Born in 1926, Italian playwright Dario Fo was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1997. The Nobel committee said the satirist “emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden”. Fo continues to live up to his reputation. He was a candidate of the anti-capitalist left in the 2005 Milan mayoral election. (He came second.) He recently co-wrote an anti-militarist story, Peace Mom, with Franca Rame, his long-time companion. It is about American anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq.
Fo remains a keen and critical observer of his country’s politics. I asked him for his thoughts on the current state of Italian society.
In the words of the Madman from your play Accidental Death of an Anarchist: “Your average citizen doesn’t really want all the filth to disappear”, only the freedom to be able to chat casually about it and to experience, admittedly false, catharses through scandals. Is this how many Italians citizens react to Silvio Berlusconi and the massive influence he has on the political system and the mass media?
“This is a moment of tremendous chaos that erupted with unexpected force and this represents a truly great handicap. Namely, there’s a feeling of people being jaded and indifferent to the current situation. A small portion of the population – a rather important one but relatively small, since it represents no more than 25 per cent – sees Berlusconi’s gestures and his behaviour as something acceptable.
“Here in Italy, an arrogant womaniser is always considered likeable. It means that he’s a real man, that he has extraordinary power, that he has charm and skill. In our country, such guys are always seen as winners.
“This national cretinism should be done with. We should finally start to realise that people’s worth lies in what they contribute to the entire community and not in someone’s ability to make the most of his or her only advantage. Here we have this Berlusconi, who has passed laws benefiting only himself – laws that have a devastating effect on our social system, while all of this, which is the worst aspect, tramples on the dignity of both men and women.”
You have spoken out against the trivialisation of life and of human values by an egotistic, puerile mass culture. Do you see in the Italian student rebellion, and in the movement against the commercialisation of the educational system, the potential to connect with the old left-wing thesis that culture should belong to everyone and that there can be no free society without the cultural emancipation of the broadest layers of the working class? Perhaps the perspective that advocates freedom of art and culture depends on social engagement and so shouldn’t fear it.
“We are fighting. Recently, I held two lectures-performances on this very topic at the Polytechnic Institute of Milan, for two days in a row. I really instructed them well about this issue – the issue of how it was necessary to be present, to act, to protest – all this, instead of just talking. Certainly, a free society is impossible without culture for all. Just look at what’s going on in North Africa.
“The fact that entire countries have risen up shows these people are asking for more than bread. They ask for bread, but they also ask for freedom. They ask for freedom of speech and freedom of expression, because bread is not enough for human freedom. Having bread is not enough for us to feel we are a free people.
“Liberty isn’t possible without culture and for a very simple reason. People who have lost their sense of culture, people who don’t enjoy art and who don’t feel excitement in the presence of creativity are effectively dead. A nation that behaves in this manner – this is a dead nation, a nation without a future. And that’s not all.
“As history has taught us, this is a nation without moral foundation. Besides, someone who doesn’t respect one’s own history, who doesn’t respect creativity, who doesn’t even respect people who enriched the country with important masterpieces, is someone who is indisputably embarked on a path of no return, heading for disaster. And this is what is happening to Italy.”
In view of these generalised attacks against culture, do you believe in the possibility of co-operation – in the form of some new, non-hierarchical “cultural front” – between the traditional intelligentsia and those who choose the role of iconoclasts and trailblazers, carving out new paths in culture and society?
“Just imagine what will happen if no attention is paid to our real, true history – the history of ordinary people and their creative endeavour, the creative endeavour inherent in the people, the way that the people tell their own stories, the way in which they invent and create, and express themselves in songs, music, dance. Woe to us, should this originality, this authenticity be lost. In that case, we have no future.
“I am by nature someone who hates violence as such and who is against all violence – even when it happens as an accident, as a mistake. That’s because this mistake indicates a lack of consciousness.
“Behind all violence, there lies a lack of consciousness, while the culture of violence is nothing but a lack of culture. It veils a lacuna, which is there. And the only way to fill the lacuna is to know, to be informed, to acquire new knowledge and insights, and to act in such a way that others will also be informed, acquire new insights, understand events and how they came about.
“One should enrich one’s own consciousness, primarily the desire and thirst for knowledge, and one should also know how to transfer this knowledge to others. We build the foundations of the new by appreciating the art and creativity of the past.”
Is there hope that capitalism isn’t eternal?
“I am against the word ‘hope’. One should try to use this word as little as possible. The word ‘hope’ should be replaced with the word ‘will’. I support ‘will’ and ‘volition’, not ‘hope’.”
Dan Jakopovich is editor-in-chief of the political magazine Novi Plamen