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Dario Fo, Nobel-winning playwright, dies aged 90

Italian playwright Dario Fo, whose energetic mocking of Italian political life, social mores and religion won him the Nobel Prize for Literature, died Thursday. He was 90.

books Updated: Oct 13, 2016 15:09 IST
Nobel Prize,Nobel Prize Dario Fo,Dario Fo
This October, 1997 file photo shows Italy's winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize of Literature Dario Fo as he gives an interview.(AP)

Italian playwright Dario Fo, whose energetic mocking of Italian political life, social mores and religion won him the Nobel Prize for Literature, died Thursday. He was 90.

Fo died Thursday morning in Milan’s Luigi Sacco hospital, hospital spokeswoman Ida Mannelli told The Associated Press.

Premier Matteo Renzi said with Fo’s death, Italy had lost one of the leading protagonists of Italian culture and civil life.

“His satire, research, scenography and artistic activity will leave the inheritance of a great Italian to the world,” Renzi said.

This December, 1997 file photo shows Italian playwright Dario Fo, second from left, as he acknowledges ovations after receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature at the Concert Hall in Stockholm, Sweden. (AP)

The author of “Accidental Death of an Anarchist” and more than 70 other plays saw himself as playing the role of the jester, combining raunchy humor and scathing satire. He was admired and reviled in equal measure.

His political activities saw him banned from the United States and censored on Italian television, and his flamboyant artistic antics resulted in repeated arrests.

In recent years, Fo became a point of reference for Italy’s anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, which eulogized him Thursday as a “spiritual guide.”

Movement leader Beppe Grillo posted a video on his blog of a memorable Fo appearance at a 2013 rally giving impetus to the movement to shake up Italy’s paralyzed political system.

Dario Fo, Italy's Nobel laureate playwright, smiles as he poses with a mask in front of St Mark basilic during the Venetian Carnival in Venice February 13, 2009. (REUTERS)

“Do it yourselves, please! Do it yourselves! “ Fo exhorted the crowd. “Please, turn everything upside down!”

The son of a railway worker and a farm hand, Fo had an early introduction to narrative traditions through his grandfather, a well-known storyteller. He studied painting at Milan’s prestigious Brera Academy as well as architecture, and at age 25, he began to write and perform satirical cabarets at the Piccolo Theater in Milan.

A staunch leftist, Fo founded a theater company with his wife, the late actress Franca Rame, later a senator. Rame died in 2013 at the age of 84.

The pair made a career out of mocking post-war Italy, ranging from the domestic terrorism of the late 1970s to the bitter debates over abortion and divorce and the political corruption scandal in the early 1990s that brought down a whole class of politicians and businessmen.

In this May, 2009 file photo Italian Nobel prize winner Dario Fo, right, and his wife Franca Rame applaud during the Italian State RAI TV program Che Tempo che Fa, in Milan, Italy. (AP)

Dealing with subjects like the Vietnam War, the Chinese revolution and student revolts in the West, Fo and Rame took their works out of “bourgeois” theaters and into streets, piazzas, occupied factories and circus-style tents.

Italian bishops gagged on Fo’s freewheeling interpretations of the Catholic faith.

The one-man show was seen by an estimated 1 million people when it toured Italy over 18 months in 1968-1970.

As his work grew more and more radical, Fo fell out of favor with state TV RAI, which banned him for more than decade. Prosecutors tried but failed to convict him of offending institutions like the national police force.

Some theorized that right-wing sympathizers among the police were behind the kidnapping and rape of Fo’s wife by Italian neo-fascists on a Milan street in 1973, when the country’s society was largely rent ideologically between extreme right and left, and domestic extremist violence gripped the nation.

This October, 2007 file photo shows Italian film writer and actor Dario Fo prior to the presentation of the movie Zero - Itchiest sull'11 settembre (Zero - Investigation on 9/11) at the Rome film festival. (AP)

Not long after winning his Nobel, Fo wrote to Italy’s president demanding justice in the case, even though statutes of limitations had expired.

Motivating him, Fo said, was not a thirst for revenge, but a desire to help the country recognize the barbarities of that period and move on.

“Accidental Death of an Anarchist,” drew from an event that continues to divide Italians, who are often bitterly split between left and right in a stubborn legacy of the ideological and actual battles between fascist stalwarts and communist partisans during World War II. The play is based on the fall from a police station window of an anarchist who was being questioned over a 1969 Milan bank bombing. The police officer who led the interrogation was fatally gunned down in 1972.

Fo’s stature as an artist began to outstrip his fame as a militant by the end of the 1970s. Milan’s La Scala theater let him direct a play, “Story of a Soldier,” in 1978, and audiences in furs, jewels and suits flocked to his works in mainstream theaters.

This file photo taken in May, 2006 shows Italian playwrite and 1997 Nobel literature laureate, Dario Fo, posing with his wife Franca Rame before receiving the Doctor Honoris Causa title in Rome. (AFP)

Still, in 1980 he and Rame were refused visas to the United States because of their support for left-wing activities in Italy. The decision sparked controversy and prompted U.S intellectuals to stage protests in support. In 1984, the U.S. government relented and allowed the couple to visit New York to see a production of “Accidental Death of an Anarchist.”

The Nobel Prize for literature came in 1997. The citation described Fo as a writer “who emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden.”

Guests attending his prize lecture in Stockholm in 1997 had a surprise as they opened their texts of the lecture. Instead of neatly printed paragraphs full of carefully worded thoughts, they found 25 pages of brightly colored drawings, with scattered words scrawled among them: “Provocation... ignorance of our times.”

While he enraged the Vatican, Fo at least once ended up on the same side of the Catholic Church, when both lobbied vigorously — but unsuccessfully — to stop the 2000 execution in Virginia of Rocco Derek Barnabei, a U.S. citizen of Italian origin.

Fo pledged to donate some proceeds of his theater work to anti-death penalty causes around the world. Even though the husband-wife team snubbed the bourgeois theater route at times, the same bourgeoisie turned their plays into sold-out successes, notably Fo’s 2003 spoof of then-Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, “The Two-Headed Anomaly.” That play, at one of Rome’s mainstream theaters, explored what many contended was the conflict of interest posed by a premier who was at the time also Italy’s richest man, thanks to vast business holdings, largely in the media sector.

The work asked the entertaining question: what would happen if half of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brain was used to replace half of Berlusconi’s brain? The play also pre-shadowed Berlusconi’s real-life split with his second wife amid sex scandals embroiling the politician. While Fo had fun with politicians’ foibles, his own foray in politics was a failure.

In 2006, he lost a bid in a primary to become the center-left’s candidate for mayor of Milan.

Fo and Rame had a son, Jacopo Fo, a writer.

First Published: Oct 13, 2016 14:49 IST