Howl, Howl, Howl, Howl, Howl

Last night RAI TV gave us one of its all-too-rare highlights: a live broadcast of Dario Fo’s monologue (first issued in 1999)  “Francesco Lu Santo Jullare”, (Francis, the holy jester), which, at age 88, he delivered with amazing energy and panache in his own creative Italianate dialect (e.g. “permissione instead of “permesso”, “papéo” instead of “papa” etc.).

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Nobel Prize winner in 1997, Fo is famous for his satires on politics, religion, the police, the family and other Italian institutions. This time, however, he had a kind word to say about the present Pope Bergoglio, starting from his name, the first time a Pope had dared to call himself “Francis” (which was a name used for the first time ever by Francis’s family and which means “son of the French woman” since Francis’ mum came from France). Like St Francis, Fo drew parallels with Bergoglio’s wish to live in relative poverty, using an “old banger” as a means of transport, his attachment to simple accommodation, his proverbial understatements, his queueing up for his meal at the vatican lunchtime canteen, his abhorrence of high finance, indeed, of money, in any form –  a theme which recurs week after week in Bergoglio’s “udienze”.

Proceeding from the first pope Fo had anything positive to say about, the great actor, playwright, producer, author, supreme commedia dell‘artista, went on to describe incidents from the life of St Francis against vivid painted backcloths of almost neo-gothic symbolism. Fo’s aim was to present Francis, warts and all, free from the iconographic cleansing of the Council of Narbonne and later hagiographers who, finding the real St Francis too much to take, attempted to turn him into a sentimentalised figure, more pleasing to the Church and less controversial.

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One incident narrated in Fo’s multi-charactered monologue related to that famous wolf he meets in Gubbio:

Francis persuades the raw-lamb-and-goat-meat loving wolf to become a more “moderate” beast. Perhaps the wolf, himself, wanted to become more “civilised”, to bark rather than howl and turn into man’s best friend – in other words to domesticate himself, become part of a congregation instead of remaining a lone outsider.  Noticing that shepherds killed and ate their lambs at Easter “in honour of God” (as they still do in Italy today – roast lamb is not a common dish here except at Christ’s resurrection feast), the wolf pleaded provocatively with Francis (Fo’s howling-barking simulation of the conversation between man and beast was here particularly masterly) to turn him into a “moderate” man so that he could legally eat meat!

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Those who have read “The Little Flowers of Saint Francis” will know the end of the story. The wolf renounces his savage slaughter, is adopted as Gubbio’s city pet, becomes as meek as a lamb, is given free luncheon vouchers until the end of his life when he is accorded a solemn burial.

I thought of this part of Dario Fo’s brilliant monologue, particularly as there are several shepherds in these parts who take a very different view regarding wolves. For example, noticing his flock steadily decreasing one local shepherd even took the expedient of setting up a CCTV camera. Replaying the recording, the horrified man noticed the unmerciful slaughter of his animals by a wolf who carted off an average of one lamb per night.

There was nothing this shepherd could do. Unlike wild boars, wolves are protected species in Italy, and for anyone to “cull” the ancestral dog would amount to hefty fines or even imprisonment,

What do we do then? I am reminded of a shark-infested beach in Queensland Australia where, after several bathers had lost limbs or even their lives at the teeth of the primitive monsters of the deep, the authorities decided to step in and kill off the sharks to allow safe bathing. Did this make the bathers happy? Quite the opposite! There were large protests on the beaches against the authorities for interfering with nature!

Did Francis interfere with nature? What was the real message of his meeting with the Wolf of Gubbio? Can wildness be tamed whether it appears in animal or human form? Can two opposed species manage to speak the same language? Can the lion lie down with the lamb?

I look around me and see that once domesticated and cultivated landscapes are being abandoned to unbridled natural re-forestation, that the birds are reclaiming their woods after years of persecution by the rifle and that by full-moon-light I can hear the faint ululation of wolves repopulating the mountain tops after having wandered here along the Apennines all the way from Calabria and La Sila through the Abruzzi. At the same time my wife has noted that at full moon I seem to her to appear to become more hairy and lycanthropic…

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