How can I define abuse of power by vested interests (police, politicians) using events, statements, theatrical features, and motifs from the play Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Dario Fo?

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Noelle Thompson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There could not be a better play chosen to define the abuse of power by police and politicians than Accidental Death of an Anarchist.  Abuse of power, then, is defined as the politicians pointing fingers at the police and the police pointing fingers at the politicians all for the disenfranchisement of the common citizen. The believability of the play is accentuated by the fact that the events are based on a true story: in 1969 and anarchist (who worked on the rail line) does fall to his death from the fourth floor of a building during a police investigation in Milan, Italy. Although the death was declared a suicide, the police report held falsehoods and contradictions. The family of the anarchist maintains his innocence, and Fo attempts to prove so through his farce. The play is the event of an interrogation of those police officers by a character called the Maniac. This investigation proves their guilt. In addition to the history and the events of the play mentioned above, the blatant abuse of power by both politicians and police can be proved by the play’s events (above), quotations, theatrical features, and motifs.

Because the events of the play are already discussed above, the next format to discuss abuse of power can be seen in the statements, or the quotations, from the play itself. Let us look at each of them in turn and see how the abuse of power is portrayed.

SUPERINTENDENT: Those bastards in the government. First they ask you to help – “Ferment a little subversion, chip in with a bit of repression, go on, spread a sense of gathering disorder.”

INSPECTOR: “...then sit back and wait for calls for a state clampdown!”

This is probably the best statement to show the abuse of power in regards to politicians (even over the police force). Here, the superintendent and the inspector both blame the government. They both claim that the government gives the police force the dirty work through “subversion” and “repression” in order for the state to look good as they clamp down on crime and anarchy.

Further, after the police talk about how they used “a perfectly standard procedure, as practiced in every police force, to draw a confession out of the suspect,” the Maniac says the following:

It's not baloney, it's just the usual traps and scams that we in the judiciary use occasionally to remind the police how barbaric and of course illegal those methods are.

Here, the Maniac himself (who is disguised as a judge at this point) admits to the abuse of power directly through “traps and scams,” both of those terms signal the abuse of power of the judiciary. The Maniac further attests to the corruption and abuse of power of the police by saying that their own methods are also “barbaric” and “illegal.” This, then, is the perfect quotation to show both politicians and police are corrupt in their abuse of power. Then the Maniac goes further:

Okay, you're probably feeling a little bit depressed right now. So what better time to add that there is damning proof of gross negligence on your part, that you're both dead in the water, and that in an attempt to make the rest of the police look good the Home Office are going to crucify you.

This quotation is about the police hierarchy and their abuse of power. Not only have the police abused their power, but their superiors will as well: by crucifying the lower ranking officers. Then, the Maniac gets specific about how this abuse takes place:

People say they want real justice, so we fob them off with a slightly less unjust system of justice. … 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.

In other words, when people complain to politicians that the system is not just, the politicians respond by making the system a tiny bit more just than before, but not enough, of course. The same is true with safety among factory conditions:   politicians are not in the business of making things completely safe, only a bit more safe in order to look like they are doing their jobs. It is also the same with economical divisions. The politicians want to make it look like they close the gap between rich and poor, but don’t do so in reality. With this being said, there is a perfect statement that is a perfect transition into the discussion of “theatrical features” that you mention in your question:

SUPERINTENDENT: Not at all. In tonight's audience, for example. We have a few of our [undercover agents] in. Do you want to see? 

He claps his hands. Voices are heard from various points in the auditorium. 

VOICES: Superintendent!/ Over here, sir!/ Yessir?

The Maniac laughs and turns to the audience. 

MANIAC: Don't be alarmed, they're drama students. The real undercover ones are trained to sit quietly. 

In regards to theatrical features, then, the abuse of power is also shown through placement of actors throughout the audience. How is this an abuse of power? The force has infiltrated even the people watching the play. However, this is not the only theatrical feature involved here. Another theatrical feature that shows the abuse of power perfectly is his use of dramatic characterization: especially in the character of the Maniac. This character provides filtration into the Milan police department and then begins a series of impersonations to prove the police guilt. To further the characterization is the “theatrical feature” of costume changes and/or changes in identity in order to further the Maniac’s goal. The next example of an important “theatrical feature” that brings out the abuse of power is the alternative endings that Fo suggests. In this regard, it is a conclusion that is quite Brechtian. The Maniac is insisting to the journalist (but also the audience) that they must choose an ending. The ending suggested are as follows: free the interrogated police force and kill the Maniac or let the Maniac escape with the evidence of abuse of power. A final example of a “theatrical feature” is that the performance is continually altered by Fo to suit each audience.

Finally, we can identify a few motifs (or recurring ideas throughout the play) that reinforce the abuse of power, specifically dark humor and disguises. It is significant to mention the numerous disguises the Maniac takes on during the course of the play. Every single disguise is used to complete the task of showing the abuse of power among the policemen during the long interrogation. More importantly though, keep in mind that Fo describes his play as “a grotesque farce.” This implies dark humor immediately and resonates as a motif through the entire play. In fact, there is some dark humor found in most of the quotations above, but here is another perfect example said by the Maniac:

No, don't throw me out, Inspector. I love it here with you, among policemen. I feel safe.

Why is this dark humor? It is bitterly ironic. The Maniac certainly does not feel safe around policemen. No. He feels anything but safe. In fact, the Maniac has pledged his life to proving the guilt and exonerating the memory of the anarchist.

In conclusion, the abuse of power by both policemen and government officials is blatantly defined within Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist. Abuse of power, then, is the politicians blaming the police, and the police blaming the politicians all to the detriment of the working man.  The events, statements, theatrical features, and motifs all attest to such. Fo himself admits that “we can still laugh, with a degree of cynicism” at this abuse of power calling it “a macabre dance which power and the civilization” perform daily. Fo believes then this abuse of power is continual and never-ending despite the efforts of his character, the Maniac, to expose the truth and end the injustice.

thetall eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the play, the government abused its power by having the police cause anarchy so the people were frightened enough to vote for a totalitarian government with absolute control.

CHIEF. Those bastards in the government, who else!? First they push you: "come down hard; create a climate of subversion, of threatened social disorder" . . .

CAPTAIN.". . . of the need for an authoritarian state!" You throw yourself into the job and the next thing you know . . .

The police on the other hand abused their power by allegedly killing a suspect during an interrogation who was later deemed innocent because the alleged crime was also staged.

The fool, who was considered insane, worked to unravel the mystery around the anarchist’s death and connected the police to his murder. The fool impersonated an investigating judge and questioned the police chief and his captain about the events of that particular day. He revealed that the chief considered the evidence against the suspect circumstantial. The chief further stated that the suspect later suffered from suicidal anguish which made him jump out of the fourth floor window.

During the interrogation the fool ascertained the abuse of power by the police, who held the suspect past the legal time limit. They also caused him to suffer some level of psychological distress as they interrogated him. The fool held the two officers responsible for the anarchist’s death. The officers further lied to the media that the anarchist had confessed before his death.

FOOL. First of all you arbitrarily detain a free citizen, then abuse your authority by keeping him over the legal time limit, after which you traumatize the poor signalman by telling him you've got proof that he set the dynamite in the railway. . .

The sustained changing of the story and sequence of events also attested to the abuse of power by the police. They refused to own up to their mistake and instead relied on the fool, who was impersonating a judge, to help them develop a story that would affirm their innocence. However, their story was still not adding up, especially with regard to the open window and the cold December weather among other facts. The fool tried to explain these loop holes by being sarcastic (which was a motif in the play) but this only agitated the officers.

The first judge who closed the case on behalf of the government participated in the miscarriage of justice. The judge abused his power by deliberately failing to recognize the alibi given on behalf of the anarchist. The judge determined that the testimonies were unreliable because the people were “unhealthy.”

FOOL. Well - the judge was quite correct then. Poor people, from my experience, try like hell to forget. If they had to remember even half of what they've gone through, they'd find a nice window for themselves four floors up. That's assuming they're not in one of those new housing projects where the windows don't open. Interesting architecture - saved the lives of a lot of poor people. As for being sick, well - have you seen what they eat - it's disgusting. Some of them only eat cheese that the government gives them. Now is that a balanced diet?

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Accidental Death of an Anarchist

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