52 pages 1 hour read

Dario Fo

Accidental Death Of An Anarchist

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1970

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Summary and Study Guide


Accidental Death of an Anarchist was first written and produced by playwright and actor Dario Fo in Italy, 1970. The script was directly inspired by the events surrounding the 1969 Piazza Fontana Bombing, and much of Fo’s work revolves around political satire directed at Italy post-World War II and later.

Exemplifying Fo’s work as a writer, Accidental Death of an Anarchist combines the humor, irony, and satire of the old Italian tradition of commedia dell’arte with modern leftism (“Dario Fo.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2023). Accidental Death of an Anarchist is among Fo’s most popular plays, next to his solo performance Mistero Buffo (“Comic Mystery”). Considered controversial by many establishment figures, Fo was praised by American Theatre Critic Mel Gussow: “Imagine a cross between Bertolt Brecht and Lenny Bruce and you may begin to have an idea of the scope of Fo’s anarchic art” (Gussow, Mel. “Dario Fo, Whose Plays Won Praise, Scorn and a Nobel, Dies at 90.” The New York Times, 13 Oct. 2016). Accidental Death of an Anarchist adopts a searingly humorous tone as Fo satirizes the Italian National Police Force, capitalism, reforms, and revolution.

This guide refers to Samuel French Inc.’s 1987 print publication of Accidental Death of an Anarchist written by Dario Fo and adapted by Richard Nelson.

Translation Note: Accidental Death of an Anarchist was originally written and produced in Italian. This guide uses Suzanne Cowan’s literal translation, which was adapted by Richard Nelson and approved (and later further adapted) by Dario Fo and Franca Rame in 1983.

Content Warning: Accidental Death of an Anarchist contains descriptions of police brutality, suicide, sexual assault, terrorist attacks, violence, bombings, and ableist language and attitudes surrounding mental health and people with mental illnesses.

Plot Summary

Accidental Death of an Anarchist begins with a police sergeant and a man referred to as “The Fool” in a “normal room” on the second floor of Italian police headquarters. The Sergeant looks out an open window, down at a group of protesters, trying to avoid being seen. The Fool, seated at the table, comments on the tense atmosphere radiating from the street below. The Sergeant complains that the mob always protests outside police headquarters because the police are always caught between the people, the government, and businesses. The Fool hints that the protesters might be demonstrating over the reportedly “accidental” death of an anarchist the week prior. Inspector Bertozzo enters and begins to interrogate The Fool. The Fool is able to outfox him at every turn. The Fool has a well-documented history of impersonating a wide variety of people. He dreams of acting the role of a judge or a bishop, but has yet to have the opportunity. He also has a history of mental health conditions, having been sent to a multitude of psychiatric hospitals and institutions. The Fool has been arrested before for impersonating surgeons, naval engineers, and, currently, a psychiatrist. He claims that he never actually said he had a medical degree or the proper credentials to practice psychiatry, but he nevertheless was caught diagnosing a man with schizophrenia and charging his family 20,000 lira. The Fool argues that his business card clearly states he was only describing himself as a psychiatrist, not actually stating he is one. Only someone unaware of basic Italian grammar, syntax, and punctuation would overlook the distinction. The rest of the interrogation follows in much the same way, as The Fool uses his rhetorical skills and endless knowledge of obscure legal codes to avoid being charged with any crime. Eventually, Inspector Bertozzo and The Sergeant chase The Fool out and leave to attend a meeting, for which they are already late. After the two leave, The Fool returns and intercepts a phone call from Captain Pissani on the fourth floor. The Fool learns that a judge is on his way to investigate the police and their interrogation of the anarchist. While on the phone, The Fool antagonizes Captain Pissani up, blows a “raspberry” at him and insults him, all while pretending to be Inspector Bertozzo. The Fool decides to impersonate the judge and assumes the name Marco Malipiero. He searches through files to find his arrest records and tears them up. He goes through other people’s records and decides to “pardon” some of them by tearing up their records as well. As he does so, he finds a coat and hat to create his judge’s costume. Inspector Bertozzo returns and forces The Fool out of the office. As Inspector Bertozzo pushes The Fool out, Captain Pissani appears and punches Bertozzo as revenge for the telephone insults and raspberry.

Now fully impersonating a judge, The Fool heads up to the fourth-floor room from which the anarchist apparently died by suicide. He meets Captain Pissani and another police officer. The Fool introduces himself as a judge and convinces Captain Pissani to bring in The Chief. Once The Chief arrives, The Fool makes Captain Pissani, The Chief, and The Officer act out the events detailed in the interrogation report. While they act out the report, they point out many changes they have made to the transcript and fabricate even more events. The Fool pushes them to go even further, arguing that if they are put on trial, the contradictions they have made will weaken their argument. The Fool promises the police he is on their side as a judge and only wants to help them. He leads them through a new version of the report, directing them like actors on a stage, having them change beating the anarchist and psychologically torturing him to singing and joking with him. The Fool points out some inconsistencies with their explanations, and Captain Pissani admits that The Chief threw the anarchist out the window. The phone rings and Captain Pissani answers. He relays that a reporter named Maria Feletti is there to interview The Chief.

The Chief and Captain Pissani tell the “judge” he needs to leave because it will look suspicious that he is there when The Reporter arrives. The Fool tells them he will disguise himself as a forensic expert in the “scientific division” from Rome named Captain Marcantonio Banzi Piccinni. As The Fool disguises himself, The Reporter enters and immediately starts asking questions. The Fool’s disguise includes a wooden hand, eyepatch, and wooden leg, immediately taking attention away from the police. The Fool introduces himself and starts to explain away many of The Reporter’s questions as she points out inconsistency after inconsistency. During this, The Fool calls out much of the corruption inherent in the police, and The Chief and Captain Pissani are concerned over his reliability. They refuse to out The Fool as being in disguise because it would make them appear even more corrupt in front of The Reporter.

Inspector Bertozzo enters with a copy of a bomb used in another attack. He believes he recognizes The Fool but is told he is mistaken repeatedly by the rest of the police and The Fool. Inspector Bertozzo continues to object to The Fool’s presence and quickly realizes how he knows The Fool. The Reporter asks questions about the bomb and The Fool quickly answers, despite Inspector Bertozzo being the Police Headquarters’ expert. The Reporter wonders why the police keep pinning the bombings on leftist-anarchist groups when far-right militant fascist groups are evidently responsible.

Inspector Bertozzo continues to call out The Fool for being “crazy” and a “fraud.” He is held back and gagged by The Chief and Captain Pissani. The Reporter finally briefly questions The Fool, only to be convinced that he is really a Bishop sent to act as a liaison between the police and the pope. The Fool takes off his Captain Piccinni costume and reveals a bishop’s robe. The new disguise is the last straw for Inspector Bertozzo, who pulls off his gag and points a gun at The Fool. He demands that The Fool admit who he really is. Inspector Bertozzo handcuffs The Reporter, The Fool, The Chief, Captain Pissani, and The Officer to a coat rack. The Fool distracts Inspector Bertozzo and manages to slip out of the cuffs and grab the bomb. At this point, he drops the bishop disguise and reveals he has been recording everything on a tape recorder the entire time. The Chief points out that no one will believe him, and The Fool argues the very existence of a scandal this big will force Italy forward into the modern day. A version of the play ends there, but Dario Fo was known for adapting his scripts with each production, a common practice among playwrights. An alternative ending was written for the 1984 Broadway production, where the story briefly continues. In this version, the lights suddenly go out, The Fool cries out for help, and shortly after there is the sound of a bomb exploding outside of police headquarters. When Inspector Bertozzo turns the lights back on, the rest of the people left in the room realize The Fool is gone. The Reporter looks out the window and sees The Fool’s remains with the exploded bomb: another anarchist’s death that needs to be explained away as accident or suicide. As The Reporter leaves, another man enters the room. He is a judge played by the actor who played The Fool. The group harasses him, mistakenly believing that The Fool has miraculously survived and is now impersonating yet another judge. However, it is proven The Judge is really a judge, and he is there to investigate the Accidental Death of an Anarchist.