Accidental Death of an Anarchist

Accidental Death of an Anarchist Themes

Reform versus Revolution

The merit of reform vs. revolution was an ongoing debate in Italy when Fo wrote the play. In the light of the Pinelli scandal, among others, the public weighed the options of how best to address widespread corruption. On the one hand, reformers sought to improve the existing system, whereas revolutionaries aimed to entirely restructure society and institutions. Advocates of the latter tend to think of reform as a mere band-aid, incapable of bringing about real change. 

Accidental Death of an Anarchist is a revolutionary play, reflecting Fo's own politics. The Maniac expresses his believe in revolution in his discourse about scandals:

"People say they want real justice... so we fob them off with a slightly less unjust system of justice. Workers howl that they're being flayed like donkeys... so we arrange for the flaying to be a little less severe and slash their howling entitlement, but the exploitation goes on. The workforce would rather not have fatal accidents in the factory... so we make it a teeny bit safer and increase compensation payments to widows. They'd like to see class divisions eliminated... so we do our best to bring the classes marginally closer or, preferably, just make it seem that way. They want a revolution... and we give them reforms. We're drowning them in reforms. Or promises of reforms, because let's face it, they're not actually going to get anything" (74-5).  

In case his message was not already exceedingly clear, Fo included a note at the end of the script explicitly stating that the police and the judiciary represented a part of the bourgeois state that needed to be overturned. 



Fear and Submission

In the late 1960s/early 1970s, Italy experienced a great deal of social unrest. The authorities felt threatened by those on the far left (like Fo) who advocated revolution over reform, as such a radical restructuring of society would eliminate their own power and control. Fascist organizations and members of the police force began committing terrorist acts and blaming them on the far left, hoping that the public would demand a strong crackdown on their enemies. These terrorist acts created a climate of fear, in which people were unlikely to push for major change. 

Both the Maniac and the journalist allude to this "strategy of tension." The Journalist brings up the theme of police infiltration into political groups, and the Maniac adds that such infiltrators "also carry out atrocities to give themselves a good excuse for a police crackdown" (70). The Journalist also shares statistics about the number of terrorist attacks carried out by far right organizations:

"So you'll be unaware that of the 173 bomb attacks to date... 102 have been proved to be the work of fascists? And fascist or parallel organisations were strongly implicated in half of the remaining seventy-one cases" (72).

Nearly all of those attacks, she adds, were made to look like the work of the far left. 


While the play documents a specific event, it is ultimately an exposition of police corruption in Italy during the 1960s and 1970s, with allusions to government collusion. While nobody will ever know the complete truth about both the anarchist's death and who is responsible for the Piazza Fontana bombings, the play brings to light the blatant lies told about the case by the police, pointing out the obvious inconsistencies and omission of key evidence in the official police reports. Through farce and wordplay, Fo is able to satirize the bureaucracy and hypocrisy of the police force. Though the play is comic, Fo is communicating the serious consequences corruption reaps on the public - misinformation, fear, and violence.



Is the Maniac truly crazy, or is it the world around him that is mad? Does madness mean being separated from reality, or simply seeing the world differently than others? The Maniac behaves in a paradoxical way: he engages in increasingly more elaborate lies and disguises, yet he does so in order to reveal the truth. Might it really be the Inspector and the Superintendent who are mad, accepting even the Maniac's most outrageous lies in order to keep their own culpability hidden? By making the protagonist a maniac who outwits corrupt and volatile authority figures, Fo suggests the institution, and not the man, is the true fount of madness.

Truth and Illusion

One of the play's core messages is that authority figures are more concerned with maintaining an illusion that protects their position of power than they are with uncovering the truth. The Inspector and the Superintendent's attacks on Bertozzo in Act II symbolize the way that the police have undermined the truth in order to preserve their own status. It is ironic that the most outrageous liar - the Maniac - is also the most dedicated to the truth. 

Fo uses the Maniac's quick wit to show how language can be manipulated to utterly confuse and disguise the truth. After provoking the Inspector by pretending that Bertozzo has blown him a raspberry, for instance, the Maniac twists his words around to deflect attention away from what really happened: 

INSPECTOR: I bet Bertozzo didn't mention his joke about low-rise police stations in Huddersfield and the raspberries...

SUPERINTENDENT: Raspberries in Huddersfield - what are you wittering on about? .... 

MANIAC: ....I now discover from what you were saying that he's allergic to raspberries from the north of England - which, between you and me, are really rather bland, especially compared to free-range raspberries from say, Scotland or Jersey. (20-21)

Through exchanges like this, Fo illustrates how easily the truth can be manipulated. 


Layers of Reality

The play suggests that there are many layers to reality. We never learn what definitively happened the night of the anarchist's death, although what likely happened is slowly revealed. For instance, at first it seems the Inspector may have put the anarchist in such a poor mental state that he jumped out the window in desperation, whereas the introduction of additional evidence - bruises on the anarchist's neck, the timing of the ambulance call, the incongruity of having a window open in December - suggest he may not have committed suicide at all, but rather was killed or severely injured in the office with a blow to the neck. Here, the truth is not in the detail, but in the culpability for the man's death. No matter the method, the police killed the anarchist.

The Maniac's disguises also serve as a metaphor for these layers of truth. For instance, the Inspector and the Superintendent think he is really a judge disguised as a forensics officer and later a bishop, yet what they believe to be the truth of his identity ends up being one more layer of disguise. By reminding audience members that they are watching a play, Fo goes one step further: even the Maniac's "true" identity as a madman is a disguise, as he is really just an actor playing a part on the stage. Again, what the madman represents - a foil for the corrupt - is more important than who he really is.

Class Oppression

As a member of the far left, Fo saw the flaws in a capitalist society that depends on the stratification of its classes. Fo illustrates this in the Maniac's debate about the three witnesses who confirmed the anarchist's alibi. The judge in the initial inquiry had dismissed the evidence of these witnesses as unreliable, saying, "these people are old, a bit shaky on their feet and basically disabled" (62).

The Maniac points out that the issue is less about age and more about economic class: 

"I admit it, it's true, society is split into classes. And the same obviously goes for witnesses. You've got your first-, second-, third- and fourth-class witnesses. It's not a question of age. You can be frighteningly old and quite breathtakingly out-to-lunch, but if you turn up in court after a bit of work from a crack team of beauticians, a massage, a quick sesh under a sunlamp, in a silk shirt, little scarf, big chauffeur-driven Mercedes - well, then I can't quite see the judge dismissing you as unreliable. I personally would even throw in a bit of gratuitous bowing. 'Super-reliable', that would be my verdict" (64).

Even if lower-class witnesses are less reliable, he points out that it is the inequity of the class system which makes them so: "Can't afford vitamins, protein, organic honey or calcium phosphate to keep your memory sharp? Well, hard lines, I'm the judge and I'm turning you down, you're not up to it, you're a second-class citizen" (63). In this way Fo uses the Maniac to express his own anti-capitalist sentiments.