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Dario Fo – a committed revolutionary who stood against the state

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Nobel Prize-winning playwright and revolutionary activist Dario Fo, who has died at the age of 90, was one of the most important writers in Italian history, writes Mark Brown
Issue 2525
Dario Fo in 2008
Dario Fo in 2008 (Pic: Comune di Reggio Nell’Emilia/flickr)

Italian dramatist Dario Fo, who has died at the age of 90, was one of the great artistic and political revolutionaries of the 20th and 21st centuries.

His death has prompted hollow eulogies from some members of the Italian ruling class. Make no mistake, however, the bourgeoisie despised Fo and the feeling was entirely mutual.

Fo’s great plays, such as Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! and Mistero Buffo (a one-man piece that confirmed Fo’s brilliance as an actor), are both spectacularly funny and savage in their satire of the rich and powerful.

Accidental Death of an Anarchist, in particular, exemplifies Fo’s commitment to responding to political events in Italian society.

Following a bomb attack that killed 16 people, on a bank in Milan in December 1969 the Italian state tried to blame the atrocity on the revolutionary left. This was despite strong suspicions that far right elements connected with the state had planted the bomb as a provocation.

Soon after an anarchist “suspect”, railway worker Giuseppe Pinelli, died after “accidentally” falling from a fourth floor window in the Milan police headquarters.    

Fo responded by writing a superb, satirical farce, set inside the Milan police HQ, which clearly implicated the cops in Pinelli’s death. It would play to more than a million Italians over the next four years.

As the play toured, it was dogged by police harassment and bomb threats. Often, as with other shows staged by the company established by Fo and his wife Franca Rame, the piece was performed in public squares and factories that were under workers’ occupation.

The attempts by the Italian state and associated reactionary and fascist forces to intimidate Fo, Rame and their company were not unusual.


Fo’s career in television, for example, was marked both by great success – reaching an audience of 15 million at one point – and brutal censorship. When his irreverent, atheistic satire Mistero Buffo was screened in 1977, it was denounced by the Vatican as, “the most blasphemous show in the history of television”.

The right’s threats against Fo and Rame went much further than mere denunciations. The playwright faced numerous death threats and was arrested for refusing to allow cops into his shows.

In 1973 came the most vicious attack of all. While walking in Milan, Rame was kidnapped, raped and tortured by a gang of five fascists. According to the testimony of a policeman 25 years later, the news of Rame’s rape was met with cheers in the local headquarters of the carabinieri.

The couple’s commitment to revolutionary socialist politics never wavered, however. In 1985, the box office takings from their performances in Rome were donated to the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in Britain. NUM members were engaged in a bitter strike against Margaret Thatcher’s government at the time.

In 2006, having never before held elected office, Fo stood in the contest to become the left candidate for mayor of Milan. Aged 79, he responded to those who said he was too radical, saying, “Milan,if my music is too loud, it means you are becoming too old.”

Having lost the nomination to the “moderate” candidate, former police chief Bruno Ferrante, Fo acknowledged his opponent with characteristic wit. “He’s someone who says the same things as I do”, Fo commented, “only [he says them] the day after.”

A constant thorn in the flesh of the Italian establishment, including, in recent decades, the hated demagogue Silvio Berlusconi, Dario Fo reinvented political comedy.

He remains one of the most performed modern playwrights in the world. Which is a good thing because, now more than ever, we need his biting satire, his political fury and his devastating humour.

The political biography Dario Fo: Revolutionary Theatre, by the late revolutionary socialist writer Tom Behan, is available from Bookmarks bookshop:

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