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Laudatio uitgesproken door prof. dr. Benjamin Van Camp


Proximus: Prof. dr. Benjamin Van Camp

Dario Fo is in many respects a monument. More than fifty years’ active involvement in the theatre, starting in 1945 with his first steps in stage design as a student of architecture and his rapid switch from designing to writing and performing. He has written more than 70 works for the theatre, as well as scores of scripts for film, TV and radio. Since 1987, he has also been involved in directing opera. His plays have been translated and performed in some sixty countries throughout all the continents except Antarctica, and I’m not so very sure about Antarctica.

Since 1980, Dario Fo and his wife Franca Rame have together with their son been involved in the Liberia Università di Alcatraz (another “free university”), a “cultural and agricultural” centre in the hills around Perugia. Here, more than 3 million square metres of woodland and olive groves have been restored, together with the farmhouses and other buildings on the land. The Liberia Università is now a meeting place for artists and organises educational camps for young people, marginal groups and people with a handicap.

Fo’s theatrical work has been unique, pioneering, dynamic – creating a whole new mould for the medium in the second half of the twentieth century, but going back to the mediaeval and popular roots of the theatre that predated, and indeed helped to produce, Shakespeare, Molière, Goldoni and many others.

Translations and adapted productions of Fo’s plays revolutionised the theatre throughout Europe and the rest of the world, winning back to live theatre a whole generation that was apparently perfectly satisfied with the more passive – and more commercialised – media of the cinema and television. In our small corner of the world, the Belgian adaptation (in Dutch and French) of Fo’s Mistero buffo, with music by Wannes Van De Velde, broke open the hitherto relatively closed world of Belgian theatre, playing successfully over a period of months to thousands of people who would not otherwise have attended a theatrical performance for love or money.

It is absolutely no exaggeration to say that in Belgium and many other countries, Dario Fo’s work was instrumental in reviving a dormant or dying theatre, returning it to a more central position in society. This was of course not just an esthetic revolution, or a new fashion in entertainment. Fo’s work not only restored the theatre to society; it also reintroduced a strong social dimension into the theatre. The strong theatrical roots of Fo’s characters, plots and acting style were intimately bound up with equally strong social values such as solidarity, sympathy for the underdog, and a hatred of hypocrisy and narrow self-interest – all this at a time when such values were frequently represented as old-fashioned or obsolete.

And how did Dario Fo achieve all this? He achieved it in the first place by means of a monumental energy combined with a monumental talent, but these are not in themselves enough. Equally important is the fact that Fo is also a comic genius: he is extremely funny. It was this characteristic that led the catholic press in Italy to greet his Nobel Prize with the accusation that the prize for literature had been “given to a clown”. It was intended as an insult, but it is by no means certain that Dario Fo – or thousands of others – understood it as such. The clown is a very respectable figure in the popular theatrical tradition. The clown has a long pedigree – longer, in fact, than that of the church. The relation between the clown and his audience is the key to the success of possibly the most popular actor in the history of the world, namely Charlie Chaplin. Furthermore, Dario Fo has worked intensively on a certain type of clown figure – the jongleur – for the whole of his theatrical career, from the earliest Poer nano stories (Poer nano translates as “poor little thing”, which is a fairly succinct description of Charlie Chaplin’s clown figure, amongst others), up to his most recent play, entitled Lo santo jullare Francesco – Franciscus the holy jongleur.

This emphasis on the jongleur, the dedicated use of humour in socially committed theatrical work, goes some way to explaining how Dario Fo has succeeded in conveying his social commitment even to people who do not necessarily agree with him. An example is his play Non si paga! Non si paga! (1974), translated into English as “Can’t pay? Won’t pay!” and into Dutch as “Wij betalen niet!” The background to the play was the new (in 1974) form of social action in Italy and elsewhere (even, briefly in Belgium) in which groups of housewives refused to pay for goods at the supermarket checkouts and simply overran the cashiers. According to the law, this was of course a form of stealing and opinions on the new type of social action were, to say the least, divided. And not only between the supermarket owners on the one hand and the rest of society on the other. Fo’s natural reaction was to side with the housewives involved in the action, but the result is in no way sloganesque. The play is pure, classical farce, with two married couples in which the men are traditionalists, prepared to eat dog food if that is all they can afford, while the women are mostly concerned to keep their free shopping expeditions a secret from their husbands, so as to keep the peace in the household. Add a clownish police officer, a few misunderstandings and lots of running in and out and the sympathy for the new form of social action slips across while everyone is too busy laughing to notice.

Other subjects, like the putsch in Chile, are more difficult to treat humorously and Fo does not attempt to do so. His sense of theatrical spectacle, however, never deserts him. His Guerra di Popolo in Cile, for example “reproduces” or quotes extensively from the Chilean left-wing radio station broadcasts of Radio MIR, up to the moment that the soldiers break down the door. This is a different kind of theatrical immediacy than that achieved by a belly-laugh, but it shows the same mastery of the medium.

In short, Dario Fo is a supreme theatrical animal. This is part of the reason why the university is conferring on him the degree of Doctor Honoris Causa. Add to this the fact that Fo’s theatrical creativity has always run parallel to an out-and-out social and political commitment, and we have the second part of the reason for this honorary doctorate. We do not as a university necessarily agree with Fo’s political opinions, but then again, as a university we probably disagree with any political opinions held by one single person. We do, however, recognise as a university that political, social and ethical commitment are as essential to the possible progress of humanity as education, scientific research or cultural endeavour. This is part of the tradition that we inherited from our mother institution, the Université Libre de Bruxelles, and that we have done our best to continue. In Dario Fo we recognise not only enormous energy and huge comic and dramatic talent, but also a thorough commitment to social justice and to the material wellbeing and personal fulfilment of his fellow human beings. The Vrije Universiteit Brussel is proud to include him among its honorary doctors.

Pressure of work and the political situation in Italy have combined to prevent Dario Fo’s presence here in person, but he has asked his Dutch translator – Filip Vanluchene – to represent him here today. As Flemings we are pleased that Filip should have consented to stand in for Dario Fo, since most of us have only been able to appreciate the theatre of Dario Fo through the medium of the translations by Filip Vanluchene.