Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Dario Fo is one of Italy’s foremost playwrights. He is regarded by many in Europe as the leading political satirist of the day. His works have been staged the world over. An adaptation of one of the best known of his plays, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, was produced on Broadway last fall.
He is perhaps better known in the States for his difficulties with the American government than for his plays. The State Department has twice refused to grant entry visas to Fo and his wife, the actress Franca Rame, under the “ideological exclusion” provision of the Immigration & Naturalization Act of 1952.
Shortly after this interview was recorded in Milan last September, however, the US (at the urging of the ACLU, PEN, the Dramatists Guild, and others) reversed itself and granted Fo and Rame visas to come to New York for the final rehearsals and the opening of Accidental Death.
We visited with Franca Rame at the offices of their theater collective, La Comune, and spoke with Dario Fo in their flat near the Roman Gate. The apartment was spacious, airy, and bright. Sculptured figures were scattered about, and on the walls were costume sketches, drawings, paintings (many of them by Fo, who studied painting and architecture before turning to theater), and a row of masks. Some carpets were rolled up in a corner.
Rosanna Case of La Comune was our translator.
Matthew Fleury I’d like to begin by asking about the new play Accidental Death of an Anarchist.
Rosanna Case But this is not new.
MF I mean new to New York.
RC And what do you want to know about it?
MF What are its origins? How has it come to be produced in New York? Why on Broadway?
Dario Fo The events upon which the play is based took place in 1969. A bomb exploded in the center of Milan, near the Duomo. Sixteen died. The police blamed the anarchists, one of whom, Giovanni Pinelli, they seized. Later on he was thrown from a window at police headquarters. There is considerable evidence that Pinelli’s death was murder, not an accident as the police claimed, so the title Accidental Death of an Anarchist, is ironic. We are sure it was not an accident… . It was murder… . But this is the official police characterization of the event. The case was filed as an “accidental death.”
MF So for the record this Pinelli stands accused of this crime, but he was killed before …
DF He was not accused. He was only a suspect.
MF Was anyone ever brought to trial?
DF Yes. Another anarchist was accused. There was a long trial, and he was acquitted.
MF Were these members of the Red Guard?
DF Pinelli was a member of an anarchist organization. A very small group. There were various groups of anarchists, very little groups, because you know anarchists—they don’t agree. It was just a group of people who believed in anarchism. They gathered together for discussions and so on.
MF So he was not a member of the Red Guard.
DF No. The group was completely detached from the Red Guard.
MF How did the play come to be produced in New York?
DF It’s been produced all over the world. Why so late in America? This same piece has been produced in Germany, London, France, Japan, Argentina, Brazil, even in Sri Lanka. New York is merely the latest.
MF The answer to that, I think, is that in the US the market has a greater say in determining what goes onto the stage, because there is less funding from the government, less State funding, and now, with the Reagan administration, even less, which is why it seems to me so incongruous that it’s going to be produced on Broadway, which very rarely welcomes plays so overtly polemical.
DF But there is a demand for my works. They have been translated and staged all over the world. And insofar as the “market” now demands this play, there haven’t been any political objections to it. In London, for example, it played in Picadilly Circus, in an important theater.
MF Well, let me put the question back to you. Why do you think it’s taken so long?
DF The US is always striving for independence from Europe, to free itself from psychological dependence on European culture, to produce its own culture on its own terms. Of course, there are exceptions. Americans will accept from abroad what is very important, what is extraordinary, what needs to be known in the States. In the US there is presently a chauvinistic explosion, in the sense that chauvinism expresses an Imperial attitude—of holding oneself in very high esteem, of elevating one’s own “truth” over all others. When the war was over there was an enormous hunger for all that was European—it is enough to cite the interest in Italian neorealist and French cinema. And now there is a reaction, and the situation is reversed.
MF Political plays—particularly those of European provenance—often do not succeed in the US not because there is an intrinsic resistance to them so much as there is no correspondence; they have little meaning to most Americans because our experience is so different. In large cities—in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago—there is more sympathy for the point of view of these plays, but elsewhere they might as well be plays from the moon.
DF Sometimes the reason for such failures originates in the strange mania on the part of American writers for meddling with the texts of European writers. The producer and director of the Washington production at first inserted songs and altered the text. It was a disaster. It was a play all right, but it wasn’t my play. Finally the producer realized they should present an accurate translation, with nothing added, and this proved very successful. Before, they had this idea that everything should be simplified for the American mind. This is an insult to the American people.
MF What work are you involved with now?
(At this point Dario Fo shows us a catalog of exhibition of posters, drawings, masks, etc. connected with his plays. The show was then touring Europe.)
DF I am working within the system I usually adopt. I am writing on different subjects and at different stages at once. One of the things I am working on is a history of kidnapping, the kidnapping of a very important Italian woman, associated with the banking houses, whose name is a sort of symbol for these interests. This woman is kidnapped, but she is so clever that she manages to foil her kidnappers.
MF There is a story by the American writer, O. Henry. A comic story. It’s about two fellows who, to make a quick buck, kidnap a boy and take him away, but he turns out to be such a handful of trouble they end up paying to have him taken back.
DF There’s been a movie made of it?
MF There may have been.
DF This story I’m working on is meant to be read taking into account the situation with kidnappers here. Italian kidnappers are very different from their American counterparts.
MF My mother warned me to watch out for kidnappers over here.
DF I understand very well. There average some seven or eight important kidnappings per month—one or two weekly.
MF I would say that kidnapping is one of the first things that Americans would cite if you were to ask them what comes to mind when they think of Italy.
DF This work is a satire which sends up the banking system, to make the reader understand that the bankers profit because they recycle this kidnapping money. So the truth is, the bankers determine the kidnappings, and it happens that, in a sense, the bankers are kidnapped by themselves. This is the key to this satire on the Italian situation.
MF Could I ask what your status is now with the American government? Has there been any progress on that?
DF The latest request for a visa has been declined. As Franca told you, it was solicited on our behalf by PEN … Would you like something to drink?
(We have some mineral water.)
MF When was the last time you were in the States?
DF I’ve never been.
MF What are the official grounds for refusing you a visa?
DF The official grounds are that Franca and I have helped organize and contributed our efforts on behalf of Succorso Russo, “Red Help.” This is a term dating from the workers’ struggles of 1921. That was the period when many workers were put into prison by the Fascists, and there were strikes also in the factories. This organization collected funds, but more than that, they also dramatized their solidarity with the struggles of the workers. The organization now has been put together to fulfill a similar purpose, but the area which most interests us now is civil rights. Many of the cases we’re involved in pertain to the rights and interests of political prisoners. For instance, we are struggling to have a man freed from prison; his trial is pending, and he has been in prison for eight years, and he is now definitely dying.
MF Many Americans are outraged that you and Franca are not permitted into the United States. We regret as you do that at the moment, and at least for the foreseeable future, the government is in the hands of, well, reactionaries.
DF We are not alone. We are in good company. Other important artists have found themselves in a similar situation—starting with Chaplin. And now Marquez. I will meet with Marquez in Toronto for a demonstration … There is nothing new under the sun … When you’ve got the power, you use non-democratic means to maintain this power, even if you speak as a democrat and pay lip service to civil rights, even if you profess democratic values.
MF I want to ask you about La Comune. Is it a repertory company? How is it organized?
DF Presently, it has a conventional structure compared to the Comune of some years ago … Before it was an association wherein every member had the same rights in the name of a communal, socialist society … It was archaic in the sense that it harkened back to a primitive, mystical society.
MF Then it reflects upon the original idea of the Comune, the Italian Comune?
DF Yes, all is in common … But there has been an evolution determined by outside circumstances and conditions—the realities of the political situation, for example. These have affected our organization and structure. The first thing to happen was this: the municipality of Milan compelled us to give back our theater, the place where we staged our plays. It was a building in a nearby park. So now we don’t have a building of our own. But we can work all the same. All of these things outside have forced us to organize ourselves more conventionally, with me and Franca basically responsible for the company.
MF To what end is it directed?
DF Our aim is the same as before, to offer theater which reflects the real political situation prevailing today, by depicting the injustice and oppression of society, and by exposing the people who wield the power … The form is ironical, satirical. It is entertaining. We aim to make people laugh, and not only laugh, but to reason as well. Because reasoning is one of the most interesting entertainments. And then we are always at the disposal of people who are struggling for causes with which we sympathize: civil rights, prisoners’ rights, the women’s movement, workers’ issues, etc.
MF Would it be fair to say that your art is subordinate to ideology, or are they meant to coexist, to reinforce one another?
DF This is a very dangerous concept … It is dangerous to weigh art against politics, philosophy, ideology, etc … as if art were something completely detached from the others, pure and uncontaminated. Art is polluted. Pure art does not exist at all, because art must have a very strong relation to the facts of life. Shakespeare was completely immersed in the politics of his time. Hamlet was a merciless critique of the politics of Elizabeth.
MF But do you think that the art, in this case the theater, should express a certain point of view, that the plays should be held up to political and ideological standards? Should a play convey a point of view that is overtly political in nature?
DF I want to underline that it is the dialectic of the politics, not the politics in itself that matters. It is this one should use as a standard. How you entertain, how you amuse—herein lies the artistry.
MF But should it instruct?
DF Yes, if it also succeeds didactically, if it also instructs, so much the better.
MF To what extent is your work collaborative?
DF It is collaborative inasmuch as the work is influenced by the discussions I have with the audience before, during, and after performances. Of course, the audience is composed of progressive people. Sometimes the play will be completely rewritten as the outcome of of these discussions. The comments of the audience are very important, because you can compare different reactions to the same piece. For some pieces we have three or four different versions. They are revised according to the comments from the audience.
MF How long have you and Franca been working together?
DF Since both of us entered the theater—30 years, 32 years ago.
MF I don’t think I made it clear before. It is going to be your name on the billboard. It will say Accidental Death of an Anarchist, by Dario Fo. Is that fair? Or would it be more just to say Dario Fo & Franca Rame?
DF This one is my own work. Other pieces have been written together.
MF Orgasmo Adulto Escapes from the Zoo had a very strong feminist point of view. Was that principally Franca Rame’s work?
DF It was based on some ideas from Franca, but the actual writing for the theater, the treatment, was done by me. And then Franca adapted the text for her performance.
MF Are you a native of Milan? Why have you chosen this city?
DF We are not from Milan, but nearby. From Lombardy. We both studied here. It is our town.
MF And the city has been receptive to you and your work?
DF Yes, very.
MF Are there any playwrights, either from the past—I was thinking of Brecht—or contemporary, who have strongly influenced you?
(Door buzzer sounds.)
DF Yes, Brecht has been very important to me. And also the classic writers—all of them. Shakespeare, of course. And above all, the great Italian middle-ages tradition up to the Commedia dell’Arte.
(Workmen arrive to pick up the carpets. The interview is over.)
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.