Nobel Prize: Dario Fo, the showman, wins Nobel literature prize

The Swedish Academy yesterday awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature to Dario Fo, the notorious Italian showman, playwright and professional provocateur.

The academy's choice triggered waves of delight among Fo's many admirers across the world. But, as Andrew Gumbel reports, the news was less well received by the Italian literary establishment.

"Sono esterrefatto". I'm gobsmacked. Such were Dario Fo's first words on hearing the extraordinary, utterly unexpected news that he had been elevated to the planet's most lofty literary pantheon. His surprise can only have been accentuated by the fact that he was driving on the Rome-Milan motorway at the time, so besieged by calls on his mobile phone that he did not even have the chance to talk to his wife and long-time collaborator, Franca Rame.

According to an account he gave to an Italian news agency reporter, the first Fo heard of the award was when a car drew up alongside his with a huge placard in the window reading "Dario, you've won the Nobel prize!" The story may not have been true, but it was an apt illustration of Fo's artistic preoccupations in a career spanning more than 40 years - comedy, surprise, and quick-witted improvisation.

An acerbic, anarchic clown of a dramatist with a sure feel for language and stagecraft, the 71-year-old Fo is probably best known abroad for the series of plays he wrote in the immediate aftermath of the upheavals of 1968: Mistero Buffo, Accidental Death of An Anarchist and Can't Pay? Won't Pay!

All of them mingle agitprop politics, linguistic provocation and stage techniques harking back to the Italian commedia dell'arte to create a great comic fresco of a society on the verge of madness. In its citation, the Swedish Academy said that he "emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden ... With a blend of laughter and gravity he opens our eyes to abuses and injustices in society and also the wider historical perspective in which they can be placed".

What the academy was too polite to point out was the sheer fury that Fo inspires among his more staid Italian contemporaries who have been trying to shut him up since the early Sixties. A constant thorn in the side of a society that has too often revealed itself as complacent, paternalistic and endlessly corrupt, Fo is viewed not so much as a playwright as a political phenomenon - either you are on his side, or you are one of his targets.

Yesterday, the fusty luminaries of the literary establishment reacted to the news by denigrating him as a second-rate peddler of boulevard comedies, not a literary man at all. "I must be too old to understand," sighed Carlo Bo, 86-year-old doyen of Italy's pompous, wordy army of literary critics. "What does this mean? That everything changes, even literature has changed."

The right-wing intellectual Marcello Veneziani thought that the news must be one of Dario Fo's own jokes. "If this is really where we're at, then we can expect the next Nobel for literature to go to [the low-brow Italian comic] Paolo Villaggio and for poetry to Roberto Baggio," he remarked.

Italy has not won the Nobel Prize since 1975, when the laureate was the undisputed master of 20th-century poetry, Eugenio Montale. In recent years, the literati have been pinning their hopes on the Florentine poet Mario Luzi - one of those also-rans who, like Mario Vargas Llosa, Doris Lessing and VS Naipaul, seems condemned to be mentioned every year but never actually to win.

Yesterday, Luzi was in a uniquely foul mood. "I'll say only this," he told one Italian reporter before slamming the phone down, "I've just about had it up to here!" He sounds like one of those crazed characters you'd find in a Dario Fo play.

selected from the works

"It is is rumoured that during the anarchist's final interrogation, at just a couple of minutes to midnight one of the officers present started to get impatient, and he came over and gave him a mighty wallop on the back of the neck ... the result of this was that the anarchist was half- paralysed and started struggling for breath ... So they decided to call him an ambulance. In the meantime, in an attempt to revive him, they opened the window, put the anarchist in front of it, and made him lean out for a bit of cool night air to revive him ... Apparently, there was a misunderstanding between the two officers supporting him ... as often happens in these cases, each of them thought the other one was holding him - `You got him Gianni?', `You got him Luigi?, and bump, down he went."

Accidental Death of an Anarchist, 1970

They say we should be moderate

Not stirring up class war

But we're bent on being obdurate

We'll take it all, we don't ask more

We'll defeat their aims for starters

We'll foil their dastardly plan

Can we have their guts for garters?

We say fucking right we can!

Can't Pay, Won't Pay 1970

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