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Fo and Rame

``...the spirit of profound anarchy ... is at the root of all poetry'' _ Antonin Artaud.

I came across recently, in a thrift store, a paperback copy of Italian playwright Dario Fo's ``We Can't Pay? We Won't Pay!'' with a forward by his wife, the actress and activist Franca Rame.

Fo, now in his eighties, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1997. If they were giving it, Fo and Rame (click to enlarge image) would deserve a similar award for courage

A quick example: in 1973 Rame was abducted, raped and tortured by a fascist organization given tacit approval by authorities. Several months later she was back on stage, performing anti-fascist monologues _ that she had written. Likely the monologues accused what Rame refers to as ``the bourgeoisie'' and the fascists of collusion. Certainly the harassment of Compagnio Dario Fo-Franca Rame over decades indicates that was happening.

For instance, in her forward to ``We Can't Pay?'' Rame writes of earlier productions in the 1960s and the theater company collecting ```reports' (by) the police superintendent of every town we visited. I was reported for making a remark against the army in a play about Columbus. While running the same `Columbus' we were assaulted by fascists outside the Valle Theatre in Rome when, by a strange coincidence, the police had disappeared.''

What infuriated the authorities? Well, take ``We Can't Pay?'' It's a mad farce of anarchy _ housewives frustrated by a repressive system and a sliding economy ransack supermarket shelves and stuff the groceries up their dresses, thus looking pregnant and making it difficult for police to search them for the stolen goods. The authorities, of course, come across looking like merciless idiots.

Despite threats and attacks, Fo and Rame continued on through the years, many of their plays being performed throughout Europe, taking on the authorities, censors, fascists and, when they felt it was deserved, the Left.

In Italy the authorities and the fascists backed off some when Italian workers, finally convinced the company was not elitest and had guts, began showing up in large numbers at inner-city productions from Rome to Milano. Rame describes workers warming to them as the little company labored to build sets that could be torn down at any time by mobs. ``The ice was broken . . . by showing that we too could work and sweat,'' Rame wrote. Workers began attending productions and discussions that followed the plays, offering insights, questioning, suggesting.

When you think about it, it probably takes greater courage to present the truth in the theater than any other art form. The novelist, while it takes bravery to write the truth, can remain out of sight, as can the painter and poet and songwriter, unless, of course, they are personally presenting their work in public. Actors in a film don't have to be present when the film is shown, but the theater is live and, at the least, while the director and playwright could vamos, the actors must be there to present the material. Thus, Rame performing monologues a few months after she has been tortured and raped . . . amazing.

Unfortunately, American theater seems to have lost some of its courage. Plays that are critical of the system and/or the corrupt are not always effective. Rame explains, if somewhat harshly: Leaders, whether kings, presidents or tyrants, ``have always paid fools to recite before a public of highly-educated courtiers, their rigmaroles of satirical humors . . . and irreverent allusions to their masters' power and injustices,'' impressing us with the target's seemingly democratic outlook and ability to laugh at himself.

But, Rame continues, if you take those same themes to the streets, to the people, as Compagnio Dario Fo-Franca Rame did and does, then the authorities get angry. The American theater, because of its expense and exclusivity, seldom reaches those people, and the targets of such plays know a New York or regional production is not going to do them much damage with the larger population, just as a trenchant documentary film will be in and out of the movie houses in a week or two, or seen only by an ``educated'' audience on public television. Just wait it out, the bad guys know; it will go away and they will write history in their favor.

In contrast, and to make Rame's point, when Clifford Odets' pro-union play ``Waiting for Lefty'' was performed in New York in 1935, union busters and the establishment were alarmed when people unexpectedly poured out of the theater opening night yelling the play's closing lines _ ``Strike! Strike!'' Suddenly the theater had come to the city and its streets, crossing class lines, and the media as well as authorities could hardly ignore it.

Similarily, in the 1960s Luis Valdez' El Teatro Campesino brought field laborer issues to the small towns and fields of California's Central Valley. Reaction to this was testy, sometimes violent. But as in the case of ``Waiting for Lefty'' and ``We Can't Pay?'', attention had to be paid. These performances would have had nowhere near the same impact performed in a San Francisco or San Jose theater.

Rame's essay, by the way, resonnates with me because of personal experiences. I have been told a play I have written will likely not get done in this country because it seems to be suggested by a major business figure and could reflect badly on him. This although I do not use real names, do not want to use real names, because I want the play to reflect an issue, not an individual. I have also been told by some people in that general line of business and science that the theme is dangerous and, if I do get the play done, I should further disguise it. A brilliant mathematician I respect even recommended I set the play in ancient Greece, the characters in togas. Well, maybe . . .

I appreciate the warnings, but if would-be producers reject the play out of fear, all I can say is these people are no Dario Fo or Franca Rame. If they find the play badly written or to be lacking literary value, and reject it for those reasons, that's a different matter, though of course I disagree strongly.

Or, to put it another way _ ``I Can't Accept That? I Won't Accept That!''

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I found it thought-provoking that a play or film seen by "educated" audience would not be expected to impact the culture. Hmmm. What is wrong with educated people, I wonder. Interesting to think that street people have more influence and power for change.

Thank you for sharing this information about Fo and Rame. It is good to know about them.

Best wishes on your play. I hope you see its production although I would not welcoe your being in danger. Togas??

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Well, ``educated'' people can have an impact, of course,

but their numbers are much less, and they are more easily controlled. When the masses get riled, it can produce revolutions, and revolutions can overthrow tyrants. And in democracies, to win elections, you need numbers.

I'm already rewriting the play: togas all around!