA and poetry. She writes the poetry column for Arts Illustrated and lives and works in Auroville.