By Chang Wang
If I’ve ever doubted that Italy is a place where all miracles are possible, or wondered if a dream can ultimately come true through uncompromised love and unequivocal devotion, or questioned the complete thoughtfulness of the “almighty”, Oct. 6, 2012 provided me with an answer.
On that Saturday afternoon, I was on a train (ES9521) from Milano Centrale to Roma Termini. While teaching a short course on Chinese law at the University of Bern as a visiting professor, I had planned to spend the weekend in Rome with family friends. Unfortunately, the trains I had originally wanted to take (Bern - Milan - Rome) were all booked, so the SBB (Swiss train company) crew kindly helped me find another route from Bern to Rome – with connections in Brig and Milan – and more time on the road. While I was grateful for their help, I was not totally happy to have to catch a train at 6 a.m. But, after making the last connection, I was finally on the train to Rome. I was sleepy and exhausted.
Sitting in seat 3A in Wagon 7, I was halfway to unconsciousness. As the train was about to depart, a tall, older gentleman and a stunning young lady took the seats right in front of me. The gentleman's face looked so familiar. I searched my memory: politician? professor? movie star? artist? Suddenly, I felt as though I’d been struck by lightning: Dario Fo! Nobel Literature Prize laureate!
In 1997, the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Dario Fo, “who emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden.” He is an Italian satirist, playwright, theatre director, actor and composer. The Nobel Committee’s press release claimed that Fo “merits the epithet of jester in the true meaning of that word. With a blend of laughter and gravity he opens our eyes to abuses and injustices in society, and also to the wider historical perspective in which they can be placed. Fo is an extremely serious satirist with a multifaceted oeuvre.”
Franca Rame, Fo’s wife and artistic partner, has assisted in the writing of many of the plays they have produced in their 60 years of theatre together. They share the same ideology and vision. Both are extremely talented, prolific, outspoken, and clear-sighted. Their uncompromising position has led them to received criticism from both the left and the right, and has led them to take great risks. Nonetheless, their artistic vitality and conscience have earned them enormous respect from widely differing quarters.
As a country mesmerized with the Nobel Prizes, China was totally at loss of words when Dario Fo won the Prize in Literature. For Chinese authorities and media, Chairman Mao’s Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art is the “Bible” that guides artistic creation – and socialist realism is the only “correct” art form. Chinese career propaganda officers judge art and literature by the standard set up by Chairman Mao in 1942 in the Yan’an Talks: i.e., writers should extol the bright side of life of the Socialist society and to expose the darkness of the Capitalist society. But who is Dario Fo, who criticizes conservative institutions and political corruption, but he also criticized Stalinism and protested the 1989 Tiananmen tragedy. Chinese socialist authority and media were puzzled by Dario Fo, this “socialist” artist.
In 1998 and 1999, I authored and published four Chinese essays on Dario Fo: “Dario Fo and History”; “A Case Study of the Chinese Version of Dario Fo's An Accidental Death of An Anarchist”; “Political Correctness and Dario Fo”; and “Who is Afraid of Dario Fo”? These four essays were later included in my book The End of the Avant-Garde: Comparative Cultural Studies, published by Peking University Press. In my essays, I predicted that Dario Fo would be misunderstood by Chinese audiences, because his Sisyphus-like compassionate idealism, belief in human dignity and individual rights, total independence from any institution, and extremely serious satires based on the great tradition of commedia dell'arte are so hard to define and to comprehend by a China that was undergoing a bizarre transformation from Maoist Socialism to “Socialist” Capitalism.
But I also believe Dario Fo is so relevant to China and Chinese. Everything Dario Fo and Franca Rame fight against – organized crime, political corruption, ideological hypocrisy, and suppression of free speech and expression – are gaining ground in China today more than ever. Dario Fo was, and is, my hero.
Hesitantly, I asked the gentleman in front of me: "Are you Mr. Dario Fo?" He smiled: "Si (Yes.)"
I extended my hand and shook his: “What a great honor! Maestro, I am a big fan of yours.” I then jumped up and grabbed my backpack from the luggage compartment and pulled a copy of my book The End of the Avant-Garde, which by pure coincidence, brought by me from home for my Italian uncles. (One third of the book was on Italian culture.) My Italian level is limited to greetings and food ordering, so I turned to the young lady who sat next to Dario Fo: "Do you speak English, can you help me to translate?" She smiled too and answered: "Yes, I do, and I can, I am his assistant," in perfect English. Her name is Chiara Porro.
I first showed Dario Fo and Chiara the first 40 pages of the book which includes the four essays on him. He was delighted to see his picture in the book, and occasional Italian words of the names of his plays, venues, and organizations inserted in the Chinese paragraphs. After I signed and presented the book to him, he asked Chiara to scan the articles on him and put them on his online archive.
The Maestro then took from his briefcase a book entitled Picasso Desnudo (Picasso Naked), his most recent book published in conjunction with his and Franca Rame’s lecture-performance on Pablo Picasso.
Dario Fo began to draw a picture on the front page. He completed the drawing in a few minutes, and then used his finger to blur the lines, just as Chinese ink painters normally do. He then wrote down “Storia di Qu (Story of Ah Q). Chang. Dario Fo.” He explained he is working on a new play adapted from The Story of Ah Q, a short story masterpiece by Lu Xun (1881-1936), one of the founding fathers of Chinese modern literature. He then gave the signed book to me. I recommended another Lu Xun short story, The Madman’s Diary, to the Maestro and explained that it probably would provide some background information as to how Lu Xun understands Chinese history.
For the next an hour and a half, from Milano to Firenze, we had a long and interesting conversation, on art, politics, and China.
Ognuno sta solo sul cuor della terra trafitto da un raggio di sole: ed è subito sera.
(Every one of us stands alone on the heart of the earth, transfixed by a beam of sun: and suddenly it is evening.)
When Dario Fo saw the above quotation of Salvatore Quasimodo on the front page of my book, he told me that Salvatore Quasimodo, actually his good friend, was not only a great poet but also a great art critic who translated Sappho from Greek to Italian, and I should read this important work.
Aware of the Chinese version of The Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Dario Fo noted that the Chinese version is a great departure from his original play, “it is a completely different story.” He shrugged.
“I wanted my other play, A Tale of a Tiger, to be performed in China; but the Chinese authorities would not allow it.” Dario Fo explained the plot of the play: During Mao's
Long March across China, a revolutionary soldier is wounded. His comrades leave him behind. Gangrene sets in, and he believes that he is about to die. He drags himself into a cave and falls into a deep sleep. When he awakens, he is confronted by the sight of a female tiger and her cub. They live together, as the tiger nurses him back to health. As this develops, tiger-human communication is born – and, while he introduces the tigers to cooked meat, they in turn introduce him to the archetypal elements of their spirits.
From his description I immediately understood why the play was banned in China: The Long March, a retreat by the Red Army of the Chinese Communist Party, has been depicted as a pillar of the Chinese Communist Revolution, and has been a constant theme of communist propaganda. Propaganda officers would not appreciate Dario Fo’s mix of politics, humanism, and mystic spirituality.
Very concerned with environmental protection in China, Dario Fo asked whether the government has taken any measures to reduce the pollution and encourage electric cars. I explained that GDP occupies the central position in China’s economic life, and that environment is being damaged at an unprecedented scale and speed as a result of efforts to boost the GDP. Local authorities have few incentives to develop alternative energy and green cars because they already have invested interests – tax revenues and kick-backs - in current practices that guarantee steady profits for the government.
Dario Fo also asked whether workers’ rights are improving in China. I explained that the current administration is extremely pro-business. Ideologically, as this regime is more on the right side than on the left side, independent workers’ unions are impossible.
With Chiara's kind assistance, Dario Fo and I interviewed each other on the subjects that interest us most.
To make a connection to Perugia, where the Maestro would be teaching a week-long class on drama, the Maestro and Chiara got off the train at the Firenze station.
We said “Ciao” to each other. I saw them off from the train, and they quickly disappeared into the crowds on the platform.
It was almost surreal for me to sit down with Dario Fo, face to face, for a long conversation. How amazing that I would happen to be in the right place at the right
time to meet my hero, and have just the right language assistance available! I can hardly believe this is pure coincidence. It is like a dream.
Only a week later, a long time dream came true for Chinese people: The Nobel Prize in Literature in 2012 was awarded to Chinese novelist Mo Yan. He is the first Chinese citizen ever to receive this honor. He is an extremely prolific author, but ironically, “Mo Yan” as the author’s pen name, means “Don’t Speak Up.”
Perhaps I can make two wishes: first, that A Tale of a Tiger will be able to be performed in China, and second, that all Chinese writers will be all free to speak up, in the not-too- distant future.
Chang Wang is an associate professor of law at China University of Political Science and Law, Chief Research and Academic Officer for China at Thomson Reuters, and a member of the prestigious American Law Institute (ALI). He lives in Beijing, China and St. Paul, Minnesota, USA.