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From Italian Roots to American Relevance: The Remarkable Theatre of Dario Fo MIMI D'APONTE Clowns are grotesque blasphemers against all our pieties. That's why we need them. They're our alter egos. (Daria Fa, Cambridge, May 1987)' Americans writing about theatre have been pronouncing Daria Fa's work extraordinary, whether for performance or political reasons, or for both. "For the past decade," claimed Joel Schechter in 1985, "Daria Fa has been Europe's most popular political satirist."2 "So many theatres have included Fa in their recent seasons," wrote Ron Jenkins in 1986, "that he has become the most-produced contemporary Italian playwright in the U.S."3 American producers interested in social satire seem to have become less leery ofthis zany Italian genius who publicly thanked his "fellow actor," Ronald Reagan, for the marvelous promotion afforded his work when the State Department denied him an American visa for several years. Daria Fo is the brilliant successor of a comic tradition of mime and improvisation which extends not only back to Greek phlyakes and Roman fabulae, but also includes both medieval giul/ari (to whom he so often refers) and Italian commedia dell' arte. He is, in addition, the heir of two twentiethcentury Italian geniuses of the comic spirit - Toto and Eduardo. The fIrst connection is evident from the transcription of Fo's remarks fllmed to honor Toto (1898-1967) in 1978 and published in English translation last year. He pronounces Toto an "epic actor" (nomenclature he often applies to his own technique)' - "he uses all the elements which allow a break with naturalism.'" Fo also states that Toto is true to the commedia dell' arte tradition since, by using body and face in opposition to one another, he creates a true mask (Fa's use of masks and puppets in the 50S and 60S was extensive)ยท Finally, Fo celebrates gleefully Toto's destruction of the fourth wall by citing an example of Totoian conversation with a tardy audience member: The Theatre of Dario Fo 533 Ifsomeone arrived late when the show bad started. Toto intenupted everything and said: "So you've come at last? ,.. We were really worried ... Do sit down .. ," 7 This dialog is identical to one which Fo engaged in with a late-comer to the James Joyce Theater in New York City during a May 1986 performance of his signature piece, Mistero BUffo. You will find a[n] ... authentic ... version of its [commedia dell'arte's] artificial clowning in the Neapolitan comedian Toto. And for another side of the tradition - not famous at all unfortunately - you must go to Eduardo.8 The other twentieth-century figure with whom Fo must be compared is Eduardo De Filippo (1900-84). Referred to familiarly by Italians as "Eduardo ," and by Eric Bentley as the "Son of Pulcinella," this prolific Neapolitan actor/playwright exemplified a strongly realistic tradition of acting. In 1950 Bentley identified Eduardo as perhaps the finest actor in Italy today "more likely ... to be the heir of commedia del/'arte than any other important performer now living."9 There was a precision to Eduardo's performances which was uncanny, which left the viewer with the sense of having witnessed the quintessential interpretation of the character in question. >0 This "polish" seems to be what Fo, in speaking to acting students in London, termed "soup/esse." What makes." great swimmer[s] is the fact that they have coordination. You're hardly aware ofhow theirbodies move ... you hardly seethembreathe ... That is souplesse. It's the same souplesse, litheness. that great actors have. They don't show that they are exerting themselves. They make you forget that they are acting.11 Fo possesses "souplesse" to an astonishing degree and he practises a performance style probably closer to the "Ruzzante" form of commedia which he admires than "any other important performer now living."" Fo sees himself as the inheritor of the "realistic" acting style of the Italian popular theatre which, he explains, encompasses an epic dimension as well: The epic style derives from realism. But it is characterised by the self-aware detachment ofthe actor;the actor is critical ofwhathe acts. He does not confine himselfto conveying infonnation, to...


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