Political satire – whether in theatre, on TV or any other traditional or digital media platform – although making ‘people laugh at dramatic things’, ultimately reflects and undoubtedly leaves ‘a sediment of anger’*. Dario Fo’s 1970’s subversive farcical vaudeville ‘Accidental Death of An Anarchist’, directly inspired by real events of the Milan bombings and the consequent ‘accidental … suicide’ of a left-wing supporter who ‘flew’ out of a police station window in 1969, remains as relevant to the current political arena of the world as ever.
Nobel Prize winning dramatist Fo depicts the absurdity of bureaucracy, police violence and media that lost its purpose of public conscience which the audience easily recognises. Fo’s purpose of openly criticising the contemporary Italian governmental establishment and its affiliated support structures represented by ‘an ordinary office in the Central Police HQ, Milan’ is ultimately metaphorically typical of, well, everywhere. And, while one could argue that the initial stage direction of ‘a large window’ firmly roots the absurd play in its historic context, surely the concept of metaphorically throwing suspects out of the window is not unheard of. The ironic tone of the police settling down to ‘an honest inconspicuous day’s work’ – a widely recognised satirical stereotype – sets the audiences’ expectations of being presented with a series of humorous gags at the police’s expense. Only, Fo takes the comedy further by employing a whole array of diverse theatrical techniques: elements of a circus, puns, physical and slapstick comedy, absurd costume changes, witty verbal exchanges or music. All this is contributing to the sense of chaos while providing intense entertainment and manipulating the audiences to completely abandon any sense of vigilance against the forthcoming sudden push to the hard-hitting reality (pun fully intentional). Once comfortably distracted, Fo strikes with a considerably more serious cynical reflection of the tragic, yet all too familiar actuality of some of the practices symptomatic of a corrupt society. The audience? We are left to choke on our tears of laughter. And even in the finale, Fo does not let us off gently: the lack of catharsis in this tragic farce of power only enhances the permanence of its messages: bureaucracy, corruption and non-transparent systems are here to stay.
Arguably, the action is driven by its central character: Maniac. His very presence on stage serves as a simple justification for all the absurd, subversive and inflammatory comments and actions, explained by his being ‘certified’. After all, one of the play’s themes is bureaucracy: if something can be justified by a piece of an official document, the reality of the written content is presumed sacrosanct. As every effective Fool, he aligns himself with those in power, in this case the police, to expose it and to deliver a few ‘honest’ home truths. Throughout the play, he mocks and ridicules its practices to act as a critical voice of reason who alerts us to the fact that ‘society is falling apart’ and ‘corruption is the rule’. As every effective Fool, his disapproval of the official processes is also well cushioned by the comedic elements. For instance light-hearted slapstick such as when the character ‘pokes finger through [the non-existent] glass of his glasses or produces an ‘owl noise’ to create the midnight atmosphere. These jaunty comedic moments are in the latter half of the farce contrasted with the dark physical comedy of ‘somersault as a result of an imaginary blow in stomach’ accompanied by maniacal (pardon the pun) laughter. Even the audiences most decidedly ignoring any critical political messages for the sake of superficial entertainment cannot anymore pretend that they did not notice the recurrent motif of police brutality disguised by silly banter. The ‘deceptions’ to get convictions, nor self-serving ‘first … second first … third version’ of events to meet administrative requirements and to avoid being pilloried by ‘the journalists … flocking around’ leave at best bewilderingly sour tastes in one’s laughing mouth.
Apart from the powerful use of vaudeville humour, Fo also effectively breaks the fourth wall using a direct address to the audience. We are consistently reminded that we are watching a play; we are drawn into action; we become a part of the play. Much like being a part of the real world play since, as Shakespeare noted ‘all the world is a stage’. Fo purposefully places the audience into the position of choice: accept and ignore; accept and follow; make a stand. Fo does not only condemn the establishment; media and its agents are also castigated. Albeit frequently hailed as the means of uncovering unpleasant truths and holding the powers that be to account, they are exposed as manipulated, biased, financially motivated to ‘offer … scandal’ instead of ‘truth’ or facing infringement. Fo’s alternative ending leaves us with the responsibility to stop simply being propelled though our lives by events we cannot affect but, instead, ‘Whichever way it goes, you see, you’ve got to decide.’ It is our responsibility to make the sense of and, therefore, to make the world.
Rather poignantly, ten years after the actual Milan massacre, three fascists (one of them a secret police agent) were convicted of the crime. While a fictional allegory, Fo appears to have been rather prophetic in the content. Not only does the farce feature ‘the fascist youth song’ sang by the police, it also references examples of state corruption and police brutality across the world (including leading Western democracies). Considering some of the current events, it is hardly disputable that many of the ‘stories lack the tiniest vestige of humanity’.