HOLY JESTER: THE SAINT FRANCIS FABLES
By Dario Fo
Opus, $38.95, 160 pages
Dario Fo, who died in 2016 at the age of 90, was an Italian playwright, actor, director, designer, painter, singer, songwriter and political campaigner for the Italian left. In awarding him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1997, the Swedish Academy praised Mr. Fo as a writer “who emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden.”
Mr. Fo owned and operated a theater company, and much of his work was impromptu in the manner of the commedia dell’arte of the Middle Ages. His many works include “Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay” and his best known play, “Accidental Death of an Anarchist.” Mr. Fo was a revolutionary, an iconoclast, a wild and talented man of the theater.
In his delightful “Holy Jester,” ably translated by Mario Pirovano, Mr. Fo has taken the mythic St. Francis of Assisi and transformed him from the sweet plaster saint of the Catholic Church into the boisterous man he really was, who scourged authority and upheld the dignity of the downtrodden. He called himself God’s jester in a time when “to dub yourself a buffoon or a satirical clown was provocative and dangerous Jesters were beloved by the humble peasants, but hated and persecuted by the powerful, who condemned them to the pillory on every possible pretext.”
In his introduction, Mr. Fo explains that Francis “really was a bona fide jester with all the tricks of the trade up his sleeve. His harangues showed off all the techniques and routines of a master jester. Francis expressed himself through gesture. ‘He made his whole body speak.’”
“Holy Jester” consists of eight fables. They are told in an almost childlike manner, but the moral core is adult. Mr. Fo illustrated his “Fables” with humorous, irreverent drawings in bright, primary colors evoking the spirited nature of Francis’ sermons.
In the first fable, 17-year-old Francis rebels against his wealthy family and Assisi’s powerful ruling class by joining rioters who were tearing down city towers “like butterflies around an apple tree.”
Despite the successful demolition of their towers, the nobles strike back, killing many of the rebels and imprisoning others, including Francis, who spent a year in prison in Perugia. Upon his return to Assisi, with the lords back in command, “Francis, whose health had buckled under the prison shackles, found himself hoisting granite boulders, chiseling, squaring them, and raising walls back into the sky” as the rebels were forced to rebuild the towers they had destroyed.
One fable recounts Francis’ encounter with a wolf. His comrades mock him, saying “you embrace the lepers, then you strip off naked in the church and now you want to talk to wolves.” Francis convinces the wolf to become a friend to man, but when the wolf later returns to his fierce ways, Francis admits, “Yeah, you’re damned right, Wolf. It was my fault. I was arrogant! It was not Nature’s fault. I tried to turn animals into good men. I should have tried to turn them into good animals.”
In another fable, he envies the birds: “Oh, if men could only be so light, without gluttonies crushing us down to our basest levels. Lies! Rogueries! Wickedness and poverty of love! If we could but throw off these heavy shackles of greed and free ourselves of this wretched gluttony, we would surely levitate into the sky, and the whispered secret of a child would be enough to give us flight!”
Francis goes to Rome to see Pope Innocent III in order to receive permission to give sermons — forbidden to him as a friar, not a priest — and to build a community in which “nobody shall own houses or land — or any possessions! We will help the peasants in the fields to earn our living.”
The pope is incensed at Francis’ concept of charity and responds: “The power of Charity! You are telling this to me? To ME? I, who am here, sitting on the High Backed chair! To me, dressed with diamonds, rings, gold — you are telling this to me, who owns castles and palaces? I have prisons and I make laws. I send soldiers against those who scuff my shoes — I stomp on their heads!!!” Nevertheless, Francis receives his permit.
Sometimes, it would appear that divine intervention — in natural guise — saves his life. When Francis and two companions decide to go to the Holy Land, “[s]neaking around like three crafty crows, they hid themselves in the bottom of the ship’s hold.” The stowaways are discovered and about to be thrown overboard when a great storm engulfs the ship. “The wind sheared the ship of its rigging and sails. The tumult of waves swept the main deck. The sailors rushed below.” When the storm blew over, Francis, arms outstretched, used his cloak as a sail and brought the ship to safe harbor.
Dario Fo follows St. Francis as he wanders humbly through life, praising God, singing, laughing. It is a clever and satirical account, yet it honors one who was “[b]lissful and joyful content with the wild herbs and berries on the side of the road and then chant[s] glory to the Lord.”
• Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.