Nolimus aut velimus, omnibus gentibus, justitiam et veritatem.
Politics is superior to art; at least that is what those who worship the ebb and flow of governments and nations would like us to believe. It is superior because everything, absolutely everything, can be reduced to money and power; in fact, the only real debate in this world bereft of godliness, sanctity and hope, is whether money has more allure than power or vice versa. Occasionally you will even hear the moneyed and powerful, who have the terrible tendency of inhabiting the same mortal forms, talk about how they bestow more upon society. To a man, they opine, they pay more taxes; they invest their money in technology for the good of humanity and not just to satiate their own megalomania and gadget fetish; and yet – heaven be praised – their quenchless greed eventually trickles down the lowly and oppressed, who cannot really anticipate earning as much as the elite because that elite studied for years precisely not "to be treated in the same terms as some half-starved old age pensioner." This argument may sound quite familiar, while the quote is from this famous play.
We should not expect much in terms of plot from such a title, but we would do well to consider the historical context if only because translations have often abandoned it. In the years of upheaval that our parents now consider radical and we wince upon, the inherent moral corruption of a theory propounded by two nineteenth-century German thinkers who really did very little thinking at all (despite the fact that one of them spoke twenty-five languages) was exposed, carved up like the Elwetritsch it resembled, and stuffed for mounting, where, I should add, it has since remained. In its stead came a new brand of aid to the underprivileged that espoused fairness, competition and, most importantly, restrictions to personal wealth. Why this last point? Because recent history had evinced that we know few bounds and that, for some, bounds are signs of weakness. What Northern Europe accomplished in the 1960s and 1970s is so remarkable yet so obvious that we must have been mad not to have shunted our train onto this progressive track years ago. That would explain why the protagonist and grand magician in the play is known by many names in dialog but only one in stage directions, Il Matto (the Maniac or Madman).
There is an inherent difference between a maniac and madman that I shall not belabor; suffice it to say that our Matto has elements of both categories, in other words, he is sufficiently keen on his aims as to seem obsessed and sufficiently separated from conventional wisdom as to seem absurd. What links a maniac and a madman, however, can be broadly defined as risk. At the play's onset our Matto is bent on frustrating an interrogator who cannot keep pace with his wit, the policemen soon convinced that he is in fact one of them infiltrating the force as a sort of internal affairs ruse. Knowing that they can trust no one fully, they acquiesce to the Matto's game and allow him to run the rather terrible risk of getting them all killed. But that is, in a way, precisely what he seeks, and his target first appears to be a recently diseased anarchist:
Let's hope your employers don't find out you're an anarchist. Know what I mean? Otherwise bang goes your job on the railways ... And naturally he gets depressed. To tell the truth, anarchists are very attached to their jobs. Basically they're just petty bourgeois attached to their little creature comforts: regular income every month, Christmas bonus, pension, health insurance, a peaceful old age. Believe me, there's no one like your anarchist for planning for his old age; I'm referring to your present-day anarchists, of course, your wishy-washy anarchists, not the real anarchists of yesteryear, the ones who were 'hounded by persecution from one country to the next.'
Anarchists, we come to learn, are actually very much like the petit bourgeois that socialism was actually trying to protect, never mind the rhetoric espoused by leftist pundits. They are average, frightened by the perils of the world, set in their ways, and married to the notion that there is only so much they can do to advance. Their only hope lies in the fact that these characteristics could easily pertain to the vast majority of humanity, however poor and downtrodden, however isolated or neglected. And they are anarchists because the world order in which they live has not planned much for their survival.
But I have avoided the plot for long enough. On December 15, 1969 a Milanese railroad worker by the name of Pinelli, recently arrested for his alleged participation in a terrorist bombing, found his fatal way out a fourth-floor window. He was not arrested at random: since 1944 Pinelli had been a committed anarchist, although a description of his life will not conjure up ideas of chaos and ruthless revolt. In fact, when one reads that Pinelli studied that bland, artificial and completely tasteless equalizer Esperanto, led a fulfilling life as a worker and publisher of articles regarding workers' rights, got married and enjoyed a quiet family existence, one understands the Matto to be anything but mad. Our Matto is bent on proving police and judicial complicity in Pinelli's demise, and to that end he convinces the other characters (Sports Jacket, Superintendent, Journalist, and the only named figure, Inspector Bertozzo) that his aim is to ensure their innocence in the eyes of the law. He also concocts a rather elaborate explanation of what really happened that cold December evening:
It is rumored that during the anarchist's final interrogation, at just a couple of minutes to midnight, one of the officers present started to get impatient, and he came over and gave him a mighty wallop on the back of the neck ... Relax, Inspector ... The result of this was that the anarchist was half-paralyzed and started struggling for breath. So they decided to call him an ambulance. In the meantime, in an attempt to revive him, they opened the window, put the anarchist in front of it, and made him lean out a bit for the cool night air to revive him. Apparently there was a misunderstanding between the two officers supporting him; as often happens in these cases, each of them thought the other one was holding him. 'You got him, Gianni?' 'You got him, Luigi?' And bomp, down he went.
Why does this description resemble slapstick comedy? Perhaps because that is the only arena in which such a scene could be acknowledged as plausible. Although heavy-handed at times, Fo's work transcends the usual pedantry of satire and begins to graze the fantastic. Surely an anarchist could in fact decide that all is lost and hurl himself towards a concrete grave? Surely an anarchist would be the first suspect on a list of endless suspects and endless crimes that for some inexplicable reason continue to elude Milanese law enforcement officials? Surely paraphrasing a pope, with the omission of two very important words, displays little more than needless erudition? Or perhaps it means that, in time, the truth surfaces from the bottom of every cesspool. Whether we like it or not.