Monday, September 08, 2008

Fo and the Church

Michael Paulson, the Globe's religion reporter, (and writer of the Globe blog Articles of Faith,) reminds us of the stir Fo's Nobel Prize caused among Catholics.

Paulson checked out the current Nora Production of We Won't Pay, We Won't Pay!, Fo's farce about Capitalism. :

"We Won't Pay!" is an anti-capitalist comedy about inflation and poverty with a touch of repression and revolution. Its satirical eye is focused on government, police and corporate indifference. But it offers a taste of Fo's willingness to mock Catholic devotional practices, with a fantastical (and funny) scene spinning out a zany story about the blessings and curses offered by one St. Eulalia, and also with an ongoing gag about a character's supposed decision to stop taking the pill because the pope has been appearing in her dreams.

The play (whose title is sometimes translated as "We Can't Pay? We Won't Pay!") is more than a bit unsubtle for my taste (and a bit of a predictable programming choice for Cambridge -- it was previously staged at the ART in 1999); you'll have to wait for the Globe's critic for an assessment of the production and the performances. But it certainly provides an opportunity to get the flavor of Fo's work, and more than a few laughs as well.

Paulson is right, there are certain plays through which Americans are familiar with Dario Fo, and they tend to be the less incendiary ones: Mistero Buffo, The Accidental Death of an Anarchist and We Won't Pay, We Won't Pay.

Probably the most recent Fo controversy was was when the University of Minnesota staged The Pope and the Witch a couple of years ago. Minnesota Public Radio has a nice roundup of the story. The following is my favorite part of the article, containing an honest quote from one of the participants:

In the midst of this maelstrom of controversy are a bunch of young, enthusiastic and talented theater students preparing to go on stage, including Brant Miller.

Miller plays the Pope in "The Pope and the Witch." He says he's excited to be in the play, not because of its views on abortion, drugs or religion, but because it's the first time he's landed the lead in a university play.


Thomas Garvey said...

I left the following comment on the "Articles of Faith" blog - thought you'd be interested - Tom

I'm not sure what the point of this article is. Surely Fo is on solid comic and dramatic ground in "mocking Catholic devotional practices" - Catholic magic (and I speak as one raised in Catholicism) is just as funny as other superstitions are, and Fo is an accomplished comedian and satirist (indeed, the writer of the post seems to realize this, when he points out that the sequences about "Saint Eulalia" are "fantastical and funny)". I understand, though, why Catholics can sometimes feel persecuted by comedians like Fo, because the new, dominant American religious sects - the market-inspired, pseudo-Protestant evangelicals and their ilk- are so rarely satirized in this country. We just don't have a figure like Fo to target the Southern Baptists, or Joel Osteen. You don't see religious satire on "Saturday Night Live," or ANY sitcom - you occasionally see it, tentatively presented, on "The Daily Show," or elsewhere on cable, but not often. And I can't think of the last religious satire I saw in a movie theatre - indeed, the explicitly anti-religious "Golden Compass" had to be gutted of all its real content before it could be produced as a feature. So I'd say that while I understand the Catholic response to adventurous European comics like Fo, I'd argue that the answer to their troubles is to demand MORE religious satire, not less.

Ian Thal said...

I agree that We Won't Pay, We Won't Pay is certainly not the edgiest of Fo's work, it's a worthy comedy none the less.

I certainly plan to catch one of the shows as Fo's been a major influence on me as an artist, as I am sure you already guessed.

I wish I had seen the audition announcement!

That said, Fo's attitudes towards Catholicism are certainly far too complex to be neatly defined "anti-"; they are irreverent, and populist, but considering how his work have presented Catholic saints and other figures as protagonists, there's some nuance hidden behind that broad humor.

Rather than a staunch anti-Catholic (as many of his critics would have him be) what we have with Fo is a heretic.

Art said...

Hi Ian,

Thanks for the comment. I know Fo is a big influence for you.

Are there any underappreciated, or little produced Fo works you would like to see locally?

Art said...


I think you are onto something there.

One cultural critic recently pointed out that Generation X learned its morality from the Gene Wilder version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

I would add that much of Gen X (I am a member,) took their religious cues from the movie Oh God! starring George Burns. A sweet, harmless little film...

but can you imagine that movie being produced today? In the second act climax, God sends his messenger to a MegaChurch pastor to reveal how phony the pastor is.

Do you remember all the flak Kevin Smith took at the time Dogma was released? Now it plays on basic cable several times a week.

Ian Thal said...

Keep in mind that I still haven't read the full Fo cannon, not even what's available in English...

I would very much like to see Johan Padan and the Discovery of the Americas though, to be fair, Thomas Derrah did perform this one man play several years back at ART, so there may simply be an etiquette regarding how many years before it may be performed again on local stages. However, of the plays of his I have read (in translation) it strikes me as the richest linguistically.

I would greatly enjoy a production of Elizabeth: Almost by Chance a Woman with the framing device of Fo's open letter to Ronald Reagan that was added to the first American production-- in fact it might even be more timely now as we come to the end of the Bush era.

Ron Jenkins who has translated the version of We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay! being used by the Nora also translated these two plays.

The closest America has come to producing our own Dario Fo, was with the stand-up acts of Lord Buckley and Lenny Bruce-- and look how they were treated.

Thomas Garvey said...

It's worth pointing out, I think, that what I consider the true controversy around Fo - his extremely stupid and insulting remarks around 9/11 - seems to be overshadowed in this silly burg by his send-up of the Catholic church.

Ian Thal said...

Well, Thomas, that should be the real controversy, and I even had a heated exchange with The Weekly Standard's Stephen Schwartz several years back, because I suggested that that Fo's conspiracy theorizing and general callousness regarding 9/11 would have been a legitimate basis to criticize Fo, but Schwartz was far more interested in declaring Fo, "an untiring enemy of religion" and then proceeded to accuse me of being an apologist for human rights abuses against Catholic clergy under communist regimes.

Yeah, what do I expect from some one who contributes to The Weekly Standard?

That said, Fo should be criticized for his stance on the September 11 attacks-- it's certainly a sign of hypocrisy considering his earlier condemnations of terror as a political tactic.

Ian Thal said...

I gave it more thought, and though I've never read the text, let alone seen a production, I would very much like to see Isabella, Three Tall Ships, and a Con Man which because of its treatment of Queen Isabella and Christopher Columbus, its first production in Genoa resulted in rioting, and its Spanish premiere resulted in the arrest of the theatre company by the Franco regime.