Analysis of Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist

Next to such esteemed Nobel laureates as Samuel Beckett and Luigi Pirandello, Mr. Fo seems like an alien, even an accidental choice. His response was characteristic: He said that to be in their company gave him “a certain sensation.” One can imagine that the sensation was a combination of disbelief and pride, seasoned by a hearty Fovian laugh, an awareness of the irony of it all. By recognizing Mr. Fo, the Swedish Academy expands the boundaries of literature and underscores the immediacy of theater. It legitimizes the world of performance and recognizes the contribution of comedy, and, in particular, of political satire. All outspoken monologuists, clowns and cartoonists should be aware of the importance of the award. Jonathan Swift takes his position in the pantheon with Shakespeare.

—Mel Gussow, “The Not-So-Accidental Recognition of an Anarchist,”
New York Times, October 15, 1997

Woody Allen famously asserted “Humorists always sit at the children’s table.” The awarding of the Nobel Prize in literature to Dario Fo in 1997 was certainly an elevation of the comedian to the grown-ups’ table, bestowing respectability and gravitas to a playwright who has relished his role as jester-provocateur. Justifying the choice, the citation of Swedish Royal Academy stated:

Fo emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden. For many years, Fo has been performed all over the world, perhaps more than any other contemporary dramatist, and his influence has been considerable. He, if anyone, merits the description of jester in the true meaning of the word. With a blend of laughter and gravity he opens our eyes to abuses and injustices in society. . . . Fo’s strength is in the creation of texts that simultaneously amuse, engage, and provide perspectives.

The Swedish Academy’s recognition has highlighted the considerable achievement of Fo, long regarded as “Europe’s most popular political satirist.” In Fo (1926 – 2016) the possibilities of comedy as a powerful instrument of truth have been renewed and revitalized. “Clowns,” Fo has asserted, “are grotesque blasphemers against all our pieties. That’s why we need them. They’re our alter egos.” Fo’s characteristic synthesis of clowning and serious social satire is best expressed by his most performed play, Morte accidentale diun anarchico (Accidental Death of an Anarchist). The play and Fo’s career make clear that to include the jester at the grown-ups’ table, expect some broken plates and shattered etiquette.

Fo was born in 1926 in the northern Italian village of San Giano. His father was a stationmaster; his mother grew up on a farm where Fo spent his childhood vacations. The playwright would later cite his grandfather’s storytelling ability as a significant influence. Another came when the family moved in 1936 to Porto Valtraglia, on the shores of Lake Maggiore. In his Nobel acceptance speech Fo paid tribute to the fabulatori he learned from there: “They were the old storytellers, the master glass-blowers who taught me and other children the craftsmanship, the art, of spinning fantastic yarns. We would listen to them, bursting with laughter—laughter that would stick in our throats as the tragic allusion that surmounted each sarcasm would dawn on us.” In 1940 Fo began commuting daily to Milan to study at the Brera Art Academy. In 1944, after Mussolini was ousted from Rome and retreated to Salò, on Lake Garda, as his new capital, Fo was conscripted into the army of Mussolini’s Salò Republic. He deserted and spent several months in hiding in an attic storeroom. After the war ended Fo resumed his studies of art and architecture in Milan. During his daily journeys to Milan he began to entertain fellow commuters and his classmates with the tall tales he had heard in his childhood and stories and songs of his own. His skill at performing improvisational monologues caught the attention of Franco Parenti, actor and manager of a local theater company, and in 1950 Fo began performing in the company’s reviews. A fellow company member was the actress Franca Rame, whom Fo married in 1954. She would become his lifelong collaborator, whom Fo called “Mrs. Nobel” after receiving news of his award.

A series of Fo’s monologues were aired on Italian radio in 1951–52, and his first plays—Il dito nell’occhio (1953; A poke in the eye) and I sani da legare (1954; Madhouse for the Sane), cutting and uproarious social satires—gained Fo notice as a controversial and provocative playwright. In 1958 husband and wife established the theater company, Compagnia Fo-Rame with Fo as writer, actor, director, and stage designer. The company performed both Fo’s farces and one-man shows, called guillarate, in which Fo relied on improvisation and audience participation in the manner of medieval Italy’s roving street performers whose techniques were first brought to the stage by the commedia dell’arte troupes in the 16th century. The most famous of Fo’s guillarata is Mistero buffo (1969), a burlesque of the medieval mystery plays that mixes broad physical comedy and slapstick with stinging attacks on religious and governmental targets. In 1968, after considerable success on stage and television, Fo and Rame formed a new troupe, Nuova Scena, under the sponsorship of the Italian Communist Party. “We were tired of being the jesters of the bourgeoisie,” Fo recalled, “on whom our criticisms had now the effect of an alka-seltzer, so we decided to become the jesters of proletariat.” Fo’s subsequent plays became more explicitly political, ridiculing the church, army, and big business and performed mainly for working-class audiences. Fo’s subsequent burlesque of the Communist Party, L’operatio conosce 300 parole, il padrone 100, per questo lui è il padrone (1969; The Worker Knows 300 Words, the Boss 1000; That’s Why He Is the Boss), led to the breakup of Nuova Scena and the formation of a new, independent company in a warehouse in a working-class area of Milan, where Accidental Death of an Anarchist was first performed in 1970.

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

The play deals with one of the most contentious and defining events in modern Italian history. Italy in the late 1960s was in turmoil, under assault from radicals on both the right and the left in a series of increasingly violent strikes and protests. On December 12, 1969, a bomb went off in the Banca Nazionale dell’Agricoltura in Milan’s Piazza Fontana. Sixteen were killed, and 90 were injured. The incident, the first of its kind in Italy on such a scale, targeting innocent bystanders, signaled a decisive escalation in violence that came to represent a monstrous benchmark. “The degeneration of our democratic system began with Piazza Fontana,” Italian philosopher Norberto Bob-bio asserted, while journalist and author Giorgio Bocca called the bombing the event “which changed the lives of generations.” Outrage and retaliation precipitated a rush to judgment as police quickly announced that an anarchist group was responsible. Among the suspects seized, Giuseppe Pinelli, a rail-road worker, was subjected to 72 hours of interrogation before falling to his death from a fourth-floor window of the Milan police station. Officials ruled it an accident, but contradictions and inconsistencies in testimony of those involved called their assessment into question exposing a police and judicial cover-up of the truth. Subsequent investigations determined that the bombing was most likely the work of right-wing extremists in Italy’s military and secret service agencies meant to discredit the Italian Communist Party, and that the innocent Pinelli was pushed to his death after being manhandled and possibly tortured.

Fo has explained the genesis of his play dealing with the incident as follows:

In spring 1970, some comrades who attended our plays . . . asked us to write a full-length play about the Milan bombs and the Pinelli killing which would treat the causes and the political consequences. The reason for this request was the terrifying lack of information surrounding the problem. Once the initial shock had passed, the press fell silent. . . . there was an expectation that “light would be shed,” that people should wait, and not create mayhem. . . . This was not enough.

Accidental Death of an Anarchist challenged the authorized version of the incident. “It is essential to cause mayhem,” Fo has stated, “and with every means available, so that people who are forgetful, who read little and badly, and who read only those things which come easily to hand, should get to know how the state organized the massacre and controlled the mourning, the anger, the distribution of medals to orphans and widows, the funerals with policeman lining up and taking the salute.” Fo based his play on material gathered from the two official inquiries, which are quoted, sometimes verbatim, as dialogue in the play. His means “To unleash the comedy and satire” is the invented character of the Maniac, who is seen entering the window of police headquarters at the beginning of the play. The Maniac, based on the disrupting iconoclastic Arlecchino, or Harlequin, in commedia dell’arte, is, in Fo’s words, an “anarchic character ante litteram, who has no sympathy with current moral rules, the rules of authority . . . a free spirit, a prevaricating, violent and scurrilous outsider who continually provokes the audience.” Through “the logic of wild paradox,” the Maniac “attempts to unhinge the logic of sane people. So as it happens the real madmen turn out to be the ‘normal’ folk.”

The Maniac has entered the office of Inspector Bertozzo, who confronts the intruder with his file in which his compulsion to pass himself off as others is documented. The Maniac’s defense is a zany stream of doubletalk displaying his considerable verbal dexterity, which exasperates the ponderous and plodding Bertozzo. Escorted out of the office the Maniac manages to return alone to answer a phone call from another Inspector, whom he insults pretending to be Bertozzo. From the caller the Maniac learns of the imminent arrival of a judge from Rome charged with reexamining police conduct in the death in custody of the anarchist and bombing suspect. The Maniac decides to pass himself off as the judge, and the scene ends with the return of Bertozzo, cluelessly assaulted by the enraged Inspector whom the Maniac had insulted over the phone.

The second scene shifts to the Inspector’s office on the fourth floor where the anarchist had been interrogated, with the Maniac playing the judge and summoning the Superintendent. Indignant over such a command, the Super-intendent enters, becoming unctuously deferential when he learns that a high-ranking judge is on the scene. The Maniac then asks the officers to reenact their interrogation with the anarchist, and in the process they reveal that they had fabricated evidence to frame him and force a confession. Fearing that they are to be made scapegoats the officers are consoled by the Maniac, who explains that he intends to help them devise a more plausible cover-up. The Maniac suggests that instead of abusing the anarchist they offered him com-passion and sympathy. Because the officers played with trains as children, the Maniac suggests, the railway anarchist was received warmly. When the Super-intendent balks, however, at the Maniac’s suggestion that they joined voices with the anarchist in a sing-along, the Maniac responds by saying:

Do you have any idea what people out there think of you? That you are liars and scum. Who do you think is ever going to believe you again? Apart from the judge who called off the inquiry, of course. And do you know basically why people don’t believe you? Because your version of the facts is well, it’s complete crap for one thing, and it lacks any human understanding or warmth. . . . The public would weep with joy and shout your names from the rooftops at hearing such a story! So please, do your-self a favor . . . Sing!

The act closes with the Maniac and the officers rehearsing a number of possible songs.

Act 2 begins with the officers still singing and the Maniac resuming his inquiry that underscores the various inconsistencies in the official version of the incident: the anarchist’s dubious motivation for suicide, why the window in the office was open on one of the coldest nights of the year, how a policeman could claim that he had grabbed the anarchist to prevent his fall, pulling off a shoe, when the body on the ground was fully shod. The various absurd rationalizations offered both from the officers and from the ingeniously nonsensical Maniac are interrupted by the arrival of a journalist to interview the Inspector. The Maniac, donning a disguise of eye patch, wooden leg, and false mustache, helps the Inspector fend off the journalist’s probing questions regarding the anarchist’s death and the bombing investigation. The interview is interrupted by the arrival of Bertozzo, who instantly recognizes the Maniac but is prevented from unmasking him in front of the journalist by his colleagues. In desperation Bertozzo handcuffs them all before exposing the Maniac’s identity. The Maniac responds by claiming to have recorded everything and threatens to release the tape to the press. The lights go out, and when they come on again the Maniac has disappeared. In the courtyard people gather around a body that has inexplicably fallen from a window, prompting the officers to come up with invented and ridiculous versions of what must have happened. A bearded man (instantly recognizable as the actor who had played the Maniac) enters and is set upon by the police. They learn that he is the real high court judge who has come to conduct the inquiry into the supposed accidental death of the anarchist. Fo’s final stage directions read: “The four policemen look unwell . . . Slow fade to black.”


With comic brio and inventiveness Fo’s play exposes authority’s “new clothes” while causing officialdom and the powerful to slip on as many banana peels as possible. Fo takes up comedy’s traditional role as a scourge to the powerful. His version of the farce becomes an instrument of political action and truth-telling, with its mayhem servings as both purge and curative.

Categories: Drama Criticism, Italian Literature, Literary Criticism, Literature

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