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Dario Fo, Italian playwright, dies at 90

Italian Nobel prize winner Dario Fo smiles during

Italian Nobel prize winner Dario Fo smiles during the Italian State RAI TV program "Che Tempo che Fa", in Milan, Italy, on May 9, 2009. According to ANSA news agency Fo died on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016, in Milan at the age of 90. Photo Credit: AP / Antonio Calanni

Dario Fo, an Italian comic actor, playwright, satirist and self-described jester whose satirical works angered the Catholic Church and his country’s political, military and industrial elite but also earned him the Nobel Prize for literature, died Thursday at a hospital in Milan. He was 90.

He had a progressive pulmonary disease, hospital officials told The Associated Press.

When Fo received the Nobel in 1997, some literary experts were aghast and admitted they had never heard of him. Many writers who were better known, including V.S. Naipaul, Mario Vargas Llosa, Doris Lessing, Alice Munro and Gunter Grass, had not yet received the prize.

Instead, Fo became one of the most unlikely Nobel laureates in literature — until the very day he died, when the prize was awarded to singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. At various times, Fo was arrested, banned from Italian television and prevented from entering the United States because of suspected support of terrorist groups.

In awarding the Nobel to Fo, the Swedish Academy noted that he “emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden.”

The official Vatican newspaper, long at odds with Fo’s depictions of religious authority, noted, “Giving the prize to an actor who is also an author of debatable texts — leaving aside every moral consideration — has surpassed all imagination.”

When he received the prize, Fo professed to be as surprised as anyone else. “It’s not bad at all getting a Nobel,” he said, “and making so many old fossils explode with rage.”

He was the author of more than 40 plays, most with overtly political and satirical themes. He acted in most of them, often with his wife and collaborator, Franca Rame.

He drew comparisons to such disparate figures as Lenny Bruce, Charlie Chaplin, Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks and the Monty Python comedy troupe. Tall and paunchy, Fo was once described as looking like “a thinking man’s Rodney Dangerfield.”

Others said Fo was the heir of an older line, deriving from medieval clowns and bards. He was influenced by the satirical comedies of French playwright Molière and by Angelo Beolco, the 16th-century Italian actor-playwright known as Il Ruzzante, considered the father of the commedia dell’arte tradition.

Some of Fo’s earliest works from the 1950s were satires of Italy’s political life, in which fascist sympathizers from World War II were still active.

In 1962, after writing and appearing in a satirical sketch — an obese woman visiting a meatpacking plant falls into a grinder and winds up as 150 cans of meat — Fo and his wife were effectively banned from Italian television for more than a decade.

They later founded a theater cooperative with ties to the Communist Party. The group toured Italy with satirical plays and pantomimes before collapsing because of internal feuding.

In 1969, Fo premiered one of his best-known works, “Mistero buffo” (“Comic Mystery”), in which he lampooned the Catholic Church and the Italian government with outrageous retellings of the gospels — often in a comical form of gibberish. When he finally returned to Italian TV to perform the play in 1977, the Vatican denounced it as “the most blasphemous show in the history of television.”

These plays and others were performed throughout Europe, making Fo one of the most widely produced dramatists of his time, even if some critics didn’t consider him “serious.”

Dario Fo was born March 24, 1926, in northern Italy.

In 1973, Rame was kidnapped by a right-wing militia group, tortured and raped before being released. She later used the experience for a dramatic monologue. She died in 2013. Survivors include a son, writer Jacopo Fo.

For years denied entry to the United States because of his political associations, Fo was admitted in 1986 after the State Department granted him a visa. He performed “Mistero buffo” in New York and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

He continued to write and paint until shortly before his death, including a 2002 memoir and a 2009 biography of his wife. His first novel, “The Pope’s Daughter,” about Lucrezia Borgia, appeared in 2015.

In his Nobel acceptance speech, Fo praised Molière and Il Ruzzante for writing about the fears, desperation and laughter of ordinary people. “Their major, unforgivable fault,” he said, “was this: In telling these things, they made people laugh. Laughter does not please the mighty.”


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