Dario Fo

Expo '92

For the Expo ’92 in Seville, Dario Fo, the Italian playwright and actor, revived his own historical performance, Isabella, tre caravelle e un Cacciapelle (Isabella, three caravels and a con man), which, back in 1963, had parodied Spanish history and annals, pointing out the many misdeeds carried out by the Catholic queen of Spain in the name of holy causes or in the name of the marriage of private interests and ideological-religious propaganda that is fundamental to colonialism.

With the lights on, before getting to the actual performance, Fo proceeded with an introduction, which is both a meta-theatrical contribution and a lesson in alternative history: triumphalism and bad faith on the one hand; a sense of guilt and a dirty conscience on the other. But the alternation between these two extremes leads to a single conclusion: “we have always won, because we are the shrewdest, the strongest, etc. And instead, if we really have to celebrate this anniversary, I’m interested in a third side to the coin, that which is always kept hidden: now and then we have lost, but we don’t want to admit it.”

Johan Padan a la descoverta de le Americhe (John Padan at the discovery of the Americas, 1992), a monologue in two acts, is presented as the revelation of this buried side of history: among the Indians there were those who resisted the European invasion. The result is the “ingenuous,” phantasmagorical, acrobatic, sublime storyteller, Johan Padan: a common lout who, to escape the burning stakes of the inquisition, throws himself onto the first boat leaving Venice, his native city, and by dint of escaping, ends up, despite himself, as an invader aboard one of the ships that will land in Florida.

Returning to a device used in Mistero Buffo (Comical mystery), Fo turns Johan Padan into his double. Alone on stage for the entire performance, wearing black pants and a T-shirt, the actor/author tells, mimes, interprets the picaresque adventures and apparently improbable, but all historically documented (Dario keeps emphasizing) wanderings of the Venetian. A large book/story line—explicated completely through images, an enormous, vividly-colored collection of drawings and sketches, half-comic strip and half-story board—acting as a mnemonic support, rested on a lectern at the center of the otherwise completely bare stage; from time to time the actor leafed through this. The narration coincided with the visualization, exactly as it happens in oral storytelling. Situations, characters, geographic sites, and sentiments were made to exist in the stage space.

Johan, his transparent alter-ego, has a “grand passion for idioms.” He alone among his party will know how to make contact with the natives, to understand their codes and customs, and to recognize their humanity. The exquisitely linguistic discovery runs counter to the direction of the conquest: it makes no sense, it is a waste of time, to learn the language of people who will be subjugated or annihilated. But Johan Padan acts as an intermediary—the extravagant and sometimes ferocious habits of the natives, their innocence and trust enchant him, as do the exotic qualities of the sites, the climate, the animals which he gradually encounters. Talking about them signifies recreating them, showing them to those who were not there, re-seeing them with the innocent eye of one who is enamored of a place and, despite himself, fails to have the self-interested, focused eye of the explorer or the conquistador.

Johan/Fo recounts his ingenuous odyssey—full of coups de théâtre and deus ex machina, of mortal dangers and incredible last-minute rescues—without a pause, almost without taking a breath. The language he employs is an extremely efficacious pastiche of cultivated tongues, both ancient and modern, of dialects and grammelot (fictitious idioms, which Fo constructs, imitating the phonetic traits of languages unknown to him, reproducing accents and pronunciations to perfection, but without knowing the relevant grammar or vocabulary). Lombardisms coexist with dialects from the Veneto and Bergamo regions, along with polished Venetian and Catalonian, Castilian, Portuguese and Neapolitan speech, the languages of Southern Europe, of the west’s poor, the idioms of the innumerable clowns who, from time immemorial, have been involved in wars and undertakings that concerned them, only because they needed to make ends meet. And then they end up being closer, more like presumed enemies than true masters and commanders. In Brechtian fashion, Fo seemed to suggest that telling about the past is useful for understanding the present. Celebrating 500 years of Western domination without investigating origins and routes obliterates history. For this Seville ’92 is instructive.

Maria Nadotti

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.