Franca Rame: Actress, activist and collaborator with her husband, Dario Fo


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The Independent Online

Franca Rame was a revered Italian actress, playwright and feminist, whose militant left-wing politics saw her elected to the Italian Senate.

She was also the wife of Dario Fo, the 1997 Nobel Prize winner for literature, who in calling Rame his muse, dedicated and shared his medal with her. She collaborated with the writing and production (although she was not always credited) of many of Fo’s plays, in many of which she was also his leading lady.

The Swedish Academy praised Fo as a writer “who emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden.” This opinion, however, was not shared in all quarters: the Italian Government and the Roman Catholic Church were favourite targets for Rame’s and Fo’s works. At the time of his award, the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano said “it was flabbergasted” by Fo’s selection. “Giving the prize to someone who is also the author of questionable works is beyond all imagination,” the paper said.

During a career spanning over half a century, the couple captured the hearts and minds of many Italians with their irreverent, powerful political satire performed on stage, radio and television.

Their most famous play, the controversial Morte accidentale di un anarchico (Accidental Death of an Anarchist), challenged Italy’s 1970 establishment by openly accusing the police of throwing anarchist railway man Giuseppe Pinelli out of a police station’s fourth-floor window and then claiming that he committed suicide. The play enjoyed phenomenal success in Italy, playing to huge crowds for more than four years, and was a success, too, in the UK and US. At the time it was reported that Fo was assaulted and imprisoned.

In 1973, fascists, reportedly commissioned by high-ranking officials in Milan’s Carabinieri (Italian federal police) kidnapped Rame, held her at gunpoint and dumped her in a van. They raped her, beat her and burnt her with cigarettes, slashed her with razor blades and left her in a park. It was believed that this was punishment for exposing the anarchist police cover-up. Months later, Rame showed her determination not to be intimidated when she returned to the stage with new anti-fascist monologues and a play, The Rape.

During the 1980s, the pair were denied entry to the US as a result of their involvement with Soccorso Rosso (Red Aid), a group founded by Rame to support families of leftists imprisoned for politically motivated crimes. Upon eventually receiving their US visas, they received rousing receptions at theatres and university campuses.

Franca Rame was born in the small town of Parabiago in the suburbs of Milan, in 1928, into a family with long-standing ties to the theatre. Her mother, Emilia, was a teacher and her father, Domenico, was an actor and socialist militant. Both were strict Catholics. Aged just eight days old, Rame made her theatrical debut in the arms of her mother. Her full lead debut was made in 1951. Shortly afterwards she met Fo, himself an actor and playwright, in the same Milanese theatrical troupe. After a brief courtship, they married in 1954 in Milan’s St Ambrose Cathedral. Their son, Jacopo, was born a year later.

In I sani da legare (“A Madhouse for the Sane”, 1954), Fo labelled several government officials fascist sympathisers, which resulted in the cutting of some material from the original script and the mandated presence of state inspectors at each performance.

In 1958, the couple co-founded the Dario Fo-Franca Rame Theatre Company in Milan, with Fo as the director and writer, and Rame as its leading actress and administrator.

Rame, with her expressive good looks and her big, bottle-blonde hair, had superb comedic timing, an appealing stage presence and was not afraid to shock. The couple’s first major theatrical success was Fo’s three-act comedy, Gli arcangeli non giocano a flipper (Archangels Don’t Play Pinball), performed in 1959 at the famous Odeon in Milan. The play used the metaphor of a pinball machine, a new innovation in Italy at the time, to convey mechanisation and conspicuous consumption. Thereafter, they put on a new play there every year.

By the 1960s, Rame and Fo were censored for the explicit political content of their routines, and Fo vowed to “stop playing the jester of the bourgeoisie”, with the couple walking out as guest sketch writers of a popular TV variety show, Canzonissima.

Amid the social and political turmoil sweeping Europe in 1968, the couple formed a new troupe, Nuova Scena, under the sponsorship of the Italian Communist Party, which Rame had joined. Shortly afterwards, they performed Mistero Buffo (1969), considered Fo’s greatest and most controversial play, in which they retold medieval and biblical tales through a series of farces, an impertinence criticised by the Vatican as “blasphemous”.

Following criticism of the Communist Party’s role during the Second World War, the couple soon left this theatrical group and co-founded La Commune in 1970. Here, their goal was to raise the consciousness of the working classes and encourage the overthrow of the bourgeois state to bring about a socialist government.

Over the decades, Rame and Fo continued to write and produce plays at a prodigious rate, including the successful L’Anomalo Bicefalo (The Two-Headed Anomaly, 2003), a timely and entertaining satirical fantasy about a political rally in Sicily, where there is an assassination attempt on Vladimir Putin and Silvio Berlusconi. The latter recovers when surgeons give him what is left of Putin’s brain. Berlusconi’s then wife, Veronica, played by Rame, has to explain to him who he was, with hilarious results – Berlusconi drinks vodka, pushes Chechnya into the European Union and learns karate. The real Veronica saw the play and complimented Rame, much to Berlusconi’s dismay.

In 2006, Rame was elected to Parliament as Senator for the Italy of Values party in the Piedmont region. She stood for two years before resigning in disagreement with the policies of the then centre-left government.

The couple continued to work together, and in 2009, Fo published a biography of Rame. Italian President, Giorgio Napolitano, praised Rame’s  “passionate civil commitment” and “the continuity of her contribution” to the country’s cultural life.

Franca Rame, actress and playwright:born Parabiago, Milan 18 July 1928; married 1954 Dario Fo (one son); died Milan 29 May 2013.