Accidental Death of an Anarchist: Ha Ha, Only Serious

Winfield Swanson as "Constable" in Accidental Death of an Anarchist at Contemporary Theater Company (Photo: CTC)

Winfield Swanson as “Constable” in Accidental Death of an Anarchist at Contemporary Theater Company (Photo: CTC)

Perhaps the most serious madcap farce ever written, playwright Dario Fo made continuing revisions to his 1970 Accidental Death of an Anarchist to keep up with current events in the real case that inspired it. Italy from the late 1960s to the early 1980s was approaching internal civil war with both the far-right and the far-left employing hundreds of terrorist bombings as a mechanism of political influence, a period commonly known as the “Years of Lead,” a reference to bullets flying. Although it is impossible to identify clear start and end points, it was bookended in popular memory by two bombings with death tolls in double-digits, the Piazza Fontana bombing in December 1969 (killing 17 and wounding at least 88) and the Bologna massacre in August 1980 (killing 85 and wounding at least 200).

After the 1969 bombing, the police automatically arrested a number of people associated with the far-left, including Giuseppe Pinelli, who at the time was the secretary of the Italian chapter of the international Anarchist Black Cross, a group whose stated goal is to provide support services to leftists imprisoned for revolutionary acts such as bombings. Pinelli’s death three days later as a result of falling from a fourth-floor window of a police station during interrogation became a cause célèbre, leading to judicial inquiries and media scrutiny. The police claimed that Pinelli had voluntarily leaped to his death and committed suicide, but there were substantial inconsistencies in their reports and their stories kept changing. By July 1970, the official inquiry concluded that the death was “accidental,” a finding that the death was not by suicide but clearing the police of wrongdoing. The left was convinced that Pinelli had been murdered by the police and blamed Deputy Inspector Luigi Calabresi, who was (along with Police Chief Marcello Guida) the model for the character of “The Superintendent” in the play.

Despite extensive negative coverage of the police by the mainstream weekly L’espresso and its reporter Camilla Cederna, the model for the character of “Maria Feletti” in the play, Calabresi chose to sue only the left-wing newspaper Lotta Continua (“Continuous Struggle”) for libel. It was the filing of this lawsuit in April 1970 and the trial beginning in October 1970 with its daily revelations of new documents and evidence that inspired Accidental Death of an Anarchist, first performed in December 1970, with the play itself in constant revision as more information became available, a tradition continued as the script is modified to take account of local issues wherever it is performed. If Calabresi’s goal in suing was to muzzle the press, his approach badly backfired. The police were gravely embarrassed stumbling all over themselves, with Fo incorporating into the play almost verbatim bizarre but real testimony such as this from a police officer answering a question whether he heard Calabresi say something:

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.

Without any publicity, the play had to turn away 500 prospective attendees on opening night because they could not fit into the theater, and regularly sold out each night following. Fo wrote an introduction to the British version of the play in 1980, explaining his purpose:

Our intervention… was therefore, above all, an exercise in counter-information. Using authentic documents – and complete transcripts of the investigations carried out by the various judges as well as police reports – we turned the logic and truth of the facts on [their] head. But the great and provocative impact of this play was determined by its theatrical form: rooted in tragedy, the play became farce – the farce of power. The public who came to the theatre… was overwhelmed by the grotesque and apparently mad way in which the play worked. They split their sides laughing at the effects produced by the comical and at the same time satirical situations. But as the performance went on, they gradually came to see that they were laughing the whole time at real events, events which were criminal and obscene in their brutality: crimes of the state.

Calabresi was assassinated in May 1972, a murder to which a member of Lotta Continua confessed involvement in 1988, leading to the conviction of several other members in May 1990. Another inquiry concluded in October 1975 that Pinelli had fallen from the window because he fainted, losing his balance, and that Calabresi was not in the room at the time – conclusions regarded by the left as further cover-up.

Evidence mounted that the original 1969 bombing had been the work of the far-right rather than the far-left, but a series of trials and retrials ended inconclusively in 1987, in part because the director and a captain of the SID, the Italian then-equivalent to the British MI-5, illegally destroyed and concealed evidence to protect the far-right, an offense for which they were convicted in 1987. By 2004, it was generally accepted even by the courts that the bombing had been carried out by the neo-fascist group Ordine Nuovo (“New Order”).

As to the play itself, it opens with a “Maniac” (Kelly Robertson) being interrogated by “Inspector Bertozzo” (Witt Tarantino) with the assistance of “Constable 1” (Winfield Swanson) for fraudulently impersonating all sorts of other people, including psychiatrist and university lecturer “Professor Antonio Rabbia.” (In Italian, “rabbia” means “madman,” a cognate for “rabid.”) While Bertozzo is out of his office, the Maniac intercepts a telephone call from “Inspector Pissani” (Riley Cash), from which the Maniac learns that a judge is coming to conduct an official inquiry into the death of the anarchist who went out of the fourth floor window. The Maniac employs well-honed impersonation skills to convince Pissani, “Constable 2” (Swanson) who looks exactly like Constable 1 but with a false mustache, and “The Superintendent” (Ryan Sekac), all of whom unlike Bertozzo have never met the Maniac before, that the Maniac is the judge. Impersonating the investigator, the Maniac makes the police officers reenact the events leading up to the death of the anarchist as they repeatedly contradict each other and produce increasingly ridiculous explanations and excuses. Journalist “Maria Feletti” (Christine Pavao) arrives, and the police officers under investigation decide to deceive her by passing off the judge as another police officer visiting from a neighboring jurisdiction.

Near the end, the supposed Maniac espouses a coherent theory that state power is inherently corrupt, and that everyone – journalists, police officers, anarchists – is involuntarily and inescapably in service to it. The actors begin breaking the fourth wall, also a tradition associated with the play from its earliest performances when police infiltrators sitting in the audience were directly addressed from the stage. Excursions from the script commenting on current events were, according to co-director Ouardane “Dane” Jouannot, composed by the cast.

The Contemporary Theater Company production of Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Nobel Laureate for Literature Dario Fo is an incredibly sharp satire with a brilliant cast. From the clown-nosed constables of Winfield Swanson to the impressive physical comedy of Riley Cash, the audience is lured into what seems on the surface a typical farce, but the maniacal sanity of the outstanding Kelly Robertson is the key to making the whole play work as her character just wants to watch the world burn.

Basing a dramatic work on a political death and ensuing cover-up is hardly a unique idea, much like the contemporaneous 1969 Oscar-winning cinematic masterpiece Z by Costa-Gavras, which was inspired by the real-life 1963 assassination of center-left Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis by the far-right. The film Z opens with a “disclaimer” that actually disclaims nothing: “Any similarity to actual persons or events is DELIBERATE.” In fact, Greece was one place where performances of Accidental Death of an Anarchist have resulted in arrests.

The play is a classic slapstick farce with all of the usual tropes of mistaken identity, over-the-top costuming, implausible disguises including a wooden leg and a glass eye, and highly improbable chance events, but it never loses its serious undercurrent that the police are buffoons in the course of covering up a death. The notorious atheist Voltaire wrote, “I always made one prayer to God, a very short one. Here it is: ‘O Lord, make our enemies very ridiculous!’ God granted it.” Fo could have said the same thing and – through his character of the Maniac whose unmooring from reality provides the freedom to see and criticize the world clearly – he does.

Accidential Death of an Anarchist, co-directed by Ouardane “Dane” Jouannot and Christopher J. Simpson, Contemporary Theater Company, 327 Main St, Wakefield. Thu, Fri, Sat through July 8; Thursdays are “pay what you can” at the door. Handicap accessible. About 2h including 10m intermission. Refreshments available, including wine and beer. Tel: 401-218-0282. Web: Tickets: Facebook:

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