Milan mourns Dario Fo

Milan’s left-wing Nobel laureate dies.

Described by a biographer as “arguably the most widely performed contemporary playwright in world theatre”, Dario Fo died at the Luigi Sacco hospital in Milan on Thursday 13 October at the age of 90.

Actor and playwright, Fo also turned his eclectic hand to stage design, painting and singing, but left a permanent mark with his hard-left leaning political campaigning, working until the last.

Born in nearby Varese province in 1926, Fo moved to Milan – the city with which he had a lifelong association – in 1940. His studies at the Brera Academy were interrupted by world war two, and after military service he resumed them at the Politecnico, but did not graduate.

Fo turned almost immediately to the theatre, making his name with humorous monologues, and soon added radio and later television entertainment to his quiver.

Although cast in a comedy format, Fo’s monologues, plays and songs were always shot through with a virulent criticism of the Establishment and the Catholic Church. Possibly his best-known performance, Mistero Buffo, was performed across Europe and the Americas in the style of mediaeval travelling players, and was blasted by the Church as “the most blasphemous show in the history of television”.

Together with his wife, actress Franca Rame, Fo hosted the unconventional, yet very successful television show Canzonissima in 1962, which frequently satirised the exploitation of the working class. When one of its sketches went too far, in the producers’ view, the show was censored and Fo and Rame walked out, remaining banned from state television for another 14 years.

The couple continued to found alternative theatre groups throughout their career, consistently attacking the occult powers of the state and the plight of the working classes. Their political activism led in 1973 to the abduction, torture and rape of Rame by a group of right-wing thugs in Milan, rumoured to have been incited by Carabinieri officers. She nevertheless returned to the stage within weeks, continuing the tour of politically inspired plays. In later years, a particular target of their satire was former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Fo was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1997, praised by the jury as a writer “who emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden.”

Rame died in Milan in 2013 and is buried in the city’s Monumental Cemetery. They leave a son, Jacopo, born in 1955.