Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.
Week 28: Dario Fo’s Accidental Death Of An Anarchist (1970)
In December 1969, following the detonation of a bomb in the Agricultural Bank of Milan, suspect, Giovanni Pinelli, flew out of a fourth floor window of the Police Headquarters. Was Pinelli’s death suicide, an unfortunate accident, or something else? Dario Fo takes these murky circumstances as a starting point for his play. Heavily influenced by Brecht, Fo combines less-than-subtle political stances with heavy handed theatricality – much fourth wall breaking and social commentary – examining fraught topics such as corruption, police brutality, whitewashing and censorship. While this could be cloying, he does so with a deftness that entwines satire with farce as the plot convolutions unravel into fastidiously organised chaos. The end effect is one of hilarity tinged with gutsy discomfort.
In the aftermath of Pinelli’s death a man simply referred to as ‘Maniac’ enters the police headquarters and dons various guises, exposing the deceit that lies at the heart of the police force while simultaneously gaining their trust as he repeatedly outwits them. Contradicting versions of the interrogation and subsequent fall of Pinelli become increasingly ridiculous as the Maniac manipulates the gullible Inspector, Superintendent and Constable at the centre of the scandal into a confused, yet revealing state of panic.
The Maniac’s disguises, taking the form of a professor, a judge, and a forensics expert, highlight the institutionalised corruption and deception that pervades in the high ranking officials whom ought to be the protectors of the nation. His absurd final disguise sees him wear a glass eye, wooden leg, and a female mannequin’s hand, his masquerade should be easy to see through, and it is for us, but the characters on stage remain largely oblivious, tied up in their own skin-saving web spinning.
The introduction in the copy I read (Methuen Drama Modern Classics) states that an estimated one million people saw the play in its first four years, ‘many of whom took part in fierce debates after the performance’. This, possibly in no small way, can be attributed to the dual denouement. In one of the greatest feats of metatheatre I’ve encountered, the final moments of the play sees Fo ingeniously bestow a dramatic sense of rough justice, then seconds later snatch away that catharsis, leaving us grasping for answers that are denied; we are forced to decide upon our own conclusion.
This demonstrates the way Fo unmasks the reality behind the façade, whether that be political, social, institutional, or theatrical – the script is littered with subversive references to himself and his shortcomings as a playwright – emphasising the unknown quantity that is the real life event behind this fiction. Interjections by the actors and gaps left in the script for dramaturgs or directors to insert their own jokes and contemporary references means that the play is free of the censorship which was exercised in twentieth century Italy, as well as the inadvertent censorship that timely constraints imposes on society and history. Fo is undoubtedly political and driven by specifics, yet there is room to manoeuver and bring to the play an acutely modern relevance. As debates raged following its initial performances, the play still has the ability to cause a stir. We can very easily draw (un)comfortable comparisons with the state of institutionalised corruption at large in the world today. Just take a look at the #BlackLivesMatter campaign and stance against police brutality that has risen in recent years for one example.
Interestingly, at the time, the bombing of the bank was pinned on extreme leftist groups, yet ten years later a trial concluded with the condemnation of three fascists, who came from the ranks of military and political institutions, one even being an agent of the secret police. Fo’s play was ahead of its time, showing up Italy’s rulers and protectors for the rancid buffoons that they evidently were.