Comedy, Abnormality, Irony: Methodologies Used in Accidental Death of an Anarchist
The anarchist is dead – this is perhaps the only ‘fact’ the text subscribes to throughout; everything else in the (performative) text is presented in a vaudevillesque fashion by bringing in a bizarre combination of different genres and techniques which induce instability and ambiguity. As the tragic flows into the comic while satire and irony man the boundaries, and as the text reeks of replete sexual imagery (at various points), it is difficult to detect any singularity in the narrative. And yet, the text voices a strong political statement through the very intermingling of techniques and genres; it is radical activism being presented in its turbulent performative aspect where the playwright employs activist intervention to protest against and correct the political (and social) injustices being meted out.
Though ‘Accidental Death of an Anarchist’ is about a specific event that occurred, it raises ahistorical (and atemporal) concerns about the oppressive (arbitrary?) functioning of the State and state apparatuses (both ISAs and RSAs) too. The political mileage scored by the text can be deciphered only if one were to look at what (and how) Fo seeks to present, since it is easier to interpret the play as a comic rendition of the turbulent political scenario in Italy. Of course, the play is rife with comedy, satire, and irony but it doesn’t end there; Fo experiments with the notion of ‘laughter’ and the emotions it evokes to tell his own story. This essay will attempt to analyse the play as reflecting the ‘activist interventions’ sought by Fo in the politico-social scenario through the different methodologies used; the essay will primarily focus on the intermingling of different genres and techniques (such as comedy, grotesque, satire and irony) and on the re-creation of the central ‘event’ in the text, which is the accidental death of an anarchist. Furthermore, the essay will also try to probe how such activist intervention through artistic expression is enabling for the audience and the changes it effects forthwith.
Any investigation into the methodologies used in the play has to begin with Commedia dell’arte, a form of professional theatre characterized by its stock characters, the lazzi and the pantomime; Fo draws from it to create a basic framework for his play while contradicting it at many levels too. Commedia dell’arte emphasises on the on-the-spot improvisations of the actors while working under a rigid framework of stock characters and usual situations; the stock characters were fixed social types that were exaggerated forms of real characters (like lovers, captains, and old men). Though the stagings used to follow a scripted performance, the plays were interspersed with humorous interruptions called the lazzi which used to include pantomimic acting, juggling and other feats; it also used to include witty jokes to keep the audience engaged throughout. Fo’s play takes up the idea of the lazzi and works on it to the extent that comic interruptions emerge at regular intervals in the text to maintain its comic nature while engaging with serious socio-political issues.
At this juncture, I seek to explore the comic aspects of the play along with how irony and farce have been deployed to achieve enhanced effects. There’s no doubt that the play revels in comedy backed by ironical dialogues, cocky word-play and role reversals; the deployment of stock characters like the madman, the police personnel and the journalist adds to the comic effects though there are contradictions with their characterisation as well. However, it would be fallacious to consider the play as a ‘pure comedy’ per se; though the humour in the text is overtly subversive, it doesn’t stop there. Fo deploys comedy as the underlying template to the play as drawn from Commedia Dell’arte and spices it up with farce and grotesque to serve an ‘interactive educative function’ – that of providing counter-information to the information-starved audience. The grotesque farce enables Fo to highlight the contradictions between what is known as an ‘official’ version of historical events and what “actually” happened, as in the case of the anarchist’s death.
The play seeks to demolish the idea of anything ‘normal’ by presenting a grotesque and farcical reality where a madman gets to imitate many “important” individuals and interrogate policemen; anything and everything that happens in the play is bizarre to the effect of throwing the audience out of their comfort zone and enabling them to realise what they have given in to accept unconsciously for some time now. The audience has mutely accepted all political and social changes that happen and have been happy with some scandals to keep them busy but do not even think of questioning those changes. Everything’s all “normal” and “acceptable” to them, which becomes a problematic situation; Fo tries to break down that barrier of accepted normality and consensual subservience to the State. Here, the form of his play is in sync with what he proposes to do with the content. He uses comedy, farce and grotesque which are popularly used as ‘subversive mediums’ to challenge the dominating mode of thought and to create an ‘alternative reality’.
Moreover, Fo’s use of these forms isn’t merely for their subversive potential but also for their capability to keep the audience interested in the play throughout which other forms might not be able to. Also, tragedy and drama have been considered superior forms in theatre all around while comedy and farce were placed a notch lower; Fo deliberately uses the “inferior” forms to challenge the hegemony of the superior ones as he does in his play. That’s why mimes, pantomimes, grotesque songs, and slapstick jokes are abundantly used in the play – even the madman is characterised based on the stock character of the clown (or court jester). Similarly, even the sexual references and puerile bodily gestures used in the play are as against what a ‘normal’ society would be aghast at; the madman while adopting the characters of powerful individuals parodies their mannerisms and state of existence.
There’s a constant questioning of reality and of presupposed notions of what is ‘normal’; Fo is heavily influenced by Brechtian theatre and advocates the estrangement of the audience as a necessary component for the message to pass through (alienation effect). The role-reversals and the changing identities of the madman subvert the notion of a ‘real’ world and escape any identification on part of the audience. Similarly, the instability and manipulability of language is proved through the example of the comma, which can change the meaning of the same content albeit presented in different forms (spoken and written). If so, by its form and content, the play encourages the audience to move away from what they consider ‘normal’ and question the presupposed notions.
If all these techniques and intermingling of genres have to be analysed, it is necessary to comprehend how the text seeks to re-create the central event – the accidental death of the anarchist. It challenges the official version of events which is convoluted and tampered with to protect the accused; that is ensured by the ‘doing’ and ‘undoing’ of the narrative by the madman in his conversations with the police personnel. The re-creation of the event also questions the nature of evidence and memory, the methods followed in recording facts (and history) and the true nature (and function) of the ideological and repressive apparatuses of the State. Furthermore, elaborate analysis of the re-creation of the central event enables us to examine the ‘performative’ aspect of the play and the ‘activist potential’ it parades; critical engagement with the audience intensifies during the discussion of the event.
Fo’s political stance is clearly stated in the beginning of Act 1, Scene 2 when the madman says, ‘If you can’t say it loud…you’d better not say it at all.’; Fo seeks to lay bare the hypocrisies of the State and its apparatuses and the problematic notion of the ‘official’ version of an event by saying it loud and clear even though he applies subversive humour of the ironic kind too. His attacks are sharper yet subtler as one moves from Act 1, Scene 1 to Scene 2 and later, to Act 2. More than anything else, his Out of Character(OOC) appearances intensify as he juggles multiple roles and points of views(POVs) between the police and the journalist in Act 2.
The preparation for the re-creation of the central event begins in Act 1, Scene 1 with the madman’s purported dialogue with Inspector Playschool ‘through the square window’; one ought to begin with the inferences that can possibly be drawn from the inspector’s name. The ‘window’ would seem to be explicitly referring to the anarchist’s death through the window, but if one were to take into consideration the fact that it was addressed to the audience (as indicated by stage directions), the inferences can be quite different. The window seems to be the window to the outside world of harsh realities to which the audience is being invited to look through; at the moment, the window seems to be the medium through which the madman seeks to ‘educate’ his audience about the alternative reality that exists which is also being constantly rebuffed.
The madman’s interaction with the audience continues until the end of this scene as Bertozzo and the audience merge to become a single entity against Inspector Pisani on the other side of the line. This enables Fo to speak on part of the audience while instigating them to speak up too; here, the tone is entirely conversational and constantly ropes in the audience to act along with the madman against the police. Brecht’s influence is quite evident here as the madman converses with the audience through his mutterings and prods them to respond to his queries.
“…get rid of the accent because you don’t get high-powered people from the provinces, do you? What are judges like?…”
Moreover, it is as if the madman is disclosing the secrets of his trade and throwing open the dressing room gossip to the audience for them to judge and absorb; even his critique of the audience’s passivity is couched in similar tones.
“…I know, it must be horrible for you. Just when you think everything’s sorted out, they turn around…The pressure of public opinion…When did public opinion ever matter…”
Later, the differences between the character and the actor widen, as evident from the madman’s monologue after his purported telephonic conversation with Inspector Pisani. The actor tries out different characters in front of his audience while seeking their inputs and approval for the character he is finally going to act as. However, this energetic performance interspersed with comic moments and theatrical extravagance isn’t merely performative, but leads on to vocally express the activist intervention Fo seeks to engineer; it begins with stating the obvious accusation on which the play is themed upon – “…you’ve thrown the anarchist out the window. Why did you do that?…”
In the same strain, the actor speaks about the social inequities that exist and the oppressive nature of the State; irony and satirical statements are deployed to effectively ‘get it through’ to the audience. The actor also critiques the present state of Italian theatre which has been in passive confrontation with the politico-social conditions; he also recruits the audience to be on his side as he rudely ‘gives it back’ to “them” – the State and its apparatuses.
…That was Bertozzo blowing out a raspberry…Yes, we’d be delighted to continue this discussion face to face…
As implied in the above statement, Scene 2 begins with the (face-to-face) cross-examination of the police and the reworking of evidence, both being crucial to the re-creation of the central event that had occurred. The stage directions suggest the disappearance of evidence further confirmed by the testimonies of the police.
“…an office…it is empty, colder, less re-assuring…no sign of records kept…”
The madman reaffirms it by insisting on holding the investigation at the crime scene and so, enabling the reconstruction of evidence; the factual details, if any be, are worked out with discussing the contradictory evidence presented by the police and the raptus for the suicide. As per the police, the raptus for the suicide was generated by the simple deception indulged in by them and the bait laid; the anarchist was falsely informed about the non-existing proof of his participation in the bombing of Central Station. They employed stupid ‘kindergarten’ logic to deduce the former fact which is overturned by the madman in his rendering of the event. At this juncture, it is interesting to note how the madman builds up the raptus for the suicide by contradicting as well as bolstering the police’s statements.
The constant conflict of theses and antitheses of evidence results in a sharp critique of the police as a repressive (and often helpless) apparatus of the State; it takes up the position of the scapegoat in situations of political turmoil such as the anarchist’s death. It also highlights how the political machinery sustains itself by passing the buck and looking for heads to roll in grim situations. Later in the scene, when the police and the madman (as judge) ‘collaborate’ to rewrite the narrative about the event, the conclusion can hardly be ignored; the judiciary and the State often join hands to keep the rebellious forces at bay.
This is all shoptalk though and the richness of the text can be comprehended better by looking at its performative vivacity rather than its content; for that, one has to look at how the re-creation of the central event is structured and the ways in which artistic intervention occurs. After having sifted through the police’s first version of the event and trashed it by opening up possibilities to question the raptus, the madman proceeds to look at the second version, which is a ‘correction’ of the first one. For that, he requires the police to re-enact the scene again as it had happened earlier, which they fail to do so without inserting false details or miring the narrative with kindergarten logic. At one level, this is an example of a play-within-a-play (if defined basely) but it is much more than that; hypothetically, the play being staged in the office and directed by the madman is the complete inverse of the play that has been put up on stage by Fo. If analysed in terms of form, both plays work like two cones placed inversely against each other with their tips meeting at a point (as indicated by the figure).
Fo’s “outer” play ends with having shown the untenability of police’s (first) narrative regarding the death of the anarchist, since their narrative couldn’t satisfactorily explain the raptus. On the other hand, the madman’s play begins at the same point and chooses to rebuild the play from scratch by looking at the raptus and the evidence that can be brought about to substantiate the newer version. Here, there is a role reversal of sorts in terms of who becomes the investigator and the accused/witness; the madman is the accused in Act 1, Scene 1 and the police is the investigator, but their roles are interchanged as we move towards Act 2(or even earlier in Act 1, Scene 1).
Arising from these role-reversals, there’s a dialogic engagement with the event’s narration as multiple possibilities (causes and effects) are analysed and interpreted throughout Act 1, Scene 2, and Act 2. The intention is easier to understand than the desired effect, for the play seeks to open up the event’s ‘official’ narrative for interpretation and analysis. Here, both the constable and the reporter play important roles in suggesting newer hypotheses for the raptus (and the parabola of the fall) and changing the ‘tone’ of the narrative at many points in the text. All this ensures that the focus stays on the question of whether it was suicide, murder (by the police) or the ‘accidental’ death of the anarchist; the “inner” play ends with having subtly hinted about how everything has been ‘an insider’s job’ cleverly managed by State just like many other incidences have been (like the bomb at the Stock Exchange).
After this, the play moves on to a different plane where it speaks of the larger picture of how any State functions and the role of its apparatuses and its individuals existing under it. The use of spies and informers to infiltrate both extremist and radical groups as well as using extremist groups (or any fascist group commanded by ‘an alliance of paramilitary and industrial interests’) to silence the radical voices is the accusation made; the madman also expounds on the nature of repressive state apparatuses and how they are (mis)used to silence the public. In a fit of verbal diarrhoea, he speaks of all current politico-social problems and the solutions required which are but never brought about due to specific political interests. Later, as a police priest, he targets the Church as well, by imitating “the holy” and often replacing it with “profane”, exaggerated statements; he also speaks of scandal as a cathartic medium for the masses though the public might never be fully entitled to ask questions about injustices faced. They are content to swimming around in shit and no one ‘pretends it’s anything but shit. That is what counts’.
If one were to analyse this section of the play, it would come off as being a spectacle of some sort (or some enormous ritual being talked of) since the role reversals, the madman’s sensational announcements and Bertozzo’s maniacal gestures all add up to a spectacular performance up on stage. It is at this point that irony, comedy, and satire blend to present a grotesque scene of sorts where the audience is not merely amused by the jokes (and antics) but is growingly uncomfortable and is being educated on many fronts at the same time. As Bertozzo attempts to unmask the madman’s true identity, the true nature of the State, its apparatuses, and of the audience itself is discovered (“…You’re all insane…”).
If so, the question that lingers at the end of the play is the effect that the discussed theatrical methodologies and an ‘activist performance’ have on the audience; does it merely “create awareness” or lead on to something more constructive? To answer that, one has to investigate Fo’s “need” for creating such a play along with the socio-historical factors that matter. The political purpose of the play is quite obvious as it seeks to posit some sort of counter-information to what the State has been feeding its citizens especially in reference to the anarchist’s death; it is also an attempt to subvert the hegemonic (oppressive) mode of thought that the audience has been unconsciously consenting to. The combined use of comedy and grotesque (along with farce) has enabled the spectators to not laugh at what’s on stage but gradually grow horrified at the reality being portrayed in its entirety; the State and its apparatuses’ exploitative nature is being displayed and defamed. Even the form of the play seeks to move away from the ‘normal’ form and so, employs ‘dialogized hybrid’ conversations. Though most parts of the play is in the form of dialogues, the dialogues ‘occur of voices from different discourses and perspectives that have subversive effect on the uni-dimensional nature of an official narrative’. Subsequently, everything that’s said and recorded is challenged over and over again to leave the audience with nothing concrete as “singular truth”.
If so, what the play attempts to do is to tell its own story by using a variety of theatrical methodologies and by re-creating activist intervention through performance; it isn’t merely substantive activism which focuses on strong content but performative activism which insists on a stronger form of presentation. Fo is a jester who ‘defames and insults’ by his politically turbulent artistic expression which is entirely performative and is filled with gigs, mime, dances and songs; for him, the performative helps show the audience what is happening around them and gradually enables them to tell their own stories. ‘Accidental Death of an Anarchist’ is no exception since it enables Fo to employ activist intervention by emphasising more on its performativity than its content which enhances its universal appeal; as a performative artwork, the play is both influenced and adds something to politics. Subsequently, the play exists to narrate its own story by questioning the oppressive functioning of the State and state apparatuses and of the audience’s own existence as ‘always-already’ subjects; it also deploys many theatrical techniques to enable activist intervention through artistic expression as performance.
· “Dario Fo – Nobel Lecture: Against Jesters Who Defame and Insult”. Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 1 Apr 2017. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1997/fo/lecture/
 I seek to make this inference since both ‘playschool’ and ‘through the square window’ are culturally connected – they can be traced back to a children’s television series called ‘Play School’ where ‘a section of each episode was a filmed excursion into the outside world taken through …windows…where the young viewers were invited to guess whether the round, square, or arched window would be chosen that day, usually by means of the phrase, “…Have a look – through the….(whichever) window’ Critique of social distinction “…So I have to find a character that will convince them…” (Act 1 Scene 1) ‘Giving it back’ happens both by blowing a raspberry and narrating the mean joke about the ‘dead end job’. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1997/fo/speech/
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