A Sarcastic Play about Bombings, Suicides, Police Scandals, Anarchists and the New Left in Italy in 1969 Scores for New Jersey Theater

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

Accidental Death of an Anarchist
Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey
Drew University
Madison, N.J.

Political eruptions spiraled out of control in the 1960s.  The radical Weathermen in the U.S. plagued police.  The Baader-Meinhof gang wreaked havoc in Germany, and the Irish Republican Army battled law enforcement and the British government in Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  In Italy, the 1960s ended with the awful bombing of the Banca Nazionale dell’Agriculture in the Plaza Fontana, Milan, in 1969.  Seventeen people were killed and 88 wounded. Police arrested 80 suspects. One of them, an anarchist and railway worker named Guiseppe Pirelli, was questioned by several police officers for three days without being charged, and then mysteriously defenestrated at police headquarter and died on impact when his body hit the street below.  His death, Pinelli’s supporters said, was yet another incident of police brutality and a shining example of a government in shambles.  The police denied any wrongdoing and said Pinelli was overcome by a strange emotional disorder and jumped.  An official investigation ruled Pinelli’s death an accident and cleared the police.

The highly publicized death of Pinelli—and the bank bombing—became a play, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, by Dario Fo, an Italian writer who went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1997.  The sensational play debuted in Italy in 1970 and has been staged all over the world.  It is being resurrected yet again by the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey as one of its many history plays this season.  The play about the bombing of a bank by terrorists could not have been staged at a better time than now, 2011, the tenth anniversary of the World Trade Center catastrophe, in a world gone mad with terrorist attacks and bombings.

The play at the Shakespeare Theater soars the minute a deranged man called the Maniac, played with passionate farce by Kevin Isola, a verbal and physical magician, steps on to the stage.  He is a hilarious, genius actor and keeps the audience laughing as he sets up the scenario of the play.  The story that unfolds is of the visit to the Milan police station of a maniac who later passes himself off as a judge.  He convinces everyone involved in the death of Pinelli to recreate the incident, helping them to lie about it in order to complete a compact and believable story.  He then switches identities and becomes a pseudo- police captain to help the police present their made up tale to an investigative police reporter who turns up unexpectedly.

Playwright Fo uses his scalding humor to continually fire darts at Milan law enforcement. They are all the ‘honorable men’ skewered by Marc Anthony in his funeral speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.  Fo, still living and still fuming about the police and politics in Italy, did a wonderful job of turning a hot political controversy into a funny, biting and thoroughly absorbing play.

The director, Paul Mullins, wisely centers the play around the Maniac, who captures the attention of the audience with every single thing he does, whether it is prancing about headquarters, trying to leap out the window, shaking hands with a new, wooden hand or limping about when his fake artificial leg falls off.  Everybody follows his lead and they do so well.  The police inspector is played by Philip Goodwin, the Constable by Jeffrey Bender, a lower ranking inspector by Andrew Weems, the Superintendent by Edmond Genest and the female reporter by Kristie Dale Sanders.

Set designer Michael Schweikardt has done a fine job of recreating a room on the fourth floor of the Milan police station as the single set for the play.  It is a very drab room filled with file cabinets, two large windows, a city neighborhood outside the glass and lots of dreary looking wood.  TV’s Law and Order folks would love it.

The entire group of police, charmed along by the imposter playing the Judge, hint that Pinelli was pushed out the window.  How else could he have fallen if all of their stories, in the end, seem untrue?

There are two weaknesses in the otherwise engaging play. First, towards the end of the second act the mercurial Maniac talks too fast and supposes too much in spinning yet another scenario for the death of Pinelli.  His dazzling wit leaves the audience a bit confused as it tries to put together the pieces of the puzzle.  Second, the play, written some forty years ago, does not tell you enough about the violence-prone terrorist groups of that era.  In Italy, there were more than 150 bombings in that one year.  Another one minute of dialogue would have set the historical stage for the audience and permitted those in attendance to understand the violence of the play.  Some historical notes should have been added, too, to chronicle similar violence in the U.S. and elsewhere in Europe.  Along those same lines, it is suggested, several times, that the police secretly conspired with anarchist groups and helped them to carry out their attacks in order to blame everything on the New Left and punish them.  This is a rather serious allegations and it should have been explained better.

These weaknesses do not dilute the play very much, though. Accidental Death of an Anarchist remains a howlingly funny play about 1960s history in Italy and the activities of the Milan police and political terrorists.  It is a searing indictment of the police and government of Italy and, at the same time, a very funny two hours in the theater.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey. Sets: Michael Schweikardt, Lighting:  Shelly Sabel, Costumes: Jacqueline Firkins, Sound: Rich Dionne.

Bruce Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

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