Accidental Death of an Anarchist

Accidental Death of an Anarchist Summary and Analysis of Act One, Scene One


The scene opens in a room on the third floor of police headquarters. The Maniac's face appears at the window. He opens the window and climbs inside with a large bag.

Inspector Bertozzo and a Constable enter through the door. Bertozzo checks the Maniac's file and notes he has a charge against him for impersonation, his twelfth. He is mad, diagnosed with "acting mania". Most recently he played a psychiatrist and charged two hundred pounds to diagnose a boy with schizophrenia, a charge he justifies by claiming the boy's family wouldn't have taken him seriously otherwise. He also denies that his business card constitutes fraud due to the placement of commas and periods. 

The Maniac continues his quick-witted banter, quoting articles from the penal code, and Bertozzo expresses surprise that the Maniac has yet to impersonate a judge. The Maniac responds that he would love to: it's the best job in the world because, unlike most jobs where people are less valued as they get older, a judge is promoted each passing year. Bertozzo offers to let the Maniac go as soon as he takes down his statement, but the Maniac says he would rather stay and, if he is not allowed to do so, he'll throw himself out the window. Bertozzo has the Constable lock the window and pushes the Maniac out the door. Bertozzo and the Constable leave for a meeting.

The Maniac reenters and, seeing the office empty, rifles through arrest sheets he sees on the desk. He destroys some and keeps others, then opens a cupboard full of files. One, labeled 'Judge's Decision To Terminate Inquiry Into Death At Police Headquarters', catches his eye. As he begins to read, the phone rings and the Maniac answers. The caller is the Inspector from the fourth floor. From the Maniac's side of the conversation we can infer that the Inspector has heard a judge is coming to the station to reopen the investigation about the death of an anarchist who fell out of a fourth-story window while under police custody. The Maniac pretends that Bertozzo is in the room and is making rude comments about the Inspector and his situation, including blowing him a raspberry. Angrily, the inspector responds that the next time he sees Bertozzo, he will punch him in the face. 

When the Maniac hangs up, he realizes he can impersonate the aforementioned judge and practices his disguise, borrowing a coat and hat from the rack. Bertozzo returns and the Maniac warns him that someone is looking for him to punch him in the face. The Maniac leaves and Bertozzo notices his coat and hat are missing. He sends the Constable after the Maniac to get them, but the Constable is detained by the Inspector from the fourth floor who has just arrived. The scene ends with an arm stretched out from the doorway punching Bertozzo in the face. He collapses and the Maniac reappears, shouting, "I told you to duck!" 


Accidental Death of an Anarchist dramatizes (through farce) the real-life case of the 1969 death of Italian anarchist Giuseppe "Pino" Pinelli, who died in police custody after being blamed for a terrorist attack. The play first premiered in Italy less than a year after Pinelli's death, written by outspoken leftist Dario Fo in an effort to expose corruption and inspire activism. The play has since been performed in over 40 countries, each version adapted to correspond to the cultural and political context in which it is performed, maintaining Fo's intention of drama as a tool to stoke critical thought. Even the original play was rewritten many times during rehearsals, and Fo sometimes altered the script during performances based on the public's reaction or in response to current events. The language of the play is idiomatic, appealing to the nonelite, as Fo encouraged translators to use local slang in place of his own. He encouraged translators to change cultural references to maintain relevance. Thus, this translation by Simon Nye is full of British slang (e.g., tosspot, bird-witted ponce, piss-taking) and contains allusions a British audience would understand.

The Maniac is the main character of the play. He is presented as a quick-witted trickster, a character familiar in comic tradition. Fo was inspired by the commedia dell'arte archetype the Harlequin, a member of the underclass who comically thwarts a higher-up by outwitting them. Here, the Maniac acts as a foil for the police, asserting the worthiness of the common people despite the disdain they are shown by the authorities. Although the Maniac is said to be mad, the play will reveal that he is actually more sensible than anyone else.

The opening interchange between the Maniac and Bertozzo sets the mood of the play as a knockabout farce, a type of comedy that entertains through highly exaggerated and improbable situations, the deliberate use of absurdity, and physical humor. The Maniac's twisting of language and grammar when discussing his business card introduces the way that language can be used as a tool of deception, as the political elite and state-sponsored media have done to promote their own cause. 

One of Fo's purposes is to educate his audience, and much of the play shares what probably happened when Pinelli was detained. The blame placed on the anarchist was specious at best, and the prevailing theory was that Pinelli fell or was thrown out of the window. Accidental or not, the police were culpable for Pinelli's death. The Maniac's darkly comic jokes repeatedly reference the circumstances of the anarchist's death. He says ironically, "No, don't throw me out, Inspector. I love it here with you, among policemen. I feel safe" (9). The Maniac continues, making his intention more obvious: "Inspector, let me stay, or I'll throw myself out of the window" (10). 

The scene also contains several allusions to real people and events. The Maniac finds a file entitled "Judge's Decision to Terminate Inquiry Into Death At Police Headquarters" (11); there was such an inquiry carried out by a judge who concluded that the death had been an accident. The Maniac refers to the Inspector on the phone as Inspector Throws-Anarchists-Out-the-Windows, letting the audience know that this character is meant to represent Luigi Calabresi; there was a rumor that he would invite suspects to sit on his window ledge and taunt them to jump. As noted above, the Maniac also asks the Inspector if his boss used to run a mercenary outfit in Bosnia; in the original version of the play, this was a reference to a prison camp for anti-fascists. Marcello Guida, chief of police during the Pinelli incident - and the model for the Superintendent - ran a prison camp in southern Italy. Finally, there is an allusion to dancer Pietro Valpredo, the other anarchist arrested while Pinelli was in custody. 

Devices meant to engage the audience also occur in Scene One. The Maniac reflects on how much he would like to be a judge, foreshadowing his later impersonation. As he tries on different personas, he engages directly with the audience, telling them, "At last, my chance to take my place among the Great and the Good. I feel rather emotional actually." (13) Addressing the audience breaks the illusion of the "fourth wall," the imaginary barrier between audience and actors that allows for suspension of disbelief. As a political playwright, Fo deliberately utilized such techniques to prevent audience members from losing themselves in the story, believing that it was necessary for them to maintain some distance in order to think critically about the issues raised by the play. Another way to achieve this distance (what playwright Bertolt Brecht termed the "alienation effect") is to include self-reflexive strategies, in which the play refers to itself as a play. The Maniac does so when he comments on himself as an actor:

"I've been admitted sixteen times with what's called 'acting mania'. It's more of a hobby, really - playing other people. I'll do anybody! But the thing is I'm a huge fan of the Theatre of Life, so my fellow actors have to be real people... who don't know they're acting. Which is just as well because I'm a bit short of funds, so I can't pay them" (4). 

The last few pages of Scene One are full of bawdy and slapstick humor. The Maniac blows a raspberry at the Inspector, which makes a farting sound; in response, the Inspector punches Bertozzo in the face and he falls flat on the ground. Such humor is appropriate for a populist play, since humor is universal. Fo believed that laughter allows people to hold on to their anger, whereas crying frees them from pain. Wanting his audience to leave the theater transformed and ready for action, he used humor to engage viewers' emotions without allowing them to dissipate.