Accidental Death of an Anarchist Analysis

Dario Fo

The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Accidental Death of an Anarchist opens in the central police headquarters in Milan, in a drab, ordinary office room. A large window forms a central part of the set. Inspector Bertozzo and a constable enter, and Bertozzo begins a direct address to the audience in which he states the official version of the anarchist’s death, insisting that the police verdict of “accidental death” was “quite reasonable.” The anarchist, he maintains, fell from a window of the Milan police headquarters. The constable brings in the Maniac, who is dressed as a clichéd version of a Freudian analyst and who carries four overstuffed plastic bags. Bertozzo takes the Maniac’s statement, constantly being distracted and disrupted by the Maniac’s antics, the focal point of which is the Maniac’s qualifications in the field of psychoanalysis by virtue of having been in fifteen “looney bins.” Bertozzo throws the Maniac out and leaves for a meeting.

The Maniac reenters and begins to “dispense justice,” as he explains, by pitching his own and others’ files out the window. When the telephone rings, the Maniac answers, and, on discovering the caller to be Inspector Pissani, Bertozzo’s superior, the Maniac impersonates the judge who is being sent to investigate the anarchist’s death, thus setting up Bertozzo’s exposure later in the play. During the telephone call, the Maniac pretends that Bertozzo is in the room shouting insults at Inspector Pissani and giving him “raspberries.” When Bertozzo actually returns, the Maniac advises him to avoid Pissani; Bertozzo forcibly ejects the Maniac from the office and discovers the missing files. The scene ends in chaos as Inspector Pissani enters and, set up by the Maniac, promptly knocks out Bertozzo.

Scene 2 moves to the actual room in which the “accidental death” happened. The Maniac enters, this time disguised as Professor Marco Maria Malipiero, the investigating judge. Pissani and the constable are fully deceived, and the phony judge begins his investigation,...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Dario Fo’s theater is rooted in the populist tradition and is designed with mass audiences and political reform in mind. The texts of his plays, despite the existence of published versions, change given the locale and context of performance. Its primary dramatic devices come from Italian popular and Brechtian theater practice. Improvisation by Fo himself alters the play for each audience: Physical action, standard theater gags (the hand caught in the drawer, the disguises), and direct address continually remind the audience that they are watching a play made of constructed roles.

The Maniac disguises himself as character after character and fools the police in the play, though the audience knows his masks. The shifting disguises actually increase the audience’s awareness of the artificiality or constructed nature of any role. As the Maniac puts on the costume of the judge or forensic expert with false mustache, wooden leg, false eye, the audience sees the necessity of disguise to negotiate the treacherous thicket of state corruption. Moreover, it is clear through the actions of the Maniac that those in power manipulate facts to serve their own ends. Therefore, the whole idea of disguise is central to the actors’ roles and the human reality treated by the play. Through Fo’s Brechtian exposure of the theatrical apparatus itself, the issue of choice comes to the surface; identity is posited not as a fixed or absolute entity, but as a socially, politically, and dramatically constructed practice that can and will change through what the individual does and engaged political action.

In addition to distancing devices and theatrical gags, the use of a historical and a politically incendiary incident demonstrates the fusion of Fo’s left-wing politics and his artistic operating mode. Fo wants to augment the struggle of the working class against repressive power, and the use of a real event cast in absurdly farcical terms drives home Fo’s radical politics. The extremity and breadth of the comedy targets not only the police but human social and political behavior in general, thus preventing a reduction to diatribe and encouraging liberating laughter. Throughout, Fo’s dramatic devices suggest that the Accidental Death of an Anarchist was no accident at all; Fo supplants the absurd lies of the official version with the complex and frightening truth of state corruption.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Social Unrest and the "Hot Autumn" of 1969 in Italy

Politicians who were voted into Italy's parliament in the 1960s...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

The Trickster

The Maniac is a variant of a trickster figure, a character who acts mad or simple but who is actually...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

  • Late 1960s to early 1970s: Italians are mobilized by radical political philosophies calling for drastic changes to cure such...

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

  • Accidental Death of an Anarchist employs many elements typical of farce. Research the characteristics of farce and write an...

(The entire section is 207 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

  • Fo's most popular play is Mistero buffo, which means "The Comedic Mystery." It features the comedic antics of a jester in the...

(The entire section is 187 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)


Behan, Tom, Dario Fo: Revolutionary Theatre, Pluto Press, 2000, p. 67....

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Cowan, Suzanne. “Dario Fo: Bibliography, Biography, Playography.” Theatre Quarterly 17 (1978).

Cowan, Suzanne. “The Throw-away Theatre of Dario Fo,” The Drama Review 19 (June, 1975): 103-113.

Farrell, Joseph, and Antonio Scuderi. Dario Fo: Stage, Text, Tradition. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000.

Kushner, Tony. “Fo’s Last Laugh—I, Fo’s Last Laugh—II.” The Nation, November, 3, 1997, 4-5.

Mitchell, Tony. Dario Fo: People’s Court Jester. 1984. Rev....

(The entire section is 124 words.)