Accidental Death of an Anarchist

God exists and he too is a clown.
– Dario Fo

Dario Fo

Dario Fo

Image above is from paolomariani69′s photostream on Flickr here and has been published under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License.

There is no denying Italians have a sense of humour. No, we are not talking about Berlusconi. Jokers get elected in many mature democracies, but arguably the most successful political farce of all time, Morte Accidentale di un Anarchico (Accidental Death of an Anarchist), was penned by an Italian – the Nobel Prize winner, Dario Fo. The play is based on a real-life incident of alleged anarchist Giuseppe Pinelli, who was accused of planting a bomb. He fell out of the window of the fourth floor of the police building where he was being interrogated. The Italian public, till date, remain sceptical of the official police version that he committed suicide or accidentally fell, owing to no fault of the policemen interrogating him. The incident, which transpired in December 1969, inspired Dario Fo, who was a successful left wing dramatist at that time, to write and produce the masterpiece in 1970.

The play is set in the police building where the death of the anarchist occurred, around a week after the incident. The scene opens with a serial impersonator, a self-confessed histrionic maniac, being interrogated by the police. He soon confuses the dim-witted policemen with his insane logic to the point where they realise it’s not worth the trouble to keep him detained. The “Maniac” however, intercepts a phone call and comes to know of the arrival of a judge to enquire into the ‘accidental’ death of the anarchist. The play progresses with the maniac impersonating the judge, and in the process, managing to expose the contradictions in the police story.

This play about police brutality and fallacy within the construct of the powerful continues to be relevant more than forty years after its creation, and the Maniac remains a dream role for every actor.

The play has slapstick, visual gags, double speak and allegorical sequences which successfully demystify the events relating to the death of the anarchist. With the maniac taking up different roles throughout the play, Fo employs a derivation of the mask technique often seen in Commedia dell’arte, a medieval theatre form having its origins in Italy. The play stands out as one of the few devoid of zoomorphic symbolism, an animal imagery often used to de-humanise existence and bring down authority figures from a pedestal: a staple in Fo works like Archangels don’t play Pinball, Mistero Buffo, La Storia della Tigre and Giullarate.

The play uses Verfremdungseffekt, a technique borrowed from Brecht, which is used in almost all the Fo works. An effect of alienation is brought about by the breaking of the fourth wall – by actors interacting with the audience often by dialogue or actions. It is an exercise aimed at the audience being constantly reminded of the performance as a play and reflecting upon it while the performance is on. The result is that as critic Antonio Scuderi puts it, “Often Fo’s farce leaves the audience not in laughter, but with unreleased anger”.

The historical and political background of the play has to be understood in the context of post-World War Italy. The axis of neo-fascist elements in the state machinery and outside, the Catholic Church and capitalistic agents, were active in their opposition to the rising influence of communism in Italy. A “strategy of tension” was covertly implemented to legitimise a state crackdown on the left wing elements by orchestrating a series of bombings, assassinations, and disruptive activities, which could then be attributed to the radical left. The Piazza Fontana bombing which Pinelli was accused of, was widely seen as a part of this strategy. The policemen involved, including Luigi Calabresi, who was later assassinated by the members of a left wing group, were cleared of all charges following an internal enquiry. The official narrative about the death or the suicide overwhelmed the mainstream media establishments. In this context, Accidental Death of an Anarchist is a true counter to hegemony in the Gramscian sense as moral neutrality was a luxury that Fo did not have.

Accidental Death of an Anarchist has been translated into more than forty languages, and it has been performed in many more countries. A peculiar feature of the play is its inherent scope to go beyond the literal translations and adapt to fit various political and cultural contexts. The play was adapted in India by various groups, of which Three-Star Operation, produced by Asmita Theatre, was highly successful. Accidental Death of an Anarchist, like all Fo plays, according to Fo himself, is meant to be performed and evolve with each performance. It is ironic, therefore, that Fo has been critical of many of the translations and adaptations of the play, including a version in English, directed and acted by Gavin Richards, who placed the play in a British setting in 1981.

(Ajith James is a graduate of the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences. This post was first published on here.)


The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

A trend that Anne Frank inadvertently started by penning her diary while hiding as a young girl from the Gestapo, Holocaust literature has come a long way, with books and films exploring an era that almost no longer resides within living memory. The written word and filmmaking will substitute the tales of sorrow and valour that are told and retold by those who endured hell on earth. The common deployment of children as protagonists is perhaps because the naiveté of a child contributes to the notion of innocent victimhood. Holocaust authors have an overwhelming responsibility – to speak for those that cannot, without downplaying or over-emphasising their endeavours and ignoring the details of the harsh reality that numbed the conscience of the world.

John Boyne’s 2006 novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which was later made into a feature film that ran for days to packed houses, explores the Holocaust from the point of view of two eight-year olds – a young German boy, Bruno, the son of a Nazi soldier in charge of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, and a young Jewish boy, Shmuel, an inmate of the very same camp, who forge a friendship. The liaison stirs up much consternation, as lines are crossed at every turn. The text is peppered with childlike references to the Fuhrer as the “Fury”, and Auschwitz as “Out With”.


Auschwitz. Image here and on article banner originally published on muddyclay's photostream on Flickr. Image published under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.
Auschwitz. Image here and on article banner originally published on muddyclay’s photostream on Flickr. Image published under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

The story begins with a disgruntled Bruno, vehemently begging to return to Berlin after arriving at Auschwitz. Overall, one can gather that the decision to move, which was made by the Fuhrer himself for the family, was not very well received by all except Bruno’s father himself. Bruno spends his time usefully, annoying his sister, who he insists is a “Hopeless Case”. Bruno’s father has an office in their house, one which is “Out of Bounds at All Times No Exceptions”. Bruno lives in a house located a stone’s throw of the concentration camp. He has a servant – Pavel, a Jew, who dressed and bandaged a wound that Bruno inflicted on himself while playing. Bruno’s mother then steps in and offers to keep Pavel’s intervention a secret from her husband, who would do anything to signify his hatred for the man. A later point in the story reveals a similar anathematic stance taken by Bruno’s father’s mother.

Bruno has no inkling of what the camp is, and is actually given to believe that its inhabitants, all dressed in white and blue striped pyjamas – are spending their time on vacation while their children are happily playing games all day long. Ironically, Bruno feels twangs of jealousy, and envies their carefree lives and friendships. When his family learns of the vantage point that gave him a chance to see the camp, the window in his room is boarded up. Bruno begins surreptitiously leaving his house, and speaking with a little Jewish boy, across a barbed fence. Shmuel tells him about his family, and Bruno is intrigued.

After nearly a year’s worth of meetings, Bruno still doesn’t have a clue about what is going on inside the camp. The friendship between the two hardly bodes well for either, leading Bruno to refute its very existence when he finds himself in the thick of trouble. Shmuel bears the stigma of being drubbed a liar and a little thief as a result of Bruno’s denial, which is guileless, but devoid of all compunction. The forgiving and unconditional nature of an eight-year-old is brought to fore, as Shmuel forgives his best friend, who in turn, clandestinely smuggles food off the table from his house for Shmuel. The story generously builds on the innocence of the children, and culminates in a heart-rending climax.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has been under the scanner for historic-factual inaccuracy, alleging that the ignorance evinced by the protagonist is unbelievable, and to some, unacceptable. The allegation that the book undermines the grim reality that the Holocaust is, is harsh and baseless.  Bruno’s mother has had an upper-hand in his upbringing, striving to ensure that her son does not know of the horrific nightmare that the Holocaust itself is, and opposing her husband at every permissible turn, trying to question his move. Critical opinion that it was impossible for someone living close to a camp would know nothing of it is dubious, considering that the protagonist was a child of green years. The film shows Bruno sniffing the horrific stench of bodies being burnt, and even watches plumes of smoke rising into the sky, and asking his parents about it subsequently. He isn’t given an answer, and is distracted – an attention span that is reasonably consistent with a child of his age. Understandably, the Holocaust was horrific. Nevertheless, it does not preclude the existence of “good” Germans, such as Bruno’s mother, who confronts her husband virulently for his remorseless conduct, as confirmed by the stellar factual example in the form of Miep Gies from Anne Frank’s life.

The film lends the cadaverous story of the book more flesh. I recommend that one should both, read the book and watch the movie, to assimilate all that it stands for.

(Kirthi Jayakumar is a graduate of the School of Excellence in Law, Chennai.)