Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Dario Fo: Accidental Death of an Anarchist

You have no idea how many completely innocent parties move heaven and earth just to get themselves arrested and brought to this station! You think they’re anarchists, communists, autonomists, trade unionists… No, the truth is, they’re all just poor, sick manic depressives, hypochondriacs, gloomy people, who disguise themselves as revolutionaries just so’s they can be interrogated by you… and at last have a damn good laugh! Get a bit of enjoyment, for once in their lives!

Written in 1970, Accidental Death of an Anarchist it is based on the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of Giuseppe Pinelli, an Italian anarchist accused of having planted a bomb at a bank and who, allegedly, fell from a police precinct window. This was a very controversial case in Italy; some left-wing newspapers accused the police detectives of having murdered Pinelli. One of them, who sued Lotta Continua, one of said newspapers, for defamation, was murdered shortly after; a decade later members of the newspaper were arrested and charged with his murder (Italian politics is a serious matter). Pinelli’s name, meanwhile, has been cleared of all charges, although no one was brought to justice because of his supposedly accidental death, and he’s now seen as a martyr and a victim of a political atmosphere of terror and intimidation that had turned Italian society into an ideological battleground and resulted in the deaths of people on the left and the right, of politicians and ordinary people. 

It’s this atmosphere that Dario Fo captures so well.

The play starts with a typical Fo character: a modern-day fool, a descendant of the medieval court jester. It is said in popular culture that these figures received their madness as a gift from God; thus kings protected them for their divine inspiration; their madness was in fact a means that allowed them to see things more clearly and so they criticised the rich and powerful with a freedom others did not have. The most famous example is William Shakespeare’s King Lear. However, in the 20th century, it’s no longer the Fool but the Maniac, and it’s not God but “Article 122 of the Penal Code” that protects him. A public official who harasses a madman “commits a crime punishable by five to fifteen years imprisonment, and loss of pension and rank,” the Maniac gleefully remembers the inspector questioning him, at the start of the play, for impersonating other people.

The Maniac is a histrionic figure who loves to play roles, although he favours Théâtre Vérité: his roles must be real identities and the people he ‘co-stars’ with can’t know they’re in his play (to a certain extent, this dramatic situation is similar to Luigi Pirandello’s Henry IV).

This Maniac, like the fool of yore, also has contempt for authority, and since he doesn’t fit in he can see things more clearly. Therefore he’s also a judge of values and attitudes, which is why playing a real judge would be the pinnacle of his ‘career’. “Defence never was my style. Too passive. I prefer sitting in judgment… handing down sentences… coming down like a ton of bricks! I’m one of yours, Inspector,” he says just moments before he eavesdrops on a conversation about a judge coming to the precinct to reopen the case about the death, or suicide as the report calls it, of an anarchist.

Taking the two inspectors who questioned the anarchist to the room from where he fell, where they re-enact the events, the Maniac slowly starts dismantling the lies and contradictions in the two  official reports, beginning with the fact that the dead man was “seized by a raptus:”

Now, what is a ‘raptus?’ Bandieu says that a ‘raptus’ is a heightened form of suicidal anxiety which can seize even people who are psychologically perfectly normal, if something provokes them to extremes of angst, in other words, to utter desperation. Correct?

But the time lag of hours between the interrogation and the fall would preclude the suddenness that underpins the said raptus. Beginning with this inconsistency, the Maniac unravels the detectives’ paper-thin defence, all the while pretending to be helping them create a stronger alibi to withstand media scrutiny. It’s in these sequences that much of the play’s humour resides, as he alternately feigns paternalistic compassion and surreptitiously mocks the police, by forcing them to role-play too, and even reversing their authority roles by making them spout anarchist slogans.

But if this were all there is to the play, it would be a very poor play indeed. Although the ridiculing of the cops adds some flavour to the action, the real point of the play is much darker. Fo is in fact concerned with the manipulation of reality, censorship, the participation of the media in controlling citizens, and police brutality.

The dead anarchist, the Maniac finds out, unknowingly belonged to a group constituted mostly by anti-anarchist infiltrators: right-wingers and policemen. There were in fact more secret agents in it than proper anarchists, leading the reader to suspect of any real danger to society. Given the evidence that suggests that the bombings required military training and professional knowledge of bomb making, he also implicates state authorities. One of the detectives argues, “every once in a while we have to use tricks and ploys, and sometimes psychological violence.” That may be so, but who’s watching the watchmen? Who holds them accountable? And when the authorities create a climate of tension to justify anything, how can the innocent be separated from the guilty? Who can defend their rights? It’s not just the use of brutality and other illegal tactics, which are now too common, that the play is condemning, but also the end-justifies-the-means mentality that has also become predominant since the play was written. Innocent people are arrested and tortured without evidence, their civil rights torn apart, and mass media events are fabricated to gain the public’s consent. It’s a self-feeding system.

Reading the play today may seem like a warped satire of the War on Terror, a playwright’s reflection about our post-9/11 world. In fact it was written thirty years earlier, but, like J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, it was prescient. As a detective says, without realizing the truth in his words, a “scandal is the fertilizer of social democracy.” Even when they don’t exist, scandals “need to be invented” as a way of ‘maintaining power’ and ‘defusing people’s anger.’ Countries need enemies and they’ve been inventing them since the dawn of history. Umberto Eco’s upcoming book of essays, Inventing The Enemy, deals exactly with that topic and I recommend everyone to read it. Creating a state of tension, fear and instability is sometimes beneficial when it’s necessary to make people stop thinking. Fear tends to shut down all critical faculties. This certainly was a far more subversive message in the 1970s before Nixon sullied politics’ reputation forever, but if nowadays everyone believes that politicians are always lying to them, Fo can’t be blamed if the world has changed to resemble his fiction.

Although Dario Fo identifies himself as a political writer who uses his fiction to address social questions, I couldn’t finish this review without pointing out his subtle incursions into experimentalism and meta-theatre: it’s not just that there’s a protagonist who likes to role-play and turns reality into a play, which, like I wrote before, would allow comparisons with Pirandello. There are many neat little touches spread throughout the play. In one scene he talks to actors hidden in the audience, invoking the techniques of Ionesco. And his interaction with the audience, which breaks the fourth wall in the best tradition of absurdist theatre, also allows him to quip about censorship, which Dario Fo experienced in the 1950s when his plays had to be approved before they were staged and inspectors in the audience made sure the actors didn’t deviate from the script, a reality the audience at the time would still be familiar with.

Although Dario Fo is deliberately low-brow in his militant theatre, to the point of only being considered lowbrow, that doesn’t preclude experimental playfulness. The fact that he can get away with these techniques, which are considered avant-garde, amidst crowds of workers, the majority of his audience, says something about those who use avant-gardism to justify being unable to reach mass audiences. But Fo knows how to temper intellectual moments with situations that are plain silly, like when he goads the detectives to sing an anarchist song, or when he puts on a disguise that slowly comes apart, with detachable hands and wooden legs, and other classical slapstick routines. This mix of high and low makes his theatre truly unique and immensely enjoyable.

Although not as great as Mistero Buffo, which truly bent the shape of theatre to suit its needs and opened new possibilities, Accidental Death of an Anarchist is nevertheless a superb political satire.

For this review I used Ed Emery’s translation collected in Dario Fo Plays: 1, published by Methuen.


  1. Fantastic Miguel, very well written. Thisis moving into my shopping cart..

    1. Thanks for the kind words.

      Methuen's volume 1 is quite good, it has many other great plays by him; so I'd get that one. It's better value for your money.