The Accidental Death of an Anarchist: Dario Fo

How does Dario Fo subvert official history in the “Accidental Death of an Anarchist”?

Dario Fo’s “The Accidental Death of an Anarchist” makes a strong subversive critique of official history in terms of making an “Immediate Intervention” of counter information against the neo-fascist Italian government’s propaganda for discrediting the Communist Party of Italy after the Piazza Fontana Bombing and more interestingly, also subversion at the level of the form he uses in his play deriving from popular cultural traditions of Italy dating back to the Medieval Ages, the use of farce and the grotesque serving an interactive educative function along the lines of Brecht’s ‘Epic theatre’. All of Fo’s works are all deliberately subversive in nature and are inspired by Antonio Gramsci theory of cultural hegemony.

The Fontana Bombing, occurred on 12 December 1969, when a bomb exploded at the headquarters of Banca Nazionale dell’Agricoltura (National Agrarian Bank) in Piazza Fontana in Milan, Italy, killing 17 people and wounding 88. Immediately after the bombing, fascists of the Italian Social Movement distributed leaflets denouncing the “red terror”. The police in Milan went into action sweeping up a number of socialists, communists and anarchist activists. After around 80 arrests were made, just before the midnight of 15th September, after almost 3 days of illegal detention, suspect, Giuseppe “Pino” Pinelli (an anarchist railway worker) was reported dead after falling from the fourth floor window of the police station where he was being held. The police investigation called it a suicide after Pinelli confessed to have been complicitous in the Bombing. Charges were framed against the policemen on duty and in the first judicial enquiry of May 1970, the enquiring Magistrate decided that Pinelli’s death was caused by a loss of consciousness, ‘malore’. During this period, The Italian Communist Party (PCI) was growing immensely in popularity and was about to join the ruling Democrazia Christiana in a national unity government (The Historic Compromise). It was the ‘Hot Autumn’ of Italy steeped in student uprisings, huge mass campaigns, protests and demonstrations. This was preceded and followed by a series of bombings carried out by the neo-fascists groups supported by the United States and the then-fascist Greek government as part of the its Strategy of Tension to divide, manipulate, and control public opinion in Italy towards communism by using fear, propaganda, disinformation, psychological warfare and false flag terrorist actions so as to aid the formation of an authoritarian government. Dario Fo through the play, is thus conducting an exercise to subvert this strategy of tension by not only providing a counter information campaign about the discrepancies in the official account but also exposing how the various mechanisms of the capitalist bourgeoisie state in its representative parliamentary form collude to constitute an exploitative social system. He provides a penetrating insight into the nature of power and politics in contemporary society and the play brings out some of its contradictions. On the political purpose behind “Accidental Death of an Anarchist”, Dario Fo in an interview said, “The Accidental Death of an Anarchist was produced in response to the Piazza Fontana bombings. Really it was commissioned by our audience which wanted to explore the event. While we performed it the framed trial against Lotta Continua for this massacre was taking place. The defense lawyers would come to us with daily updates on the proceedings and each night we incorporated the news into the play. In fact we always try to give space to the sort of facts that ordinary media would neglect to mention.”

In the play, Fo presents a grotesque farce which reveals the contradictions between the official history provided by police officer’s statements and their actions to reveal the death of the anarchist as a custodial death. Assuming the role of Matto or maniac, loose in police quarters, Fo conducts an enquiry into what might have really happened. By pretending to be, in turn to be various figures of authority – psychiatrist, professor, magistrate, bishop, forensic expert – the Maniac forces officials to re-create the events with the purpose of showing the inconsistencies in the official reports of Pinelli’s “leap” and to confess their responsibility in the anarchist’s death.  Fo’s ‘documentative theatre’ satirizes the role of the judiciary in providing justice by showing how it discriminates between the working class and the elite and how the people given this power are already the elite and the state further reinforces their status and the economic structures of society. The judge also in the kind of sentences he gives reinforces the class structures of society and these judgments are given as a ‘corrective’ against people protesting against state authority –“They dictate, legislate, sentence decree.” In a democracy, it is thus the judiciary or the arms of the state which replaces royalty – “They are sacred, the royalty”. By exposing the complicity of the judiciary in maintaining state repression, Fo thus subverts the official account of the initial judicial enquiry on Pinelli’s which terms it as an “accident”. There is subversion in the play also at the level of inversion of authority when the madman keeps using the law to undermine the authority of the policeman or when he has completely taken control in the room of the police headquarters not just in terms of verbal control but in driving the very course of action to the point that he makes the policemen in the room sing together with him “The Internationale”. The madman manages to create mayhem within the policeman, representatives of law and order and figures of authority are made to appear ridiculous and a target of laughter. He exposes how people in power are all in collusion to save their own and the judiciary is not to be upheld as the symbol of equality and justice but is a “collaborator” in the whole process, in the role of the Magistrate that he takes up – “the new Bastion of old Morality”, “The Superintendent will get on with him like a house on fire”. The madman as the magistrate and the investigative journalist Feletti exposes all the loopholes in the police account – the discrepancies in the different versions of the police, the ‘police time-wrap’, the Superintendent’s contradictory statements on the anarchist’s nature when he calls him first a ‘delinquent scum’ and then in another press statement terms him “a good lad”, his illegal detention in police custody, the fabrication of the fact of “a confession to the Milan Massacre by our anarchist’s best friend, the dancer”, the ignoring of the account of the ‘aged and under-nourished’ witnesses “consuming vast amounts of alcohol” who said that the accused was elsewhere in opposition to a “well groomed, well fed, well dressed and white” witness whose evidence would have been “admissible”;   the deconstruction of the theory of the ‘raptus’ and questioning of its so called scientific psychological rationale, the various little details like the ambulance being called before the body landed on the ground, or the anarchist’s shoes.

Dario Fo here through the madman works along the lines of Gramsci’s concept of hegemony about how the bourgeoisie state maintains its power not just through coercion, but also through consent through the assimilation of various class interests into the ideology of the ruling class determined by a “hegemonic principle” based on the economic system. Consent is exercised both in civil society and its various apparatuses like the media and as well as through various arms of the state like the legislative, the judiciary and the executive and systems under the parliamentary form like elections, universal adult suffrage, the schooling system etc.  Fo, thus, subverts official history by educating his audience about how all these mechanisms work towards formation of consent on the monopoly of legitimate violence by the state and state control amongst civil society and reinforces existing class relations. It is clear that the police uses all mechanisms of the state and civil society to disseminate its story when the madman exclaims, “You lied to the enquiry and you lied to the public in the press and on television.” or when he says before the journalist Feletti enters that “we need people like her on our side”.  It is necessary for the police not just to present a credible story but also a story that assists in maintaining a certain consent among the masses. The play destroys and disrupts the idea of ‘normalcy’ as espoused by the state in its official history. The text presents a grotesque, bizarre and farcical reality. By presenting the policeman as intellectually unthinking individuals it questions our own unthinking acceptance of the law. The fact that as the play proceeds everything keeps becoming more and more bizarre, is to prove a point against “normal reality”. It is inciting of the audience to realize what is it to which they are consenting to, questioning this kind of official exercise of power which is taken as normal. Fo is also critical of the Reformist strategies adopted by the PCI and or the general liberal position of people like Feletti and the Social Democrats when the Madman refers to the “justice that is not quite so unjust”. Fo brings out how scandals and subsequent reforms can only achieve superficial changes. It is in fact how working class movements can be suppressed as instead of participating in class struggle people would be satisfied with the superficial changes seen through reforms.

These scenes also show how hegemony is like a battlefield and has to undergo continuous modifications and readjustments, and consent needs to be constantly won and re-won by incorporating more and more the interests of other classes, which also means that there is class struggle and hence there is a space for a counter hegemony. Fo is in his play is thus involved in a counter hegemonic exercise wherein he uses theatre for the subversion of the official history of a certain political reality.

Fo’s subversion of official history is also at the level of the form that he uses in the play which derives itself from popular culture. In an interview, Fo says, “I think the popular is subversive in itself. Its basic themes lend themselves to that….We think raising these subjects in theatre is revolutionary” Bakthin regards official history as a straight genre, which is a straight discourse, a particular account serving the purpose of maintaining the hegemony of the bourgeoisie state. Farce, grotesque, parody found extensively in popular culture thus serves as a comic corrective, as a critique of official account and opens up a dimension of reality different from official history. The Comic genre hence presents a travesty for the critique of authority and power, which official history upholds. According to Fo’s interpretation of the Gramscian concept of cultural hegemony and the National Popular, historically the popular culture of the masses has been systematically pillaged and appropriated by the privileged elite, who claimed anything worthwhile as their own. Part of this hegemonic process is to lead the masses to believe that their culture is low and inferior. It is hence the duty of the Marxist intellectual to help the masses to regain a sense of appreciation and dignity of their own culture. In this vein, Fo regards theatre as a form of ideological dissemination for getting consent. He believes that official European culture has imposed a notion of hierarchy of theatrical genres, based on interpretations of Aristotle’s Poetics. This hierarchical mindset exalts tragedy and drama over comedy and elevates performing arts of official culture while degenerating all popular forms; right down to, to quote Fo “puppet theatre, tumblers and clowns. Mime, pantomime, grotesque song and dance are not even worth considering.” He uses the term teatro minore to refer to all forms of performance that are considered second-rate or marginal, deriving from or primarily informed by popular tradition. ‘The Accidental Death of an Anarchist’, like most of Fo’s plays is thus based on popular forms of performance that incorporates farce, the grotesque, mimes, puppets, clowning, slapstick, sight gags and theatrical devices of variety theatre. In the play, plot takes precedence over character, keeping with the tradition of the story-telling of the fabulatori. His theatre draws from the popular 16th century modes of the Comedia de larte, the harlequin figure. The madman goes back to the tradition of the clown. Fo also believed that use of popular culture as essential for capturing a sustained interest of the audience and for enabling them to engage pro-actively in the play, “An audience which is not used to following a continuous discussion with no pauses would grow bored after a while and loose its contact with the topic being discussed.”

The use of the Grotesque in Fo’s play is a carnivalesque subversion of the official culture of the fascist aesthetics of beauty and unity of whole on one hand and on the other hand, a motif for representation of the masses and their culture wherein this ‘grotesque’ becomes a celebration of a living organic alternative to the fascist state. Bakhtin defines the principle of grotesque realism as the lowering of the spiritual and abstract to the material level of earth and body. Fo was aware of the important role that the grotesque played in popular comedy, “I discovered the dimension of the grotesque; the grotesque as a critical approach that serves to expose the fallacies of a fictive reality.” One of the strongest examples in the play of grotesquely charged slapstick is the dismemberment of the bomb expert’s body. The scene leads to a complete subversion of the abstract ideals of fascist aesthetics of the ideal of a unified beautiful State and provides a new critical approach to reality as mentioned earlier. Here, Pisani represents the state and the scene exposes the ease with which the state can replace the living with the artificial. The fact that the body can be dismembered, and that it has been torn apart by violence subverts the official image that the State conveys of itself as an integrated whole. What Fo is showing is that the state is not this perfect body as official history portrays it to be, but it instead a ‘grotesque’ unhealthy one. However, when Pisani’s body starts falling apart, the mad man representative of the grotesque body takes over. The play presents an alternative of which is Organic and people oriented and driven. The grotesque hence then becomes symbolic of the exploited and marginalized masses (‘aging bodies of the worker’ ‘limp and working as a window dresser’, ‘old infirm and disabled’ witnesses etc) and takes on a regenerative function. There are also a lot of sexual references and use of body language or gesture seen as ‘impolite’ by dominant culture. The madman while impersonating the various figures of authority also parodies their speech and mannerism performing a subversive effect on the officially sanctioned codes of conduct and behaviour. This parody of mannerisms goes back to the Middle Ages of suburban Rome, which had a rich culture of parody.

The use of farce or parody in The Accidental Death of an Anarchist, for which Fo has been often criticized, is also a very conscious political decision on his part which draws itself from medieval popular culture. Bakhtin describes parody as a ‘comic doubling’ where the forms/mediums of representation become objects of representation. Thus in the play, Fo puts the forms of representing reality practiced by official history within the frame of critique of social democracy. Fo’s parodied and travestied forms are also ‘intentional dialogized hybrids’, it is an interactive conversational form where a dialogue occurs of voices from different discourses and perspectives; which has a subversive effect on the uni-dimensional nature of an official narrative. For instance, when the Mad Man is parodying the judge, it is interspersed with his own comments as well. Fo is also aware of the limitations of the parodic form, his subversion of official history is also accompanied with a straight forward critique as well where he cites historical examples of state violence and injustice (“About sixteen years ago in the south east of England, three men and one woman were physically abused and threatened into confessing to an appalling bombing of which they were not guilty” or the documentative realism of Feletti) – laughter never becomes only a release in the play, one is never allowed to forget the magnitude of the political significance and hence its subversive nature is never lost.

Fo’s play is also a questioning of the dominant realist tradition of literature, his theatre also draws itself from Brechtian epic theatre. The changing guises of the Mad Man subvert the realist notion of a fixed universal identity which theatre is supposed to represent. Identity is hence, fluid and dynamic and the self is socially constructed and hence man is a socially produced entity. In an interview, Fo explains how “an actor must be an exclusive renderer of whatever happens, that he does not have to wear a robe to become a character”. Fo argues that an actor in a play needs to become a “mask”, which he defines as “a dialectical synthesis of conflicts” and it is not an identification with the character that needs to be sought. Instead one should be able to “criticize, suggest conflicts, contradictions, hypocrisies and comment under any circumstance.”  This is, Fo says “the epic fact, the estrangement. This is theatre’s fundamental ideological condition”. The play also questions the power of language. The presentation of language as always a transparent signifier is subverted in the play by showing how it can be manipulated and how spoken and written forms of language can be different very often. The mad man uses exact grammatical rules to manipulate the truth when the Inspector accuses him of fraud.

In conclusion, it can be said, that the performances of “The Accidental Death of an Anarchist” by Fo between 1970-72 in itself constituted a subversion of official history as Fo performed not in official bourgeoisies institutional theatrical circuits, but in proletariat spaces like Case del Popolo (literally House of People), movie houses, dance halls etc. To quote Fo, “We invented a form of theatre for these spaces, controversial performances which created great debates that went on for hours after the shows…..their desires and needs came up directly from these debates and the subject matter we took followed directly from them.” The play created a strong political atmosphere, running around 200 shows and reaching out to more than 3 million people. Fo was assaulted and imprisoned and his wife, Rame was kidnapped, brutalized and abused as punishment for their part in exposing the police cover-up.


  1. A Short Interview with Dario Fo by Anders Stephenson and Daniela Salvioni
  2. Dario Fo Explains: An Interview by Luiggi Ballerini, Giuseppe Risso, Lorent Halquist
  3. Dario Fo: The Roar of the Clown by Ron Jenkins
  4. Unmasking the Holy Jester Dario Fo by Antonio Scruderi
  5. Dario Fo: Jester of the Working Class by Dominico Maceri
  6. Dario Fo: Puppets for Proletariat Revolution by Richard Sogliuzzo

3 Responses to “Subverting Official History: Dario Fo”

  1. chryssula Says:

    This is a very insightful piece. Thanks very much!

  2. excellent piece! how you incorporated gramsci in the analysis was wonderful

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s