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Dario Fo, author of Accidental Death of an Anarchist, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1997 and the Swedish Academy while awarding him the prize noted that Fo’s “works are open for creative additions, dislocations, continually encouraging actors to improvise”. Fo has always wanted his plays to be improvised and adapted in keeping with the environment and the conditions of performance. This is why he encouraged adaptations instead of translations of his scripts into other languages as long as it suits the socio-economic / cultural context of performance with the political thrust not being undermined or distorted. From the beginning he has sought to develop a kind of theatre which does not merely reflect documents but actively participates in the collective life and struggles of his audiences and becomes a form of collaborative political action.
The reason for Fo’s immense success and his ability to evoke the kind of audience response as he did in Italy is not just the artistic vitality of his theatre but also the political immediacy of the matters he addresses in his plays like Accidental Death of an Anarchist, which essentially becomes a performance-centred rather than script-centred text. Javed Mallick has identified one main problem with analyzing the play as a classroom text, being the fact that the play works in performance only if it is related to an immediate political context and situation familiar to the audiences and performers. According to him Fo originally wrote the play as a political intervention into a specific situation and we should, therefore, accordingly analyse it keeping in that troubled fascist state / anarchist period in mind.
Fo had essentially based his play on the bombing in Piazza Fontana in 1969 and the subsequent death of the arrested anarchist, Pinelli, who fell from a fourth floor window to a courtyard below. The room he was being questioned in was just 13 by 11 feet and there were five experienced officers in the room when Pinelli ‘flew’ from the window with a ‘cat-like jump’. The first police explanation was that Pinelli had committed suicide, insisting that the leap was proof of his guilt. However, many other theories cropped up owing to the lack of physical evidence on the body, as brought out in the play, among which were the act of blatant murder by the police or of an ‘accidental’ death owing to negligence and extreme intimidation techniques being deployed by the police. Fo, in the guise of the madman disguised as the examining magistrate, points out the grotesquely farcical lengths to which the Italian police went to exonerate themselves from any responsibility for Pinelli’s death and to justify not following up any right wing leads in their investigation of the Piazza Fontana bombs. The bombs were in fact subsequently proved to be the work of two fascists.
At this juncture it becomes imperative to talk about the ‘strategy of tension’. The thinking behind the strategy of tension, whether it be the neo fascist groups who planted a whole series of bombs in those years or their accomplices and protectors within the secret services and the state machinery was to halt the growth in the strength of the working class. The placing of bombs randomly was done to create severe tension within the society. It was important for these forces to create the impression that it was anarchists, communists, trade unionists and so on who were behind the bombs. It was hoped that the overall situation which would be created would be one in which it would be unclear who was specifically responsible, so in order to stop the chaos, the left had to be suppressed in general. As Tom Behan puts it, in the climate of fear and revulsion created by the bombings it would be relatively easier for the state to justify the suspension of normal democratic procedures and subjugation of the left. Apart from this, the ultimate goal was the creation of a political system akin to fascism, which is why the involvement of fascist groups and elements within secret services with fascist sympathies became crucial.
The play’s audience was aware of the gravity of the ‘strategy of tension’ and it is a direct reflection of Fo’s achievement that he was able to put forth the play like a madcap farce and popular comedy distancing the tragic implications in ‘order to forestall the audience’s empathy.’ This strategy is embodied in the many disguise changes that the madman undertakes.
In the British adaptations of this play the police characters have been turned into mere caricatures, which was exceedingly disturbing for Fo. Thus, it becomes vital to stress that they are not intended as caricatures or stereotypes, making not only the British but several other foreign productions inaccurate. There is no doubt that Fo makes them, as Tony Mitchell says, ‘the butt of comedy and farce’. This is, however, inherent to the statements and behavior of devious, dangerous types who show the abuses of power that the police ruthlessly exerted in their extreme takedown of the Italian Left. On the other hand, Fo does not advocate or show any sympathy to the anarchists, whom he depicts as an insignificant group of extremists whose organization was so chaotic that they could not have possibly been the perpetrators of something so complex as the Fontana bombings, which the inspector also admitted required ‘military precision’. The play’s indictment of police behaviour takes on a more serious note in the character of Felletti, who seems to be unrelenting about the embarrassing facts of the Pinelli scandal. However, Tony Mitchell argues that her hard line of questioning was balanced by the madman’s change in disguise, filled with artificial limbs, from the examining magistrate into, ‘Captain Marcantonio Piccini from forensic research’. In an interesting insight, however, Jolynn Wing observes that ‘Fo incarnates Piccini as a preposterous conglomeration of such blatant bogus body parts that he is transposed into a virtual marionette… As the scene builds up, it becomes increasingly evident that the grotesquely corrupted body of the Maniac and the body politic are theatrical reflections of each other’.
The farcical capers of the play’s situation reach a climax when the Maniac is stripped of his ‘forensic disguise’ and proceeds to impersonate the Bishop, who is collaborating with the police. This disguise enabled Fo to satirize the Church and discuss consequences of the affair which as the Bishop states, is used as ‘the fertilizer of social democracy’. As said before, Fo rendered performance-oriented plays. Therefore, by leaving the ending unresolved, the play did not have any catharsis or outlet for the audience, which Fo hoped would stimulate a desire for political change. Discussions after the play tended to deal with the need for a revolutionary strategy and a ‘counter power’ developed on Marxist Leninist lines against the Christian Democrat state.
As Fo later wrote in the preface to a sequel to the play, ‘this monstrous tragic farce which goes under the name of ‘state massacre’, presented courtesy of the democratic organs of the state had the programmed result of a vast ‘isolation campaign’ of workers struggles and the obliteration of their more militant activists’. It was written as a response to a particular, critical political moment and requires the same sensitivity to immediate politics in production.
? Contextualizing Fo: Radical Theatre of the 1960’s by Javed Mallick. A critical companion to Accidental Death of an Anarchist. Worldview, 2006.
? La Commune and Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Tony Mitchell. Dario Fo: People’s Court Jester. London and Ny., Methuen, 1984.
? Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Tom Behan. Dario Fo: Revolutionary Theatre. London: Pluto, 2000.
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