ROME — Dario Fo, the Italian playwright, actor and director who won the 1997 Nobel Prize in Literature and was best known for his passionately political 1970 play “Accidental Death of an Anarchist,” has died. He was 90.
Fo’s death was announced by the Italian government. He had been hospitalized in Milan 12 days ago for a respiratory ailment, the Milan daily Corriere della Sera said.
“With Dario Fo, Italy loses one of the great protagonists of theater, culture and the civic life of our country,” said Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. “His satire, his research, his work on set design, his multifaceted artistic activity remain the legacy of a great Italian in the world.”
A self-described jester, Fo had a prolific, multidisciplinary career that spanned more than six decades.
Fo first performed in the U.S. in 1986, after being denied a visa for years, when he took his one-man show “Mistero Buffo” to New York’s Joyce Theatre and was compared by American critics to, among others, Richard Pryor and Monty Python for his unique mix of outrageousness and subversiveness.
His 1974 absurdist play “We Won’t Pay, We Won’t Pay,” about a group of housewives who filch groceries from supermarkets unbeknownst to their husbands, caused him to be prosecuted as an accessory to the crime when several Italian women were arrested for doing just that. The prosecutor claimed the play had incited incidents of mass theft. He was acquitted.
Fo first started acting and directing satirical sketches in small cabarets and theaters during Italy’s early postwar period. In 1959 he and his wife, actress Franca Rame, founded the Compagnia Dario Fo–Franca Rame and were able to bring their sketches on public broadcaster RAI’s popular variety show “Canzonissima,” which soon turned them into popular TV personalities. They subsequently developed their sometimes blasphemous agitprop theater, which was rooted in Italy’s Commedia dell’Arte tradition.
The first play that brought them international notice was “Gli arcangeli non giocano al flipper (“Archangels Don’t Play Pinball”), in 1959, involving a prank in which a marriage is arranged between a young Milanese man and a prostitute posing as an Albanian princess. After drawing rave reviews in Italy, the two-act play traveled widely in Europe.
In 1962, a TV sketch Fo and Rame performed on “Canzonissima” about construction workers, just as they were fighting a union battle with Italy’s government, sparked a furor and got Fo effectively banned from appearing on Italian television for the following 14 years.
His next play “Isabella, tre caravelle e un cacciaballe” also ruffled feathers because it debunked the myth of Christopher Columbus. Fo received threatening letters and was physically assaulted in Rome.
Starting in 1968, Fo and Rame started performing outside the regular theater circuit in community centers and alternative theater workshops and basing their works in contemporary issues.
“Accidental Death of an Anarchist” – about the death of Italian anarchist and railway worker Giuseppe Pinelli, who fell or, it was believed at the time, might have been thrown out of a police station window after being accused of a terrorist bank bombing in Milan’s Piazza Fontana – is now considered a contemporary theater classic. It has been performed in more than 40 countries.
More recently, Fo’s tribute to American anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, “Peace Mom,” played on the London stage in 2005.
That same year, Fo ran for mayor of Milan. “My theater has always been a political battle on the stage. But now I have to take it a step further,” he told Variety.
In recent years, Fo started delivering public performances, which he called lectures, on artists — Giotto, Leonardo, Raphael, Caravaggio, Picasso. In 2014, he published his first novel, titled “The Pope’s Daughter,” about Lucrezia Borgia, the alleged femme fatale and daughter of Pope Alexander VI.
Franca Rame, whom Fo had married in 1954, assisted him in these performances, one of many instances of their intense creative collaboration which also included her input on writing several of his plays. Rame died in 2013.
Fo remained a committed political activist to the end, skewering Italian government politicians and recently appearing at a rally in support of Italy’s anti-establishment 5-Star Movement.
He is survived by his son, Jacopo Fo, a writer, actor and director.