Internationally popular, Accidental Death of an Anarchist is based on a 1969 incident in which an anarchist railway worker, arrested in connection with a terrorist bombing in Milan, fell to his death from a fourth-story window at police headquarters during the course of an interrogation. His death was officially declared a suicide. The police report held blatant contradictions. Subsequent investigation revealed the probable innocence of the worker. Fo set out to demolish the official story through the play’s production at his collective, La Commune.
Fo created one of his most successful roles for this play, that of a maniac who infiltrates the Milan police headquarters and carries out a number of impersonations in order to force the police to admit the illogic of the worker’s alleged leap from a window and to confess their culpability. The Maniac resembles the Zanni figure of the commedia dell’arte.
Called “a grotesque farce” by its author, the play’s dramatic action takes the form of a mock investigation carried out by a make-believe judicial examiner. A madman impostor (the Maniac), summoned to police headquarters to answer to charges of false identity, luckily happens to steal the file on the anarchist’s death. He then changes his identity, posing as an investigating judge, purportedly to ascertain that the police have constructed a solid case which can be upheld by the magistrates. In the course of the interrogation of the officers, the Maniac is forced to assume numerous disguises. He exposes the blatant contradictions and lies of the police, who admit their guilt, whereupon the Maniac invents for them another outrageous story about the anarchist’s fall. The arrival of a journalist and police who recognize him forces the Maniac’s disclosure and his threat that he has taped their confession and plans to blow them all up to destroy the capitalist police state. One confused policeman handcuffs his superiors to the wall. In a Brechtian-like conclusion, the Maniac confronts the journalist—and the audience—with a choice of alternate endings: to free the police, which will result in the impostor’s death and perpetuate police duplicity, to allow the Maniac to escape with evidence of police duplicity, or to allow the Maniac to escape with evidence of police guilt.
Fo’s purpose throughout is to arouse the audience’s indignation at police authoritarianism. The play’s farcical action and zaniness counterpoint the serious indictment being made. Moreover, the play’s use of a historical event demonstrates the directness of Fo’s left-wing politics. The play has been performed in more than forty countries, including the United Kingdom and the United States.
Act 1, Scene 1
Accidental Death of an Anarchist opens in a room in a police station, where Inspector Bertozzo is interviewing the Maniac, reviewing his arrest record. He notes that the Maniac has been arrested many times for impersonation, the same reason for his arrest this time. The Maniac points out that although he has been arrested, he has never been convicted of a crime. He tells the inspector that he is insane, that he cannot be charged because he is mad. The inspector, incredulous, continues posing questions to the Maniac. The Maniac evades the inspector's questions and denies any real wrongdoing. For example, in response to the inspector's accusation that the Maniac has not only been impersonating a psychiatrist but also actually seeing patients and charging them substantial sums, the Maniac points out that all psychiatrists charge too much. The inspector replies that the specific charges are not the real issue; rather it is the question of impersonation. He points to a visiting card the Maniac has been distributing, which states that the Maniac is a psychiatrist. The Maniac quibbles over a point of punctuation, telling the inspector that, given the placement of a particular comma on the card, he cannot be said to be misrepresenting himself at all....
(The entire section is 2,235 words.)