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Politics of Meaning Making and the Trickster Impulse in Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist

The Trickster impulse, which is a symbol of transgression in world literature, is variously defined by anthropologists, sociologists, psychotherapists, cultural theorists, writers and film critics. Enemy of boundaries, trickster figure resists the narrow framing of definition. Creativity- the ability to influence the world in a positive and constructive manner- is one way of regaining mastery over one’s environment. Another way- uncreative and often destructive- is to control others via a pre-existent system of rules. By contrast, the trickster is someone who prides himself on being out of control as well as creating havoc in the well-ordered world.” (Morozow The Trickster and the System 8)Most writers, however, agree that trickster figures, diverse as they are, nevertheless possess a number of common qualities. They are foolish, rebellious, asocial and anti-social, inconsistent, outrageous and selfcontradictory. The trickster exists in a kind of cultural, social and psychological limbo between different states, outside of the conscious world. Paul Radin states in his prefatory note to the Winnebago trickster cycle that the trickster is at one and the same time creator and destroyer, giver and negator, who dupes others and is always duped himself, while Karl Kerenyi calls the trickster figure the spirit of disorder, the enemy of boundaries (Morozow The Trickster in Contemporary Film 5)

In the patterns of myth, legend and folklore narrative, the trickster is incarnated as a clever, mischievous man or creature, who tries to survive the dangers and challenges of the world using trickery and deceit as a defense mechanism. The trickster’s simultaneous involvement and defiance of structures, his mockery of social norms, signifies free will of man and the overall evolutionary process. The present paper proposes to analyze the politics involved in the meaning making process in society and how language is manipulated to disguise the truth. The play warns about the powers of language. It shows how language can shape people’s sense of reality, how it can be used to conceal truths, and to manipulate history. “Language is one of the key instruments of political dominations, the necessary and insidious means of the ‘totalitarian’ control of reality” (Rai 122). The paper will also scrutinize the trickster impulse portrayed in the play. In the play, the mixture of the grotesque, the tragic, the absurd and the comical reflects the trickster impulse inherent in society that can outwit corrupt and volatile authority figures. Through the portrayal of this impulse, Dario Fo suggests that the institution, and not the man, is the true origin of madness. In the play, the character of the Maniac embodies the trickster impulse. A madman summoned to police headquarters to answer to charges of false identity, luckily happens to steal the file on the anarchist’s death. He then changes his identity, posing as an investigating judge. He is employed by Fo as a theatrical strategy to investigate truth. Authority figures are more concerned with maintaining an illusion that protects their position of power than they are with uncovering the truth. They do not want social change to happen. Constantly in a state of transition, the Maniac is a shape shifter and change personified. He behaves in a paradoxical way and engages in increasingly more elaborate lies and disguises to create imbalance and destabilization into the corrupt political system, thereby revealing the truth.

The play is written in response to the death of Giuseppi Pinelli, an anarchist who died in police custody while being questioned about a bombing in which he played no part. Nobody knows the full truth of what happened that day, but Italian newspapers reported that anarchist groups were responsible. Pinelli was one of the first anarchists to be taken in for questioning. He was detained for three days before falling out of a fourth-floor window to his death around midnight on December 15. Another anarchist, ballet dancer Pietro Valpreda, was put in jail for three years for his supposed involvement. Neither Pinelli nor Valpreda were actually involved in the attacks, nor were any members of anarchist groups. Inspector Luigi Calabresi was in charge of Pinelli’s interrogation.

Calabresi, whom many suspected of being sympathetic towards the fascists, blamed the Piazza Fontana bombings on left-wing extremists and was unlikely to be impartial to Pinelli. There were five additional officers in Calabresi’s office when Pinelli died, as well as a group of journalists in the courtyard below. An autopsy revealed that Pinelli had bruises on his neck. We never learn what definitively happened the night of the anarchist’s death, although what most likely happened is slowly revealed. There were massive inconsistencies between the various reports of what happened that night, a fact Fo has portrayed throughout the play. Some of Fo’s regular playgoers requested that he should write a play to provide counter-information to the misinformation being propagated about the event by the media. He researched the case thoroughly, drawing from two official inquiries as well as facts shared by friendly journalists and lawyers.

The play was partly a response to the ‘hot autumn’ of working class struggle of 1969 in Italy. On 15th October there was a demonstration of 50000 workers in Milan against the high cost of living. On 19th November a hugely successful 24 hour general strike took place to demand changes in government housing policy. Rents were often high for appalling accommodations, while many flats were left unrented. On 11th December a labour charter between the government and the unions was signed. As the historian Paul Ginsborg argued:It represented a significant victory of the trade unions and a new militancy. Equal wage increases were to be granted to all, the 40 hour week was to be introduced in the course of the following three years and special concessions were made for apprentices and worker student. The trade unions also won the right to organize mass assemblies at the workplace. They were to be held within the working day and were to be paid for by the employers, up to a maximum of ten hours in each calendar year. (qtd. in Behan 64)

The following day a bomb exploded without warning in Milan at the National Agricultural Bank. The strategy of tension started and it marked the beginning of modern terrorism in Italy. The thinking behind the strategy of tension, whether it is the neo-fascist groups (which 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 at random targets, generally with no warning, was bound to create severe tension within society. It was vital for these forces to create the impression that the anarchists, communists and members of the trade unions were behind the bombs, just as they had unquestionably been behind numerous strikes and demonstrations in recent years. This impression was to be created by the judicial system in particular and the state machinery in general, with the help of a compliant media. Once people accepted that the left was to blame, and the bombs continued, they would demand a clampdown on the left. On the first anniversary of the Piazza Fontana bombing the Christian Democrat Committee for the province of Milan passed a motion which called on the government to ensure the security forces in order to bring to an end the climate of disorder and violence which could undermine the credulity of democratic institutions.

As a trickster, the Maniac is not only an aesthetic and narrative strategy in the play but also the bearer of subversive meaning. The Maniac acts a harbinger of social change. Through his quick wit and humour he can present counter-information on the death of the anarchist to shock the audience in a way that would be accessible to all thereby making them swing into prompt action. Meaning, discourse and culture are deeply connected by means that are not always evident. Social reality is constructed through intricate mechanisms that involve psychological, social, and symbolic levels of cooperation between individuals. Though the play is comic, Fo is communicating the serious consequences of fear and violence on the public. The deconstructive work of the Maniac serves different functions, such as raising awareness, creating optimal conditions for a cultural paradigm shift or introducing a fundamental meta-narrative in the life of a community (Schmidt 65-76). He reflects on the way language has been abused so that, instead of being a means of the acquisition of wisdom, communicating the truth and entering more deeply into it, and of the acquisition of wisdom, it is being used to control people and manipulate them to achieve practical ends.

Reality becomes intelligible through words. Language becomes a mind-control tool, with the ultimate goal being the destruction of will and imagination of public. Fo has inserted farcical and grotesque elements in the play to satirize the police, revealing the inconsistencies in their stories and presenting counter-information to that being presented about the case in the press. It deals with the inhuman and unethical methods of social democracy and its crocodile tears as well as the immediate indignation of a passive mass that find relief in social scandals and forget the incidents of state outrage very soon. Both the Maniac and the journalist allude to this ‘strategy of tension.’ The Journalist brings up the theme of police infiltration into political groups, and the Maniac adds that such infiltrators “also carry out atrocities to give themselves a good excuse for a police crackdown” (70). The Journalist also shares statistics about the number of terrorist attacks carried out by far right organizations: So you’ll be unaware that of the 173 bomb attacks to date… 102 have been proved to be the work of fascists? And fascist or parallel organizations were strongly implicated in half of the remaining seventy-one cases (72).

The terms ‘trickster impulse’ and ‘trickster’ have been used interchangeably in this paper. The trickster principle is a general concept, a kind of psychological force (both personal and social) that has at its core the dynamic between restraint and breakthrough. By contrast, the trickster is a concrete realization of the principle, a character or structural element in myth, work of fiction, cinematic narrative or even in real life (Morozow The Trickster in Contemporary Film 4). One point of view concerning the trickster mythology links the trickster with the comic side of the discourse. At the heart of the trickster discourse is a comic spirit that demands a break from formulas. It disrupts social and cultural values. Trickster discourse involves risk taking, boundary testing, deception, and cruelty in an effort to teach culturally appropriate attitudes and behaviour (Robertson 18). It belongs to a certain culture, but at the same time it tries to undermine that very culture. It creates a type of anarchic discourse that puts to the test the dominant discourse within that culture. Bakhtin’s concept of dialogized heteroglossia helps us understand the function and development of the trickster discourse as it accounts for the representation of the widest possible range of social classes. Trickster discourses arise in times of change and therefore it becomes a site of struggle, carnival and subversion. In times of cultural and historical change, memories, facts, identities and ideologies mix in unpredictable ways. Trickster discourse warns us about the mixing of identities along with the change of power equations because in any case oppression may remain same. Here it is important to note that Dario Fo is interested in the discourse of the trickster as it negates boundaries and compartmentalization. Whatever is represented in the play is as true for Italy as it is for any other country because the oppressor may change his language games along with the changes of the power and discursive centres.

maxresdefault (1)In his book, Sculpting in Time, the Russian filmmaker Nandrey Tarkovsky outlines the operative principle of creativity, undermining the concept of normality and challenging the boring stability, which holds the social fabric together. In other words, creativity is a trickster, a malicious, but brilliant rebel, a bringer of fire who introduces progress into society impulsively and forcibly (Morozow The Trickster and the System 157). It is not surprising that the creative trickster force is treated by the society with caution. It is an impulse that is essentially antisystematic as its aim is to alter the established practices and conventions as it asks us to recognize the limitations of our cultural formulations. Works of art and other products of human creativity are born where the trickster impulse, the exploring impulse, the individuating force, is allowed to express itself freely instead of being ignored, repressed or buried under a pile of everyday rituals. Releasing the trickster, setting it free, is the highest form of self-understanding through self-expression.

Dario Fo picks up figures from popular forms, like Attelan farces, medieval morality plays and commedia dell arte, and carves them in the contemporary mold to register protest. In the play also, he presents the Maniac as an updated version of the Harlequin, devious, irreverent, and free-spirited. He contradicts convention and owes loyalty to none. The Harlequin can both die a silly death and defy the laws of life and death by coming back to life in the next scene. Similarly, the Maniac also moves freely from one mimetic convention to another, speaking directly to the audience one moment, interacting with props the next and using both mime and verbal communication. In the commedia dell arte, the Harlequin was commonly seen with a long, hooked nose, a half-mask over his eyes and mouth, and a multicoloured costume. Henry Fielding referred to Harlequin’s sooty countenance in his journal The Champion. In the Dunciad, Alexander Pope described John Rich’s Harlequin as the ‘sable sorcerer’ of The Necromancer that marked the start of the pantomime boom in the 1720’s. Similarly an anonymous verse satire on the pantomime entitled British Frenzy described the Harlequin as a black magician. These last two references, associating the Harlequin with diabolical magic, invoke the long standing link in European culture between blackness and the devil. Some instances where English performers wore black faces were clearly intended to invoke these associations. Early in the twentieth century the German historian Otto Driesen asserted that Harlequin derived from a twelfth century devil figure named Hellekin who claimed the souls of the unrepentant. Antoni Sadlek argues that one early manifestation of Harlequin can be identified with a devil figure called Alichino who appears in the Inferno, and may have originated in religious plays that Dante witnessed in Paris.

maxresdefault (2)The evolutionary trickster impulse contains extremely useful insights about the way meaning is conveyed in human societies. The Maniac in the play Accidental Death of an Anarchist is in fact saner than most of other characters. He feigns madness and his trickery is only a theatrical device. It is ironic that the Maniac is labeled ‘mad’ when he is the character most dedicated to revealing the truth. In order to uncover what really happened, he has to lie and impersonate others. For this reason, we may say that it may be the world around him that is truly mad. In the figure of the Maniac, Fo as a creative artist evokes the duality of the mythic trickster, thereby overcoming social constraints. In so doing, he calls into question the constraints themselves, so that the social system as a whole evolves and develops, just as the individuals within it. The technique of grotesque is willingly used by the playwright to deconstruct a corrupt political system. With his torch of skepticism, Maniac brings to light the ugly truth of political institutions. As a trickster, the Maniac dismantles or deconstructs the cultural text. He is imparted with quick wit to unveil the political aporia where institutions of justice have become institutions of discrimination and suffering, and where language is manipulated to confuse and disguise the truth. As a Trickster, the Maniac is questioning not only one single act of injustice but an unending system of exploitation. By confronting and reconfiguring the corrupt social and political systems he truly acts as a trickster figure as he slips from a system of classifications that normally locates states and positions in cultural space.

Works Cited and Consulted

Behan, Tom. Dario Fo: Revolutionary Theatre. Sterling: Pluto Press, 2000.
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Gradinaru, Alexandru Ioan. “The Ways of the Trickster. Meaning, Discourse and Cultural Blasphemy”. Web. 27 Sep. 2015<http://www.fssp.uaic.ro/ argumentum>
Hyde, Lewis. Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art: North Point Press, 1999.
Morozow, Helena Bassil. The Trickster and the System. Identity and Agency in Contemporary Society. New York: Routledge, 2015.
Morozow, Helena Bassil. (2012) The Trickster in Contemporary Film. New York: Routledge, 2012.
Raghavan. V. Cross-Continental Subversive Strategies: Thematic and Methodological Affinities in the Plays of Dario Fo and Safdar Hashmi. (2006). Thesis. Department of English, University of Calicut. Web. 22 June 2015 <http:// shodhganga.inflibnet>
Rai, Alok. Orwell and the politics of despair: A critical study of the writings of George Orwell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Robertson, Carmen. “Tricksters in the Press.” Web. 27 Sep. 2015 <http:// www.cst.ed.ac.uk/2005>
Scheub, Harold. Trickster and Hero: Two Characters in the Oral and Written Traditions of the World. London: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012.
Schmidt, Kerstin. “Subverting the Dominant Paradigm: Gerald Vizenor’s Trickster Discourse”. SAIL. Studies in American Indian Literatures, 7.1, 1995.
Tannen, Ricki Stefanie. The Female Trickster: The Mask that Reveals: Post Jungian and Postmodern Psychological Perspectives on Women in Contemporary Culture. New York: Routledge, 2007.

 

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Categories: Drama, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Research Papers, Theatre Studies

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