Accidental Death of an Anarchist
, a play by Italian playwright Dario Fo, is based loosely on real-life events involving the Italian rail worker and anarchist Giuseppe Pinelli, who died under mysterious circumstances while in police custody in 1969. Pinelli, accused of the notorious Piazza Fontana bombing, was cleared of the charges after his death. The events that led to Pinelli’s death have never been revealed, and Fo’s intention is to depict a fictionalized version of the aftermath, through the actions of a scheming con man known only as the Maniac. The play explores themes of political corruption, repression, the nature of truth versus illusion, class struggle, and the conflict between reformers and revolutionaries. Accidental Death of an Anarchist
is Fo’s most acclaimed and famous play, having been staged across the world since its premiere in Milan in 1970. It continues to be staged regularly today, and was followed by a sequel, Knock Knock! Who’s There? The Police!
, which did not receive the same level of popular attention, but was critically acclaimed by peers and critics.
As Accidental Death of an Anarchist
opens, Inspector Francesco Bertozzo is interrogating a clever, sneaky fraudster who is only known as the Maniac. The setting is Bertozzo’s office on the third floor of Milan’s police headquarters. The Maniac consistently outwits the simple-minded Bertozzo, and when the Inspector leaves the room, he intercepts a phone call from Inspector Pissani. Through this call, he finds out that a judge is coming to the station to look into the recent death of an anarchist while in police custody. The Maniac pretends to be a co-worker of Bertozzo’s and tells Pissani that Bertozzo is mocking him. The Maniac then impersonates the judge, Marco Malipiero, as a way to humiliate the policemen responsible for the supposedly accidental death. Taking Bertozzo’s coat and hat as a disguise, he leads the inspector on a chase, but Bertozzo is stopped when Pissani punches him for his supposed insult.
The Maniac, now in the guise of Judge Malipiero, finds Pissani and his sidekick the Constable. They are in the room where the anarchist died, and the Maniac tells them he is the judge. He asks for the Superintendent, who was also involved in the interrogation, and demands the three men reenact the interrogation. They fabricate many of the events, turning it into a farce where the three of them act as if it was a friendly conversation rather than a tense interrogation. When the conversation turns to the anarchist’s fall from the third floor, the Constable claims he grabbed the anarchist’s shoe to keep him from falling. However, the Maniac notes that witnesses saw the anarchist had both shoes. Although Pissani suggests that it may have been a galosh, the Superintendent gets angry and Pissani slips up, revealing that the Superintendent pushed the anarchist out the window. The phone suddenly rings, and Pissani answers. A journalist named Maria Feletti wants to meet with them to clear up some rumors about the interrogation and the death.
Worried that the presence of “Judge Malipero”a would make them targets, the policemen tell the Maniac to leave for now. This gives the Maniac the chance to disguise himself again, this time as a Roman forensic scientist named Captain Piccini. Feletti presents the policemen with evidence that might expose them, and this is when the Maniac enters again, disguised as a well-dressed man supposedly missing an arm.“Piccini” comes up with a story about how the anarchist may have died, with a policeman accidentally injuring him, the anarchist going to the window for fresh air, and being accidentally pushed out by the clumsy policemen. Feletti is skeptical, given that it was originally reported as a suicide. Bertozzo arrives, bringing with him a replica of a bomb from an anarchist attack. Bertozzo almost recognizes the Maniac, but Pissani and the Superintendent dissuade him. Feletti starts picking apart the flaws in the stories, proving that the anarchists in Milan are actually fascists, not anarchist revolutionaries.
Bertozzo, seeing his coat and hat, realizes that the Maniac is in disguise. He holds the other policemen and the Maniac at gunpoint, ordering Feletti to cuff them. He manages to expose the Maniac, but the Maniac reveals a tape recorder that proves the policemen were lying and exposes their role in the anarchist’s death. He strips off his disguise to reveal his true identity, Paulo Davidovitch Gandolpho, also known as the “Prose Pimpernel of the Permanent Revolution.” He reveals that the bomb replica is functional and sets it on a timer. Feletti attempts to stop him from killing the policemen, calling him an extremist and a maniac. He tells her she can save them and put him in prison, or she can leave them to die for their crimes and join him as an accomplice. He then leaves to spread the recording. The play ends as the Maniac turns to the audience, telling them that if Feletti leaves the policemen, they die. However, if she saves them, they take her prisoner because she knows too much. He asks the audience which ending they prefer.
Dario Fo was an Italian playwright, comedian, theater director, singer, and political activist. A lifelong activist for left wing causes, he was the winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Literature. Over a nearly sixty-year career, he wrote dozens of plays, many of which were controversial for their commentary on social, political, and religious affairs. He is still best known today for Accidental Death of an Anarchist
, one of the plays that has been translated into English and staged regularly outside of his native Italy.