Italian Nobel Prize-Winning Playwright Dario Fo Dies at 90

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Dario Fo

The 'Accidental Death of an Anarchist' writer passed away Thursday in Milan.

Nobel Prize-winning playwright and actor Dario Fo died Thursday after suffering from lung problems. He was 90.

Fo won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1997 and had been a mainstay of Italian culture throughout his career. Fo wrote more than 80 plays, which have been translated into 30 languages. His wife Franca Rame served as his muse and chief actor until her death in 2013.

“In Dario Fo, Italy has lost one of the great protagonists of the theater, of culture, of the civic life of our country,” Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said. “His satire, research, his work on set design and his versatile artistic activities are the legacy of one of the world’s great Italians.”

A fiercely leftist activist throughout his life, Fo’s work attacked institutions of organized crime, racism, corruption, religious theology and war.

When accepting the Nobel Prize, he encouraged local productions to adapt his plays to local issues. “A theater, a literature, an artistic expression that does not speak for its own time has no relevance,” Fo said at the time.

His career came to prominence in the 1950s when he started performing on a radio variety show and founded a theater company. He lived in Rome briefly, next door to Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman, writing and acting in several productions, including Carlo Lizzani’s The Screwball

In the 1960s, Fo took over the popular RAI variety show Canzonissima, infusing the previously light show with social commentary. Pieces involving workers rights were censored. After airing a sketch about a journalist killed by the Mafia, he and his wife received death threats. Fo eventually left the network over issues of censorship.

His 1974 solo piece Mistero Buffo (Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!), a political farce about consumer backlash against high prices, was performed in 35 countries over 30 years and is considered one of the most controversial works of post-war Europe. The Vatican called it “the most blasphemous show in the history of television."

The play Mother’s Marijuana Is the Best confronted Italy’s growing drug problem. “Rich people consume and use drugs, while poor people are used and consumed by drugs," he famously said at the time.

In the 1980s, Fo became celebrated abroad. But because of his ties to the Communist Party, the U.S. blocked the infamous writer from entering the country multiple times. In May 1980, Martin Scorsese, Arthur Miller and Richard Foreman attended a theatrical event called “An Evening Without Dario Fo and Franca Rame” in protest.

The author is best known for his play The Accidental Death of an Anarchist, based on the real-life story of a Milanese railway worker who was arrested for terrorism and “fell” to his death from police headquarters. President Ronald Reagan at the time granted Fo and Rame a brief waiver to attend the opening in New York at the Belasco Theater in 1984.

His plays were often adapted into TV movies in countries including Italy, Sweden, Finland, the former Yugoslavia, Germany, Spain, Portugal and many more.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, he was one of the most vocal critics of Silvio Berlusconi and his Forza Italia party.

Recently, Fo had identified with Beppe Grillo’s anti-established Five Star Movement. He spoke in Milan’s Piazza Duomo in 2013 urging supporters to “go do it for yourselves!” Grillo’s supporters took to calling Fo “the Master.”

Fo is survived by his son Jacopo, also a prolific writer and activist.  

The Rome Film Fest has announced a special screening of The Screwball this week to commemorate the artist. And Sky Italia has dedicated special programming dedicated to the author across its Sky Arts HD and Sky 3D channels Thursday and Friday. In Story of an Event, Fo describes his love of Pope Francis and how he broke with tradition to speak in the words of the Saint Francis of Assisi. In Dario Fo Paints Maria Callas, he tells the life of the opera queen through his art.

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