Accidental Death of an Anarchist is a form of political theater, written in response to the death of Giuseppi (Pino) Pinelli, an anarchist who died while in police custody for questioning about a bombing in which he played no part. Some of Fo's regular playgoers requested that he write the play to provide counter-information to the misinformation being propagated about the event by the media. He researched the case thoroughly, drawing from two official inquiries as well as facts shared by friendly journalists and lawyers. His aim was to present this counter-information in a way that would be accessible to all.
The event took place in Milan, Italy, in December 1969, at the end of a tumultuous decade. The two main political parties in Italy at the time were the Christian Democrats and the Italian Communists, with underground forces conspiring to keep the Communists out of government, or to introduce a non-democratic system (possibly fascist or totalitarian). Two failed attempts at a coup d'etat in 1964 and 1970 added to the sense of unease among the populace. Activists reacted by demanding new politics and advocating for revolution, with students ready to join forces with striking trade unionists. Neo-fascists, meanwhile, began carrying out terrorist attacks blamed on left-wing groups, with the aim of creating a climate of fear in which the public would support a powerful totalitarian regime in order to stop the killing. The "attack on the twenty-fifth" (24) mentioned by the Superintendent in the play refers to two bombings on April 25, 1969 at the Milan Exhibition Center and the railway station, both blamed on left-wing organizations. By blaming the left, this "strategy of tension" was also designed to halt the growth of strength of the working class.
On December 12, 1969, a bomb went off in the Banca dell'Agricoltura in Piazza Fontana, located in the center of Milan. 16 people were killed and another 90 were injured. An hour earlier, a bag of explosives had been found at a different bank in Milan, but it did not detonate; the police blew it up rather than disarming it, thus destroying a key piece of evidence. Nobody knows the full truth of what happened that day, but newspapers reported that anarchist groups were responsible. Giuseppe (Pino) Pinelli was one of the first anarchists to be taken in for questioning. He was detained for three days before "falling" out of a fourth-floor window to his death around midnight on December 15. Another anarchist, ballet dancer Pietro Valpreda, was put in jail for three years for his supposed complicity. Neither Pinelli nor Valpreda were actually involved in the attacks, nor, as far as we know, were any members of anarchist groups.
Inspector Luigi Calabresi was in charge of Pinelli's interrogation. Calabresi, whom many suspected of being sympathetic to the fascists, had blamed the Piazza Fontana bombings on "left-wing extremists" and was unlikely to have been impartial to Pinelli. There were five additional officers in Calabresi's office when Pinelli died, as well as a group of journalists in the courtyard below. An autopsy revealed that Pinelli had bruises on his neck. There were massive inconsistencies between the various reports of what happened that night, a fact Fo capitalizes on throughout the play.
A leftist newspaper called the Lotta Continua blamed Calabresi for Pinelli's death, coining or at least popularizing his nickname, "Officer Window-Straddler." Calabresi sued the Lotta Continua and its editor, Pio Baldelli, for criminal libel. The case was still ongoing two months later when Accidental Death of an Anarchist initially premiered on December 10, 1970, one year after Pinelli's death. The script was adapted for each performance to take into account new developments. The trial was contentious, centering more on the death of Pinelli than Baldelli's libel. At one point Calabresi's lawyer challenged the judge, who was removed from the case.
On May 17, 1972, three days after his bodyguard was declared unnecessary, Calabresi was murdered. Nobody was arrested at the time, but in 1988 a man named Leonardo Marino claimed he had driven Calabresi's killers and named the four supposedly guilty men. All had been members of the Lotta Continua in the 1970s. Fo has continued to be interested in the case and wrote Free Marino! Marino is Innocent! in 1998 to satirize Marino's evidence.
Accidental Death of an Anarchist has been performed in over 40 countries, including fascist Chile and apartheid South Africa. It is Fo's best-known play and his second most popular play in Italy (after Mistero Buffo). While some adaptations have mutated into whimsical farce, Fo intended the play to be intensely political, as it was during its initial run in Italy. The first performance took place just a few hours after a demonstration to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Piazza Fontana bombing. A student was killed by tear gas fired by police, and the next day 700 participants convened to discuss the death. The day after that, 3,000 people met to vote on how to commemorate the first anniversary of Pinelli's death. They ended up bringing the city center to a halt with pickets, marches, and demonstrations.
Fo did not advertise his play, yet even so, it was so popular - and so timely - that 500 people had to be turned away one night. Fo often performed outside of conventional theaters, such as in public squares or occupied factories, wanting to bring his message to the common people. There was a "third act" in each performance, a debate between the actors and the audience on the issues raised, with the intention of empowering the audience to think critically and hopefully take action. Fo would also typically begin the evening by talking about current events and finishing with a discussion of the historical context. He rewrote the play many times during rehearsals and also made alterations based on public reaction or in response to ongoing events.
It has been difficult to maintain this same intensity of political activism in translation, where the play is stripped of the introduction and the third act, and where audiences are less familiar with the events upon which the play is based. However, Fo has given translators and directors the freedom to adapt the play as they see fit, substituting appropriate cultural and political references and changing the setting. While at times directors have taken this freedom too far in favor of comic effect, Fo's openness to adaptation has helped his message reach audiences around the world, of whom all can relate to corruption found within state institutions.