Publication Date: March 12, 1987
Accidental Death of an Anarchist (Morte accidentale di un anarchico) was written by the Italian playwright, Dario Fo, following the events that took place in Italy, in the late 1960s. Fo is one of Italy’s most important and well-known literary writers who is famous for employing satire and popular elements within his work. His writings deal with Italian politics and his work is able to attract people from all walks of life.
The book was released in 1970 and the play was first performed in Milan in December of the same year. In 1984, it was staged on Broadway and became Fo’s most popular work inside and outside of Italy. For theater directors, this has been the play of choice when it comes to dealing with corruption.
Dario Fo’s work is based on a real-life incident. According to reports, the anarchist, Giuseppe Pinelli, was taken into custody by the Milan police and unjustifiably detained for three days before falling out of a fourth-story window at the police station. Pinelli was held for questioning regarding his participation in the Piazza Fontana bombing. The death of Pinelli caused such a public outrage because of the discrepancies of the police reports. Neither the public nor journalists ruled out that the law enforcers threw him out of the window. Ten years after his death, Pinelli was cleared of all charges. In Fo’s play, law enforcement tries to prove and convince the public that the anarchist in question is responsible for his own death.
In the opening scene, we are inside the police office with Inspector Bertozzo and Maniac, a certified madman, a trickster and a serial impersonator. Maniac, who pretends to be a psychiatrist, decides to investigate the anarchist’s death by impersonating a judge who wants to reopen inquiry. Late on, he switches to faking a forensics expert and last but not least, a bishop. Maniac, the protagonist, is constantly switching roles, ensures that the reader doesn’t become too comfortable with a single character. This, in fact, makes sense — the reader is prevented from identifying with the characters and getting too involved with the story line for the sake of critical thinking and the message of this brilliant work.
Inspector Betrozzo is a mix of several police officers that represents an Italian stereotype and he is often on the receiving end of stereotype jokes. In Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Bertozzo is mocked and satirized. By using the same problematic and disputable interrogation and infiltration methods of government officials and by enforcing the people involved to reenact the events, Maniac is able to illustrate the inconsistencies and contradictions of the official police report. At the same time, the legislative, executive and judicial complicity within the government as well as the discrimination of the working class and all those that do not belong the governing elite, is exposed.
Maniac can be seen as the court jester — or as the Satyre of the piece. He is all about revealing the truth by lying and using impersonations, and in a way, disguising himself and acting out different personas, symbolize the cover-ups of law enforcement. He is in control and is able to create havoc among police officers, inspectors and other authorities to a level of grotesque that will have readers laughing out loud. Maniac is a decoy character of the piece and he is complex. On the surface, it’s the multiple identities and absurdities throughout the play that give readers the impression that Maniac is insane or anything but normal, but in the beginning of the story, he claims that playing other people is his hobby. It’s his curiosity and the need for information that has him changing identities — the need to know. So essentially, it is Maniac that is normal; everyone and everything else is abnormal.
Accidental Death of an Anarchist is an analysis of political power and an example of how this power can negatively be exercised by highlighting abuse and corruption within the political system. The play, with its sinister elements, is a farce and certainly an outstanding example of political satire. It conveys a hard and central message around a tragic event. By employing humor and slapsticks, Fo’s intention is to provoke laughter with anger because he believes that “comedy makes the subversion of the existing state of affairs possible.”
At its core, the deeper and the disturbing message of his work is that staging political scandals is a part of the political system. In other words, political scandals are created to give the public the chance to be outraged and to vent — followed by some adjustments through the political class and then to be quickly forgotten by the public. Maniac illustrates this as follows:
…the scandal would have served its purpose. People say they want real justice… so we fob them off with a slightly less unjust system of justice. Workers howl that they’re being flayed like donkeys … so we arrange for the flaying to be a little less severe and slash their howling entitlement, but the exploitation goes on. The workforce would rather not have fatal accidents in the factory … so we make it a teeny bit safer and increase compensation payments to widows. They’d like to see class divisions eliminated… so we do our best to bring the classes marginally closer or, preferably, just make it seem that way.
They want a revolution… and we give them reforms. We’re drowning them in reforms. Or promises of reforms, because let’s face it, they’re not actually going to get anything.
— Dario Fo, Accidental Death of an Anarchist
The message that readers will take away is that checks and balances don’t really work and constantly need to be revised because no system is foolproof. Therefore, governments need informed and concerned citizens to safeguard human rights.
Readers should note that the original location in the play is Italy. The translated work takes place in Great Britain.
If you enjoy political satire, you can read on excerpt and buy Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Dario Fo on