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Great European Lives: Franca Rame

Portrait of Italian actress Franca Rame. 1960s Photo: Mondadori Portfolio by Getty Images. - Credit: Mondadori via Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY takes a look at the live of daring actress and playwright Franca Rame.

“Almost without noticing I find myself in front of a police station,” says the protagonist of Franca Rame’s powerful one-woman play, Lo Stupro, ‘The Rape’. “I lean against the side of the building opposite and stare at it for while. I think of what I would face if I went in. I can hear their questions, I can see their faces, I can see them smirking. I think about it for a moment, then decide. I’m going home. I’ll report it tomorrow.”

The play, first performed in 1983, was a deeply personal one for its author, based on the night ten years earlier when Rame had been bundled into the back of a van, had cigarettes extinguished on her body, her face slashed with a razor and was raped by four men before being dumped in a park.

The rapists were Italian fascists who had taken exception to the stream of high-profile radical left wing plays and projects produced by Rame and her husband Dario Fo, but the origins of the attack were even more sinister. During the late 1990s it emerged that Rame’s rape had been approved, if not directly ordered, by high-ranking officials in the Italian police. It was news that came as no surprise to the victim.

“If you go around denouncing things then it’s clear the powers that be won’t be happy and will do whatever they can to stop you,” she’d told an interviewer in 1986. “A political militant takes that for granted without trying to be a heroine. I have black moments when I ask, ‘what am I doing here? Why am I doing this?’ but fortunately they don’t last very long.”

It took Rame years to tell even her husband exactly what had happened that night, but the plays she began to write in the aftermath of the attack presented a hardened political edge to her work even if they didn’t reference her rape directly.

Then, one night in 1979, while performing on stage, she suddenly found herself talking frankly about her ordeal, reducing the audience into a stunned and poignant silence. That night provided the bare bones of Lo Stupro which was first performed without warning, live on an Italian prime-time arts television programme, delivering a shocking personal and political message directly into the homes of the nation.

“My training was the everyday experience of being on the stage,” she said. “Because of that I always feel more at ease before an audience than I do anywhere else.”

Franca Rame was born into performance. Her radical socialist father Domenico ran a travelling marionette company dating back through his ancestors to the 17th century, with his wife Emilia, a devout Catholic.

During the 1920s the perceptive Domenico recognised how disastrous the new medium of cinema would prove for itinerant puppet shows like his and he and Emilia began acting the marionette plays themselves instead. As a result Rame made her first appearance on stage in the arms of her mother when she was eight days old.

Her formative years instilled in Rame an ethic of tireless work and a deep commitment to social justice. They also forged a talent for performance so ingrained as to be practically innate, despite no formal training whatsoever.

She settled in Milan in her late teens where her natural gift for theatrical comedy combined with her striking looks to make her a popular fixture in revues as well as earning her several roles in feature films including Carlo Lizzani’s 1956 comedy The Screwball, written by and also starring her husband.

Rame had met Fo in the early 1950s when they both joined the same theatrical company. They married in 1954 and formed their own troupe four years later, sparking each other’s creative and political sensibilities and turning them into a formidable force in Italian political theatre for the next 40 years.

They divided opinion, adored by the left and hated by the right, but Rame inspired women across the spectrum through her role as an outspoken feminist willing to speak publicly about women’s issues, many of which had been practically taboo in Italy’s Catholic society. Her one-woman sketch revue Tutta Casa, Letto e Chiesa (‘It’s all Bed, Board and Church’), for example, proved to be an enduring hit with women of all political persuasions.

Rame joined the Italian Communist Party in 1967 and was instrumental in establishing Soccorso Rosso, ‘Red Aid’, for whom she co-ordinated letter-writing campaigns on issues such as providing books for prisoners and practical aid for their families, acts that would see Rame and her husband barred from entering the United States until the mid-1980s.

In 1970 she travelled to Lebanon to meet the Palestinian Democratic Popular Front, recognising that their cause needed to be publicised outside the region, while conceding that “here I am arriving from the West with my platinum blonde hair and round tits”, a no-nonsense attitude that won over the battle-hardened fighters. Rame selected ten soldiers who could sing, dance and act and took them back to Italy to perform in Fedayin, a show that raised more than £20,000 as well as invaluable publicity for the Palestinian cause.

Organising tours was almost second nature by the time she took Fedayin on the road. In 1967 Rame and Fo had founded the radical theatre group Nuova Scena, which set out to take theatre and their political message to the people. Performances in conventional theatres were rare, instead the company put on shows in a range of venues including workers’ clubs, bowling alleys, factory canteens and cinemas.

“In the first year alone we performed to more than 200,000 people, of whom two thirds had never seen a play before,” Rame recalled. “The debates that followed our show were always lively, with everyone speaking, talking about their experiences and struggles and telling us what we could and should put on the stage in future: their history.”

In the aftermath of her rape she and Fo found venues suddenly unwilling to accommodate their productions, so with the aid of a community of illegal migrants from North Africa they took over an abandoned fruit market in Milan, renovated it and used it as a base for performances and fundraising. Rame’s selflessness knew no limits and went beyond conventional left wing causes: she raised money for an organisation helping Italian heroin addicts and funded a dialysis machine for a children’s hospital. During the 1980s she donated her entire fee from a run at the Dublin Festival to a struggling theatre company in South Africa.

Yet for all her high-profile campaigning and her clear talent as an actor as well as a playwright, Rame always seemed destined to be remembered as merely the wife and muse of Dario Fo. When Fo received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1997, however, he was keen to acknowledge Rame’s key role in his success.

“I have been waiting for this for 25 years but now I must reflect for a second,” he said during his acceptance speech. “I won this prize along with Franca Rame and could never have done it without her.”

“This is his reward for the many, many humiliations he has suffered,” a proud Rame responded afterwards. “We have suffered a lot and have been on the end of some extremely unjust criticism of our positions.”

The couple had their ups and downs – in 1989 they announced their separation (they soon reunited) and Rame spoke openly about a suicide attempt – but theirs was a partnership of equals both personally and professionally in which each supported the other. Even their first theatrical company was named The Dario Fo-Franca Rame Theatre Company.

Her later years saw no descent into retirement: in 2006 at the age of 77 she made a surprise and successful run for the Italian senate as a candidate for the anticorruption Italia dei Valori party of Antonio Di Pietro, at the time the nemesis of Silvio Berlusconi. Within two years she had resigned, however, frustrated by the way in which the labyrinthine bureaucracy of Italian politics made it impossible to achieve tangible change. When she died in 2013, aged 83, Rame and Fo had been preparing to appear in their play Una Callas Dimenticata, ‘A Forgotten Callas’, for a full summer season in Verona.

Franca Rama’s gender ensured she received more opprobrium than her equivalent male activists, not to mention the ultimate violation that night in 1973. Yet to the very end of her life she never flinched from her quest to achieve social justice and equality.

“I still wish to contribute to social change, to find a greater dignity in life and society,” she said late in her life, “but I believe I will die before I see it.”

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