Friday, 10 February 2012

Dario Fo: Can't Pay? Won't Pay!

Whatever next. The died-in-the-wool, raving, steeped-in-Marxism out-and-out red copper! Right in there with the lunatic fascists, psycho bullies and subnormal everyday street coppers.

If you keep up with my blog, you probably know by now I love the plays of Dario Fo. There are undoubtedly greater living playwrights, like Edward Albee, but only Fo can create a dramatic situation where the line “Blimey! Look at the size of him! We’ve got a pregnant dead copper on our hands now” sounds perfectly natural.

Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! was first staged in 1974 in support of the autoriduzione (self-reduction) movement sweeping Italy at the time. Due to OPEC’s decision to increase oil prices, Italy, whose oil consumption constituted 75% of all energy needs, entered in recession, with inflation rising 20%. Workers and citizens rebelled through strikes, decrease in production outputs and self-reduction, namely refusing to pay the new higher prices for goods and services. In some cases, people stormed supermarkets, took whatever they wanted and paid only what they could or thought was fair. It’s this situation that Dario Fo’s play captures, following two women who must hide from their righteous husbands stolen goods. The situation turns into a farce, however, when they have to feign spontaneous pregnancies to hide them. But this is just the surface of a play about social activism, conformism, capitalism, labor rights, discrimination against women, the Pope and the pill, and transplanted babies. Like in all Dario Fo plays, it’s never about just one thing. The simplicity of the main plot permits him to digress into several ideas, some often provocative. I really liked, for instance, one idea a character proposes, that firms ought to start paying workers the moment they leave home to go to work. After all it’s time the worker isn’t using for anything. “We’re not sight-seeing when we’re getting to work, we’re getting to work.” As a commuter, I can relate.

However, this play isn’t Fo’s usual diatribe against politicians, bosses and capitalism. Although it’s very political, his topics are different this time. First of all, conformity. Dario Fo is an advocator of civil disobedience and some of his harshest targets in the play are conformists. Antonia, who helped organize a looting, fears her husband, Giovanni, will condemn her stealing, even though they’re on the brink of poverty. Giovanni “respects the law,” she laments. Giovanni is also a card-carrying member of the Italian Communist Party and is incapable of autonomous action, putting all his faith on the CP as the main entity capable of mobilizing workers. He objects to ‘mass meeting’s and workers’ grass-root tactics to fight for their rights:

These layabouts, these louts, ultra-left extremists play right into the hands of the ruling class. And they’ll start calling us decent responsible working men thieves and scum of the earth.

Shortly afterwards he learns that being a ‘decent responsible working man’ hasn’t spared him from redundancy when his factory decides to relocate to a country with cheaper work labor.

Fo doesn’t spare the CP either. He criticizes it for being useless and often hindering rather than promoting social change. The most virulent attacks in the play, surprisingly, are in fact directed at the Communist Party for its growing irrelevance and inability to inspire workers, and for stifling true revolutionary tactics:

What is quite clear is that it’s no good working people waiting for the government to do something, the union’s intervention and a good work from your party. We have to stop expecting a white paper from the government and a strongly worded declaration of intent from the union every time we want to turn round and have a piss! If we don’t do things for ourselves, then no one will.

In one moving scene, Antonia narrates how she and the workers at a factory occupied and tried to run a factory after the owners filed for bankruptcy. “It was a marvelous feeling. Not because we got away with something, but because we were all in it together.” In spite of external pressures, things worked fine until the CP butted in and forced the workers to negotiate with the state, not because it benefitted them, but because it allowed the party to play a role in the proceedings. For me this marks the moment the author distances himself from communism and adopts ideas closer to anarchism, like autonomy, in line with theorists like Nestor Makhno.

In 1970 Fo had already split with the CP over ideological differences. He didn’t consider the party progressive enough, and in some ideas was even conservative. Fo saw it as being out of touch with the workers, in spite of claiming to represent them. This was in contradistinction to Fo’s methods of reaching out to the working class and staging his plays in factories, parking lots and places where he could attract a proletarian and student audience. Fo’s tendency to operate outside the ‘official’ channels was also a point of discord that led to the split with the party, which had grown bourgeois in its complacency.

So the play is less about the self-reduction movement and more about Giovanni’s growing involvement with what we now call direct democracy. Yes, it’s a very didactic play, which is not everyone’s cup of tea: if you’re one of the converted he’s preaching to, the play will seem pointless; if you don’t agree with him, he’ll hardly change your views. But I think the play, besides being hilarious, has merit in predicting a bit of our own world today. In a way, the worldwide Occupy movements and the leaderless revolutions started through Facebook and other social networks, unmediated through official or institutionalised channels, transversal to all classes and ages, that we’re becoming used to seeing on TV have their genesis in Fo’s ideas of the importance of people getting united and doing something. This too more closely reflects anarchist rather than communist, or socialist, values. One of the interesting things about these protests is how often political leaders on the left try to co-opt them even though said protests exhibit a weariness of all things political.

The play is also remarkable for its feminist views. Fo frequently compares the exploitation of male workers with the unspoken exploitation of women in society in general, at the hands of their husbands. This would later lead Fo and his wife, Franca Rame, to co-wrote several plays about the role of women in society, namely The Open Couple and A Woman Alone. Curiously, it’s the women and not the men who show some backbone in the play: they’re the first to think of self-reduction and they prove to have more guts than their husbands, who are initially horrified by their crimes.

And as always in Fo’s plays, nonsense abounds. There’s an actor who plays four different roles: Antonia’s father, an undertaker wanting to get rid of a coffin, and two ideologically-opposed cops, distinguishable only through a moustache (or lack of), something the characters self-consciously comment throughout the play. “I preferred him as the Inspector,” says Luigi, Margherita’s husband, when he meets the depressing undertaker.

Speaking of cops, a Fo play couldn’t be complete without authority figures acting like buffoons. In this play one policeman’s a communist; the other a fascist. “All reactionaries are paper tigers” says the left-wing Sergeant after showing a copy of Mao’s book of quotations The Little Red Book to Giovanni to signify his complicity. The Sergeant speaks mostly in propaganda slogans – “If the people want change they’ll have to do it themselves.” “What if the law is purely for the benefit of the rich?” – which makes Giovanni suspect he’s just an agent provocateur. It gets stranger when he meets his lookalike, the authoritative Inspector, who’s ready to arrest everyone for their involvement in the supermarket looting. Their subplots are hilarious, especially when the women convince the Inspector he’s become pregnant as part of a curse by St. Eulalia, patron saint of fertility. It’s a typical Dario Fo play. If you’re in need of an anti-depressive, this is the cure.

This review was based on the translation by Lino Pertile, collected in Dario Fo: Plays II, published by Methuen.


  1. Your writing on Fo has been fascinating. I know little about him. Your introduction has worked perfectly - you have, among other things, overcome my Nobel prejudice. (Partly kidding, but what part, I do not know).

    1. Thanks for the nice words, Tom. I'm glad these reviews have been of some use :-)

      I think Fo is an excellent writer, with a wicked sense of humor; he's also very underrated and I think all the politics scare off some people who don't like to mix them with literature. For me, his political satire is top rate though.

      I've just put up the final review, for the time being; it's time to move on to other writers.