by James D. Irwin
For a number of years I ran a comedy night in Winchester. The first set I performed there was highly political, because I’d spent one too many hours watching videos of Bill Hicks and decided that my comedy was going to like, totally have a point and stuff. I learned an important lesson that night: you have to be really funny for people to listen to you rant about the shortcomings of those in political power.
I can no longer remember exactly how it came up, but my FYP tutor encouraged me to read The Accidental Death of an Anarchist. It didn’t really have anything to do with my FYP, and it wasn’t a core text for the Writing for Stage module— it wasn’t quite absurdist enough for a module encompassing Beckett, Brecht, Ionesco and CP Taylor. But I read it because I trusted my tutor and the title sounded pretty cool. The Accidental Death of an Anarchist became probably the most important thing I read at university, and a huge influence on my writing.
What I love about the play is the fact that it successfully does what I had once so spectacularly failed to do in my early forays into stand up. Fo manages to be absolutely hysterically funny whilst simultaneously launching a scathing attack on a corrupt government. And whilst the play is based on events that were then topical, it is very easy to adapt and update to suit the political climate of the day. The Accidental Death of an Anarchist is a staggering piece of theatre, and as powerful today as it has ever been.
Forty-three years and one Nobel Prize for literature since Fo first staged The Accidental Death of an Anarchist, the 87 year old Italian’s rage has yet to subside. His message for World Theatre Day touches on the idea of theatre as being something more than art or entertainment. His closing remark is somewhere between optimism and a violent throw of the gauntlet.
Here is the message in full:
A long time ago, Power resolved the intolerance against Commedia dell’Arte actors by chasing them out of the country.
Today, actors and theatre companies have difficulties finding public stages, theatres and spectators, all because of the crisis. Rulers are, therefore, no longer concerned with problems of control over those who express themselves with irony and sarcasm, since there is no place for actors, nor is there a public to address. On the contrary, during the Renaissance, in Italy those in power had to make a significant effort in order to hold the Commedianti at bay, since these enjoyed a large audience.
It is known that the great exodus of Commedia dell’Arte players happened in the century of the counter-Reformation, which decreed the dismantling of all theatre spaces, especially in Rome, where they were accused of offending the holy city. In 1697, Pope Innocent XII, under the pressure of insistent requests from the more conservative side of the bourgeoisie and of the major exponents of the clergy, ordered the demolition of Tordinona Theatre which, according to the moralists, had staged the greatest number of obscene displays.
At the time of the counter-Reformation, cardinal Carlo Borromeo, who was active in the North of Italy, had committed himself to the redemption of the “children of Milan”, establishing a clear distinction between art, as the highest form of spiritual education, and theatre, the manifestation of profanity and of vanity. In a letter addressed to his collaborators, which I quote off the cuff, he expresses himself more or less as follows: “Concerned with eradicating the evil weed, we have done our utmost to burn texts containing infamous speeches, to eradicate them from the memory of men, and at the same time to prosecute also those who divulged such texts in print. Evidently, however, while we were asleep, the devil labored with renewed cunning. How far more penetrating to the soul is what the eyes can see, than what can be read off such books! How far more devastating to the minds of adolescents and young girls is the spoken word and the appropriate gesture, than a dead word printed in books. It is therefore urgent to rid our cities of theatre makers, as we do with unwanted souls”.
Thus the only solution to the crisis lies in the hope that a great expulsion is organized against us and especially against young people who wish to learn the art of theatre: a new diaspora of Commedianti, of theatre makers, who would, from such an imposition, doubtlessly draw unimaginable benefits for the sake of a new representation.