The People’s Clowns

Dario Fo and Franca Rame, Milan, 1962
Giorgio Lotti/Mondadori/Getty Images
Dario Fo and Franca Rame, Milan, 1962

A biography of Dario Fo and his wife, Franca Rame, is inevitably a history of Italy in their lifetimes and particularly in the decades from 1950 to 1990, when their careers as playwrights, actors, and political activists were at their peak. Play by play, show by show, Fo engaged in fierce polemics with more or less every aspect of Italian society. His work, as Joseph Farrell observes in Dario Fo and Franca Rame: Theatre, Politics, Life, contains none of the intimacy, intellectual cogitation, or existential angst that one finds in so many artists of the twentieth century. Nor can his excellent biographer find much of it in the life. All Fo’s energies were invested in the theater, or in the clash for which the theater, and occasionally television, were his chosen instruments.

Once drawn into the influence of this brilliant comet, Rame became one with it, no doubt altering its trajectory and intensifying its light, but not changing its essential nature. For a biography of a couple there is remarkably little that touches on their private world together—perhaps because there was no private world. Their life simply was this bright, festive, cruel light they shone on Italian society. And whatever one thinks about the aesthetic value of this or that play, their endeavors always had the virtue of forcing all sides to come out in the open and declare themselves. As a consequence, Farrell’s book is one of the best introductions to postwar Italy I have come across.

Fo was born in 1926 in a village near Lake Maggiore, fifty miles northwest of Milan. His father was a stationmaster, his mother of peasant stock. The eldest of three children, he enlisted his younger brother and sister as audience and supporting actors in home theatricals and puppet shows. From the first, Dario was prime mover, energizer, and star. At age fourteen, his promise was such that his parents sent him to Milan, where he attended the Brera Liceo, a school attached to the city’s foremost art college.

At seventeen, this cheerful adolescent received call-up papers to join the army of the Italian Social Republic, the northern Italian state that Mussolini had formed with Nazi support after the Allied invasion of Italy from the south in 1943. Fo’s parents were antifascists. Other young men fled to the mountains to join the partisan resistance. Fo, however, as he later said, “preferred to choose a waiting position and try to dodge the call-up with trickery.” Eventually he volunteered for a unit he hoped would not be engaged in fighting. He deserted, reenlisted, and deserted again, hoping “to hide away, to come home with my skin intact.” It was an uncertain start to an adult life that would later be marked by a willingness to assume…

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