Absurdism, Books, Law

On Defenestration

On 12th December 1969 a bomb exploded at a bank in Milan killing seventeen people. There followed a roundup of left-activists that included the arrest of an anarchist railway worker called Guiseppe Pinelli. As it happened Pinelli had an alibi and was innocent of the crime, but the police interrogated him for three days and nights before he fell to his death from a window on the fourth floor of the Police Headquarters. Controversy has raged ever since as to the circumstances of how and why he tumbled to his death:

  • The Italian left accused the police of being responsible for Pinelli’s murder.
  • The police claimed Pinelli has committed suicide because he was deeply compromised in the bombing. At a news conference Milan’s Chief of Police asserted that Pinelli after confronted with the irrefutable evidence of his complicity leaped from the window crying ‘This is the end of anarchy’.
  • The first judge to carry out an enquiry ordered the case to be shelved in May 1970. He heard the original blast from his office a mile away: ‘No, I don’t think that was a boiler exploding. I think that was a bomb, and it sounded to me like an anarchist bomb’.
  • The original police explanation was abandoned and replaced with: Pinelli went over to the window to smoke a cigarette, fainted, and fell out.
  • Luigi Calabresi, the police officer who had interrogated Pinelli just prior to the defenestration, sued the editor of a newspaper, Pia Baldelli, for defamation after Baldelli had alleged murder. There was a libel trial in 1971.
  • In the light of contradictory police statements about the affair the Italian Ministry sent a second judge to open another criminal inquiry.
  • A new left wing version widely circulated after examination of the site of injuries on the body: Pinelli was killed by a police karate chop and was already dead when he was tossed out of Calebresi’s office window. Pinelli’s wife Licia sued Calabresi for her husband’s wrongful death.
  • Calabresi was shot and killed in front of his house in 1972. A huge crowd attended his funeral to honour him.
  • By1975 there was a judicial finding on the case: “The air in the room was heavy, oppressive. The window was open [Pinelli] went over to the balcony for a breath of fresh air, he felt dizzy, he put out his hands in the wrong direction, his body falling over the railings…all the evidence points in this direction”. In other words Pinelli had neither committed suicide nor been murdered but had suffered from what the judge called an ‘active affliction’. This ruling of accident satisfied nobody and was the subject of ridicule.
  • Three neo-fascists were convicted (not confirmed on appeal) of the Milan bank bombing, one of whom, called Giannettini, turned out to be a police agent-provocateur who had played his part in instigating the bombing. This theory was that neo-Nazis intended to destabilise Italy making it ripe for a right wing coup. On this view the state, trying to suppress left wing dissent with a spy embedded in the anarchist group, was able to organise the massacre, manufacture the public outrage, denounce the innocent, eulogise the dead and coin medals for the widows and orphans.
  • Three left wingers were arrested and later convicted on the flimsy evidence of pentiti of murdering (or ordering the murder) of Calabresi (not all confirmed on appeal).

Pinelli’s death and the various trials concerning it became central events of Italy in the 1970s. Labour unrest, student demonstrations and strikes were offset by hints of neo-Fascist coups and right wing sabre rattling as the hot autumn of 1969 morphed into the decade-long years of lead. The Italian judiciary were pushing for the suppression of the Red Brigades by the innovative use of pentito as evidence. During these legal twists and turns Pinelli’s body was exhumed twice and interred three times. A dummy representing his body was thrown out of the widow four times. The botched cover up and police inaccuracies were poured over. His injuries (or supposed injuries) were scrutinised in great detail and there was learned speculation that the swelling on the shoulder of the corpse came from a police karate chop. X-rays of his back were published in the press. Photographs of his corpse were used in posters, and images of Pinelli represented in books, poems and songs. Pinelli’s last journey to the hospital in an ambulance was rerun by an investigating judge. Eight trials in total were conducted in relation to the bombing but there remain deep divisions over the interpretation of Pinelli’s death and the facts are far from being the subject of any agreement.

From this inchoate material came Dario Fo’s play Accidental Death of an Anarchist. Given the various grotesque court proceedings and the contradictory statements Fo chose farce for his genre. The play is set over the course of few hours in the Milan Police Headquarters some months after the death of Pinelli. There are six characters: one journalist, four policemen and one Maniac (played by Fo himself). There are three scenes each with a farcical interrogation: the key interrogation (of Pinelli by Calabresi) is not depicted.

Scene One: the Maniac, dressed as and claiming to be a psychiatrist, has been arrested for the crime of impersonation and is being interrogated by a police officer Bertozzo in an office at the police headquarters. The Maniac has been previously arrested for impersonating a surgeon (twice), a bishop (three times), an army captain and a tennis umpire. ‘Eleven arrests altogether, but I’d like to point out that I have never actually been convicted, Inspector’. He claims to have fought in Algeria and Vietnam, be a Pitman trained typist with 45 words per minute and an expert in Roman, Modern and Ecclesiastical law. In Italian law the insane cannot be incriminated (Maniac: ‘fraud when committed by a sane man, yes indeed, but I am a lunatic’ ) and a medical report is produced that states the Maniac has been committed sixteen times to a mental asylum. This is a man who, despite his protestations, seems to be suffering from impersonation mania. He answers Bertozzo’s questions by claiming that he is in fact a psychiatrist.

What is identity, what mask?
What is true, what is false?

Scene Two: having infiltrated the police headquarters the Maniac (now disguised as an examining magistrate) interrogates two different police officers (the Superintendent and Pissani) about their role in the Pinelli interrogation. This scene is set in the actual office from which Pinelli fell from the window. These officers are so convinced that the Maniac is the judge re-opening the case (to stitch together a better official police version) they connive with him to explain away inconsistent police statements and stitch together an exculpatory explanation. “We’ll need your help Your Honour. The benefit of your keen legal insight and we’ll produce a foolproof statement”. The Maniac forces the officers to act out the events leading up to the fall, the Maniac playing the part of the anarchist. The Maniac challenges the police from transcripts he has stolen and already mastered from the office earlier in the day. The Maniac adroitly compares page 5 of the first judge’s statement to page 16 of the addendum and quotes Article 122 of the Penal Code verbatim. ‘Maniac: So there has been a re-writing of events. Superintendent: A slight correction’.

Who is criminal, who is policeman?

Once the Maniac has identified inconsistencies in the police account he reverses his strategy and goads the two into accepting that they had been both kindly and sympathetic to Pinelli and simply trying to cheer him up so that in the end he really enjoyed his stay at the station. With witty cross examination and syllogistic prattling the Maniac tricks them into punching one another, has them making admission against interest and singing revolutionary fascist songs by the interval and later in conniving in their own deception. The police are drawn into an absurd logic. With his serpentine, loaded questions the Maniac draws out confessions and gets under the skin of the functionaries. Pissani is called the Window Straddler and the Superintendent Inspector Defenestration. As they rely more and more upon him power seeps from the police to the Maniac.

Who is in command? Who is the boss?

City Hall has ordered the Superintendent to meet a journalist called Feletti (based on Camilla Cederna from L’Espresso). The Superintendent, clearly vexed, now seems to be dependent on the intelligence and verbal dexterity of the Maniac ‘[His] quick thinking would be an invaluable asset if she starts slinging loaded questions’. The officers want the Maniac to be present in case Feletti says anything defamatory. They ask him to remain by pretending that he is a ballistics expert (to justify his presence at the interview). ‘Pissani: Can you bluff your way in forensics? Maniac: No problem. I’ll need a disguise of course. Can’t work without a costume. Superintendent: Oh Dear. Maniac: Don’t worry I have some stuff right here’. And he reaches once again into one of his plastic bags and pulls out another ludicrous shape-shifting disguise of false leg, false hands and a false eye.

Scene Three: the journalist arrives and asks the police officers questions about their conduct during the Pinelli interrogaiton.‘I shan’t beat around the bush . As you may be aware, my paper has been less than enthusiastic about the flagrant public white-washing given to recent events in this building by the City Magistrate’s office.’ Feletti reveals that the bruise to Pinelli’ neck was not part of his fall, and that the call to the ambulance was five minutes before the fall, and that his hands were not injured in a way that suggested he had thrust them out in anticipation of hitting the ground. This hard line of questions is counterbalanced by increasingly farcical slapstick with an unexploded bomb and an errant glass eye. The Superintendent and Pissani, now complicit in the Maniac’s disguise and deception, panic when Bertozzo returns and wants to unmask him. Pissani and the Superintendent desperately try to keep Bertozzo from an unmasking in front of Feletti by singing over his accusations and explaining away the Maniac’s eccentricity as epilepsy. Bertozzo desperately shouts above the din that the Maniac’s false leg is a false false leg.

Who is duped, who is a duper?

The Superintendent states that he has planted a few police officers in the audience and asks them to stand up. Bertozzo complains to the audience in a meta-fictional way: “I ought to warn you that the author of this sick little play, Dario Fo, has the traditional, irrational hatred of the police common to all narrow-minded left-wingers and so I shall, no doubt, be the unwilling butt of endless anti-authoritarian jibes.” The Maniac says at one point that to act is his hobby and his theatre is the theatre of reality.

Who is actor, who political commentator?

This is a trivial farce about state massacre. The play was a hit in Italy playing to an estimated one million people in its first four years. The actor-performer, author, producer and director (Fo), with his band of travelling players (La Comune collective) wandered around the country staging the play in converted warehouses, factories, sports stadium, workers clubs and dance halls. Debates would follow performances. The ending was left deliberately ambiguous (appropriate given the legal proceedings were incomplete). But laughter does not please the mighty and there followed secret police harassment and bomb threats, the censorship police nervously followed scripts by torchlight during performances, audience members were vigorously searched in advance, and boycotts were urged by clergy upon their parishioners. The first run of the play coincided with the Calabresi/Baldelli libel trial, and scenes were updated every night according to the evidence heard that day in court. The play became a discussion point for the whole Pinelli affair and so became a theatre of counter-information. When officials pressured a theatre in Bologna to halt plans for a production the work switched to a sports stadium before an audience of more than six thousand people. All this because of a ludicrous two-act farce. In the spring of 1973 Fo’s wife, the actor Franca Rame, was kidnapped from her home by a fascist group and raped and left injured in the street. In the autumn 1973 Fo was arrested and held in prison in Sardinia for not letting police be present at rehearsals. The Italian government, the Italian Communist Party, the Milan police and the Vatican denounced Fo.

What is coup de theatre, what coup d’etat?
Gramsci or Grimmelshausen? Karl or Groucho Marx?

By the end of the play Dario Fo is a political figure on stage as an actor, playing a madman who has impersonation mania, disguised as a judge disguised as a forensic scientist with a false leg, hand and eye. Wherever absurdity appears it turns whatever was before into its own form of nonsense. This is a play about the fighting of falsehood by a madman in a disguise. From within these layers of identity the Maniac with a darkly anarchic sub current deploys slippery questions. ‘I’m a manic not a fool, watch your terminology’ he says. Being more linguistically adept than the faltering officers the Maniac’s key characteristic is his wit. He is a licensed Fool at the intersection of the tension between the death of Pinelli and the farcical inventions of the authorities to explain it. A Fool, with carnivalesque cavortings, allows tragic matters to be examined in boisterous style. His wit, subterfuge and ambiguity cause identities to be dissolved and oppositions to be inverted. The Maniac is a chameleon adapting himself to his environment, masquerading in the very form he is criticising. He is a subversive, ambiguous figure, whose name we never learn; in the end he is nothing but subterfuge. We have no confidence that he has any stable identity at all (even when Feletti claims at the end to recognise him as a sports journalist). He states that he is legally insane (and has the papers to prove it) and has been committed to a mental asylum sixteen times. In a world of bent coppers and corrupt judges a madman is the arbiter of reason and decency. When the structures of the world are powered by the corrupt, then we need a lunatic.

The questions from the actual Pirelli interrogation are absent, this play is no reconstruction. The three interrogations we do see (Bertozzo of Maniac; Maniac of Superintendent and Pissani; Felletti of the police and Maniac) are a parody of the questions fired at Pinelli. The police officers and Felletti are confrontational and direct, putting their interlocutors on the defensive (and so do not receive the answers sought). The Maniac asks serpentine, sinewy questions and obtains admissions and confessions. He dupes them into making compromising jokes and happily singing fascist revolutionary songs. The plodding police are unhinged in a confusion of roles and identity and induced by the witty Fool into making admissions against interest (while he secretly records them on tape).

Who is serious, who trivial?

Fo was a singer and stand-up performer who had success in cabaret and satirical reviews with more than thirty plays staged during a long career. Fo unhinged his audience pushing them to misunderstand the premises of the world. Poer Nano (1952) was a radio monologue of a poor simpleton who keeps getting his stories wrong (and thus a religious satire). Mistero Buffo (his one man show) was a series of skits satirising the Italian government and the Pope with farcical inversions of traditional folk tales and biblical morality lessons. He invented an archaic language drawn in part from the dialects of Northern Italy presenting apocryphal gospel stories in which he played all the parts. These were absurdist re-workings of the gospels told by a solo lecture-cum-demonstration-cum standup from the point of view of the underprivileged. The marriage at Cana is from the perspective of a drunken guest and a watching Fool describes the Last Supper. The resurrection of Lazarus is told by a sardine seller, a vendor of chairs and the victim of a pick pocket, all re-told with asides for the audience. Archangels Don’t play Pinball had a sage-wit Fool in the title role. In his play Abnormal Two Brainer Berlusconi is only saved when the remains of Vladimir Putin’s brain are grafted onto his.

Fo closely identified with the strolling players of the middle ages. Many of his plays and performances centrally involve a Fool-like character who simulates a combination of rationality, the absurd, the intelligent and the zany. Fo came from a town in Lombardy of oral storytellers of tall tales and fantastic yarns, puppeteers and balladeers. The middle ages were a time of the carnivalesque as wandering players in town squares performed burlesque pantomime about the powerful and the sanctimonious. Fo refashioned these forms for contemporary usage. He retrieved from a plebeian culture a socially subversive tradition that combined the tragic, comic and grotesque. For him satire was an ancient dispensation, a medieval art drawing its strength from the inversions of carnival. This earthbound popular culture fuelled Fo’s art. “Don’t call my play comedy. There is a misunderstanding of the word. I call it farce. In current language farce is understood as vulgar, trivial, of little value, farcical and very simple. In reality this is a cliché of official culture. What they call comedy today had lost the rebellious strain of ancient times. What is provocative and rebellious is farce. The establishment goes for comedy, the people for farce.” The Fool was the most sophisticated of simpletons, an exuberant extrovert, who told stories of tragic allusion bursting with laughter. The Fool went from place to place clowning in the square in performances that were protean and transformative. The Fool irreverently mocks sanctimonious seriousness and demolishes sacredness, but his power lies in his understanding and love of humanity’s failings. The glimmerings of this figure pulsate in the Maniac in Accidental Death of an Anarchist. Fo understood the comic relationship between tragedy and the grotesque, and that fascism with its repressive stupidity stimulates rather than suppresses satire. Fo made the theatre a spoken newspaper of the people in dramatic form and brought the essence of the plebeian performers of the middle ages into post war Italy. Fo said: “I do the same thing as a clown. I just put some drops of absurdity in this calm and tranquil liquid which is society, and the reactions reveal things that were hidden before the absurdity brought them into the open”.

Fo won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1997 and the Swedish Academy committee praised his achievement in reviving the traditions of the Fool. The citation stated: “He if anyone merits the epithet of jester in the true meaning of that word. With a blend of laughter and gravity he opens our eyes to abuses and injustices in society and also the wider historical perspective in which they can be placed…Fo is an extremely serious satirist with a multifaceted oeuvre.” Fo identified himself with the Fool. He gave a speech to the academy when accepting the award entitled ‘Against Fools who defame and insult’. He saw the Fool as a disconcerting truth teller and sought to reclaim the Fool, folly, the absurd and farce from scorn. Fo stood for an essence of Folly with which we have lost touch.


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