Nobel-winning playwright Dario Fo dies at 90; mocked Italian politics and religion

Dario Fo gives an interview in October 1997 at a German publishing house in Frankfurt.
(Heribert Proper / Associated Press)

Italian playwright Dario Fo, whose energetic mocking of Italian political life, social mores and religion won him the Nobel Prize for literature, died Thursday, a Milan hospital official said. He was 90.

Fo died Thursday morning in Milan’s Sacco hospital, hospital spokeswoman Ida Mannelli told the Associated Press.

Premier Matteo Renzi said Italy had lost one of the leading protagonists of Italian culture and civil life.


“His satire, research, scenography and artistic activity will leave the inheritance of a great Italian to the world,” Renzi said.

The author of “Accidental Death of an Anarchist” and more than 70 other plays saw himself as playing the role of the jester, combining raunchy humor and scathing satire. He was admired and reviled in equal measure.

His political activities saw him banned from the United States and censored on Italian television, and his flamboyant artistic antics resulted in repeated arrests.

The son of a railway worker and a farmhand, Fo was introduced to narrative traditions at an early stage through his grandfather, a well-known storyteller. He studied painting at Milan’s prestigious Brera Academy as well as architecture. At age 25, he began to write and perform satirical cabarets at the Piccolo Theater in Milan.

A staunch leftist, he founded a theater company with his wife, actress Franca Rame, later a senator. Rame died in 2013 at 84.


The pair made a career out of mocking postwar Italy, ranging from the domestic terrorism of the late 1970s to the bitter debates over abortion and divorce and the political corruption scandal in the early 1990s that brought down a whole class of politicians and businessmen.

Dealing with subjects like the Vietnam War, the Chinese revolution and student revolts in the West, Fo and Rame took their works out of “bourgeois” theaters and into streets, piazzas, occupied factories and circus-style tents.

Italian bishops gagged on Fo’s freewheeling interpretations of the Catholic faith. One of his most famous plays, “Comic Mystery,” satirized the church by depicting Jesus turning water into wine as a favor to his mother, Mary.

The one-man show was seen by an estimated 1 million people when it toured Italy over 18 months in 1968-1970.

As his work grew more and more radical, Fo fell out of favor with state TV RAI, which banned him for more than a decade. Prosecutors tried but failed to convict him of offending institutions such as the national police force.

Some theorized that right-wing sympathizers among the police were behind the kidnapping and rape of Fo’s wife by Italian neo-fascists on a Milan street in 1973, when the country’s society was largely rent ideologically between extreme right and left, and domestic extremist violence gripped the nation.

Not long after winning his Nobel, Fo wrote to Italy’s president demanding justice in the case, even though statutes of limitations had expired.

Motivating him, Fo said, was not a thirst for revenge, but a desire to help the country recognize the barbarities of that period and move on.

“Accidental Death of an Anarchist,” drew from an event that continues to divide Italians, who are often bitterly split between left and right in a stubborn legacy of the ideological and actual battles between fascist stalwarts and communist partisans during World War II. The play is based on the fall from a police station window of an anarchist who was being questioned over a 1969 Milan bank bombing. The police officer who led the interrogation was fatally gunned down in 1972.

Fo’s stature as an artist began to outstrip his fame as a militant by the end of the 1970s. Milan’s La Scala theater let him direct a play, “Story of a Soldier,” in 1978, and audiences in furs, jewels and suits flocked to his works in mainstream theaters. Still, in 1980, he and Rame were refused visas to the United States because of their support for left-wing activities in Italy. The decision sparked controversy and prompted U.S intellectuals to stage protests in support. In 1984, the U.S. government relented and allowed the couple to visit New York to see a production of “Accidental Death of an Anarchist.”

The Nobel Prize for literature came in 1997. The citation described Fo as a writer “who emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden.” Guests attending his prize lecture in Stockholm in 1997 had a surprise as they opened their texts of the lecture. Instead of neatly printed paragraphs full of carefully worded thoughts, they found 25 pages of brightly colored drawings, with scattered words scrawled among them: “Provocation ignorance of our times.”

While he enraged the Vatican, Fo at least once ended up on the same side of the Catholic Church, when both lobbied vigorously — but unsuccessfully — to stop the 2000 execution in Virginia of Rocco Derek Barnabei, a U.S. citizen of Italian origin.

Fo pledged to donate some proceeds of his theater work to anti-death penalty causes around the world. Even though the husband-wife team snubbed the bourgeois theater route at times, the same bourgeoisie turned their plays into sold-out successes, notably Fo’s 2003 spoof of then-Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, “The Two-Headed Anomaly.” That play, at one of Rome’s mainstream theaters, explored what many contended was the conflict of interest posed by a premier who was at the time also Italy’s richest man, thanks to vast business holdings, largely in the media sector.

The work asked the entertaining question: what would happen if half of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brain was used to replace half of Berlusconi’s brain? The play also pre-shadowed Berlusconi’s real-life split with his second wife amid sex scandals embroiling the politician. While Fo had fun with politicians’ foibles, his own foray in politics was a failure.

In 2006, he lost a bid in a primary to become the center-left’s candidate for mayor of Milan.

Fo and Rame had a son, Jacopo Fo, a writer.


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