Presentation Speech by Professor Sture Allén of the Swedish Academy, December 10, 1997.
Translation of the Swedish text.
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,
To be a jester is, and always has been, a serious matter. Swedish mediaeval laws stipulated that it cost a man smaller fines to lay violent hands on somebody from a neighbouring county than on a man from his own part of the country; but to assault a jester, on the other hand, cost him nothing at all. If a jester is beaten up, says the thirteenth-century law concerning such people, it shall not be counted an offence. If a jester comes to bodily harm, he shall have and suffer what was given him – infamy and injury. “Let him never appeal for more justice than a thral woman lashed on her bare back.”
One of Dario Fo’s sources of inspiration is exactly these mediaeval jesters, unprotected by any law. According to Fo satire is what makes the most forceful impact on man. Mixing laughter and seriousness is his way of telling the truth about abuses and unrighteousness. For Alfred Nobel literary achievements were important means for fulfilling the fundamental aim of the awards, namely to confer benefit on mankind. The maintenance of human dignity is unquestionably an essential aspect of this.
Fo often refers explicitly to the mediaeval joculatores and their comedy and mysteries. In fact, a central work in his oeuvre, “Mistero buffo” – “The Comic Mysteries” – is based on old material culled from many different quarters. In the scene called “The Birth of the Jester” the crucial moment occurs when a landlord avid for more land violates the wife of the man who is breaking untilled ground. “The Marriage at Cana” is seen from the point of view of the intoxicated wine-drinker. In “The Resurrection of Lazarus” the provocative question is whether Jesus will succeed.
There are several other sources. Furthest away in time we seem to glimpse Plautus and Terence in Rome, who were of renewed interest in fifteenth century Italy. The commedia dell’arte, a creation of the sixteenth century, is of importance with its set-character parts and its oral tradition. It is also possible to catch a sly glance from Bottom the weaver and Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Impulses from our own days come from Maiakovski’s epic-satirical poetry and from Brecht’s didactic theatre. Incidentally, it was from Maiakovski that Fo borrowed the title “Mistero Buffo”.
Another major achievement in Fo’s large production is “Accidental Death of an Anarchist”. The play is about the cross-examining following on the supposed accident. By and by the questioning is taken over, through a brilliantly carried out shift, by a Hamlet-like figure – il Matto – who has the kind of madness that exposes official falsehoods. All in all there are many topical allusions in Fo’s plays, but the texts transcend everyday situations and are given a far wider range of application.
One cannot hold it against Fo that he is a first-rate actor. The decisive thing is that he has written plays which arouse the enthusiasm of actors and which captivate his audiences. The texts are chiselled in an interplay with the spectators and have often been given their final shape over a long time. Rapidly changing situations give impetus to the plays and shape the characters. The rhythm of the actors’ lines, the witty wording and the aptitude for improvisation combine with strong intensity and artistic energy in the profoundly meaningful, steady flow of his flashes of wit. The printed texts can also give you this feeling it you give free range to your imagination. Fo’s work brings to the fore the multifarious abundance of the literary field.
His independence and perspicacity have made him run great risks and right enough he has been made to experience the consequences both at home and abroad. When on one occasion he and his wife, Franca Rame, had been stopped from making an agreed-on appearance abroad, their friends and colleagues arranged a representation which they called “An Evening without Dario Fo and Franca Rame”.
Looking backwards in time from Dario Fo, the ninety-fourth laureate for literature, to earlier writers given the award, it is tempting to arrest oneself at George Bernard Shaw, winner of the Prize seventy years ago. On that occasion the Swedish Academy emphasised the laureate’s idealism, humanity, and stimulating satire. The two writers are no doubt different from each other, but the same evaluative words can be applied to Dario Fo.
Dear Mr. Fo,
The word dignity plays an important part in your oeuvre and is at the centre of the piece called “The Birth of the Jester”. The dignity bestowed on you today may have other attributes, but it has the same core. On behalf of the Swedish Academy I congratulate you warmly on the work which has resulted in the Nobel Prize in Literature 1997 and I ask you to step forward to receive the prize from the hands of His Majesty the King.