There's something slightly incongruous about Artful Laughter, Ron Jenkins' lavishly illustrated and exceptionally well-detailed new book on the work of the Italian playwright Dario Fo and his collaborator, actress and writer Franca Rame. The couple is surely deserving of such a retrospective--together and separately, they have written some 50 plays and spent decades at the leading edge of the theatrical idea, creating works of rough, absurdist lyricism and sweeping progressive ideology. Fo won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1997.
But a coffee table book? For Fo and Rame? Such a petite bourgeois tribute clashes somehow with the roguish personae in question: Perverse, political, self-mocking, slyly intelligent, and willfully rough around the edges. The irony is delicious and only serves to heighten our enjoyment of what is, for fans of Fo's fascinating work, a uniquely enjoyable publication. Artful Laughter is a treasure trove: Jenkins' journey through the oeuvre of Fo and Rame is accompanied by a landslide of photographs, programs and posters, and Fo's own giddy paintings and drawings
Wisely, Jenkins has chosen not to give us a straight chronological portrait of Fo and Rame's relationship and career. Instead, he organizes each chapter around a specific major work, using each one as a starting place to examine various literary themes and aesthetic ideas in Fo's writing. Only Chapter 1, Origins, is more-or-less straight history, taking us through Fo's upbringing among the "smugglers, glassblowers, and fishermen"--storytellers, all--in the Northern Italian town of Varese, then off to art school. "Fo's education in the visual arts dovetailed with the rich gestural tradition of the storytellers he heard as a child," writes Jenkins, "resulting in a narrative style that blends medieval performance traditions with a cinematic sense of visual montage." Chapter 2 begins our non-linear travels through the resulting body of work with Francis, the Holy Fool, a monologue in which Fo repositions Saint Francis as a medieval guillare, or satirist. It is a lovely touch that the book includes extensive excerpts from the works in question. When presented alongside Jenkins' scholarly analysis and Fo's own paintings (usually the inspiration of or inspired by one of his plays), these texts make Artful Laughter a unique and welcome creation.
Jenkins is a smart writer and he knows his subjects well. An actor and clown, now chair of drama at Wesleyan University, Jenkins began his association with Fo and Rame in 1986. In his introduction, he details some of his experiences as a translator for the pair. After one reviewer noted that Rame's salty text in It's All About Bed, Home, and Church made Jenkins blush (he was in the show as well), she became determined to replicate the effect in every performance. "When I told her I was not accomplished enough as an actor to blush without actually being embarrassed," Jenkins recalls, "Rame took it as a personal challenge to find a new way to embarrass me onstage every night...she always succeeded."
It is in such boundary-pushing moments that the joint career of Fo and Rame is defined. Political will is always combined with a gleeful artistic sensibility: Fo, hilarious and enraged, is the clown with an axe to grind. "There were bombs in the theater," he explains of the original, much-vilified 1970 production of Accidental Death of An Anarchist. "There were telephone bomb threats, but when there really were bombs there were never any telephone calls. So when we didn't get calls we got worried."