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13 October 2016

Dario Fo made me a journalist – and taught me the value of the “madman”

The Nobel Laureate has died at the age of 90. His play The Accidental Death of an Anarchist is known for its takedown of police corruption. But for me, his power lies in his love for humanity’s failings.

By Stephanie Boland

If you have to find out a beloved author has died, a relatively nice way to do so is seeing someone post their Nobel Prize speech. Dario Fo’s is from 1997, and it’s a classic, or at least a classic of his writing. Weaving in fairytales with fierce criticism of the church and state, it is an adress to politics as much as theatre. Entitled “Against Jesters Who Defame and Insult” – snappier in the Italian, “Contra Jogulatores Obloquentes” –  it sees Fo identify himself as a “clown”, although it is clear that he does so with a knowing wink, and that what he means by that is someone who uses humour to certain ends. He is less concerned with how one makes good art, and more about what it means for art to be “good”:

“Our task as intellectuals, as persons who mount the pulpit or the stage, and who, most importantly, address to young people, our task is not just to teach them method, like how to use the arms, how to control breathing, how to use the stomach, the voice, the falsetto, the contracampo.It’s not enough to teach a technique or a style: we have to show them what is happening around us. They have to be able to tell their own story. A theatre, a literature, an artistic expression that does not speak for its own time has no relevance.”

Clowns have been getting a bad rep lately, but Fo’s clowning is less about painted make-up and jokes than a type of performer whose essence most of us have lost touch with, even while his ambiguous character endures in the commercial circus. For his clown, Fo chooses the person who behaves in an extraordinary manner to make the everyday seem alien. Exaggerating the tropes of regular life to a ludicrous degree, he mimics the awkward, naive part of human behaviour, the part which reveals what we sometimes suspect: that on some level, we fundamentally misunderstand the world and its premises.

For Ann and Barry Ulanov, the clown is the character who reminds us that “only by accepting our humanness can we open ourselves to God”. If that’s going a bit far, it is interesting that the buffoon character in Greek theatre was sometimes known as sklêro-paiktês, someone who is childlike. Children blunder and misunderstand, but they are notoriously terrible liars.

Of course, Fo’s most famous clown is a fantastic liar (or at least we must assume so, from the fact we can’t be sure). He is the central character of Accidental Death of an Anarchist, which was premiered in Milan in December 1970, and was based on the real-life defenestration of Italian railwayman and anarchist Giuseppe Pinelli, dropped from a police station window the year before having been accused of bombing the Piazza Fontana bank.

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Fo’s play is set in a similar station – Milan’s Central Police Headquarters – where a group of senior detectives are engaged, ineffectively, in getting their story straight regarding a similar anarchist’s similar fall from a window. Into their bumbling comes “the maniac”, who initially pretends to be a psychologist before changing costume to become a judge, a ballistics expert, and then, typical of Fo’s nudging of the Catholic Church, a bishop. Through his deception, he leads us, like a puppet-master – another circus-tinged archetype – to the truth.

The role is a coveted one in twentieth century-theatre, and has been played by no less than Adrian Edmondson (in a radio play in 1992), Rhys Ifans (at the Donmar Warehouse, in 2005) and, in 1984, by Jonathan Pryce.

Less illustriously, but of course more important to me, is the fact it made me a journalist.

I remember the theatre trip distinctly for three reasons. One is that I was allowed to go even though I was not studying drama for GCSE (in fact, I was in the year below the GCSE class). I still have no idea why my school agreed to this: it was not a particularly permissive school – in truth, it was the sort of girls’ grammar where we had assemblies about wearing the wrong kind of socks – and I was constantly in some sort of trouble for forgotten schoolbooks or missing PE kit.

Maybe my English teacher lobbied on my behalf, or maybe the deputy head signed it off without thinking, but either way, when I lined up with my older friends in the dining room before the coach trip, I felt like a prince. The second reason I remember the trip is I was allowed to wear my own clothes. I wore arm warmers. Needless to say, I looked ridiculous.

The third reason, though, is that after the play, which was my first real exposure to the potential of satire, and certainly the first time I’d seen drama take on any topic as urgent as assassination, we were allowed to ask questions. I don’t recall now what I asked, but I do remember the strangeness of being taken seriously by the actor who responded. In my mind, Fo became indelibly linked to the notion of an arena where people who did not ordinarily have the power to speak – I felt very beleaguered as a teenager; didn’t we all? – were allowed to ask questions of those in charge.

In the play, power is redistributed from the police to the maniac (or is he a maniac?) through his questions and impressions, but most of all through humour. It was a topic I revisited at university, when I was cast in an amateur dramatic performance of Accidental Death playing Maria Feletti, a journalist who arrives to interrogate the police.

Fo treats his police characters rather like Joseph Conrad treats the anarchists of The Secret Agent, in that they are not so much evil as dangerously misguided (at one point, they sing an anarchist song with the maniac together as brothers. Its lyrics remain the only Italian I know). The play has two possible endings: one in which my character is blown up, chained to a table in the police station, and one in which the maniac allows her to escape with a recording of everything that came before, an exposé that would set front pages ablaze. Do the press act as a check on corruption, or is trusting them ultimately too much of a risk? It all hinges on how mad you consider the madman.

Not surprising, then, that I stopped thinking so much about Fo after I graduated and started work at a politics magazine (aside from anything else, you don’t really need the play so much when you’re covering the real Bertozzos and Pissanis of the world). It was only the publication of The Pope’s Daughter, translated into English last year, which reminded me of my teenage love affair with the playwright: a novel about a young girl used as political chattel by the church, the book is as much a tribute to Fo’s late partner Franca Rame – kidnapped and raped in Milan by neo-Facists in 1973 – as it is a means of giving retrospective personhood to Lucrezia Borgia, the mistreated daughter on whom Fo based his tale.

It is a finely-woven and beautifully illustrated novel (Fo painted the portraits that pepper the tale himself), but most importantly for me, it reminded me of that early encounter with Fo’s writing – an encounter I’m revisiting today.

It is an important memory, and not only because I now suspect it was in first seeing the takedown of corruption on stage that instilled in me the value of writing against power. Rather there is something in Fo’s writing worth holding on to; something more than the power of art to attack politics. It is the send-up of our collective flawed humanity, of the fact that corruption comes as much from cowardice and stupidity as from malice, which I want to remember. The reminder that, in a world whose structures are preserved by the unspoken acceptance of corruption and lies, the madman is the person to listen to.

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