Obituary: Franca Rame, actress, playwright and political activist

Franca Rame. Picture: Getty
Franca Rame. Picture: Getty
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Born: 18 July, 1928, in Parabiago, Italy. Died: 29 May, 2013, in Milan, aged 84

Franca Rame was an Italian actress and playwright who penned scathing critiques of the Italian state, the Catholic Church and discrimination against women, many in collaboration with her celebrated playwright husband, Dario Fo.

Unlike Fo, Rame was born into the very heart of the Italian theatre tradition, since her parents were strolling players who could trace their origins to the 18th century.

They toured in Lombardy, and she made her first appearance on stage when she was eight days old. The family company never used a script, but improvised their performances on the basis of an outline plot established by the leading actor, her father, and pinned up in the wings. She never studied theatre.

The Rames were unable to continue performing when her father suffered a stroke, and there was some concern in the family over how Franca would earn a living. After a brief period in nursing, she joined a variety company run by the Nava Sisters in Milan.

One of the other members was a tall, gangly youth, who was evidently interested in her but too shy to make the first move. Franca always boasted that it was she who took the initiative, throwing the young Dario Fo against a door and kissing him, as she put it, violently on the mouth.

She was known then as the Italian Rita Hayworth, and Fo was unlikely to resist. The two fell in love, were married in 1954 and formed in life and in theatre a unique partnership.

The relationship had its ups and downs, and once Franca announced on a television show that she had left Dario. He was in Amsterdam and was unaware of the separation. They quickly got back together again.

She performed in cabaret-style sketches with the first company Dario formed with two other actors, but her own name did not appear as one of the stars. She recalls her embarrassment at being made to parade around the stage while her good looks were commented on by the other performers.

She took time off to have Jacopo, their only son, before the couple moved to Rome to try their hand in cinema. In 1956, they made their only film together, a Jacques Tati style comedy, Lo svitato (Screwball), over which Franca later said a pitying veil should be drawn. In fact, the work has been re-evaluated positively, but they found the experience frustrating, and decided to return to Milan and theatre.

The first works of the newly established Fo-Rame company consisted of two series of four one-act farces, the second of which was based on scripts used by the Rame family.

At this stage, Franca was the junior partner and, being by her own admission in awe of her husband’s budding genius as actor-author, she was unwilling to criticise. Later she was more forthright, especially since she would have to perform the parts he wrote. Some will wonder how her career might have developed had she been able to play a wider repertory of roles, and not only the largely comic parts his writing dictated. She gave some moving performances in serious or even tragic parts, but they were few. Her early parts were, as she 
herself put it, substantially “decorative”.

The couple got their break when an impresario offered them access to one of Milan’s leading theatres, ushering in what became known, however mistakenly, as their “bourgeois period”. The first work from that time, Archangels Play at Pinball, was staged in 1959 but it was with Seventh Commandment: Steal a Little Less, a bitter, satirical assault on corruption in political and business life in Italy, that Franca emerged in her own right, taking on the principal role. The repertoire was far from bourgeois, and the company faced endless harassment from the authorities in an age when censorship was still in force.

In 1968, in a climate of student rebellion and anti-Vietnam War movements, they decided to break with commercial theatre and establish a co-operative which would perform explicitly political work in an “alternative” circuit of venues. Franca joined the Communist Party, but retained her freedom to express her own views. She was now lead actress, company manager, script adviser and treasurer as well as wife and mother. She also became more visible in political campaigns, notably in favour of divorce and later abortion.

These were also the years of terrorism in Italy, and as a growing number of activists ended up in jail, Franca established Red Aid to guarantee the human rights of political prisoners in Italy. She was unflinchingly 
opposed to violence, but the subtlety of her position was lost on opponents, and she became the focus of a campaign of vilification.

Her work with Red Aid caused both her and Fo to be denied visas to visit America. In March 1973, Franca was kidnapped and raped by neo-fascist thugs. There were always suspicions of official connivance, and an enquiry led by Judge Guido Salvini in 1998 established that the rapists were indeed acting on the orders of the Milanese police.

It was years before Franca was able to admit in public that the assault involved rape, but she did so in a devastatingly powerful one-act piece entitled starkly The Rape, which she herself performed on the Fringe in Edinburgh. This play was wholly written by her, as were two other pieces, Heroin/Heroine and Fat is Beautiful, but even the one-woman feminist plays, Female Parts, were mainly written by Fo, although the initial idea was often Franca’s.

The question of authorship overall is tricky given the closeness of their collaboration, but she insisted that Dario was the family author, while for him she was the only critic he would trust. It was she who prepared for publication scripts which changed, sometimes radically, during the run, but she would not accept the suggestion I put to her that the plays began as Dario’s but ended as hers.

Fo was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1997, although many thought it should have been a joint award. She continued campaigning, especially on questions related to drugs, but astonished everyone when in 2006 she entered the Italian senate in the party led by Di Pietro, the ex-magistrate who had headed the anti-corruption campaign. She was appalled by the political manoeuvrings she saw, and resigned after two years of what she described as the worst experience of her life.

Rame was motivated by deeply humane values and was celebrated as actress, writer and social reformer. When I asked her earlier this year if she had any unfulfilled aspirations, she replied the only remaining one was to rest. She lived the fullest of lives and her efforts improved social standards for all.