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The Red Mime of Milan

by by Charles C. Mann

OVER THE COURSE of a single week in 1977 two versions of the life of Christ were broadcast on two state-run Italian television networks. One, Jesus of Nazareth, was a docudrama directed by Franco Zeffirelli, in the lush but static manner that has earned him renown throughout Europe and the Americas. Graced by a halo at appropriate moments, the handsome, pensive young actor who played the Savior delivered the Sermon on the Mount in modern Italian. The production was suffused with traditional Sunday-school virtues of reverence, humility, and awe. When Jesus of Nazareth was shown in the United States, it was greeted with respectful critical noises.

The second version of the Gospel, Mistero Buffo, was written and directed by an actor and playwright named Dario Fo, who played all the parts himself. There were no halos -- indeed, no props, sets, or scenery. Wearing a black turtleneck and dark denims, Fo simply walked onstage before a live audience and for the next four hours delivered parodies of medieval mystery plays. Known as misteri buffi, these sketches were originally done by street performers during the Middle Ages. Fo found and adapted them in the course of several years' research. Woven into a single performance, these short pieces make Mistero Buffo a life of Christ as seen from the point of view of the crowd. Bawdy, loud, and viciously anticlerical, the play is anything but reverent in the commonly accepted sense of the term.
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Whereas ecclesiastical authorities acclaimed Zeffirelli's Jesus, Fo's Mistero Buffo was soon embroiled in what Italians like to call polemics. To Fo's pleasure, the Vatican described his play as the most blasphemous program ever broadcast; Zeffirelli said it should never have appeared on television. Their distaste was related less to the nature of the play -- unlike the United States, Italy has a strong tradition of anticlericalism -- than to the remarkable gifts of its star. Fo is one of the great performers of this century. In Mistero Buffo he had millions of people guffawing at his savage, relentless send-ups of the Pope, the Church, and the Italian power structure in general.

DARIO FO WAS born in 1926 and raised in a small lakeside town near the Swiss border. The place was a backwater in a way that is now difficult to comprehend: there was no electricity, radio, or cinema, and a chief source of entertainment for the poor peasants and fishermen was the tales and ballads improvised by itinerant actors in exchange for meals. The stories that Fo heard were exaggerated comic narratives that contrasted the audience's poverty with the wealth of their absentee landlords in Milan and Turin. Part of a tradition of rural protest that went back for centuries, the strolling players fascinated Fo as a child. To some extent his career has been devoted to bringing their peculiar charms to the modern theater.

After spending his adolescence avoiding Mussolini's army, the nineteen-year-old Fo went to the war-ravaged city of Milan. He attended art school and a college of architecture but found himself drawn to the theater, hiding in the balconies to watch the famous director Giorgio Strehler conduct rehearsals. In 1950 he joined a small troupe that did semi-improvised sketches before local audiences; the results were broadcast over the radio. The show was successful enough that Fo was allowed to do his own mildly naughty radio program, Poer nano (Poor Dwarf, 1951). By 1953 he had written and directed his first full revue, Il dito nell'occhio (Finger in the Eye). The cast of the show included a member of a famous touring theatrical family, Franca Rame, whom Fo soon married, and a French mime named Jacques Lecoq, who advocated the "black," or "dirty," style of mime that Fo was to make his own.

"White," or "clean," mime is exemplified by Marcel Marceau, and consists of a body of techniques designed to create the illusion that the mime is in an invisible but real space. The mimes who use these techniques paint their faces white, do not speak, and spend their time onstage being gracefully crushed by imaginary weights, feeling their way along unreal walls, or fighting back hurricane winds that exist only for the performer.

"Black" mimes are their funkier brethren: they talk, they do not paint their faces, and they don't do much of the balletic stuff. With a few gestures and a slight tilt to his tall, pudgy body, Fo does mime the way Count Basie played piano -- sparely, simply, and elegantly, without a wasted motion.

Il dito nell'occhio was a potted history of the world of the type done here by comics like Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks, and the Smothers Brothers. Somewhat topical in its thrust, it was a rousing success. Encouraged, Fo became more daring. His next show, I sani da legare (Fit to Be Tied, 1954), made fun of red scares in Italy and America, Soviet suppression of dissent, and Black Shirts hiding in government ministries. I sani da legare was censored, and the performances of Fo's bowdlerized script were patrolled by the police. Ever since, Fo has run afoul of Italy's libel laws, which by U.S. standards are quite conservative.

During the next few years Fo energetically turned out Feydeau-like farces on subjects such as transvestite detectives investigating Italy's then-illegal divorce agencies (I cadaveri si spediscono, le donne si spogliano, or Mail the Corpse, the Lady's Naked, 1959); hookers, bureaucrats, and con men in the Milanese underworld (Gli arcangeli non giocano a flipper, or Archangels Don't Play Pinball, 1960); and a lunatic priest who takes up a life of crime (Aveva due pistole con gli occhi bianchi e neri, or He Had Two Pistols with Black and White Eyes, 1960). All were pleasant trifles with a slightly political spin. In 1962 Fo and Rame, who was by then his usual costar, were invited to contribute sketches to a popular television variety show with the ludicrous name of Canzonissima (literally, Really Big Song). They soon encountered censorship problems, especially after Fo responded to a wave of industrial accidents by performing a bit about a worker in a meat-canning factory whose hugely fat aunt visits him on the job, stumbles into the machinery, and comes out as so many cans of processed meat. "The aunts [of Italy] weren't offended by all of this," Fo remarked later. "But we got a lot of flak from canned-meat producers and industrialists in general." The flak led to severe restrictions by the increasingly nervous producers of Canzonissima, which in turn triggered a much publicized walkout by Fo and Rame.

Fo returned to the stage with his first historical play, Isabella, tre caravelle, e un cacciaballe (Isabella, Three Ships, and a Con Man, 1963), a debunking of the story of Columbus that mixes, in a curiously pleasing way, techniques from Brecht, jibes at the expense of Italian authorities, and Lucy-and-Desi arguments between Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. Isabella manifests all the trappings of Fo's mature style: a simple, bluntly phrased attack, a love of parodistic jargon, and lots of vaudevillian business. Fo does not rely primarily on verbal humor. Rather, his lines are the spoken framework for a clown routine; the words hold together a baroque jumble of mime and gesture. Almost lifeless when read, the play is so effective on stage that Fo and Rame were assaulted by neo-Fascists after one performance and the shows were frequently disrupted by the police.

DURING THE POLITICAL convulsions that swept Europe in 1968, Fo and Rame became dissatisfied with being what they described as "the jesters of the bourgeoisie," their ideas tolerated because they made the middle classes laugh within the safe confines of the theater. (A current American example of what they meant might be the Broadway hit La Cage aux Folles, in which a wash of music and dance lets the audience momentarily give itself the thrill of not being horrified by homosexuality.) To escape this pigeonhole, Fo and Rame decided to take the risky route of playing in the Italian equivalent of grange halls, using the simplest of sets and props for rough-and-tumble sketches and deliberately avoiding traditional climaxes and cathartic ending points. Like Brecht before him, Fo began to think about stripping the theater of its naturalistic trappings in order to transform it into a medium for the direct portrayal of political affairs, but he went about this task in a very different way.

Fo was inspired by the ancestors of the lakeside storytellers who had entranced him as a child: the ninth-to twelfth-century giullari -- wandering minstrels who performed vulgar anti-authoritarian satires in the piazzas of European city-states. Using a hodgepodge of regional dialects, the giullari carried news from town to town, made fun of clergy and gentry, and frequently attracted the ire of local noblemen. The height of the giullarata occurred during the Feast of Fools -- the rowdy pre-Lenten celebration that erupted annually in the slums of medieval cities. Men dressed like women and women dressed like men; rich people stayed behind locked doors as revelers from the poorer quarters roamed outside. Typical events included performances of misteri buffi and mock Masses, in which the celebrants would sit backward in their pews and bray like asses -- continually urged on by the hoots of the giullari.

Today Fo regards the giullari, with their partly improvised style, physically active comedic techniques, and savage mockery of oppression, as one of the wellsprings of Western theater, and he views his own work as an attempt to reclaim this nearly lost tradition. In the preface to one of his published plays, Fo wrote, "If you look into the original Greek theater, you'll see that the popular stage has always used grotesquerie, satire, lampoons, low comedy, and even -- why not? -- scurrility to achieve its end of soiling, deflating, and bursting the balloon that the ruling class has always tried to keep pumped up." Laughter, Fo likes to say, exposes the mind to the spikes of reason. By Fo's account, he is trying to speak to the common man on his own terms and in his own rough language. The emblem of this attempt is Mistero Buffo, generally considered his greatest play.

First performed in 1969 and subsequently seen by tens of millions of people on four continents, Mistero Buffo is a mixture of old and new texts -- never the same two shows running -- that has evolved into a remarkable display of mimicry, erudition, song, and satire. It is performed almost entirely in medieval dialects; the printed text of the play comes complete with a translation into Italian on facing pages. Before each skit Fo summarizes the plot; audiences are then carried along by his voice, his gestures, and the astonishing range of expressions that animate his rubbery face. The effect is powerful enough that in 1983 Mistero Buffo took London by storm and apparently saved the theater in which Fo performed from financial ruin. The reviews were universally enthusiastic, although one critic complained about the presence on stage of a translator; unnecessary, in his view, given Fo's skill. Indeed, the near incomprehensibility of the language means that audiences have to work in order to keep up. Guided by Fo, spectators must write the play in their own heads. Watching Fo is an active, not a passive, experience.

Barely moving his body, Fo does a version of the resurrection of Lazarus as seen by the rubberneckers thronging the grave site; he plays more than a dozen characters, ranging from the incensed cemetery groundskeeper, who reprimands everyone for tearing up the lawns, to the inevitable man who bellows, "Hey, you! Down in front!" All are utterly, humanly ignorant of the sacred meaning of the miracle. As Fo acts out the story, Lazarus's grief-torn parents have lied to Jesus: their son has been dead for a month, not three days. When the resurrection occurs, the onlookers are first appalled by the worms and the smell, then wildly enthusiastic. The playlet finishes with the applause turning into shrieks of dismay; pickpockets have taken advantage of the moment of euphoria to relieve the spectators of their wallets.

Other bits along the way include a lush's liquid recounting of the wedding at Cana; the efforts of a legless man to avoid being cured by Christ, because the cripple knows he is better off outside society; and a vicious portrait of Boniface VIII, the dictatorial Pope for whom Dante reserved a special place in Hell. The figures of the Gospel -- the Virgin, Mary Magdalene, Jesus -- do not appear until the final scenes, when they are accompanied by the Maniac, a stock medieval character. (Somewhat softer versions of this fellow turn up in Elizabethan dramas, in which he is usually called the Fool.) Impressed by the vigor with which Christ has ejected the bankers from the temple, the Maniac regards this whole Crucifixion routine as a waste of a promising insurrection. He tries to bribe the soldiers to take Christ off the cross but is stymied by the Savior's refusal to be saved. Then Mary rushes in on the scene at Golgotha and attempts to pull her son free, ending up in an appalling, blackly funny tug-of-war with the embarrassed Roman guards. Finally stopped, Mary deliriously attacks Gabriel, the angel who told her of her destiny. (The reader is asked to recall that Fo performs what follows in the Italian equivalent of Chaucerian English.)

MARY: Fly, Gabriel! Go back and spread your wings in your beautiful, glorious Heaven, Gabriel. There's nothing for you on this monstrous Earth, this tormented world. Go! lest you soil your gentle rainbow wings. Can you not see the stink of mud, smoke, and blood? Go! lest your delicate ears be deafened by the shrieks and wailings of despair and the weeping implorations that rise up in ever greater rage from every side. Go! lest your luminous eyes be blinded by the sight of our wounds and the cracked, swollen skin of our bellies, by the flies and worms crawling over the butchered bodies of men. You're not used to this. In Heaven there are no screams, no tears, no wars; no prisons, no hanged men, no women sullied by rape. No hunger, no famine, no men and women who must earn their bread by the sweat of their brows and the breaking of their bodies; no children who never learned to smile, no mothers darkened with grief, no one suffering to expiate original sin. Go from here!
Fo's closing image is of Mary's anger. We see no Resurrection. The last lines belong to the angel, an immortal creature who begs the mortal woman's forgiveness for his inability to understand.

GABRIEL: . . . I have come only to remind thee that it is just that wordless song of thy tears, this tuneless lament unable to well up in a releasing sob -- this sacrifice which thou hast made together with thy beloved child, that all of these shall rend the very fabric of Heaven, and at last tear it wide enough to let the masses of waiting mankind find refuge for the first time in Paradise.
FO IS UNUSUAL in that he became more radical as he grew older, and was rewarded with larger audiences for his drift into the political margins. During the 1970s he moved to the left of the Italian Communist Party, which was slow to support the student, feminist, and environmental movements. At the same time, his collaboration with Rame became increasingly full. A remarkable performer, Rame has greater range as an actor than her husband, although she is less gifted at mime. With Fo she wrote her own show, Tutta casa letto e chiesa (literally, Shes All Church, Home, and Bed, 1977), a series of dark, violent sketches for a single performer about the condition of women. Like the traveling theatrical families of the past -- and Rame's own family -- the couple toured Italy, Rame performing Tutta casa one day and Fo Mistero Buffo the next.

They also worked together on several "throwaway" farces, whose loose plots they changed regularly to mirror the changing Italian political scene -- creating, in the process, a style of political theater that is quite unlike most of what goes by that name in this country. A typical evening with Fo will more than likely begin with the playwright ambling onstage before the houselights go down. He'll have a local newspaper in his hand and be ready to tell a few stories about the genesis of the script, the events of the day, and what he is hoping to accomplish. There may be a few jokes, there may not -- Fo will be easing the audience into the context of the evening's entertainment. One by one the other players will enter behind him. Gradually, when the mood feels right, Fo's monologue will glide into the play proper. The spirit of improvisation reigns: when the English invaded the Falkland Islands, Fo entirely rewrote the play he was doing within twenty-four hours. In performance, the day after the war started, the actors read from pieces of paper covered with Fo's angular handwriting. The show was anything but polished, but it was dazzlingly alive.

These rough, open-ended plays have been popular in many different countries. One, Morte accidentale di un anarchico (Accidental Death of an Anarchist, 1971), has been done, Fo says, by 1,300 companies, in Europe, Asia, and North and South America.

Accidental Death was written about what Italians refer to as the "strategy of tension": a scheme carried out during the early 1970s by right-wing extremists in the military and secret services to discredit the Italian Communist Party by staging a number of "leftist" bombings. The most notorious of these incidents occurred in Milan, where scores of people were killed or maimed by a blast in a crowded bank. A coven of rather foolish anarchists was framed for the crime, but the whole business came unraveled after one member of the group was chucked out of a high window in a police station during an interrogation. The subsequent cover-ups, inquests, re- coverups, and trials lasted for years, aroused great public ire, and ended in the disbanding of the Italian intelligence service.

At the height of the affair Fo wrote Accidental Death, in which a medieval-style Maniac runs amok in the police station where the anarchist was murdered. The Maniac, afflicted with a lunatic penchant for disguising himself -- playing, he says, "the theater of the real" -- impersonates the prosecutor conducting the inquest, a Strangelovian explosives expert, and, hilariously, a bishop; there is much foofaraw involving those tried-and-true sources of laughter, glass eyes and wooden limbs. The script changed daily to capitalize on the affair's latest revelations. The play never really ended; its final act was, in fact, discussion with the audience. Fo played the role of the Maniac for four years, before huge audiences (those who couldn't get tickets would listen to the show free over loudspeakers), and rewrote the ending four times to keep up with events and to avoid getting bored.

Despite its specifically Italian context, Accidental Death was a big hit in London, as were several other Fo farces. Last winter, on the heels of Fo's success there, the English publishing company Methuen produced the first English-language book about Fo -- Dario Fo: People's Court Jester, by Tony Mitchell.

Some of Fo's plays have been done in this country, reflecting the American proclivity for remounting anything that has ever appeared on an English stage. Adaptations of Accidental Death have appeared in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., and the show opened on Broadway last season to critical broadsides. With actors and script strapped into a glitzy straitjacket -- there was no room at all for improvisation -- the play was a thorough disaster. A few weeks before the play closed, mutterings were heard in the producers' office that the flop of Accidental Death might ensure that Americans would not see Fo's plays for years to come. Given the economics of the theater industry, that prediction could well be right.

ONE REASON FOR Fo's lack of recognition in this country is the repeated refusal of the U.S. Naturalization and Immigration Service, until late last year, to give Fo and Rame an entrance visa. Another reason is the slowness with which foreign dramatists catch on in this country. For example, playwrights Thomas Bernhardt of Austria and Franz Xavier Kroetz of Germany, well known throughout Europe, have been discovered by American producers only recently; even Luigi Pirandello and the late Edoardo de Filippo have never been translated in full.

But most of the difficulty has to do with the staggering cost of mounting theatrical productions, especially in New York City. Fo's original production of Accidental Death cost something like two hundred dollars; the Broadway version cost about half a million dollars. The many smaller theaters that have heretofore kept the American stage going are under intense financial pressure, owing largely to cutbacks in federal support. Regional companies that in the past could afford to do an untried, unknown, or unexpected play are losing the margin to gamble. Because nobody can afford to fail, nobody can afford to experiment.

Despite these obstacles, however, one of the more exciting theatrical movements since the Second World War is taking place now, in a direction parallel to Fo's. Often called the New Vaudeville, this collection of artists includes such performers as the mime Bill Irwin, who had a minor role in the Broadway production of Accidental Death; the Flying Karamazov Brothers, a troupe of jugglers who recently starred in Robert Woodruff's circus version of The Comedy of Errors, in Chicago; the magicians Penn and Teller; and a variety of other players, all of whom combine elements of circus acts, performance art, burlesque and the icy sensibility usually called post-modern. Many of these performers come from San Francisco, where the San Francisco Mime Troupe has been lampooning and lambasting the American establishment for more than a quarter-century.

Irwin says that he thinks there is a hunger in audiences to see stage magic, to be entranced by the skill of a juggler or a mime, to watch people perform as well as act: witness the crowds that gather around break-dancers on the sidewalks outside office buildings in many American cities. Spectators are transfixed when Teller is wrapped in a straitjacket and hung upside-down over a bed of huge nails, racing to extricate himself from his bonds before Penn finishes reading "Casey at the Bat" at top speed. The sight is superbly, profoundly theatrical. No movie could duplicate the special mixture of humor and fear that comes from watching real human beings do the wonderful and apparently impossible.

Yet despite the vivacity, humor, and post-modernist edge of the New Vaudeville shows, they can be thin. At their worst they bring to mind the reason why the old vaudeville died, which is that its canon of gags and routines stopped growing and audiences lost interest. Fo's exploitation of medieval theater is similar in many ways to the recent revival of turn-of-the-century American vaudeville. The difference is that his work is informed by an overarching political and social vision; his craft serves that vision rather than standing alone. Evolving a battery of techniques to enlarge the imaginative confines of the proscenium stage, he has found a way to link the quintessentially theatrical delights of storytelling and visual humor to the daily lives of his audience, and to do so without didacticism.

The best way for Americans to experience the special pleasure of Fo's art is to see the playwright perform, and so far that has been impossible here. However, Yale University has invited Fo and Rame to appear in its repertory theater next winter. The couple is considering a national tour. They have said that they would like to play in small, regional theaters all over the country. Fo believes that the popular nature of his work and the universal appeal of low humor will allow audiences here to understand what he's trying to say. One waits with curiosity to see what contemporary Americans make of the medieval mime in their midst.


Copyright © 1997 by Charles Mann. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; September 1985; The Red Mime of Milan; Volume 256 , No. 3; pages 103 - 107.

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