Italian dramatist Dario Fo, whose plays include Accidental Death of an Anarchist and We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay!, died on Oct. 13 at the age of 90.
The co-occurrence of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature and the death of Dario Fo provides a bittersweet opportunity to reflect on the relationship between literature and performance. When Fo won the Nobel Prize in 1997, many scholars were outraged, arguing that Fo’s eccentric political plays were not serious literature. Dylan’s prize has generated similar controversy. Some believe that the Nobel Prize committee is redefining literature by including satirists and songsmiths in the pantheon of great writers. What may be happening instead is a recognition of literature’s primal roots in the tradition of singer/storytellers whose words were linked to the current concerns of their audiences.
Great writers like Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare wrote stories that were meant to be spoken and sung. Their texts were not disembodied symbols on a page. Their words came alive in the body of a performer who gave voice to urgent issues. The consequences of politics, war, and injustice were played out in words that traveled immediately from the throat of a performer to the ears of a listener. The sounds of literature pulsated in the air with the immediacy of “abstract and brief chronicles of the times.”
When Dario Fo staged the American premiere of his play Mistero Buffo at New York’s Joyce Theater in 1986, he performed the text himself in Italian. I was his onstage simultaneous interpreter, and was able to sense the raw power of his language vibrating next to me as he spoke. My job was to translate those words to English without losing the kinetic energy of his phrasing. I had spent a year in Italy watching Fo create new work. First he would make drawings. Then he would put the drawings into motion, recreating them through gesture while improvising a text for an audience. Only then would he put the script on paper. His words were born out of vibrant images and physical action. The only way to do justice to them in translation was to honor their connection to the rhythmic flow of Fo’s movements as he traversed the stage.
As I enjoyed the game of keeping up with Fo’s changing cadences, I noticed that he was inserting references to current events into a text he had been performing for years. Backstage before each performance Fo would ask me to translate articles from The New York Times. News items about then-President Ronald Reagan were his favorite. He would filter them through his comic imagination and somehow find a way to fold them seamlessly into his play about medieval Italian politics and religion. It was literally breathtaking to translate those gems of improvised comic commentary at the moment Fo was inventing them.
Thinking back to the experience of being onstage with Dario Fo, I remember feeling possessed by his language, giving myself over entirely to the rhythmic drive of his sentences. There was no other way I could have translated his words with the accuracy they deserved, and still convey their ferocious humor and urgency.
So I find it fitting that the Nobel committee recognized another master of literature-as-performance on the same day Fo died. Like the words of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Fo, Dylan’s texts demand to be heard aloud. They remind us that one way to measure great literature is by how deeply it is embedded in our physical selves. Fo’s observations on the connection between language and the body might serve both as his own epitaph and as a tribute to his fellow Laureate: “Memory, everything begins from there… For me memory has to enter through the mouth… to listen means to move your lips, your feet, articulate your face, stretch your throat, learn to speak… to become the instrument of your own memory, as if you were looking for a piece of music on a guitar.”
Ron Jenkins, a former Guggenheim Fellow, is the author of Dario Fo and Franca Rame: Artful Laughter, and has translated and/or directed many of Fo’s plays for Yale Repertory Theater, American Repertory Theater, and New York Theater Workshop. He is a professor of theater at Wesleyan University and a visiting professor of literature and religion at the Yale Divinity School’s Institute of Sacred Music.