I first interviewed Dario Fo, in New York City, in November 1984. I brought an entourage along with me that included a photographer and assistant, an interpreter, and NY filmmaker Emile D. Antonio. We were going to do Fo. Fo of course, had his own entourage, and we all crowded into the dainty yellow and green parlor of his suite at the Plaza.
The Village Voice said they’d take a look at my story. No one, it seemed, at the time, knew about Fo. (I ended up selling an abbreviated version of the interview to Reuters, and a longer version, a year later, to Saturday Evening Post.)
Prior to his 1984 visit to New York, Fo, an Italian playwright and satirist, had twice been denied a visa. During our interview Fo said his previous efforts to enter the U.S. had been turned down on the grounds of “ideological exclusion.”
He added his entry had finally been made possible by President Reagan. “Mr. Reagan is an actor and understands it is bad luck to treat theater people badly,” he said.
Fo had come to New York to see preview productions of his play “Accidental Death of an Anarchist.” The play opened later that month at the Belasco Theater and starred Patti LuPone and Jeremy Irons.
For years I had been smitten by the work of Dario Fo and his wife, Franca Rame, having been introduced to a several one acts performed here in Boston, at a small, now non-existent theater in the North End, called the Nucleo Eclettico. The plays and skits written by both Fo and his wife are interactive, political and gutsy; they honor the audience and honor the artist, with no presumption and little compromise of intelligence. The plays make fun of authority
In 1984, I expected to meet a serious man. Surely Fo has his somber moments, but I encountered a very funny man. He was enthusiastic about seeing everything he could possibly see during the days he was in New York, and I couldn’t help but catch his energy and think of it as being as fresh as a child’s. During the interview Fo spoke, rapid-fire Italian, about American architecture, homeless people, fashion, and museums. Fo loved the griminess of New York and called it artistic fertilizer. He laughed about having observed a group of people contemplating an abstract white painting at the MOMA, which then lead him to observations about the fine line and thin brushstrokes of European painting and the wide, less specific strokes the Americans tend to go for.
During his days in NYC, he was most interested in meeting Woody Allen, who he rushed off to lunch with after our interview. The other American he was eager to meet was Steven Speilberg.
Mr. Fo might be the tallest Italian I have ever met; Fo is over six feet tall. Plus he knows how to juggle and clown and reminded me several times during the interview that he trained himself to be a medieval jester, and that he was a clown.
Unfortunately his play “Accidental Death of an Anarchist,” performed at the Belasco Theater in late November 1984, was whisked on and off Broadway almost as quickly as tall Fo himself had been whisked in and out of New York.
At the time of our interview Fo had not yet seen the American version of “Accidental Death…” which had been adapted to appeal to a New York audience. He said that the responsibility for any satire of U.S. politics that were added to the play were not his ideas but the producers.
A few days later, I learned Fo had been irritated by not only the whitewashing of his politics but also the costumes. The Actors had been made into characatures of Italian-Americans. The men wore short pants and white plastic shoes. The women were over bosomed and over emotional. The jokes that were left in the play–about the condition of poor people–brought no laughs from theater-goers who had the money to buy Broadway tickets and who preferred to think they didn’t have to consider poverty, especially on a night out.
The second time I interviewed Dario Fo was in Boston, in 1986, when he was invited to perform at the American Repertory Theater. At the A.R.T. he performed his own material, stirring polenta, cracking jokes about hunger, and speaking grammalot, a made-up language which imitated the sounds of existing languages, for a full house. On that visit–rather than promote his plays and politics–he showcased himself and his jester skills.
On October 9, 1997, early in the mornng, my Italian friend Laura Zanini telephoned me: “Dario Fo won the Novel Prize for literature!” she said. What good news it was.
The hope is that American producers will do justice to Dario Fo’s work and not need to re-interpret it or present it as a joke about people dressed up in white shoes, or to view Fo himself as a gadfly. Too, the award does much to enhance the art of being an artist (in a true and classical sense), the crediblity of jokes, and the peculiar humor, politics, and sensibility of Italianess.