Review of 'Harlequins of the Revolution', Joseph Farrell, Methuen £19.99
'A disgusting, crass and degrading broadcast which offended the Catholic faith and the religious sentiment of the Italian people...this is the first time that a national television network has broadcast a programme of such blasphemy.'
This was the Vatican's reaction to Dario Fo's 'Mistero Buffo', a series of scenes adapted from medieval and biblical tales, when it was first broadcast on Italian television in 1977. Fo replied that this was 'the finest compliment the Vatican could pay me', and the incident secured him a place in 20th century history as Italy's 'most blasphemous writer'--and its most popular one.
It was not the first time the Catholic church had tried to ban him from stage or screen. Nor was it the only institution that attempted to censor him--throughout Fo's 50-year career it was joined by the Christian Democrats, the PCI, most mainstream newspapers and virtually everyone representing the Italian political establishment. So why did he become one of the most successful European playwrights and performers, attracting millions of people to come and see his shows?
'Harlequins of the Revolution', the first comprehensive biography about Dario Fo and his lifelong partner and collaborator Franca Rame, sets out to explain the two artists' enormous popular appeal by following their journey from their childhood in prewar Italy to their most recent performance in 1999. One of the book's focus points is the couple's break from the bourgeois theatre cicuit in 1968 and the formation of Nuova Scena, a theatre collective which, it declared, would be 'at the service of the revolutionary forces not so as to reform the bourgeois state, but to favour the growth of a real revolutionary process which could bring the working class to power'.
Franca Rame describes the exhilaration sweeping through Nuova Scena at the time:
'In the first year we performed in more than 80 workers' clubs, indoor bowling alleys, occupied factories, suburban cinemas, and even in some theatres. We performed before 200,000 and more spectators, of whom 70 percent had never before seen a play. The debates that followed our show were always lively, going on till very late at night. Everyone spoke--women, boys, grown-ups and old people. They all talked about their experiences--the resistance and their struggles--and they told us what we could put on the stage in future--their history.'
However, the explicit political purpose of Nuova Scena and the debates with the audience led to tensions with the PCI and its cultural organisation ARCI, which provided the group with performance venues and publicity. Farrell explores Dario Fo's complex relationship with the organised left, as well as the arguments within Nuova Scena about the future of their theatre collective. He also gives some valuable insight into theatrical techniques, and traditions employed and developed during this time.
Fo's commitment to popular theatre, and his fascination with commedia dell'arte and the jester as the ultimate form of political farce is dealt with beautifully and in depth throughout the book. Farrell also reveals that Franca Rame's kidnap and rape by a neo-fascist group in 1973 was in fact commissioned by Milan's high ranking officials in the carabinieri, and gives some insight into the court cases surrounding this incident and other right wing attacks.
He explains the difficulties facing Fo, Rame and the Italian left during the 1980s, their involvement with Red Aid, and Rame's work as a playwright and performer within the women's liberation movement.
The last part of the book focuses on the controversy surrounding Fo when he won the Nobel prize in 1997 and his theatrical activities up until 1999.
'Harlequins of the Revolution' is a hugely enjoyable read, and a detailed account of the lives of two immensely popular theatre practitioners and dedicated political activists.