Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Dario Fo

Accidental Death of an Anarchist

by Dario Fo
Table of Contents
1. Accidental Death of an Anarchist: Introduction
2. Accidental Death of an Anarchist: Dario Fo Biography
3. Accidental Death of an Anarchist: Summary
4. Accidental Death of an Anarchist: Characters

5. Accidental Death of an Anarchist: Themes
6. Accidental Death of an Anarchist: Style
7. Accidental Death of an Anarchist: Historical Context
8. Accidental Death of an Anarchist: Critical Overview
Accidental Death of an Anarchist: Criticism
¨ Mimi D'Aponte
¨ Christopher Hitchens
¨ Joseph Farrell
¨ Carol Dell'Amico
¨ Domenico Maceri
10. Accidental Death of an Anarchist: Compare and Contrast
11. Accidental Death of an Anarchist: Topics for Further Study
12. Accidental Death of an Anarchist: What Do I Read Next?
13. Accidental Death of an Anarchist: Bibliography and Further Reading
14. Copyright
Accidental Death of an Anarchist: Introduction
Dario Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist (1970) responds to events unfolding in Italy in the late 1960s and
early 1970s. Generally, it looks at police corruption and suspicions regarding the government's collusion in
this corruption. More specifically, it addresses the actual death of an anarchist who was being held in police
custody following the bombing of a Milan bank that killed sixteen people and wounded about ninety. The
police asserted that the anarchist's death was a suicide, that the man threw himself from a fourth-floor window
in despair at being found out for his crime. At the subsequent inquest, the presiding judge declared the death
not a suicide but an accident. Most Italians believed that the death was the result of overly harsh interrogation
techniques, if not a case of outright murder on the part of the interrogators.
Accidental Death of an Anarchist 1
Dario Fo © Jerry Bauer. Reproduced by permission
Accidental Death of an Anarchist is mainly about police corruption, underscored by the play's focus on
impersonation, infiltration, and double-talk. A fast-talking major character, the Maniac, infiltrates a police
headquarters. Posing as an investigating judge, he tricks the policemen into contradicting themselves and
admitting that they are part of a cover-up involving the death of an anarchist. In infiltrating police
headquarters by misrepresenting himself (impersonation), the Maniac reminds audiences of how most
political groups in Italy, particularly left-wing groups, were infiltrated by police agents who acted as
informers. The Maniac's flip-flop of point of view and statement achieves much the same effect as his
impersonations do. His confusing speechifying leads to the police contradicting themselves, so that the
Maniac, in all of his deceptions and distortions, is a precise reflection of what the play is designed to expose.
Accidental Death of an Anarchist is one of Fo's most popular plays both within and outside Italy. It has played
around the world over the years to millions of people, a popular choice of directors who want to point to
corruption in their midst. Pluto Press (London) put out the first English version, translated by Gavin Richards.
In 1992, Methuen published a fine set of volumes of Fo's plays, which included Accidental Death of an
Accidental Death of an Anarchist: Dario Fo Biography
Dario Fo is one of Italy's most important and well-known literary figures, along with his partner and longtime
collaborator, Franca Rame. He was born in San Giano, Italy, on March 24, 1926, the son of Felice (a railroad
stationmaster) and Pina (Rota) Fo. Initially, Fo considered a career in architecture, but before he had quite
finished this course of study, he discovered that he was far happier working in theatrical circles. By 1950, Fo
had decided definitely on a career on the stage and began to compose plays prolifically. In June of 1954, Fo
and Rame married; they have three children.
Running throughout Fo's career are certain constants. His plays are usually farcical with a satirical bite, and
they tend to employ popular elements, such as slapstick. This said, there are also discernible stages in Fo's
career. At first, he concentrated on creating comical farces and revues, some of which were broadcast on
radio. Then, Fo's plays began to resemble more typical dramas, at least in the sense that they became less
episodic and less strictly comical in effect. Later, Fo's greater engagement with Italian politics in his plays
became evident. Indeed, by the time of Morte accidentale di un anarchico (Accidental Death of an Anarchist),
Fo was so deep into Italian politics that he began gearing his plays toward working-class audiences instead of
more typical theatergoers. He continued to attract people of all social strata to his plays, yet he began to
reflect, theatrically, his sense that his life as an artist is best led in the service of those holding the least
Accidental Death of an Anarchist: Introduction 2
amount of social and political power in Italian society. Accidental Death of an Anarchist was first produced in
Milan in December of 1970; it was staged on Broadway at the Belasco Theater in November 1984.
Fo is a highly influential figure in theatrical circles in and outside Italy. He has written hundreds of pieces
across genres (songs, screenplays, plays) and media (stage, radio, film). His plays, which number more than
forty, include I sani da legare ("A Madhouse for the Sane," 1954), which characterizes certain government
officials as fascist sympathizers, and Mistero buffo (1969), a controversial improvisational play, based on the
Gospels, that disparages both church and state. L'Anomal bicefalo ("Two-Headed Anomaly"), produced in
Milan in 2003 but not published or translated into English, is a scathing satire of Italy's prime minister, Silvio
Berlusconi. Fo has always been an actor in his own work; indeed, he is as well known an actor as he is a
writer. He is as beloved and respected by some as he is detested and feared by others, such as those who
disagree with him politically. He has even been arrested and put on trial for subversion, and he has been
beaten up by rogue political foes, a fate also suffered by his collaborator, Franca Rame. Fo is, in short, a
presence to contend with, an artist whose influence and genius are reflected in his having been awarded the
Nobel Prize in Literature in 1997.
Accidental Death of an Anarchist: Summary
Act 1, Scene 1
Accidental Death of an Anarchist opens in a room in a police station, where Inspector Bertozzo is
interviewing the Maniac, reviewing his arrest record. He notes that the Maniac has been arrested many times
for impersonation, the same reason for his arrest this time. The Maniac points out that although he has been
arrested, he has never been convicted of a crime. He tells the inspector that he is insane, that he cannot be
charged because he is mad. The inspector, incredulous, continues posing questions to the Maniac. The Maniac
evades the inspector's questions and denies any real wrongdoing. For example, in response to the inspector's
accusation that the Maniac has not only been impersonating a psychiatrist but also actually seeing patients and
charging them substantial sums, the Maniac points out that all psychiatrists charge too much. The inspector
replies that the specific charges are not the real issue; rather it is the question of impersonation. He points to a
visiting card the Maniac has been distributing, which states that the Maniac is a psychiatrist. The Maniac
quibbles over a point of punctuation, telling the inspector that, given the placement of a particular comma on
the card, he cannot be said to be misrepresenting himself at all. Utterly frustrated, Inspector Bertozzo tells the
Maniac that he can go.
The Maniac leaves the room, as does the inspector, for the latter is late to a meeting. The Maniac then pokes
his head back into the room and, seeing that it is empty, enters and begins rifling through papers he sees on
the inspector's desk. They are arrest sheets. He destroys whatever arrest sheets he feels deserve to be
destroyed, leaving intact those he believes describe truly heinous crimes.
Next, the Maniac moves to the inspector's file cabinets. He is about to set fire to the whole lot of them, when
he notices a dossier whose name he begins to read out loud, as follows: "Judge's Report on the Death of the
…"; "Judge's Decision to Adjourn the Inquest of…." The Maniac's words would alert the audience to the play's
major topic, the death of a suspected anarchist whom most persons in Italy believed was innocent of the
crimes for which he was being interrogated when he fell to his death from a window at a police headquarters.
The phone rings, and the Maniac answers. It is another police inspector, calling from the fourth floor. The
Maniac's words make it clear that the audience is to recall the inspector who conducted the interview with the
(real) anarchist who fell or was pushed from a fourth-floor window.
The Maniac's words also make it clear that this second inspector wishes to speak to Bertozzo because he has
heard that a judge is coming to the station to ask questions about the anarchist's death. The Maniac pretends
Accidental Death of an Anarchist: Dario Fo Biography 3
that Bertozzo is in the room and making rude comments about the fourth-floor inspector. He tells the inspector
that Bertozzo is saying that he might as well accept the fact that his career is over. From the Maniac's side of
the conversation, it is clear that the inspector is becoming incensed, highly insulted by what he believes is
Inspector Bertozzo's rude and flippant reaction to his concerns. When the Maniac hangs up, it occurs to him
that he might impersonate the expected judge. He begins to practice characterizations of a judge.
At this point, Bertozzo reenters the room. He tells the Maniac to get out of the station and is surprised when
the Maniac informs him that someone is looking for him to punch him in the face. Sure enough, the
fourth-floor inspector arrives outside Bertozzo's door, and the audience sees an arm stretch out to punch
Bertozzo in the face.
Act 1, Scene 2
The Maniac, a Constable, and the fourth-floor inspector, who is referred to as Sports Jacket, are in a room at
the police station. The Maniac's behavior is mercurial. At one moment, he questions the inspector and
Constable severely, as if he knows they are somehow responsible for the anarchist's death. This makes them
very nervous. At other moments, however, he appears to be on their side, suggesting that while they might not
have told the entire truth about the event, they are right to present themselves as innocent of any wrongdoing.
Although they are somewhat befuddled, the two police officers trust in the judge's good intentions.
Then the Maniac, still acting as a judge, asks for the Superintendent to be called into the room. The
Superintendent arrives, angry at the peremptory way in which he was summoned. Once he sees that a judge is
present, he calms down. The Maniac begins questioning the Superintendent. He asks him to review the item of
evidence that says that the anarchist fell from the window because he was seized by a raptus, a state of
suicidal anxiety pursuant to extreme desperation. Sports Jacket and the Superintendent begin explaining the
events that took place immediately before the anarchist's death, saying that while their line of interrogation
and methods might have caused the anarchist's raptus, these methods had not been unreasonable. As the
Maniac continues questioning the men, they begin to contradict themselves on many details, such as the
precise time of the anarchist's raptus. The Maniac is finally able to declare that the men lied to the media, their
superiors, and the original inquest judge. Completely flustered, the two men become even more helpless in the
face of the Maniac's mad patter and questions. The act ends with the two policemen completely perplexed,
singing an anarchist song in concert with the Maniac.
Act 2, Scene 1
The action begins with the same assembled characters. The Maniac is questioning the policemen about the
anarchist's fall from the window. Was the anarchist leaning out for air? Considering the weather, why was the
window open at all? Once again, there are discrepancies in what the policemen said at the inquest—that is,
what is on record—and what they say to the Maniac. The Maniac is able to get them to begin changing their
stories and contradicting themselves. Throughout, real facts and statements from the historical inquest and
actual newspaper interviews are used.
A journalist, Maria Feletti, arrives at the station to interview the Superintendent about the anarchist's death.
The policemen want to send her away, but the Maniac encourages them to allow her to ask questions. The
men say that the Maniac must then leave, as his presence will only give her confidence; she must not know
that a judge is interested in questioning them, too. The Maniac persuades them to let him stay, saying that he
will impersonate a forensics expert. He wants to stay, he says, to help them manage the Journalist's questions.
The Journalist's questions, like those of the Maniac, are peppered with facts and reports from the actual
historical inquest and the real interviews with the Milan officials involved in the case. She focuses on
discrepancies in the policemen's stories. First, she asks about the nature of the anarchist's fall. There were no
Act 1, Scene 1 4
broken bones in the body, she says. One expects broken arms and hands in a person who has fallen from a
window, because the person would try to break his or her fall. The lack of broken bones suggests that the
anarchist was already dead before he fell. The Maniac agrees with her, to the consternation of the assembled
Next, the Journalist asks the policemen about the mark that was discovered on the anarchist's neck. It was not
consistent with the fall. Is this evidence of a blow to the back of the neck that killed the anarchist? She
believes this might be so, because an ambulance had been called for the anarchist before he is said to have
fallen. Was the ambulance summoned because he had been given a terrible blow? If he died from the punch,
perhaps he was then thrown out the window to make his death look like an accident, she conjectures. At this
point, the Maniac begins speaking of the flimsiness of the anarchist's alibi, as if to aid the policemen, yet his
intention is instead to discourse on the plight of the working class. According to the Maniac, the anarchist's
friends, who vouched for his presence at the time of the bombing, could not possibly remember accurately
because they are old, used up from too much work, even malnourished and senile.
Bertozzo enters the room. He has with him a copy of the bomb that was set off in the bank in question. When
Bertozzo catches sight of the Maniac, he is about to blurt out that the Maniac is not who he says he is, but the
Superintendent and Sports Jacket prevent him from speaking. They believe he is going to say that the Maniac
is a judge, which would be disastrous, given what they have told the Journalist. In fact, all Bertozzo knows is
that the Maniac cannot be the forensics expert he is claiming to be, because Bertozzo is acquainted with the
The Journalist begins talking about the bomb. Why was a second bomb found at the site of the bombing
destroyed? Why was it not saved as evidence? If it had been saved, they would have a "signature" of the
bombers, she says. This suggests a cover-up on the part of the police. As she puts it, the anarchist and his
group were a ragtag band of dreamers, incapable of planning any such event and certainly not equipped to
make such sophisticated bombs. Bertozzo, to the dismay of the Superintendent, agrees. He says that the bomb
most likely was made by paramilitary professionals. This idea leads the Journalist to present a common
theory, namely, that the bombing was organized by fascists with police support, in order to discredit left-wing
organizations and frighten the people into voting for the type of government that is highly supportive of police
controls. The idea is that a frightened populace submits to strong, controlling leadership, willingly giving up
freedoms in return for perceived safety. As before, the Maniac pretends to be helping the policemen but
instead leads them to contradict themselves.
The play ends both comically and seriously. Comically, the Maniac runs through a number of impersonations
in the last moments of the play. Less comically, the Maniac speaks of scandal. He says that scandal does not
necessarily bring about justice, that it does not inevitably end the careers of those involved in it. Rather, he
says, it provides a brief outlet for public anger that then dissipates quickly, so that the status quo is
reestablished. The play ends with the Maniac's announcement that he has recorded everything that has
transpired and will send copies of his recordings to all media outlets and higher authorities.
Accidental Death of an Anarchist: Characters
Inspector Bertozzo
Of the three upper-echelon police characters appearing in Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Inspector
Bertozzo spends the least amount of time on stage. He has a role at the play's beginning, as the policeman
interviewing the Maniac for impersonating a psychiatrist. He sees that the Maniac has been arrested many
times for impersonation and does not believe the Maniac's claim that he is mad and therefore not responsible
for his actions. He seems intent on finding a way to make a charge against the Maniac stick. However, after
Act 2, Scene 1 5
enduring enough of the Maniac's double-talk, he becomes utterly exasperated and tells him to leave the
In act 2, Inspector Bertozzo returns as an important element in the play's closing farce. He knows that the
Maniac is not the forensics expert that he is pretending to be and wants to expose him to the Superintendent
and Sports Jacket. They forestall any revelation on the part of Bertozzo, as they believe that he is going to
reveal the Maniac to be a judge, which would be disastrous, given that they have told the journalist that he is a
forensics expert. Bertozzo must put up with a great number of kicks—every time he opens his mouth to protest
the Maniac's deception, the Superintendent and Sports Jacket must prevent him from doing so. These farcical
kicks are more than just slapstick, however; they are designed to remind the audience of the physical abuses
the anarchist endured during his interrogation. Like the other police officers, Bertozzo is wary of the
journalist's questions, yet they, more so than he, are targets of her questioning.
The Constable is present in most of the play but has a fairly small role, speaking only occasionally. When
ordered to do something by a superior, he follows orders immediately. However, he is not above a certain
self-preserving caution, in that when he is questioned pointedly by the Maniac he is unwilling to commit
himself by speaking plainly and also unwilling to show clear support of any superior whom the Maniac, as
judge, appears to suspect of wrongdoing.
Maria Feletti
Known as the Journalist in Fo's play, the Feletti character arrives at the police station to ask questions about
the growing scandal concerning the death of an anarchist suspect in police custody. At first, Sports Jacket
wants to send her away, but the Maniac convinces him that he can use her to his benefit.
The Feletti character is a faithful representation of an experienced journalist: polite, cool, and hard-hitting in
her questions. As Italians following the Pinelli case would have realized, this character is based on a real
journalist, Camilla Cederna, who was then a reporter for the Italian weekly L'espresso. Cederna, like Feletti of
Accidental Death of an Anarchist, uncovered real evidence of police corruption, not only with respect to the
Pinelli case but also more broadly, in terms of Italian law enforcement and governmental establishments.
Contrary to the Maniac, the Feletti character believes that scandal is beneficial, leading to real change and
having the potential to deliver justice through the exposure of lawbreakers.
The Maniac is the pivotal character in Accidental Death of an Anarchist. The part was acted by Fo himself in
the original staging of the play. The character of the Maniac eclipses all other characters in every sense. He
has by far the majority of lines, and he is by far the most interesting element of Fo's drama. Indeed, that it is
difficult to distinguish between the police figures as personalities does not matter much, as the Maniac is the
play's heart and soul. Onstage from the play's beginning to its end, the Maniac uses speech and actions to
directly reflect the manipulations that the play is designed to expose.
At the beginning of Accidental Death of an Anarchist, the Maniac is in a Milan police station—the setting of
the play—because he has been arrested for impersonating a psychiatrist. The inspector questioning him
(Bertozzo) decides to let him go, however, because the Maniac's fast talking is just too much to bear. But the
Maniac does not leave the police station; instead, he decides to continue with his impersonations. Specifically,
he decides to impersonate a judge who is scheduled to arrive soon. In this guise, he questions several
policemen and station officials about the death of a suspect, a case that has attracted much attention. In the
Inspector Bertozzo 6
course of his impersonation, the Maniac tricks the policemen and officials into revealing that they are part of a
cover-up concerning the details of the suspect's death. (Before the play's end, the Maniac will impersonate two
others, a forensics expert by the name of Captain Marcantonio Banzi Piccinni and a Vatican chargé d'affaires
called Father Augusto Bernier.)
The Maniac is such a strong character in Accidental Death of an Anarchist because he embodies what he
brings to light in his role as judge. First, as one who impersonates another, he reminds Fo's audiences that a
common practice of the time was to send out police spies to infiltrate political groups. Second, as a character
whose fast talking tricks the corrupt policemen, he is a trickster who gives them a dose of their own medicine.
Even more specifically, the Maniac represents a dishonest interrogator, a policeman whose questioning
amounts to coercion, entrapment, and abuse. Last, in the way that he consistently contradicts himself, he
reminds audiences of the discrepant testimony of the police at the inquest and hearings that followed the
real-life anarchist Giuseppe Pinelli's death. He is a reflection, in other words, of the distortion of facts for
which the policemen involved in the actual case became known. For example, as quoted in Tom Behan's
Dario Fo, a real-life Milan police officer is on record as speaking as follows at a hearing about whether or not
he heard another officer say something when Pinelli was being interrogated:
I'm not able to rectify or be precise about whether I heard that phrase because it was repeated,
or because it was mentioned to me. As I believe I've already testified to having heard it, to
having heard it directly; then, drawing things together, I don't believe that I heard it. However
I'm not in a position to exclude that it may have been mentioned to me.
The Maniac is a manifestation of the madness surrounding him and all Italians during a time of corruption,
unrest, and strife in Italian life. Still, as a farcical figure, he attests to Fo's belief that political theater with a
serious intent need not be dry.
Sports Jacket
Sports Jacket is the policeman who, early in the play, calls Inspector Bertozzo's office and ends up having a
conversation with the Maniac. In this conversation, the Maniac learns that a judge is being sent to ask
questions about an anarchist suspect who died while being interrogated. Once he is impersonating the judge,
the Maniac spends a great deal of time questioning Sports Jacket, with the result that the officer is exposed as
being involved in an elaborate cover-up regarding the suspect.
Fo's audiences would have understood that Sports Jacket is a representation of a real officer involved in the
real-life event on which the play is based. Specifically, Sports Jacket represents Luigi Calabresi, an officer
who had been in the fourth-floor room of the Milan police station when the anarchist Giuseppe Pinelli
plunged from the window. Calabresi sued a Milan publication for libel when the publication intimated that he
had been wrongfully involved in the anarchist's death. Fo's costume for Sports Jacket refers to this trial, as
Calabresi wore rolled-neck sweaters and sports jackets throughout. Calabresi also frequently rubbed his right
hand during the trial, an action that many people believe indicated that this hand delivered the brutal blow to
the back of Pinelli's neck. Fo's Sports Jacket delivers a punch to Inspector Bertozzo, and thereafter he often
rubs the punching hand.
Because Sports Jacket believes that the Maniac is a judge who has been sent to investigate the death of the
anarchist, he is by turns wary, nervous, belligerent, pleased, or relieved, depending on the nature of the
Maniac's questions and moods. Apart from this, Sports Jacket tends to display brutal behavior, at least as far
he can within the context of the play's amusing farce. Clearly, Fo wants to suggest that there was indeed a
police officer at Milan headquarters who went too far in manhandling Pinelli, dealing the anarchist the terrible
blow on the back of the neck that left the mark the pathologists found on his corpse.
Maniac 7
The Superintendent of the play is much like Sports Jacket. He reacts defensively when the Maniac, as judge,
poses questions that appear to suggest a suspicion of wrongdoing on his part; he is pleased when the Maniac
seems to be supporting what he did when he interrogated the anarchist; he is nervous when he cannot quite
figure out what the Maniac is up to in his questioning. As in the case of Sports Jacket, the Maniac succeeds in
tricking the Superintendent into incriminating himself.
Accidental Death of an Anarchist: Themes
Reform versus Revolution
Those who wish to change society may think that instituting reforms is the way to go about it. Reformers have
faith in existing structures and believe that these structures need only be perfected—or corrupt elements within
them be rooted out—for desired changes to come about. Others who wish to change society for the better
believe that what is called for is revolution, a radical restructuring of society and its institutions.
Revolutionaries tend to think that reforms are mere bandages on never-healing sores, leading to temporary
alleviation of a persistent problem, such as poverty, but never eliminating it. They believe, in short, that
existing structures must be dismantled and that entirely new ones must take their place.
Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist is infused with revolutionary zeal, as is evident at the play's end, when
the Maniac discourses on scandal. To the Maniac, scandals such as exposés of police corruption do little to
bring about real change. Rather, scandal allows people to let off steam, with the result that the powers that be
are in a stronger position than before. The implication is that scandal might lead to some reforms but never to
true revolutionary change. In the following excerpt, the Maniac pretends to be translating the words of a pope
who knew very well how scandal could be used to strengthen his position:
MANIAC: Did you know that when Saint Gregory was elected Pope, he discovered that his
subordinates were up to all kinds of skullduggery in an attempt to cover up various
outrageous scandals? He was furious, and it was then that he uttered his famous phrase:
Nolimus aut velimus, omnibus gentibus, justitiam et veritatem.
JOURNALIST: I'm sorry, your Eminence … I failed Latin three times….
MANIAC: It means: 'Whether they want it or not, I shall impose truth and justice. I shall do
what I can to make sure that these scandals explode in the most public way possible; and you
need not fear that, in among the rot, the power of government will be undermined. Let the
scandal come, because on the basis of that scandal a more durable power of the state will be
A bit later in the play, the Maniac speaks of scandal again:
MANIAC: They've never tried to hush up these scandals. And they're right not to. That way,
people can let off steam, get angry, shudder at the thought of it … 'Who do these politicians
think they are?' 'Scumbag generals!' 'Murderers!' And they get more and more angry, and
then, burp! A little liberatory burp to relieve their social indigestion.
Superintendent 8
Fear and Submission
During periods of social unrest or general crisis, the political scene in a nation becomes tense. Different
groups believe they have the answer to the nation's ills or a way to deal with the crisis and threat, and each
group attempts to wrest control from those in power. The coalition in power naturally wishes to retain control
and will often go to great lengths to do so. During the time period in which Fo wrote Accidental Death of an
Anarchist, Italy was undergoing just such a period of extreme social unrest, when those in power wondered if
they would be able to maintain authority and control.
Particularly disturbing to the authorities was the growing influence of certain groups whose politics were "far"
left, calling for a radical restructuring of society, not simply reform. In an effort to discredit such groups in the
eyes of the general public, members of the Italian police force—some say with the support of the
government—began sanctioning the activities of agents posing as far leftists and committing terrorist acts in
their name. Bomb after bomb exploded in Italian cities, and the general public began to believe that order was
escaping them. This fear on the part of the general public was precisely what was sought, as a fearful and
uncertain public is a public unlikely to commit to major change at the governmental level for fear of yet more
chaos. Fomenting chaos and encouraging fear are standard tactics of the corrupt and manipulative. Entirely
dishonest, this is nevertheless a sure way to influence voters' behavior.
At many points in the play, in which information is cited from actual documents, Fo's characters convey these
various ideas. In the following excerpt, for example, the Maniac speaks of a plot to discredit "the Left":
MANIAC: At the start you served a useful function: something had to be done to stop all the
strikes … So they decided to start a witch-hunt against the Left. But now things have gone a
bit too far.
In the following excerpt, somewhat later in the play, Fo's fictional journalist cites actual facts concerning the
makeup of the activist group to which the (real) anarchist belonged. Of the ten members of the group, four
were infiltrators, as the Journalist points out:
JOURNALIST: OK. So let's take a look behind that façade. What do we find? Out of the ten
members of the [anarchist's] group, two of them were your own people, two informers, or
rather, spies and provocateurs. One was a Rome fascist, well-known to everyone except the
aforementioned pathetic group of anarchists, and the other was one of your own officers,
disguised as an anarchist.
The Journalist speaks again along similar lines still later in the play:
JOURNALIST: (Taking some papers from a folder) … And I suppose nobody's told you either
that out of a total of 173 bomb attacks that have happened in the past year and a bit, at a rate
of twelve a month, one every three days—out of 173 attacks, as I was saying (She reads from a
report) at least 102 have been proved to have been organised by fascist [rightist]
organisations, aided or abetted by the police, with the explicit intention of putting the blame
on Left-wing political groups.
Accidental Death of an Anarchist: Style
Fear and Submission 9
The Trickster
The Maniac is a variant of a trickster figure, a character who acts mad or simple but who is actually invested
with more sense than anybody around him. Tricksters fool those who are vain or who believe themselves
cleverer than everybody else. Tricksters are quite often lesser societal figures tricked by those more elevated.
They belong to the ranks of the common people, appearing in stories as an assertion of their worthiness in the
face of an elite group's disdain and ignorance. Every nation has literary traditions employing trickster figures.
One very well-known trickster series in the American literary canon uses animals as characters (as do so many
trickster traditions). This series is Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus stories of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox.
Harris compiled these stories from those of African American storytellers, building on original African
traditions. In the American context, these African American stories of seemingly weak characters winning out
over stronger figures reveal the slave's or newly freed slave's assertion of his own wisdom against an elite that
usually refused to see it.
Fo employs the trickster Maniac in Accidental Death of an Anarchist most probably in order to foster a sense
of empowerment in his audiences. After all, the play addresses an event pointing to covert police criminality
and likely governmental support of such wrongdoing. To know that one is being fooled by one's leaders or to
believe that they are corrupt is to feel helpless, powerless, confused. Why vote if one is voting for crooks? If
one's leaders are dishonest, why should anyone be honest? The clever trickster figure in Fo's play effectively
exposes the lies and collusions of the corrupt police officers, conveying a sense that the truth can indeed be
known and justice can indeed be served.
The Bawdy and Slapstick
Fo's employment of bawdy humor and slapstick action is, like his use of the trickster Maniac, a populist
component of his play—an element designed to appeal to all audiences and not simply to elite ones. Bawdy
humor focuses on bodily functions, such as the fun Fo derives from the lustily farting Maniac: "Yes, you can
tell him that too: Anghiari and Bertozzo couldn't give a [sh-t]! (He lets out a tremendous raspberry [fart])
Prrruttt. Yes, it was Bertozzo who did the raspberry. Alright, no need to get hysterical …!" Slapstick humor is
similarly body oriented, as it involves characters tripping or falling—somehow being made ridiculous (without
any lasting harm coming to them). An example of slapstick in Accidental Death of an Anarchist is when
Bertozzo receives a big punch in the face from the inspector, who believes Bertozzo has sent the raspberry his
way. Bawdy and slapstick humor is considered populist because it is humor that anyone can appreciate—such
as a derisive fart.
Alienation Effects
Playwrights with strong political convictions such as Fo tend to employ and develop dramatic techniques that
distance the audience from the work. These techniques might be called alienation effects, after the language of
the playwright who pioneered many distancing methods, the German Bertolt Brecht. Brecht thought it
important to alienate the audience from the play being performed so that they would think critically about
what they were watching. For example, he would present characters performing more or less typical, everyday
actions in his plays, but he would make sure that the acting was just stilted enough so that the audience would
see these actions in a new light. What is strange about things so many of us do? he wanted his audiences to
ask. What if things were done differently? How might the world change for the better? Two of Brecht's most
famous plays are Mother Courage and Her Children and The Good Woman of Setzuan.
Other distancing effects besides acting techniques that are not quite realistic are, for example, self-reflexive
strategies. This means that a playwright includes moments when the play refers to itself as a play. For
example, the actors might refer to themselves as actors, or the actors might speak directly to the audience,
The Trickster 10
destroying the illusion of "reality on stage" and reminding the audience that a play, something made up, is
taking place. Moments such as these disturb the audience's identification with the actors and story,
encouraging viewers to evaluate what is transpiring. Here is a self-reflexive moment from Accidental Death of
an Anarchist:
JOURNALIST: And I suppose you have plenty more of these very well-trained operatives
scattered around the Left groups?
SUPERINTENDENT: I see no reason to deny it, Miss. Yes we do.
JOURNALIST: I think you're just calling my bluff, there, Superintendent!
SUPERINTENDENT: Not at all … In fact you may be interested to know that we have one or
two right here in the audience tonight, as usual … Watch this.
He claps his hands. We hear a number of voices from different parts of the auditorium.
VOICES: Sir …? Yessir …! Sir …!
The MANIAC laughs, and turns to the audience.
MANIAC: Don't worry—they're all actors. The real ones sit tight and don't say a word.
As this excerpt demonstrates, Fo has his actors speak directly about and to the audience.
Accidental Death of an Anarchist: Historical Context
Social Unrest and the "Hot Autumn" of 1969 in Italy
Politicians who were voted into Italy's parliament in the 1960s and 1970s had much to answer for. Italy's
working class was fed up—with dangerous working conditions, long hours, low pay, expensive and
uninhabitable housing, poor benefit packages, and more. Mobilizing, the working classes began to march and
strike. Left-wing organizations, furthermore, were flourishing and gaining power, including those on the Far
Left, favoring revolution over reform. The autumn of 1969 in Italy is known as the "Hot Autumn" of working
class and student protest, as unrest had reached a height. On October 15, fifty thousand workers demonstrated
in Milan, and on November 28, one hundred thousand engineers demonstrated in Rome. Other disturbances
and changes were afoot as well. This was the time, for example, of feminist agitation, so that in November a
law legalizing divorce in Italy was passed.
Contributing to the political and social heat of the time was the fact that, as in the United States and
elsewhere, radical political organizations on both the left and the right of the political spectrum were turning
to terrorism. As the Communist-inclined Weather Underground was blowing up buildings in the United
States, similar underground organizations were doing the same in Italy. Indeed, as the Journalist says in
Accidental Death of an Anarchist, 173 bomb attacks occurred in Italy in the space of little more than a year
during this time. The anarchist who died at Milan police headquarters and whose death is the subject of Fo's
play had been arrested on suspicion of carrying out a Hot Autumn bombing at the National Agricultural Bank
in Piazza Fontana in Milan on November 12, 1969.
Alienation Effects 11
Giuseppe Pinelli and Pietro Valpreda
Giuseppe Pinelli and Pietro Valpreda were two anarchists arrested in the aftermath of the Hot Autumn Piazza
Fontana bombing of November 12, 1969. Pinelli, a forty-one-year-old railway worker, was married with two
daughters. Valpreda was a ballet dancer. Within seventy-two hours of his arrest, Pinelli was dead under
suspicious circumstances. According to police statements, he had thrown himself from a window while being
interrogated. However, there were discrepancies in the policemen's stories and in the evidence. At an inquest,
suicide was not concluded; the death was deemed an accident. Neither Pinelli (posthumously) nor Valpreda
was ever convicted of the bombing, nor were any other suspected persons, all of whom were members of
neofascist organizations. Working against those trying to convict Pinelli was the sense that he was not the
type of activist to carry out such an attack. This idea, that the bombing was carried out not by amateurs but by
paramilitary agents, is expressed in Accidental Death of an Anarchist, when the Journalist characterizes the
group to which the anarchist of Fo's play belongs:
JOURNALIST: So what did you do? Even though you were well aware that to construct—let
alone plant—a bomb of such complexity, would take the skills and experience of
professionals—probably military people—you decided to go chasing after this fairly pathetic
group of anarchists and completely dropped all other lines of inquiry among certain parties
who shall remain nameless but you know who I mean.
A plaque dedicated to Pinelli can still be seen in Piazza Fontana, as most Italians believe he was a victim of
police brutality.
Accidental Death of an Anarchist: Critical Overview
Fo was already a major cultural figure in Italy when Accidental Death of an Anarchist was staged. Indeed, his
credibility and influence were such that he was provided with copies of actual inquest and police documents
as he was composing his play. Accidental Death of an Anarchist opened approximately one year after
Giuseppe Pinelli's death, in December 1970, and it was a major hit all over Italy as it toured and played to
thousands. Italian support of the play suggests the degree to which Italians were critical of authorities at the
Cornelius Booth, Paul Ritter, Rhys Ifans, and Adrian Scarborough in a 2003 production of Accidental Death
of an Anarchist © Donald Cooper/Photostage. Reproduced by permission
Giuseppe Pinelli and Pietro Valpreda 12
Although another of Fo's plays, Mistero buffo, is considered his most popular in Italy, Accidental Death of an
Anarchist is said to be his second most popular. Outside Italy, it is Fo's most-performed play, partly owing to
its searing indictment of police corruption and strong suggestion that a similarly corrupt government body is
underwriting this corruption. As Tom Behan indicates in Dario Fo: Revolutionary Theatre, directors around
the world who want to respond to corruption in their own midst have turned to Accidental Death of an
Anarchist to galvanize their audiences to political action, despite the great risks involved in doing so:
Fo claims that Accidental Death of an Anarchist has been the most performed play in the
world over the last 40 years. Its pedigree certainly is impressive: productions in at least 41
countries in very testing circumstances: fascist Chile, Ceausescu's Romania and apartheid
South Africa. In Argentina and Greece the cast of early productions were all arrested.
Because Fo allows changes to be made to his script, foreign directors can include material that makes the play
relevant to their particular local situation. Of course, if Accidental Death of an Anarchist were not as well
written and entertaining as it is, it would not be such a favorite choice of the world's directors and drama
groups. What has made Fo's and this play's reputation, finally, is his great skill as a dramatist and theatrical
innovator. However, many of Fo's innovations are, paradoxically, adaptations from past theatrical traditions.
Joseph Farrell discusses this paradox in "Dario Fo: Zanni and Giullare," from the essay collection The
Commedia Dell'Arte: From the Renaissance to Dario Fo:
The affection for, and identification with, figures from Italian theatrical tradition, be it
Arlecchino [Harlequin] or the giullare [a performer who would travel from village to village],
are perfect illustrations of one of the most striking and paradoxical features of the work of
Dario Fo—his relentless search for models from the past with whom he can identify. If on the
one hand Fo is customarily seen, and indeed goes out of his way to present himself, as the
subversive, the iconoclastic revolutionary,… at the same time his theatrical style is based not
on any avant-garde, but on the approaches and techniques practiced by performers of
centuries past.
As Farrell writes, the "figure of the giullare," which "provides Fo with a focus and a model" for much of his
work, "is a quintessentially medieval figure, who flourished approximately from the Tenth to the Fifteenth
centuries, in other words in the period before the blossoming of Commedia dell'arte." Still, the tradition of the
commedia dell'arte—from which the figure of the Harlequin derives—is also an important source of inspiration
for Fo. Troupes of professional actors made up the commedia groups. They would perform for common
people in village squares as soon as they would for aristocrats on polished stages, improvising dialogue within
the set limits of stock plots.
In the essay collection Studies in the Commedia Dell'Arte, Christopher Cairns explores Fo's relationship to
commedia tradition in his essay "Dario Fo and the Commedia Dell'Arte." He points out that Fo's interest in
this tradition's figures and techniques developed only after he had immersed himself in the tradition of the
giullare for many years. Fo's new-found interest, however, resulted in the curious discovery that he had been
implementing commedia techniques all along:
In London in 1988, Fo admitted that he had come late to the formal study of the commedia
dell'arte, but had found with some surprise that he had been involved in similar theatrical
practice (with different roots, in variety, the circus, the silent film) already for many years.
In a comment on the commedia aspects of Fo's play Harlequin (1985), Cairns describes the relationship
between tradition and innovation so characteristic of Fo's work in general:
Accidental Death of an Anarchist: Critical Overview 13
The extraordinary vogue for the commedia dell'arte as a performance language in the
contemporary theatre has given rise to two distinct conventions. First [there is] the
'archaeological' reconstruction of the working methods, costumes, masks and relationships
between the well-known stereotype characters, refined and polished to a high degree of
professional performance…. Secondly, we have the adaptation or 'selection' of styles from past
traditions of commedia for modern uses: a bringing face to face with contemporary social and
political causes of a deep-rooted European theatrical tradition, particularly since the 1960s. It
is to this second modern convention that Dario Fo's Harlequin belongs.
Thus, many critics do not hesitate to argue that there are commedia elements in those of Fo's plays written
even before his formal study of the tradition.
Accidental Death of an Anarchist: Criticism
Mimi D'Aponte
Mimi D'Aponte
In the following essay excerpt, D'Aponte provides an overview of Fo's career and works, including his
reception in the United States.
Clowns are grotesque blashpemers against all our pieties. That's why we need them. They're
our alter egos.
—Dario Fo, Cambridge, May 1987
Americans writing about theatre have been pronouncing Dario Fo's work extraordinary, whether for
performance or political reasons, or for both. "For the past decade," claimed Joel Schechter in 1985, "Dario Fo
has been Europe's most popular political satirist." "So many theatres have included Fo in their recent seasons,"
wrote Ron Jenkins in 1986, "that he has become the most-produced contemporary Italian playwright in the
U.S." American producers interested in social satire seem to have become less leery of this zany Italian genius
who publicly thanked his "fellow actor," Ronald Reagan, for the marvelous promotion afforded his work
when the State Department denied him an American visa for several years….
To give a full account of Dario Fo's theatrical career would really be tantamount to writing a history of
postwar Italy, because his work can only be understood as a continuous, uniquely creative response to the
major social and political developments of the past thirty years.
Like Eduardo before him, Fo has been greeted with instant popularity in many countries while being given,
initially at least, a somewhat cooler reception in the U.S. The failure, for example, of Eduardo's Saturday,
Sunday and Monday in 1974 Broadway production despite its huge British success in 1973 seems to have
been a virtual blueprint for Fo's British-American experience with Accidental Death of an Anarchist. This
"grotesque" farce about a "tragic farce" achieved tremendous success in London during 1979–81, only to
open and close rapidly on Broadway in Fall of 1984.
What seems clear, however, is that Fo's work has created an ongoing interest in American university and
repertory theatres which Eduardo's did not. This is due in part to an increased American awareness of
international theatre trends fostered by the academy's more frequent conference and exchange programs, and
also perhaps by more frequent mass-media culture coverage. Continued American interest in Fo's work
Accidental Death of an Anarchist: Criticism 14
springs also from our desire to stay abreast of such trends: Tony Mitchell, in the first English-language book
devoted to Fo, states flatly that by 1978, "Fo was already the most widely performed playwright in world
theatre." But it is the fact that Fo and Rame have finally been able to practise their crafts of acting and
directing in this country that has led to acclaim in the American theatre about this extraordinary team….
In reviewing Mistero buffo for The New York Times, Mel Gussow introduced Fo as "an outrageous gadfly"
and mentioned Richard Pryor, Father Guido Sarducci and Monty Python by way of comparison. Mr. Gussow
concluded with mention of other names:
With his mobile face and body, he is a cartoon in motion, loping across the stage with the
antelopean grace of Jacques Tati, doing a Jackie Gleason away-we-go to demonstrate the
Italian perfection of the art of women-watching.
Both sets of references are on target. Fo's performance was unforgettable because it conjured up a complex
battery of historical and cultural perspectives, while simultaneously satirizing their contingent political
realities. Clad in black work-day jersey and slacks and sharing a bare stage with only his translator, Fo created
in the mind's eye of his audience chaotic crowds, lavish costumes, and dramatic conflicts resolved by the
machinations of a laughing clown-narrator in favor of those without power.
Fo's formidable powers of persuasion through laughter illuminate his on-stage persona. These same powers
are seen from another perspective in his work as teacher and director. Most immediately obvious is the appeal
of the comradeship and community which Fo creates about him, beginning with that strong emotional,
intellectual, and artistic partnership which he and Franca Rame, his wife, have shared for thirty-four years.
This partnership extends not only to their own acting company, currently La Comune of Milan, but also to the
manner in which Fo and Rame interact with any company. While Western theatre is by definition an art form
organized in hierarchical fashion, Fo's concept of how to work in the theatre appears consistently egalitarian.
This philosophy ultimately translates into a specific reality: everything which appears on stage and/or takes
place on stage is in some fashion touched by Fo. Whatever the form of this nurturing, its manner is one of
co-authorship, of "we" rather than of "I" and "you."
Along with this comradeship comes a powerful charisma which Dario Fo possesses and uses automatically,
effortlessly in his quest for the ideal performance of his troupe. He is a director whose every syllable and step
on stage are noted by everyone, near and far. Members of the American Repertory Theatre, a young, vital
professional company with excellent credentials, spoke glowingly of their learning under Fo's tutelage during
rehearsals for Archangels Don't Play Pinball in Spring 1987. "Dario exerts an amazing influence—he has a
way of working with actors. No one at ART has ever attained this popularity." "I want to get a grant to follow
Dario Fo around. This is the guy I've been waiting to learn from all my life." A visiting university director
added, "I'm on leave this year. I'd be in Milan if Dario were in Milan. I'm in Cambridge became he's here."
Such remarks take on additional weight when one realizes that they represent English-speaking theatre folk
describing their Italian-speaking theatre mentor. Dario's ability to communicate goes beyond the limitation of
Then there is the power of example. Fo the performer is able to illustrate what Fo the director has to say. Fo
and Rame conducted five theatre workshops in London in late spring 1983 the transcripts of which were
subsequently published and translated. The student/teacher exchanges during these sessions underscore the
credibility in the theatre of a director who practices in his own performances what he preaches to his students.
For example:
[QUESTION] When you did the three situations exercise earlier, the only way that we
spectators could laugh at the comedy of it was because we already understood the situation,
because you had explained it to us. But how, then, if you are the actor, creating the situation,
Mimi D'Aponte 15
how do you express it without using even more obvious methods of expression?
[Dario Fo] Theatre has always had prologues, even when they are not declared as such. There
is an old tradition of theatre in Italy, which had prologues which were really masterpieces. In
fact, the rest of the plays has often been lost, and the prologues have remained in their own
right. There is, for example, the famous prologue: … "Ah, if I could only become invisible."
The situation is already presented in it … in that one sentence it already gives you the
situation. The actor comes on and explains the things he could do if he was invisible. (He acts
out the prologue)
The enjoyment of watching the persuasive power of Fo's directing and teaching is enhanced by the knowledge
that what he offers his actors and students alike is empowerment—empowerment as actors and empowerment
as authors. The answer to two questions posed to him demonstrate something of the private Dario Fo's modest
character and a sense of the public Fo's ability to teach effortlessly, with "souplesse."
[QUESTION] What influence do you want your work to have on American theatre?
[Dario Fo] I don't know.
What is the connection between political theatre and improvisation?
The choice of an improvisational form of theatre is already a political one—because
improvisational theatre is never finished, never a closed case, always open-ended.
Improvisational theatre is open on a space level. If we are performing in a large theatre, a
stadium which seats 5000 in one night and in a factory which accommodates 300 the next, we
must improvise, by necessity, and without a dozen rehearsals. Out of necessity we signal to
one another and stretch out what we do to fill the stadium or contract it to fit into the factory.
Improvisational theatre is open on an emotional level. Audiences are not the same every
evening. Different things have happened to them on a political level. Someone may have been
shot, someone may have died: an audience is an emotionally different entity every night. The
actor in an improvisational theatre is open to audience mood and builds upon it, using it as a
springboard for what he is going to do.
Improvisational theatre is open on an intellectual level. New events happen every day. These
events can't be ignored, but must be included, and the old ones, if they are no longer useful,
put aside. The commedia dell'arte troupes were often the chroniclers of their times, bringing
to their often ill-informed audiences up-dates of what was going on in the country of the
audience that evening and of what was going on in outlying countries. Improvisational theatre
must be a theatre of ideas, not merely of technique.
Fo's last statement holds the heart of the matter. It is clear that his concept of theatre is both improvisational
and political, and it is also clear that he demands a body of knowledge, a challenge to the intellect, from a
theatrical event. So do many theatre artists. What is unique about Fo is that, rather than coveting that creative
act known as "playwriting" as is traditional, he asks of his actors that they become his co-writers. "After I
leave [the actors] must read newspapers every day and listen to and watch news broadcasts every day, and
include pertinent material into the Archangel performances." When an actor had suggested that perhaps one
person be put in charge of updating the text, this was Fo's reply: "No, no, no one has to be in charge—you all
do it! Every actor must practice self-discipline, trying out material and judging its effectiveness carefully,
eliminating it if audience reaction is not favorable." It is in this manner that Fo empowers his actors to grow,
Mimi D'Aponte 16
to stretch, to develop, for he invites them not simply to interpret someone else's ideas, but also to initiate their
Which brings us to Dario Fo, playwright, produced in translation in the United States. How, given Fo's
convictions concerning improvisation about current political events, does this work? A quick
production/publication profile offers several revealing statistics. To date there have been American,
English-language productions mounted of six full-length works by Fo (We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay!,
Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Almost By Chance A Woman: Elizabeth, Archangels Don't Play Pinball,
About Face and A Day Like Any Other) and two full-length works by Fo and Rame (Orgasmo Adulto Escapes
from the Zoo and Open Couple). Since 1979 there have been at least one, but as many as three American
productions of these works annually. Fo's plays have been mounted by regional theatres, touring groups,
university theatres, Off-Broadway and Broadway producers. In addition to numerous texts imported from
Great Britain, there are currently available American publications of five of the works produced here. Plans
are in progress for an American translation of Fo's four-hundred-page theoretical work on theatre, Manuale
minimo dell'autore. Finally, both American journalists and scholars have begun writing about Fo to the extent
that their major contribution to an already impressive European bibliography of secondary sources about his
work appears imminent.
Each published introduction or preface to a Fo work contains some reference to the need to update or adapt
material, while at the same time preserving the playwright's intention. Such directives suggest the problems
inherent in revision. "A Note on the Text," which introduces Samuel French's edition of Accidental Death of
an Anarchist, for example, reads in part:
For the Arena Stage production and the subsequent Broadway production … Nelson [the
adaptor] revised the dialogue for the American stage, and added some references to current
politics … Subsequently, Fo asked for further changes … Future productions may require
further alteration of political references, unless our President is elected for a life term, and
outlives the century.
… A perusal of American reaction to Fo's work indicates frequent critical reference, both positive and
negative, to the current American politics alluded to during the course of a Fo play. Three writers had three
different reactions to this question when they reviewed the Broadway production of Accidental Death in 1984:
The play may have deserved to be successful in Italy, where its dealing with an actual case of
police de-fenestration was doubtless audacious and salutary. But it has far less resonance
here, and the manner in which Nelson has dragged in American references is obvious and
Although it's ostensibly an Italian subject, the play has been given emphatic contemporary
American application by adaptor Richard Nelson, whose version includes some hilarious
speeches for the masquerading hero about current U.S. politics.
There are references to the Great Communicator's belief that trees pollute the air and to his
habit of sleeping in cabinet meetings…. Not all of these jokes take wing, but it is somewhat
refreshing on Broadway to hear political subjects mentioned at all.
Despite the ongoing need for relevant revision, We Won't Pay, Accidental Death, and About Face are, thanks
to multiple American productions, "here to stay." These three plays appear to have graduated from the stage
of "experimental" or "alternative" theatre and will, I believe, be accepted as an integral part of contemporary
international repertory desirable in American theatre schedules. Fo has in essence, during the period
1979–1988, established a base, a modest body of dramatic literature which is recognized by the collective
Mimi D'Aponte 17
American theatre mind.
This base of three dramatic works realistically represents Fo's social and political concerns while at the same
time appropriately casting him as a writer of comedy and satire. In We Won't Pay, the richness of which as a
drama has been competently described in this journal, the grave social question of economic ineptitude on a
national scale is lampooned by the madcap manner in which Mr. everyman worker and Mrs. everywoman
wife deal with insufficient salaries and inflationary prices. The hilarity of the piece is caught in the
unforgettable image of women leaving the supermarket with goods they have refused to pay for and which
they eventually transport as unborn "babies" beneath their coats.
In Accidental Death of an Anarchist the frightening specter of institutional "justice" applied to an innocent
victim is raised to the high art of grisly grotesque as an actual case becomes the focus of farce. Real-life
anarchist Giuseppe Pinelli was arrested in late 1969, erroneously accused of having planted a bomb which
killed sixteen people in a Milan bank, and "fell" to his death from a window of the Milan police station. The
Fool of Fo's play portrays a mad graduate of many an asylum who arrives to interrogate police hierarchy
about this scandal, who stays to re-enact Pinelli's "fall," and who seems to re-appear once again before the
horrified police personnel.
In About Face the limitations of both management and underdog perspectives on life and love are broadly
satirized by a series of fabulous switches of fate. Caricatured Fiat magnate, Gianni Agnelli, becomes, thanks
to an auto accident, amnesia, and the wrong plastic surgery, a factory worker in his own plant. He is
eventually "exchanged" out of this humdrum existence by both the return of his memory and the co-operation
of government officials to whom he writes threatening letters.
In the first two plays the principal key, both to socio-political bite and to hilarity, is the mistaken identity of
the protagonist. In Accidental Death police officials on stage labor under the delusion that a bureau inspector
is creating havoc in their midst, while we in the audience know that a mad, self-styled investigator come from
a paradise where real justice reigns is loose on the boards. In About Face some characters work to improve the
health of someone they take for an injured factory worker, while others discover and then protect the Agnelli
identity behind the surgically applied incognito. In We Won't Pay series of chaotic misunderstandings pave a
double-edged path to social criticism and to side-splitting laughter. In an amazing scene from Act II, the
police lieutenant casing the protagonist's flat searches the "pregnant" women he finds there; he is rewarded by
imagined blindness when they tell him about a pregnant saint's husband who lost his sight and when,
coincidentally, the long-unpaid-for electric lights suddenly dim.
When each play's ruse has been stretched to the most insane absurdity imaginable, Fo snaps us back to epic
disengagement, usually through a long-winded speech delivered by a leading character which jars us into
remembering a current political problem. In About Face, for example, Antonio/Agnelli offers a final diatribe
about the power of the state equaling the power of money and caps it with, "So Aldo Moro gets 15 bullets in
his gut to protect me." And from the seemingly safe shores of such "reality," we laugh madly at the horrific
foibles of human society….
In considering Fo's impact on theatre in the United States, it seems that two developments are taking place,
the direction of which, attributable to a variety of forces, is surely Foian. The first is a new awareness, for us,
that the actor need not necessarily put his own ideas aside or neglect to have ideas of his own. During his and
Franca's London workshop of May 1983, Fo asserted:
In my opinion it is more important for actors to learn to invent roles for themselves … to learn
to be authors … all actors should do this. In my opinion, the most important criterion for any
school of drama is that it should teach its actors to be authors. They must learn how to
develop situations.
Mimi D'Aponte 18
A New York Times issue chosen at random in January 1988 describes the Actors Studio search for a new
direction which will include "a mandate to revive the Actors Studio's Playwright-Director's Unit and integrate
its work with that of the actors." After more than fifty years of proclaiming the primacy of the actor's
individual self-expression, the American citadel of "the method" has come to recognize, for instructional
purposes at least, the natural relationship between acting and playwriting. The same issue of the Times
includes Mel Gussow's enthusiastic review of the American Place Theatre's Roy Blount's Happy Hour and a
Half: "For 90 minutes we are, figuratively, at a bar with the author and raconteur as he expounds wittily on his
shaggy life and his and our hard times."
American actors who author and American authors who act have been aided and abetted by a rich backdrop of
vaudeville history and its subsequent chapters in television and radio shows. More recent sources of
inspiration have been our own inventive brand of improvisational group theatre (beginning with Chicago's
original Second City company in the early sixties and for two decades receiving multiple resurrections around
the country) and our new brand of solo, mimetic clowning (the work of the West Coast's "New Vandevillians"
in the eighties). It is fascinating, in this latter connection, to note a clear example of Fo's direct influence. The
actor Geoff Hoyle, who played the lead in the 1984 San Francisco Eureka Theatre production of Accidental
Death, was subsequently invited to play the lead in the 1987 ART production of Archangels Don't Play
Pinball directed by Fo. During my interviewing in Cambridge, two actors made mention of Fo's considerable
influence on Hoyle. Later the same summer, New York Times reviewer Jennifer Dunning offered accolades to
Hoyle for his part in the "New Vaudevillian" Serious Fun! Festival at Lincoln Center.
The second development in contemporary American theatre which reflects a Foian flavor is our renewed
awareness of a need for theatre which speaks frequently to social and political concerns. The Eureka Theatre
Company mentioned above has produced four of Fo's plays to date and has recently been awarded a
substantial federal grant specifically earmarked to develop new American plays dedicated to social concerns.
The recent outpouring of powerful political theatre from South Africa, the growing awareness of the impact of
the AIDS epidemic around the world, the fear of nuclear holocaust shared by all nations have brought to the
American theatre a new sense of urgency about the subject matter of our plays. Examining our own psyches is
no longer enough.
On the broad canvas of world theatre, Dario Fo's mark is visible. He has chosen to place his enormous talents
at the service of everyman and everywoman, making it plain that those who have no power are his concern.
He supports the have-nots by using the theatre as a forum for paring the powerful down to size. His arms are
those available to the economically and politically powerless: physical agility and intellectual wit. In Fo's
version of stage reality, presidents and popes are adroitly relieved of prestige and power as ordinary people
become aware of their own potential. Fo synthesizes past, present, and future concerns of society as he weds
an appreciative sense of tradition with satirical but hilarious situations in which bureaucratic bunglings of
immense proportions victimize the common people.
To a student in London who asked him if theatre could change the world, Fo responded: "I believe that neither
theatre, nor any form of art, can, in itself, change anything … Not even great art." But Dario Fo is a
performance artist and a playwright whose comically costumed message, beware institutional power, has been
heard around the world. Both his comedy and his message are nourishing our theatre today.
Source: Mimi D'Aponte, "From Italian Roots to American Relevance: The Remarkable Theatre of Dario Fo,"
in Modern Drama, Vol. 32, No. 4, December 1989, pp. 532-44.
Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens 19
Christopher Hitchens
In the following essay written after the announcement of Fo's winning the Nobel Prize, Hitchens reviews the
events that inspired Accidental Death of an Anarchist.
A half-dark stage. Sound of breaking glass. Enter burglar. His flashlight shows a living room filled with
expensive things. Phone rings. Pause. Rings again. Burglar picks up phone. Very long pause. Burglar, into
phone: "How many times have I told you not to call me at work?"
Thus the opening of Dario Fo's Some Burglars Have Good Intentions, as summarized by Ben Sonnenberg in
his pithy and prescient 1993 Washington Post recommendation of Fo for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Some
Burglars forms the first part of a quartet of one-act farces collectively titled Thieves, Dummies and Naked
Women. With his wife, the dauntless Franca Rame, Fo has written more than sixty plays for stage and small
screen and has acquired all the right enemies, from the Vatican to the State Department (which excluded him
from this country for many years on the grounds of his undeniably subversive associations).
I met him in London in 1980, when he was attending the West End opening of his political masterpiece,
Accidental Death of an Anarchist. Many of the tributes to Fo last month were of that vaguely condescending
type with which the establishment often signals its broad-mindedness in recognizing a "rebel" or "gadfly" or
"maverick." The Nobel committee, indeed, spoke of the irreverence of the "jesters of the Middle Ages"
("irreverent" is another contented pat-on-the-back dismissal, not unlike "provocative"). But the fact about Fo
is that he is a ruthlessly realistic and practical fellow as well. You would not know, from the patronizing
plaudits that he has garnered, that the entire plot of Accidental Death of an Anarchist has just been vindicated
in real time. But so it has.
On December 12, 1969, a huge bomb exploded in the Piazza Fontana in Milan, killing sixteen people and
opening the "strategy of tension" by which Italy's extreme right sought to combat the "hot autumn" of
rebellion that began that year. Three days later, an anarchist militant named Giuseppe Pinelli fell to his death
from an upper story of the Milan police headquarters. He was being vigorously interrogated, on suspicion of
involvement in the Piazza Fontana outrage, by agents of Chief Superintendent Luigi Calabresi. Superintendent
Calabresi, in his turn, was a member of the Italian "pare-state," linked to putschist elements in the army and
the intelligence services and also to open and covert supporters of Italy's fascist movement. If you are old
enough to recall the climate of the time you will remember that anything—including a strong blackshirt
element in state power—was considered preferable to the apertura sinistra, or "opening to the left." Thus the
"suicide" of Pinelli was just one of the many things that had to be swallowed in order to keep Italy safe for the
cold war. Dario Fo concluded that Pinelli had not killed himself but had rather been suicidato—"suicided"—as
part of a cover-up.
The play, it is true, does draw somewhat on the tactics of medieval revelry, in that the main protagonist is a
fool or "maniac" who is so naive that he doubts the official story, and so rash and stupid that he says so out
loud. Others on the Italian left made the same point in more investigative and forensic ways. The newspaper
Lotta Continua ("The Struggle Continues"), under the brilliant editorship of Adriano Sofri, printed a number
of damning exposes and nailed Superintendent Calabresi as the murderer and fascist and perjurer that he
undoubtedly was. On the morning of May 17, 1972, some person or persons shot the loathsome Calabresi
dead. There were those who said that Lotta Continua, by its incendiary talk of people's courts and street
justice, had encouraged the attack. But no connection was ever shown.
Since that time, a series of trials and exposes has established that the Piazza Fontana bomb, the 1980 bomb at
the Bologna railway station and a series of other gruesome atrocities were the work of the extreme right and
its Mafia and Vatican and police allies. (If some burglars have good intentions, in Fo's world and in the real
Christopher Hitchens 20
world, some guardians of the peace emphatically do not.) Lotta Continua, both as an organization and a
newspaper, has disbanded. But a plea-bargain-seeking former militant has accused Adriano Sofri, now 54 and
a respected writer and lecturer, of having "ordered" Calabresi's murder. In January last, just four months
before the statute of limitations would have applied to the crime, the ramshackle Italian courts found him
guilty of it. Sentenced to twenty-two years, he will probably die in prison if the verdict is upheld.
All the evidence in the case—the bullets, the getaway car—has long since been destroyed. The self-interest of
the sole and uncorroborated witness is self-evident. More than 150,000 Italians have signed a petition, drawn
up by a former president of the Constitutional Court, calling for a pardon. (Sofri, characteristically, says he
wants a new trial and not a pardon because you can only be pardoned for something you actually did.) And
Dario Fo, who once described himself as a member of the "unofficial left," has put his Nobel Prize purse at
the service of the campaign.
So the long, long run of Accidental Death of an Anarchist continues. It has now surpassed the success of
Mistero Buffo ("Comic Mystery"), which the Roman Catholic hierarchy invigoratingly described as "the most
blasphemous show in the history of television." It is outperforming the great Dario Fo censorship marathon,
which kept him off the airwaves of his native land between 1962 and 1977. Taken up by the strolling players
of the class struggle and the democracy movement, it has acquired a life of its own as street theater and
popular psychodrama. Its next act, entirely unscripted, is a fast unto death proposed by Adriano Sofri. The
variations are plentiful, but the theme of power, and those who have it and those who do not, is consistent.
Some subjects are so serious that they have to be left in the safekeeping of satirists and comedians.
Source: Christopher Hitchens, "Lotta continua," in Nation, Vol. 265, No. 15, November 10, 1997, p. 8.
Joseph Farrell
Joseph Farrell
In the following essay excerpt, Farrell examines issues associated with translating Fo's works. Accidental
Death of an Anarchist, in particular, presents a challenge because of its roots in contemporary social
criticism, but it nonetheless has been Fo's most successfully translated play.
A translator is conventionally expected to content himself with a condition of self-effacing invisibility, which
surpasses anything even Victorian parents once imposed on their offspring. The good translator should be
neither seen nor heard. He should fade into the background, and should expect that if his presence is noted, it
is as a prelude to some censure or reproach. A translator will receive attention only when responsible for some
gaffe, transgression or solecism which will require discussion and correction at a later date, once the guests
have withdrawn.
The way Dario Fo's translators have come to be viewed confirms this rule. Their sin is to have made
themselves noticed. Fo, as is endlessly repeated, is the most frequently performed living playwright in the
world today, which is another way of saying that he has more translators than any other playwright in the
world today. The nature of the performed versions of Fo's work has aroused a high level of controversy, and it
appears that there has been greater interest in the process of transposing a Fo text from its original Italian into
other languages than has been accorded the same process with any other writer. The nature of the translated
text employed for production, principally the perceived confusion of roles between translator and adapter, has
puzzled and enraged critics. Fo himself has contributed to the general air of disapproval. As he told an
interviewer, in reply to a question about the productions he had seen:
Joseph Farrell 21
I have seen few good works. Some were respectable, others appalling, either on account of
the actors, the director or the text itself, which had been supposedly corrected but often
Fo has himself protested vociferously about specific productions, and specific published versions of his work.
Although neither Dario Fo nor Franca Rame speak English, they subject translations identified as suspect to
rigid, if idiosyncratic, scrutiny by having the debated translation re-translated into Italian. This process creates
difficulties of its own, as the resemblance between an original text and a retranslation is comparable to that
between a bullet in the barrel of a gun and a bullet which has ricocheted off a steel plate. A further level of
difficulty is added by the nature of Fo's scripts. When they deal with contemporary political topics, as was the
case with Accidental Death of an Anarchist, they are subject to regular rewrites in the light of changing
circumstances and new developments. And in all cases, his plays are subject to reshaping in the light of
audience response or of reconsideration by Fo or Rame. On at least one occasion, a translator was censured
because his translation was based on a fifth draft, but once re-translated, the comparison was made to the
fourth draft. Various cuts and additions which were put down to the translator's intrusive, slapdash or
high-handed disregard for the original were actually the result of rewrites undertaken by the author.
Obscenity or vulgarity are especially delicate areas. Personal relations scarcely ever feature in Fo's work. Both
Fo and Rame are scrupulous about the language they employ on stage, and in none of Fo's works is there any
material which could, in the linguistic register employed, offend the most demanding Calvinist or Carmelite
conscience. Even the recent Zen and the Art of Screwing conforms to this rule. It was written not by Dario Fo
but by his son Jacopo, and Franca Rame performed it because she viewed it as a work which would further the
sexual education of the young. On the other hand, in his own play An Ordinary Day, Fo features the case of a
woman who receives phone calls from other women who believe they are calling some outre analyst. One of
the callers is a prostitute who reports that, in an excess of professional pruderie, she has bitten off the testicles
and related attachment of one of her clients. For the attachment in question, Fo employed the term coso, an
imprecise, colloquial term which translates as "thingummy." In my translation I set aside such nicety and
opted for the candid form "prick." This was retranslated in Milan as cazzo and did not pass inspection. It was
excised at Franca Rame's insistence with the same ruthlessness the fictional prostitute had demonstrated
towards the original offending member….
The central problem with translating and staging Fo is to find a means of expressing and conveying the
political fire while respecting the framework of farce. Fo has in various occasions defined his own theatre as
combining "riso con rabbia" (laughter with anger) and both elements are of importance. The balancing act
requires sensitivity, but the failure even to aim for it has meant that there sometimes seems to be an Italian Fo
who walks on lines parallel to, but never quite coinciding with, the tracks on which British Fo, German Fo
and French Fo walk.
The need to find such a synthesis of the laughter and the anger in the target language will often require a
transcending of the limits normally allowed to translation. It is here that one collides with Fo's supposed
supporters. No one has been so crass as to propose outright literalism, but the objection to the standard
renderings of his work outside Italy takes the form of bewilderment over the (omni) presence of the adapter.
One could note, in parenthesis, the curious fact that none of the exponents of translation studies have been
able to incorporate the adapter into any theoretical framework. "It hardly seems useful to debate whether or
not adaptation is still translation," write Basil Hatim and Ian Mason in their useful work on translation. It may
not be useful in general, but it is indispensable in the case of Dario Fo.
There can be no dispute over the facts. However they have been presented in programme notes or in published
editions, few of the works that have been staged, most especially in English, have been translations. The
problem is to establish whether an adaptation is as welcome as a virus infecting a healthy organism, or
whether it can function as a tonic restoring a waning life. Some definitions are in order. A translation is a
Joseph Farrell 22
process of reproduction, replication or transference in which the changes are purely linguistic and do not
involve wider redirection of the plot or switches of setting, epoch or culture. To be such, a translation must
eschew alterations to structure and characterisation, and must respect the more intangible system of values
underlying the source text. This does not involve literalism but it does involve a rehabilitation of the
much-maligned concept of fidelity, in the sense given to that term by George Steiner in what remains the most
profound analysis of the nature and aims of translation:
The translator, the exegetist, the reader is faithful to his text, makes his response responsible,
only when he endeavours to restore the balance of forces, of integral presence, which his
appropriative comprehension has disrupted. Fidelity is ethical, but also, in the full sense,
economic. By virtue of tact, and tact intensified is moral vision, the translator-interpreter
creates a condition of significant exchange.
The distorting presence of the translator cannot be avoided, but of itself that does not negate the validity of an
aspiration to fidelity founded on an awareness of, and an attempt to maintain or restore, a previously existing
balance. The nature of that balance in Fo will be discussed later.
An adaptation, on the other hand, is free of the restraints of fidelity, however it is defined. The adapter may
aspire to be a co-creater, and perhaps it is helpful to view his work as the equivalent of the musical variation
on a theme rather than as an operation of finding linguistic equivalences. There may be, for instance, parallels
between various cults in the society described by Petronius in his Satyricon and the "New Age" beliefs held
by certain sections of society as the Millennium approaches, but any writer who published a modern Satyricon
updated to focus on such sects in New York or London would not be considered, and would not consider
himself, to be producing a translation, any more than did James Joyce when he wrote Ulysses. At times, this
process may have gone so far that the adaptation is a new work, in direct conflict with the original. The
playwright David Hare expressed his distaste for Arthur Miller's adaptation of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People
on the grounds that Miller had been so shocked by the anti-democratic stance adopted by the protagonist that
he had in consequence arrogated to himself the right to soften that position. Miller could reply that his
operation had been transparent.
The suggestion has been made that Fo has suffered from similar distortions without the benefit of
transparency. "The problem in Fo's case," writes David L. Hirst, for whom it is indeed a problem, "is that the
translations made in Britain have—with one exception—been effected by a combination of translator and
adapter." Tony Mitchell similarly entitles his consideration of English language versions "Adapting Fo," and
while he and Hirst agree that only one work escapes general censorship, they disagree over which work that
is. For Mitchell that play is We Can't Pay? We Won't Pay!, a view Hirst dismisses with a polemical spleen
others would find appropriate only when describing the activities of neo-fascist pederasts. Hirst puts forward
the case in favour of Accidental Death of an Anarchist, which he regards as being "a playing script of
immense vitality which exploits to the full the potential of both farce and of witty comedy of manners," even
if he is compelled to add that "the adaptation is obliged to follow the implications of its inexorable movement
away from its source to a radically different target."
In both intellectual and practical terms, the problems are complex. Certain recent critics have gone so far as to
view "subversive intent" as a quality to be prized in a translator and to extol translation as "production" rather
than "reproduction," but this is hardly satisfactory. The majority of readers expect to make contact with
Dostoevsky and not with his translator when they pick up Crime and Punishment. But if fidelity is a goal,
fidelity to what? Vladimir Nabokov was forthright. "When the translator sets out to render the 'spirit' and not
the mere sense of the text,… he begins to traduce his author." Nabokov's views appeared as a foreword to his
translation of Pushkin, but the situation of a playwright is more difficult. Fo himself makes a distinction
between "theatre" and "dramatic literature." He consigned Pier Paolo Pasolini to the domain of "dramatic
literature" on the grounds that he had no feeling for the rhythms of theatre, no sense of dramatic tension, no
Joseph Farrell 23
understanding of the primacy of the actor, no grasp of the demands of immediate communication with an
audience in real time. If all theatrical texts occupy an indeterminate, intermediate space between literature and
performance, not all lie on the same meridian between those two poles. Fo's preference is for those plays that
incline towards performance and away from literature, as his own do. Put differently, Fo's scripts have much
in common with the canovaccio of commedia dell'arte: they are, of course, more than outline plots intended as
a prompt for improvisation, but they are less than the finished, polished scripts produced by such other Nobel
Prize-winning dramatists as Bernard Shaw or Eugene O'Neill. The "mere sense" Nabokov referred to could
not be, for Fo, something that can find expression solely on the printed page. Their "interpretation" requires a
subsequent act of enhancement. Where Shaw insisted that his printed plays be furnished by the full apparatus
of stage directions to assist readers who would, he wrote, be always more numerous than spectators, Fo tended
towards a view he attributed to Brecht:
Brecht once said, rightly, of Shakespeare: "A pity it reads so beautifully. It is its only defect,
but a great one." And he was right. However paradoxical it may seem, a genuine work of
theatre should not at all appear a pleasure when read: its worth should only become apparent
on the stage.
The achievement of that pleasure requires the collaboration of those equipped to detect and convey it in its
fullness. Neither a translator nor a director can claim to be faithful to Fo if they limit themselves to the beauty
of the words on the page. Works so deeply theatrical by nature as are Fo's only reach ripeness when they are
"interpreted," or "translated" into production by other hands. Those involved in bringing a play to stage are, as
has been often remarked, involved in a work of translation, or adaptation, in the prime sense. Theatre is
essentially ensemble creativity, with the writer primus inter pares, and perhaps not even primus. As was noted
by George Steiner, the Italian and French word interprete can be used to denote either an actor or an
interpreter. The poet or novelist has to contend with no comparable intermediaries. The ensemble creative
process, with its concomitant legitimisation of intervention by other minds into the communication between
writer and audience, has been a source of some resentment to certain Italian dramatists, even of the highest
stature. Leonardo Sciascia wrote three plays and claimed he would have continued writing plays had he not
"clashed with the figure of the director." The director was an obstacle….
Pirandello considered theatre a bastard genre, which dethroned the writer's text. No one could say anything
comparable about Dario Fo, who if not a figlio d'arte by birth, is the all-round man of theatre, for whom the
script occupies no royal position. He belongs to the quintessentially Italian tradition of the actor-author, and
part of the reason that the conferring of the Nobel Prize aroused so much controversy in Italy may be that in
his own country Fo is considered primarily an actor, whereas abroad he is viewed primarily as an author. In
principle he accepts a view which makes the script the written equivalent of a stage prop, to be reworked as
needed—or at least when another writer is involved. If it is granted that theatre requires a variety of acts of
translation, from a number of sources, there remains the fundamental question of whose act of interpretation
can be accorded legitimacy….
In 1981, an English-language version of Fo's own Accidental Death of an Anarchist had its premiere at
Wyndham's Theatre in London's West End. The company was a left-wing fringe company, Belt and Braces,
and although the translation was done by Gillian Hanna, the main influence was that of Gavin Richards, who
was adapter, director and lead actor. Fo was present on the opening night and was enraged at what he regarded
as a misinterpretation of his work. Several people tried to explain to him the differences between British and
Italian traditions of comic writing and performance, attempting to placate him—for he needed placating—by
talking of the vibrancy of a music hall tradition which had provided the inspiration of the British production.
Was Fo, of all authors, entitled to his annoyance?
In the same year, 1981, the Teatro stabile in Turin put on a work by Dario Fo entitled L'opera dello
sghignazzo (The Raucous Opera). In the programme and in the subsequent published version, it was described
Joseph Farrell 24
as being based on "John Gay's Beggar's Opera, and on some ideas from my son Jacopo." Acknowledgement
was also made of the contribution of poets and rock singers including Allen Ginsberg, Patti Smith, Frank
Zappa and Donovan. There was no reference to Bertolt Brecht or to his work, known in English as The
Three-penny Opera.
In reality, the Berliner Ensemble, who invited Fo to direct a new production of Brecht's Three-penny Opera,
initiated the project. When they saw what Fo intended doing, and the modification he intended introducing
into Brecht's text, they withdrew in horror and refused him permission to make any use of Brechtian material
for any production anywhere. Fo professed himself mystified and outraged by this elevation of Brecht's play
into an untouchable sacred text. He devised a strategy to circumvent the legal veto imposed by Brecht's heirs.
As is well known, Brecht's play was itself a reworking of John Gay's original, but John Gay is dead and gone
and has no heirs to threaten recourse to law. When he was invited by the theatre directors in Turin to stage his
work there, Dario Fo did what Brecht had done: he went back to Gay's The Beggar's Opera and recast it in his
own way. Or so he said, and no one could challenge him.
In his introduction to the published version of L'opera dello sghignazzo, Fo justified his original script by
reference to Brecht's own theories and went on to provide what appears a manifesto for translators, at least
translators of Fo….
Of course Fo is a creative genius who operates within a tradition and reshapes the tradition by virtue of his
intervention. He plunders the work of his predecessors, as artists have always done. "Immature poets imitate;
mature poets steal," was T. S. Eliot's formulation. Manet reshaped, or stole from, Poussin, as did Picasso with
Velazquez, Dante with Virgil, Eliot with Dante and Fo with everyone. Nevertheless, as regards the views he
has expressed on responsibilities towards authors, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that there is some form of
inconsistency involved. As director or interpreter, Fo takes to himself the role of inspired and liberating
contributor to the creative process, but wants his own directors and translators to be artisans, to be hewers of
his wood and drawers of his water. It is not just a question of the superior claims of "genius." The paradox is
that it is anything but clear that his translators would be doing his theatre justice by assuming the workaday
role he confers on them. Fo the actor is the best translator of Fo the author, but in his absence the job has to be
done by someone else. Translation of Fo requires audience-centred techniques, which do not necessarily
coincide with the author-centred translation he himself prefers….
To say that some modification or enrichment of the sort which Fo himself routinely brings to his own work by
his on-stage presence is not to say that all existing translations or adaptations can be sanctioned. If it is agreed
that the adaptation of Fo's Il ratto della Francesca into Abducting Diana was a work of unredeemed
crassness, that the attribution of those moronic names to the Cardinals in The Pope and the Witch was a
symptom of a profound misunderstanding which was made manifest in the resultant production, it has also to
be conceded that the "faithful" translation of An Ordinary Day did Fo's theatre no favours. One of the
problems with the latter was that it provided no guidance to directors who have now a stereotyped image of
Fo and his theatre, and who, being unwilling to respect the darker tone which emerged in that play, insisted on
presenting it in the style of the slapstick of his earlier years.
No matter whether the starting point is the farce or the politics, there is the same need with Fo as with other,
more obviously "serious" playwrights, to identify the inner vision and to respect that vision as well as the
quirks, oddities, idiosyncrasies and comic predilections of the surface. However paradoxical it may appear,
this has been best done by such works as the translation-adaptation that is Accidental Death of an Anarchist,
now become the all-purpose protest play from Tokyo to London. In that work, the cultural references have
been altered to allow it to refer to the plight of airport protesters in Japan or spy-scandals in Britain, but this
has prevented it suffering the fate of Uncle Tom's Cabin or Gulliver's Travels, both works that began life as
political satires. The international success of that play is a testimony to the theatrical mastery of Fo, to his skill
in imagining original theatrical situations and to his expertise in devising structures marrying the
Joseph Farrell 25
extra-theatrical passion to appropriate theatrical techniques, but also to the value of a process which,
combining translation and adaptation, conveys all these qualities to other cultures. The result might be, for
purists, a variation on a theme, but the music is Fo's.
Source: Joseph Farrell, "Variations on a Theme: Respecting Dario Fo," in Modern Drama, Vol. 41, No. 1,
Spring 1998, pp. 19-29.
Carol Dell'Amico
Carol Dell'Amico
Dell'Amico is a lecturer in the English Department of California State University, Bakersfield. In this essay,
she explores Fo's play as a work of political theater.
The Italian actor and playwright Fo is known as a practitioner of political theater. Political theater, it is
important to note, is not theater that lectures an audience on a particular political belief system (or at least it is
not supposed to do that). Political theater is theater that attempts to heighten the critical consciousness of its
audience. In other words, dramatists with a political bent are interested in furthering audience members'
ability to sort through the complexities of modern life so as to make informed decisions about weighty issues;
they are not interested only in entertaining their audiences. Thus, despite the entertaining farce of Fo's
Accidental Death of an Anarchist, watching the play is more than just an enjoyable event. It is also a political
event, as the play encourages its audience to think critically about events that were unfolding at the time in
Cornelius Booth, Rhys Ifans, Paul Ritter, and Adrian Scarborough in a 2003 production of Accidental Death
of an Anarchist © Donald Cooper/Photostage. Reproduced by permission
Particularly important to playwrights interested in heightening the critical faculties of their audience members
are dramatic methods that enable such effects. Some of the most commonly employed of such methods are
associated with major theorists of political theater, the German playwright Bertolt Brecht foremost among
them. Certainly, Fo is influenced by Brechtian theory and practice. One cornerstone of Brechtian practice is
the distancing of viewers from the dramatic events unfolding onstage. To distance viewers means to employ
methods that impede their ability to lose themselves in the drama, thus encouraging them to step back and
think about the issues being raised by the play. The political playwright interested in distance will destroy the
Carol Dell'Amico 26
so-called invisible fourth wall of theater, so as to encourage a critical and evaluating mindset. The invisible
fourth wall of theater is the one between audience and stage. It cannot be seen as can the other three walls of
the stage (the two side walls and one back wall), but it is still there. It is there in the sense that most actors and
playwrights conceive of drama as something that unfolds in front of an audience, strictly without its
participation. The goal of most playwrights and theatrical directors is to create an airtight illusion: the lights
go down, the curtain rises, action begins, and viewers lose all sense of themselves as thinkers as they identify
with the characters and become absorbed in the story.
Playwrights who wish to destroy this fourth wall between the stage and the audience do so in numerous ways.
One way is to have actors address the audience directly, occasionally or often. This direct address bridges the
fourth wall, reminding viewers that a play calling for their evaluation is being performed. One scene in
Accidental Death of an Anarchist suggests precisely such a strategy, although each individual director of the
play decides, ultimately, if and when such effects will occur. At this point in the play, the Maniac has hit on
the idea of impersonating a judge. To this end, he begins to try out various personas. Should the judge have a
limp? Should he wear glasses? Experimenting with one persona, he says, "Well, look at that! Brilliant! Just
what I was looking for!" This "look at that" is a ripe moment for the actor to address the audience—to look at
the audience while speaking and break the illusion erected by the fourth wall.
In reminding the audience members that that is what they are—an audience at a play—the actor achieves a
self-reflexive moment. That is, any time a work of art calls attention to itself as a work of art—reflects on itself
as artifice—a self-reflexive moment occurs. Self-reflexivity is another major way to distance an audience.
Every time the play comments on itself as a play, illusion is broken, the fourth wall is dissolved, and the
audience is alerted that something that someone has created—and could have done differently—is being
Self-reflexive strategies are very important to most practitioners of political theater, on principle. After all,
these dramatists are always interested in reminding their viewers of the way they are often led to make
political choices against their own interests: they are duped by those in power to vote in ways that further the
interests of those in power, not their own interests. In other words, thanks to the way the powerful can use
language and manipulate emotions, people believe that they are helping themselves when they are actually
serving the interests of those who have fooled them. In this way, they have been divested of true
understanding, of accurate critical insight into the nature of the world, the political process, economics, and so
forth. They are in the grip, in short, of an illusion; master illusionists have fooled them. Political playwrights
employ self-reflexive strategies because they are against real-world political illusion. They do not want to
present important ideas to the audience obliquely, without their knowing that this is taking place. They do not
want to abuse their power to influence and mold thoughts, as some politicians and political parties do.
Political playwrights keep their audiences alert and distanced from characters and events so that audiences
understand that this is the way to approach all important things in life: critically and skeptically.
Fo employs self-reflexive moments throughout Accidental Death of an Anarchist. For example, from the very
first moments of the play, when the major character, the Maniac, is introduced, the play makes reference to
itself. This is due to the nature of this character. The Maniac is a master illusionist, an impersonator of
anybody he wishes to impersonate. He has been arrested for pretending to be a psychiatrist, and this
transgression is but the latest in a long line of masquerades. The Maniac, in short, is very much like an actor.
The play's self-reflexivity in this regard can be clearly felt in the following words from the Maniac's first
major speech in the play: "I have a thing about dreaming up characters and then acting them out. It's called
'histrionomania'—comes from the Latin histriones, meaning 'actor.' I'm a sort of amateur performance artist."
In commenting on himself as an actor, this character is being self-reflexive. He is reminding audience
members that a play is taking place, preventing them from losing themselves unthinkingly in the action.
Carol Dell'Amico 27
Moments such as these are not the only reason why there are few opportunities to identify with the Maniac
and so lose sight of the fact that he is an actor going through his paces. Also ensuring that moments of
identification are few, or that identification is at least shallow, is the way in which Fo casts the character as a
mercurial figure. That is, the Maniac changes from one persona to another throughout the play. The Maniac's
character is also hyperactive, speaking continuously and quickly and jumping from thought to thought. The
effect of such acting is jarring, uncomfortable, which is to say, again, that no audience member is likely to sit
back in his or her chair and be absorbed into the world of the play.
Also characteristic of much political theater, including Accidental Death of an Anarchist, is its populist
dimension. That is, playwrights such as Fo actively work against the notion that plays with serious intent are
written for an educated elite and are beyond the understanding and enjoyment of the average person. This
accounts for the plain, idiomatic language of Accidental Death of an Anarchist and its slang. Above all, Fo
wants to write plays that will appeal to the very people he believes can most benefit from his work—the
nonelite. (Interestingly, Fo encourages translators of his works to use local slang in place of his own, so that
all audiences of his plays will have a worthwhile experience. Despite the play's having been written in
language directed at Italians conversant in 1960s and 1970s Italian slang, an American translator in the
twenty-first century is welcome to tinker with the script as she or he thinks fit. To allow such freedom with
one's script is, of course, a populist gesture as well. Fo is not so taken with his genius and power as an artist as
to not let anyone change what he has written.)
Closely related to political theater's populism is its desire to educate and empower. This desire is evident in
Accidental Death of an Anarchist in various ways. For example, the Maniac recites laws in his speeches,
imparting legal savvy to the audience. The Maniac's mad methods also highlight the illusionist methods of
those of the political elite who are dishonest. That is, he is always mincing words, squabbling over the
meaning of sentences, focusing upon a minute item of punctuation, encouraging other characters to revise
statements so as to obfuscate the true nature of what they are saying, and so on. The Maniac, in other words, is
a character who demonstrates how the truth can amount to a lie in the mouths of those who know how to
manipulate language.
The comic slapstick and bawdiness of Accidental Death of an Anarchist do not obscure its serious intentions.
Of great concern to Fo were various covert activities being carried out by the Italian police at the time,
probably in concert with the Italian government (in the late 1960s and early 1970s). Specifically, left-wing
groups were being blamed for bombings orchestrated by neofascist organizations. The Italian police would
then arrest prominent left-wing agitators so as to discredit these groups in the eyes of the Italian public. The
impetus behind such wrongdoing was that leftist ideologies, and not rightist (neofascist, for example)
ideologies, constituted a real threat to the continued existence of the government, as Italy was experiencing a
period of widespread and deep-seated discontent. This is not to say that extremist leftist groups did not set off
any bombs; they did. Nonetheless, agents whose goal was to alarm the public committed a number of these
acts so that voters would hesitate to enact any real political change in the fear that too much change at the
governmental level would only further destabilize the country. The event of the anarchist who fell from a
police headquarters window is a historical one—and one that most Italians now believe is incontrovertible
proof of police and governmental wrongdoing of the time.
Source: Carol Dell'Amico, Critical Essay on Accidental Death of an Anarchist, in Drama for Students,
Thomson Gale, 2006.
Domenico Maceri
Domenico Maceri 28
Domenico Maceri
In the following essay, Maceri explores the reasons why Fo won the Nobel Prize, and analyzes themes in
Accidental Death of an Anarchist and Mistero buffo.
Dio esiste e anche lui e un giullare. (God exists and he too is a jester.)
—Dario Fo
Although the proceedings for the selection of the Nobel Prizes are secret, intriguing information inevitably
leaks. Apparently it was Italy's year to win the prize for literature. Dario Fo, however, was not considered a
leading candidate, in part because of the paucity of support for Italy within the Academy. One of the few
Italianists there in recent memory was the late Anders Osterling, the Swedish poet and editor of a well-known
anthology of Italian verse covering the period between 1959 and 1975, years in which two Italian poets won
the Nobel Prize in Literature (Salvatore Quasimodo in 1959, Eugenio Montale in 1975). The only other major
Italian literature supporter of late is Lars Forssell, the Swedish poet and songwriter and well-known Italophile.
Thus, if an Italian were to be considered a serious contender, it would quite likely be a poet, and the name that
everyone expected was Mario Luzi, who in fact did entertain hopes of winning the award. It is conceivable
that the Academicians wanted to give the prize to Italy but that, since the last two Italian winners had been
poets, they felt it needed to go a different route.
Thousands of striking metal and rubber workers join in a demonstration for higher wages, Italy, 1969 ©
Ultimately, the Academy members may have wanted to stress content over form and bring attention to the
struggle between the weak and the powerful, as they indicated in their press release. They praised Fo as an
emulator of "the jesters of the Middle Ages in upholding the dignity of the downtrodden," a writer who "opens
Domenico Maceri 29
our eyes to the abuses and injustices in society." The Academy also stressed Fo's literary qualities, adding that
"his works are open for creative additions, dislocations, continually encouraging the actors to improvise,
which means the audience is activated in a remarkable way."
The reaction in Italy, from the world of "traditional" literature, was predictable. One critic called awarding the
prize to Fo a slap in the face to all that Italian literature has accomplished in the second half of the century.
Another said it was a choice having to do more with sociology than with literature. Another critic argued that
Fo might have merited the prize if it had been awarded just for theater, but for literature another name was to
be expected.
Of course, the most renowned Italian winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature was a man of the theater. But in
Luigi Pirandello's case (1934) no questions were raised as to his legitimate literary credentials, because, as the
author of novels and short stories in addition to plays and his work as a director, he was obviously a man of
letters. Fo's selection pushes the definition of literature into a broader context, for he is not strictly and only a
man of letters. He is an actor, playwright, director, stage designer, popular songwriter, mime, TV personality,
and political campaigner, a figure whose ideas have managed to antagonize such diverse groups as the
Catholic Church and the Italian Communist Party. In fact, to understand all of Fo's "literary" qualities from
written texts alone is not possible, for no written page contains what he is or what he does in his works.
However, an examination of Mistero buffo (1973; the title would literally translate as "Comic Mystery," but
Ed Emery's English edition was published under the original Italian title) and Morte accidentale di un
anarchico (1974; Eng. Accidental Death of an Anarchist) can give a good idea.
In his now classic study of Italian literature, Giuseppe Petronio argues that today's theater presents directors'
interpretations of plays, rather than authors' or actors', and that even when the play is from the past, the
emphasis is on today's problems (961). This is certainly true in Fo's case, although in Mistero buffo the roles
of playwright, director, actor, stage designer, and mime blend, making it impossible to see where one role
begins and the other ends. As the writer and sole performer of Mistero buffo, Fo manages to fulfill Pirandello's
view that authors and actors should "immedesimarsi" (become the characters) with the work they are
composing or performing (215). Fo becomes the characters every time he stages the play, each performance
presenting a different and new work because of his improvisations, which show the audiences his creative
powers in action.
Although the play is therefore never totally "finished," the working texts of Mistero buffo and Morte
accidentale di un anarchico contain the fundamental elements of Fo's opus, and particularly his concern for
the poor and their struggle against the political establishment, elements which to a certain extent reflect the
author's working-class roots (his mother was a peasant, his father a railway worker). In addition, these two
works attempt to "recover" the people's language and culture going back to the Middle Ages, his role as
giullare (jester), and his ideas about theater as an art form.
Fo borrows both the title and the concept of Mistero buffo from Mistera-buff (1918) by the Russian poet and
playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky, who sought to rewrite sacred issues of history through parody and farce
and to present the proletariat's struggle against the forces of tyranny. Fo's Mistero buffo returns his spectators
to the Middle Ages, although he repeatedly makes pointed, often startling connections with the present.
Echoing Gramsci's ideas, Fo believes in the importance of knowing oneself, which allows the self's
authenticity and thus enables one to be the master of one's destiny. To accomplish this, one must know the
past; thus in the 1950s Fo began a study of medieval culture, the beginnings of theater and of his Padan
language, a blend of Northern Italian dialects, which he uses in Mistero buffo. Fo believes that the dominant
Italian class has robbed poor people of their culture and their language (Hirst, 110).
His return to the Middle Ages is also an attempt to recover the vital sources of theater in a precapitalistic
society before the mass media turned culture into merchandise in the hands of the rich and powerful to control
Domenico Maceri 30
the working class (lelo). Applying the knowledge he gained as a result of his study, Fo creates a number of
vignettes on topics with an ecclesiastical background to show not only the corruption and repressiveness of
the Church but also the political implications of its power. Stressing popular, comic, and irreverent elements
of medieval mystery plays and religious cycles, Fo attacks the repressiveness of the Catholic Church and the
land-owning classes, using the language of the Italian peasants, whom he sees as representatives of peasants
all over the world.
At the root of Fo's world view is the idea that poor people's lives are controlled by the rich and powerful, who
have stolen the downtrodden's culture. Mistero buffo will thus be the "giornale parlato e drammatizzato del
popolo" (the people's spoken and dramatized newspaper). People must retake possession of what their masters
have stolen and made their own.
In the first of the vignettes of Mistero buffo Fo tries to do just that. He reinterprets the classical Italian poem
"Rosa fresca aulentissima" ("Sweet-Smelling, Fresh Rose") with its famous contrast between a tax collector
and a woman who initially rejects his advances, a poem familiar to every student of Italian literature. Critics
believe the poem was written by an aristocratic author who used refined language to turn the trivial theme of
physical love into elevated poetry. Traditionally, it is seen as the first example of Italian courtly love. Fo
reveals the poem's popular origins. He asserts that the poem might have been sung as a ballad in public
squares. By turning the piece into a theatrical text, Fo stresses the brutal sexual oppression the tax collector
imposes upon the woman, a servant girl, when he says he may even be willing to pay the "difensa" of "dumili'
agostari" or 2,000 gold coins ("Rosa fresca," 91)—an allusion to what noblemen used to pay the families of
raped girls in order to avoid prosecution. Fo concludes that the verses were probably composed by a social
critic who wanted to draw attention to abuses of the poor.
In "Nascita del villano" (Birth of the Peasant), another of Mistero buffo's vignettes, Fo shows how the
powerful control the poor with literature, defining the lower classes by the stories they tell about them. In Fo's
version of Creation, Adam refuses to lend his rib for the creation of the peasant who is to do the master's
unpleasant work; God therefore creates him from an ass's fart. Under the guise of religious instruction, the
master teaches the peasant that his lot on earth is to be vulgar and repellent, though he has a soul, through
which he can transcend his misery. However, an angel tells the peasant he has no soul, thus revealing the
master's blackmail. The pungent satire and exaggerated low condition of the peasant's birth were designed to
show the factory workers watching Fo how they lose control of their lives by accepting their bosses' stories,
their oppressors' view of the world. In Fo's opinion, the powerful classes also use religion to control the poor,
and he makes the Catholic Church the subject of a vicious invective in the vignette titled "Bonifacio VIII," the
most celebrated single episode of Mistero buffo. Beginning this section with a lecture on medieval history
exalting the utopian movements of the period, Fo pits this idealized background against a portrayal of the
infamous pope. As Bonifacio is preparing for a ceremony, Christ appears, turning the rite into an
interrogation, as the Son of God questions the pontiff about an orgy of 1301 involving bishops, prostitutes,
and cardinals which Bonifacio had organized. Fo does not act out Christ's role on stage; spectators "see" him
only through Bonifacio's physical reactions and words. Eventually Christ kicks Bonifacio for his pretense of
not having committed any sins. Christ thus becomes a judge who punishes the pope and, by implication, the
entire Church hierarchy.
This condemnation of the Church is extended to the present pontiff, as Fo embodies Pope John Paul II and
mocks his right-wing ideas. Spectators see John Paul II jetting around the world like some superman
endeavoring to "help" the needy. Ultimately, through a pretended slip of the tongue, Fo confuses Bonifacio
and John Paul II, then returns to the person of Bonifacio, who, despite the dressing down he has received from
Jesus himself, continues his blasphemies. Even divine intervention, Fo suggests, cannot end the oppression. If
there is going to be a solution, it must take place outside the theater, as the audience, having been made aware
of the problem, takes action in real life.
Domenico Maceri 31
Although Fo sympathizes with the lives of poor people, he does not present them idealistically. In "Moralita
del cieco e dello zoppo" (Morality of the Blind and the Lame), for example, neither the Blind nor the Lame
wants to run into Christ, for fear that He might perform miracles on them and remove their income-producing
afflictions. If that were to happen, they would have to get jobs with masters. As in the Bonifacio vignette,
Christ does not actually appear but is instead "seen" as a presence which both the Blind and the Lame try to
avoid. Through their actions and words he is also "seen" by the audience.
Poor people are also presented realistically in "Nozze di Canaan" (The Marriage at Cana), wherein a Drunkard
and an Archangel vie for the right to tell the story, reminding us once again that there is more than one way to
tell any tale, even one we have heard all our lives. Eventually the Archangel is driven off stage as the
Drunkard plucks away at his plumes. When the Drunkard tells the familiar tale, his emphasis is on the delight
of the feast, the food and drink, and other physical needs, and on the "tragedy" when the wine eventually turns
into vinegar. For the Drunkard, wine solves everything and would have even prevented the fall of mankind. If
Adam had had a glass of wine in his hand, he would not have fallen from grace.
In "Lazzaro" (Lazarus) a similar emphasis on the common people's world is shown. Here Fo plays the roles of
mercenary, gatekeeper, sardine seller, and a man renting chairs, as well as many members of the crowd,
including one who screams he has been robbed, as they all witness the miracle of Lazarus' revivification. Fo
stresses again the secular qualities of the piece and of the crowd observing the miracle, as spectators see even
at the end when someone comments on Lazarus' rotting and offensive-smelling body.
Although Fo presents the world of the poor in a realistic manner, stressing in part the positive aspects, he
nevertheless does not allow the spectator to forget the injustices. To create a just world, the poor need help,
specifically a Christ-like figure. For Fo, the giullare or jester must fill this role. In "La nascita del giullare"
(The Birth of the Jester) Fo paints an exaggerated view of the poor person's adversary. A peasant who has
found a mountain and cultivated its land is robbed of all his efforts' rewards by a landowner, who also rapes
his wife in front of him and his children. Seeking revenge, the peasant is stopped by his wife, who soon leaves
him, and his children also die. Alone, with nothing to live for, he decides to hang himself, but a passerby, who
turns out to be Christ, asks him for water. Eventually Christ kisses the peasant and saves him, giving him a
gift: a language which will cut like a knife and which he will be able to use against the masters to crush them.
Christ turns the peasant into a giullare and instructs him to spread the message of his oppression. Thus the
mission is not religious but political, and Christ brings not a message of peace but a sword. However, the hero
does not know how to act and does not have to, for Fo, as always, expects his audience to act, on the outside,
in real life. His lack of convention is always a political technique, never a literary flaw.
Fo's giullare serves the people, entertains them, but especially uses satire to show them their condition and
spur them to action. As Sogliuzzo asserts, Fo's giullare is not based on the commedia dell'arte (72). Fo sees
the comics of the commedia as having become part of the establishment. From the point of view of content,
the comics of the commedia dell'arte were reactionary, because they had cleaned up their acts to please the
court and the bourgeoisie. Yet there was another tradition of comics within the commedia dell'arte which is
not part of the official history; these comedians performed not at court but rather in public taverns, in town
squares and in even lowlier locales. Binni asserts that it is this unofficial repertory of the giullari that Fo
attempts to recover (52). It is in this tradition that Fo sees himself as a giullare, someone who "nasceva dal
popolo e dal popolo prendeva la rabbia per ridarla ancora al popolo perche prendesse coscienza della propria
condizione" (was born from the people and from the people he would seize their rage to give it back to the
people so that they could become aware of their own condition; Mistero buffo).
Ironically, early in his career Fo worked in the more well-known tradition of the commedia dell'arte—as jester
of the powerful. He has described on many occasions his failed experience with being a giullare of the
bourgeoisie. He and his wife Franca Rame, with their Fo-Rame Theater Company, enjoyed great popular
success both on stage and on television, but their audience consisted of people who were part of the
Domenico Maceri 32
establishment, unable to comprehend or accept their radical ideas. Thus, in 1959, with Italy's left-center
government opening national Italian television to artists from the Left, Fo was invited to be part of the
extremely popular musical review Canzonissima, which boasted a viewership of up to fifteen million across
Italy. Fo's sketches included satires on real-estate speculation and on the dehumanizing working conditions in
factories, but the government found his subject matter unacceptable. After the eighth program, his sketches
were censored, and soon he was fired for refusing to obey the censors and banished from Italian national
television for fourteen years.
Fo, as giullare, needed an audience that allowed him creative independence and at the same time accepted his
revolutionary messages. In 1968, after considerable success in commercial theater, he began looking for this
audience. The year 1968 was, of course, a turbulent one, politically and culturally. The demonstrations in
Berkeley spread to Paris and eventually to Italy. This political activism also affected theater. Supported in part
by ARCI, the cultural wing of the Italian Communist Party, Fo and Rame created a new company, Nuova
Scena, and began staging their plays in such public venues as soccer stadiums, gyms, circus tents, and case del
popolo (communist cultural centers) to audiences that may have never previously attended the theater. Fo now
sees himself as Lungo, the protagonist in his first play, Gli arcangeli non giocano al flipper (1959; Eng.
Archangels Don't Play Pinball), when he says to Antonia, his girl-friend, that since noblemen don't exist any
more, he himself makes his low-class buddies laugh; he is their jester. Although this worked for a while, even
the limitations imposed on Fo by the communists were too restrictive, and he eventually set up his own theater
company, La Comune, in an abandoned building in Milan. But now, to be able to create, Fo needed not only
the right audience but the right text as well. Mistero buffo was that text.
Although a written version of the play exists, Fo re-creates the work every time he stages it, based on what he
perceives to be the audience's needs. For Fo, a theatrical text is like a musical score, with its rhythms, silences,
and pauses. Little is gained from reading a score, because the work comes to life only in performance. Mistero
buffo gives Fo the freedom to create on stage, without any political strings attached, whether from the Left or
the Right. He is alone on a bare stage, wearing a black sweater, with no lighting effects, continually changing
characters, going in and out of roles, the spareness of the stage setting reflecting the poverty of his audience.
The effects are all created by allusions and gestures. The audience must be active and involved. In the initial
performances of Mistero buffo, Fo would start with a lecture on the Middle Ages and would show slides of
paintings and drawings of the period to give an aura of authenticity to his material. Eventually, he dropped
this artifice and introduced what have become "interventi"—discussions with the audience about the different
vignettes and how they relate to current events.
Unlike television, where viewers see everything laid out in front of them, Fo's audiences must participate
actively with their imagination and especially with their discussions once the performance is over. He expects
them to continue thinking even the day after, when they go back to work in their factories. The performance
never entirely ends. Television viewers, on the other hand, have everything set before their eyes, yet go back
to work with nothing in their heads, ready to be exploited again, becoming merely means of production.
Ironically, Mistero buffo did end up on Italian television. It was broadcast in 1977, the same year Franco
Zeffirelli directed his celebrated Jesus of Nazareth, creating an inevitable comparison between the two artists'
vision of Jesus. Zeffirelli criticized Fo's vision of Christ because of its overtly political qualities. Fo's Christ is
human and tells people to have fun, not to wait for paradise, but also to take an active role in the struggle on
this earth. Fo replied that Zeffirelli's pious and meek Christ made as clear a political statement as his own: by
bolstering the power of the church and the state, Zeffirelli had simply created a right-wing Jesus.
The Osservatore Vatican, the Vatican newspaper, called Mistero buffo the most blasphemous show in history
and accused Fo of ideological violence targeting the religious values of Italians but aiming really at the
disintegration of the Italian state (quoted in Avvenire). But if the Vatican believed that Fo had gone as far as
he could in attacking Italian institutions and the political system, they were wrong. One year after Mistero
Domenico Maceri 33
buffo, in Morte accidentale di un anarchico, Fo struck directly at the system's heart. Morte accidentale di un
anarchico is structurally a more "traditional" play than is Mistero buffo, in that there are many characters,
requiring a number of actors. The play is based on the death of Giuseppe Pinelli, a railway worker accused of
having set off a bomb at Milan's Banca Nazionale dell'Agricoltura on 12 December 1969. The explosion
killed sixteen people and wounded an additional eighty-four. After three days of interrogation, Pinelli "flew"
out of a fifth-floor window at Milan's police headquarters. The government explained his death as a suicide
provoked by his "guilt."
In the play Fo presents a grotesque farce which reveals the contradictions between the police officers'
statements and their actions. Assuming the role of a Matto or Maniac, loose in police headquarters, Fo
conducts an investigation into what might have really happened. By pretending to be, in turn, various figures
of authority—psychiatrist, professor, magistrate, bishop, forensics expert—the Maniac forces officials to
re-create the events with the purpose of showing the inconsistencies in the official reports of Pinellli's "leap"
and to confess their responsibility in the anarchist's death.
At the very beginning of the play the Superintendent interrogates the Matto, who confesses his mental illness
and explains it as "istrionamania … mania dei personaggi" (histrionic mania … mania of impersonating
characters). He acknowledges having received his training in a number of mental institutions. Kicked out of
the office, the Maniac eventually sneaks back in and continues to impersonate different officials. After
stealing a magistrate's coat and briefcase, he questions the police as if he were reopening an inquiry into the
death of the anarchist. As the Magistrate, the Maniac corrects the police versions of the events. The
"Magistrate" puts the police into the position in which the anarchist had found himself—having to explain what
happened. In essence, he interrogates them. He even forces them to the window and tells them to jump, as
they had probably done to the anarchist.
Eventually Fo pulls back when it becomes evident that the police were guilty of the anarchist's death and
suggests that the police are really being used as scapegoats by the government. Here Fo attacks further by
pointing a finger at the government as a whole. In essence, he uses one part of the establishment against
another (Morte accidentale, epilogue). Thus the Maniac-Magistrate will help the police extricate themselves
by aiding them in the invention of acts of humanity toward the anarchist, such as offering him chewing-gum.
It is very easy to see through the Maniac's and the police officers' farce, but such lighter aspects of the play
help balance the serious and tragic tones. For example, the Constable and the Matto try to concoct a story to
explain how the police attempted to keep the anarchist from jumping: they held his foot, and the fact that they
have the shoe that came off when he jumped bears witness to their efforts to save him. Unfortunately, the
body was discovered on the ground with both shoes still on. But no matter, the "Magistrate" says; the
anarchist must have been wearing three shoes. The system is quite reasonable, Fo suggests, if your standard is
a madman's logic.
And the system is more than willing to accept insane logic when this suits its purpose. By the time a
Giornalista (Reporter) enters and begins asking questions, the police have already been made aware that the
Maniac is not the forensics expert he claims to be. However, his explanations support their case—his madness
is useful—and so they not only allow him to continue acting out his farce for the media's benefit, but they also
urge the real forensics expert to play along with him, to back up his crazy stories. Still, Fo knows that the one
who tells the story has the power, and handing control of the story over to a madman is not a wise choice—as
the police discover when the Maniac begins to support the reporter's suggestion that there are obvious
contradictions in the police report on the anarchist's death. In the end, the system's willingness to go along
with any lie, any insane story, as long as it allows them to keep their power, defeats the system.
Although Fo certainly pokes fun at the police officials, he does not present them merely as comic figures but
rather as devious abusers of power. Neither does he show great sympathy for the anarchist, whom he views as
Domenico Maceri 34
inept. On stage there are no clear heroes or villains, for Fo's primary interest is not in assigning blame but
rather in opening a political dialogue. The Maniac, at the play's end, reveals that he has been recording the
entire proceeding and threatens to send copies to the media, the political parties, and the government. He
threatens, in essence, to do what Fo has just done: to put the insanity, injustice, and hypocrisy of the system
before the people; to show the absurdity of the powerful to the powerless in his audience and let them decide
what to do about it.
In the first two years after its premiere Morte accidentale was staged approximately two hundred times and
more than 300,000 people saw the play. With each staging, Fo created a new and original work. However, his
most original single performance was a staging of Mistero buffo in Vicenza. When the production was
interrupted by rain one evening, Fo started talking with the thunder, addressing it as the voice of God and
asking for lightning. Lightning in fact came, after a particularly provocative question to God. The spectators
remained riveted to their seats, mesmerized, as Fo took a chance that nature or God would cooperate with him
to create the desired effect. That night God himself was a jester, awarding the risk-taking Dario Fo a dramatic
and most unexpected prize.
Source: Domenico Maceri, "Dario Fo: Jester of the Working Class," in World Literature Today, Vol. 72, No.
1, Winter 1998, pp. 9-14.
Accidental Death of an Anarchist: Compare and Contrast
Late 1960s to early 1970s: Italians are mobilized by radical political philosophies calling for drastic
changes to cure such ills as low wages and poor working conditions in factories.
Today: Italian workers wonder whether the considerable gains won following the protests of the
1960s are threatened by the developments of a globalizing world economy. They worry that greater
competition among nations will lead companies to cut worker salaries and benefits in order to remain
Late 1960s to early 1970s: Countercultural youths, like the hippies, protest against what they
perceive as repressive elements within Italian life, such as the premium placed on sexual abstinence
before marriage. Italian feminists also stage protests.
Today: While the most extreme positions held by counterculture enthusiasts are rejected, Italian
society is radically different. For example, women are now integral in the professional workforce, and
contraception is widely practiced.
Late 1960s to early 1970s: The Roman Catholic Church begins losing some of its power within Italy,
as is seen in the Italian government's legalization of divorce in 1969.
Today: While most Italians identify themselves as Roman Catholics and thousands of mourners
poured into the streets following the death of Pope John Paul II (1920–2005), less than half the
population attends church regularly.
Late 1960s to early 1970s: The business tycoon Silvio Berlusconi builds a massive complex of
apartments just outside Milan, called Milano 2. Some say that he won this project with secret help and
backing from a powerful anti-Communist organization known as Propaganda 2.
Today: Berlusconi, elected twice as Italy's prime minister, is subject to charges of bribery, and a new
term, Berlusconismo, begins circulating in Italy. The term refers to a way of life in which an Italian
lives in a house built by Berlusconi, shops at markets owned by Berlusconi, eats at restaurants owned
by Berlusconi, watches television stations controlled by Berlusconi, and so on.
Accidental Death of an Anarchist: Compare and Contrast 35
Accidental Death of an Anarchist: Topics for Further Study
Accidental Death of an Anarchist employs many elements typical of farce. Research the
characteristics of farce and write an essay on Fo's play as a farce.
Research trickster literatures and write an essay comparing and contrasting figures from two different
traditions, such as a Native American tradition and the African American Uncle Remus tradition.
Research one of the American terrorist groups of the 1960s or 1970s, such as the Weather
Underground or the Symbionese Liberation Army. What were their political beliefs and goals? Did
they consider people acceptable terrorist targets? Who were the leaders of these organizations? What
happened to them? Compile your findings into a report with appropriate subheadings.
What were the political beliefs of anarchists such as Giuseppe Pinelli? Where did anarchist theories
first develop? What are the basic tenets of anarchist politics? Present a report to your class that dispels
misconceptions about anarchists and explains their core political ideals.
At the time of writing Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Fo was running a drama group called La
Comune. Research La Comune within the context of contemporary events in Italian social and
political life. In an essay, explain how the group's ethos and goals are responses to what was
happening in Italy at the time.
Accidental Death of an Anarchist: What Do I Read Next?
Fo's most popular play is Mistero buffo, which means "The Comedic Mystery." It features the
comedic antics of a jester in the medieval tradition of the "jongleurs," traveling entertainers whose
performances flouted the authority of church and state. It has been seen by millions of Italians and
shows Fo's grounding in popular storytelling traditions. This one-man show satirizing landowners, the
Roman Catholic Church, and the Italian government was first performed by Fo in 1969.
The Complete Plays of Vladimir Mayakovsky, translated by Guy Daniels, contains Mayakovsky's
Mystery-Bouffe (1918), an inspiration for Fo's own Mistero buffo. Mayakovsky, a Russian writer who
engaged in subversive socialist political activities, was one of Fo's many influences, thanks to his
revolutionary zeal on the part of Russia's then-disenfranchised peasants and lower classes.
The Uncle Remus tales first published by Joel Chandler Harris in book form in 1880 were told to him
by African American storytellers. These are tales employing trickster figures like the Maniac.
The four plays of Female Parts: One Woman Plays (1981) were written by Fo in collaboration with
his longtime partner, Franca Rame. Rame acted in these plays when they were first produced.

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