The people's court jester


The Tricks of the Trade
By Dario Fo
Methuen. 224 pp., $19.95
Reviewed by Dave Riley

Acting is taken so much for granted. So much of the culture we enjoy now depends on the ability of individuals to delude us into thinking they are someone else. Mere suggestion is not enough.

Primary cultural vehicles such as television and film are fuelled by actors acting this way. Despite the words, despite the camera angles and the music and the editing, our primary attention is focused on the individual humans who do the performing as they "develop" their characters.

Indeed, we are encouraged to give ourselves over to them. We are expected to share their experiences as deeply as if they were our own.

This reliance on an intimate relationship freely and unconditionally offered to the actor is a relatively recent phenomenon. Modern acting has matured alongside a shift in playwrighting which has been reflected by the invention of and similar changes in the novel. Today we have been so acculturated that we expect — we even demand — to be emotionally moved by the performances we see.

Put crudely, we offer our time and money to have our emotions manipulated. Whether it be tonight's episode of Home and Away or Terminator II at the local cinema complex, we are primarily interested in being emotionally touched, probably more so than at any other time that day. Reliant on professionals to recreate sentiment for us, we experience a second-hand existence neatly packaged for our leisure hours.

No doubt some of you are thinking that there's nothing wrong with that. Indeed, some are thinking that that is what art and culture should be about. But the truth is that what we experience is the pervasive cultural fare of a particular social epoch, that of capitalism, which relies on orchestrated thrills, drama and pathos. Individual emotive experience of the world is the only method we are encouraged to employ in trying to understand it: art should be for art's (and our emotions') sake.

But another tradition predates this orthodoxy, one that distances itself from such intimacy for the sake of the overall intention of the piece. The classical Greek theatre of writers such as Aristophanes was of this tradition. So too are many of the theatrical styles employed in peasant and semi-feudal societies. The workers' theatre movement of the 1920s and '30s often used the same methods.

Rather than immersing the audience in the personal psychic depths via a skilful characterisation, such theatre attempts to place ideas as the key dynamic of the piece. Generally, it tends to be satirical, dissenting from the norm. Mostly it is immensely political. This is why it is standardly denigrated by cultural trend setters — we are warned that such concerns merely cheapen art.

But to stand up and say , "No. There is another, much broader reality to represent, one dependent on a collective experience", demands great confidence and commitment which cannot readily be mustered in isolation. To achieve such a theatre, its greatest contemporary master, Dario Fo, turned his back on today's orthodox stage to renew the neglected achievements of the past. As he likes to quote the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci: "If you do not know where you come from, it is hard to understand what you are aiming for".

Fo sought inspiration in the so-called minor theatre — the popular farces of the last century, variety theatre, curtain raisers, clown shows and even the sketches of silent cinema. But overwhelmingly, the central interest of Fo's quest laid with the commedia dell'arte — the rough, rude burlesque theatre of wandering players (jongleurs) — which was so popular in Italy, Spain and France for three centuries from about the year 1550. This is the past that enriches Fo's militant political theatre today.

Some of us may be familiar with his plays such as The Accidental Death of An Anarchist and those of his wife and collaborator, Franca Rame, who co-wrote Female Parts with him. But it is very difficult to comprehend just how popular the work of this writer-performer is.

Of the populist radical theatre groups that exploded worldwide in the wake of the '60s radicalisation, Fo's La Commune is one of the few that remain, and, more to the point, has enjoyed stunning success. The audiences for one of Fo's plays in his native Italy or elsewhere in translation can be measured in the tens of thousands. "On the average", he has said, "we get from one to one and a half million spectators per year ... Right now, 10,000 spectators per evening have become something very normal for us." Dario Fo is Europe's most performed playwright.

Patronage by such numbers is indicative of how successful he has been in fostering an audience that would normally not go to the theatre. A Fo play is just as likely to be performed in a football stadium, at a mass demonstration, in a workers' club or at a picket line as it would be on a traditional stage.

Such support is even more remarkable because his loyalties overwhelmingly lie with the non-parliamentary left. Here is a revolutionary socialist who has fused his art with his politics to harness an extremely popular theatre dedicated to changing the world. He calls himself "the jester of the proletariat". Others have described him as an exponent of "comic communism".

Such an achievement has not been gained without sacrifice and struggle. Harassed by the authorities and the Catholic Church, frequently censored and with many performance venues suddenly denied, La Commune has also been targeted by Italian fascists. During one notorious season, Franca Rame was abducted and brutally raped by fascist thugs.

Fo may employ farce and burlesque, and make harsh humour from common stuff, but such roughness is the vehicle for a highly committed message. In The Tricks of the Trade, Fo and Rame try to teach the way they do it. This is a staged lecture/demonstration which traces the life of the comic performer back to the itinerant jongleur.

But this is much more than a text for actors. Fo investigates how the stifled voice of the oppressed is harnessed by comic satire as practised by succeeding generations of people's jesters.

Read in conjunction with the script for Mistero Buffo — a theatrical collage of suppressed commedia dell'arte texts linked by narrative — Tricks of the Trade is an excellent introduction to the work of Fo and Rame, as well as being a revelation in how everyday performance can serve the collective desire for a better lot on earth.

Mistero Buffois also available in Methuen.