Thursday, 24 March 2011

Chris Port Blog #144. On Directing Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Dario Fo: An Evaluation of ‘The Serious Business of Comedy’

© Chris Port, Central School of Speech and Drama,1997

This evaluation should be read in conjunction with the playscript
and the dissertation

  • Research
  • Creative Process
  • Directing
  • Skills
  • Review of product and process
  • Bibliography


My first item of research was to propose a playtext for consideration by the group under the nomenclature of The Serious Business Of Comedy. Dario Fo's Accidental Death Of An Anarchist surfaced at the top of my list for two main reasons:

i) I remembered seeing a production of Gavin Richard's adaptation by the Belt and Braces Roadshow Company (reviewed in David Hirst's study of Fo and Rame's work in Dario Fo and Franca Rame) after it transferred to the West End circa 1981/1982. Although I recalled enjoying the farcical style of the performances, and being vaguely aware of a 'serious' political message at the end, I felt that this was a sharp piece of grotesque humour which might puncture (what I perceived to be) some of the inflated politically correct smugness of British theatre audiences in the late 1990s.

ii) I wanted to direct an extract from a playtext which could be witty, provocative, and malleable to both contemporary issues and my own artistic and political instincts.

Gavin Richard's adaptation seemed to provide me with such an opportunity. After reading the adaptation I began some preliminary research around the author and previous productions of the play. This initial research, combined with my existing preconceptions, led me to two basic conclusions:

i) The comedy should not be cathartic (therefore it should be overly cruel and designed to make the audience feel uncomfortable).

ii) The comedy should not appeal to a 'politically correct' response from the audience (i.e. preaching to the converted) since this would only induce smugness and complacency which would, in essence, be a catharsis.

With regard to i), Fo cautioned against catharsis in his proposals for didactic theatre:

‘It must be a vast mechanism that makes people laugh at what they see on stage, avoiding the liberating catharsis that can result from watching the drama enacted. A riotously funny, satirical, grotesque show doesn't permit you that liberation; when you laugh the sediment of anger stays inside you; the laughter doesn't allow you to be purged.’ (Hirst, 1987 p.27).

With regard to ii), Hirst's criticisms of smug preaching resonated with my own artistic and political prejudices:

‘Far more offensive, however, because so presumptuous and typical of a certain wing of British political theatre, was the feeling that it was necessary to introduce a spurious topicality into the play. Again the cue for this comes from the adaptation, which - employing entirely the wrong kind of improvisation - at one point has this stage direction: 'Gives detailed examples of political murder and state repression in Britain.' This is the signal for the self-righteous left-wing dramatist to let his hair down...’ (Hirst, 1987 p.33).


‘Fo's carefully judged satirical provocation had been turned into what is the bane of so much British political theatre: smug, self-congratulatory, celebration.’ (Hirst, 1987 p.33).

During my initial director's presentation to the group I confessed to being uncertain as to which political context to transpose the play. The most obvious suggestions of institutionalized violence and racism by British security forces (against IRA suspects) and the British police (against ethnic minorities) seemed either obsolete or almost comfortably familiar. As I later wrote in my Director's note for the programme, what new revelations in scratching these old scabs?

The co-ordinating director suggested looking abroad to find a political context and this suggestion coincided with my chance viewing of a documentary on Channel 4, Roots Of Evil: Torturers, examining the concept of evil with specific references to instances of torture and murder by Israeli security forces (against Palestinian terrorist suspects) and Turkish security forces (against Kurdish terrorist suspects).

One of the most disturbing issues raised by Roots Of Evil was that these human rights violations have been granted a semi-legal status by the respective governments involved and have acquired a semi-legitimate acceptance in their societies through the euphemisms used by the press; e.g. torture being described as 'moderate physical pressure'(Forrest, 1996 p.109).

The Israeli/Palestinian conflict interested me in particular because of my family's Jewish background. My experience of attitudes in the liberal Jewish community with regard to the Palestinian 'problem' has left me with two abiding (and very personal) impressions:

i) There seems to be a suspicion amongst even the liberal Jewish community that post-Holocaust guilt has not destroyed anti-Semitism in European culture; it has simply made it more subtle and insidious. The result seems to be a constant vigilance on the smallest of details (especially the 'tone' of any media reports on Israeli domestic and foreign policy).

ii) Israel's de facto status as a Jewish (and increasingly sectarian) state means that negative criticism of Israeli domestic or foreign policy can often lead to an uncomfortable sensation of appearing (quite wrongly) to being hostile to the Jewish state itself.

If the critic is Jewish, this can lead to accusations of being disloyal and, if a Gentile, to accusations of being anti-Semitic. Neither of these approaches seems conducive to healthy debate and democracy. It is one thing to (quite rightly) challenge media bias and the agenda of any critic. It is another thing to (quite wrongly) become intolerant of criticism itself. The Jewish people have suffered terribly from intolerance and injustice. A wary alertness and readiness to act strongly in self-defence are both understandable and advisable. It would be a tragic irony of history though if such justifiable caution led to paranoia and persecution.

As John le Carré recently said in a speech given to the Anglo-Israel association:

‘... I realised that we were not dealing with off-beat accusations of anti-Semitism so much as the whole oppressive weight of political correctness, a kind of Macarthyite movement in reverse. How on earth sane men and women ever came to succumb to this unelected tyranny is a mystery to me, but they have. These faceless people seem to have forgotten that it was not the no-sayers who wrecked the 20th century but the yes-sayers. It was the conformists, the grey men, the ones who dared not speak, or spoke what they did not believe. It was the ones who oppressed anonymously, furtively. Who stamped out argument, and directed the rivers of human hatred from behind a screen of silence and deception.’ (The Guardian, November 15 1997)

I was very wary of transposing Accidental Death Of An Anarchist to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict because of this possible misdirection of anti-Semitism. However, from a cynical but realpolitik perspective, the Turkish/Kurdish conflict seemed too obscure to British audiences to justify contextualizing on its own. After examining the pros and cons of each scenario I decided to link all of the possible scenarios together via Pissani's' joke routine'. This procedure is examined in more detail in the Creative Process.

Subsequent follow-up research consisted mainly of identifying specific instances of state repression and political murder by the Israeli security forces against Palestinians and the Turkish security forces against Kurds in order to provide inspiration for the 'torture scene' in Anarchist. These were depressingly easy to find, particularly in Duncan Forrest's grim catalogue of abuses in A Glimpse Of Hell - Reports On Torture Worldwide, various Minority Rights Group International publications on the plight of the Kurds and newspaper reports of the recent botched assassination attempt by Mossad on a Hamas leader.

Creative Process

Once I had decided on the specific political contexts, as Director I took it upon myself to liberally cut or rewrite parts of Gavin Richard's adaptation (of Gillian Hanna's translation of Fo's precisely tuned original) to suit my own particular needs. Whether Fo would protest at such overt director's theatre I do not know but it is a still an unresolved debate 'whether dramatists have proprietary rights over their plays, or whether the interpretation of the play is the responsibility of director and actors.' (Shiach, 1987 p.29).

Probably the most overt of my tamperings was to change references in the play to the unfortunate anarchist himself. The term 'anarchist' seemed rather quaint and archaic, more reminiscent of nineteenth century Conrad than twentieth century Jihad, and so this was changed to the more modern and ruthless sounding 'terrorist'. Indirect references to the anarchist were also changed from 'man' to 'kid' or 'teenager' to identify more closely with the age of Palestinian participants in the Intifada.

Specific references to the original Italian context were cut and Pissani's 'joke routine' made an obvious leap from the Irish 'problem' to the Palestinian and Kurdish 'problems' with the Superintendent's additional line "Oh you've done the Irish to death. Try someone else." Also, one dubious benefit of a typically British, mildly sexist and racist education in the school playgrounds of the late 1970s was that I could recall a ready-made repertoire of racist jokes which could easily be transposed. Even when transposed abroad so that the victim of the joke was a Palestinian or a Kurd, the construction of such jokes remained uncomfortably recognizable as being only one step removed from British pub jokes derogatory or hostile to ethnic minorities (in my experience, often told by otherwise intelligent people simply as a resistance to political correctness).

The overt Brechtian style of Accidental Death Of An Anarchist seemed to complement this distancing effect so as to make the focus of study (the falsehoods perpetrated by the State to conceal or whitewash its abuses of power) the object of renewed attentiveness. The distancing effect continued rather literally into the lighting design (a bare yellow wash suggestive of a cell somewhere in the Middle East) and the Constable's khaki underwear (suggestive of paramilitary policing and the vulnerability of army conscripts in such situations).


My aims as a novice director in this unit were simple (which is not the same as being easy):

  • to understand the text;
  • to understand the rudimentary use of the stage space we would be using (a 'black box' theatre);
  • to understand and be able to explain and justify my director's interpretation of the text;
  • to get my interpretation off the page and onto the stage;
  • to get the best out of my actors with the least amount of stress to them or me, and to be on speaking terms with them afterwards.

Although I have often been either an 'onstage driver' or a theatre seat critic of other Director's productions, this was the first time I had picked up the Director's whip myself. I generally have poor hand eye co-ordination resulting in a lack of confidence with anything involving spatial movements. This lack of confidence in my own spatial movements led me to question whether I was qualified to advise other actors on their movements. In this respect I was fortunate in being privileged to work with such a responsive cast who appeared (regardless of any private reservations they may have harboured) to respect my directing abilities before they had seen them. The greatest potential hurdle (gaining the respect of my peer group) was thus casually stepped over, almost unconsciously, to the benefit of all.

Since I did not feel that I had to 'prove myself' I was relaxed and comfortable in giving directions or suggestions rather than neurotically trying to impose a desperate 'authority'; this, in turn, meant that my directions or suggestions were received by the cast as useful to their performances rather than attempts to impose my performances upon them. I was able to accept alternative suggestions without feeling that my directorial interpretation was being challenged and could happily defer to any expertise brought to the group by particular cast members (e.g. one cast member's interest in physical theatre was particularly useful when choreographing the mock stately dance routine to the song Never Be Rude To An Arab and the Maniac's 'accidental' slap of Pissani).

I explained to my actors that they should not be portraying characters so much as characteristics which should be precise and external rather than empathized and internal. After an initial briefing on the themes of the original and the effects of its transposition via Pissani's jokes to the Middle East, my first priority was to block the extract in its entirety. This then provided a structure within which the actors could improvise precise details without becoming self indulgent and going off-target.

Surprisingly (and gratifyingly), the actors gained the pace needed for a farce early in the rehearsal process. This enabled us to relax on cranking energy levels up to performance standard and concentrate more on unpicking the possibilities of the text and reinforcing these with actions. In my opinion, early blocking of this particular text provided a focus for the actors' improvisation rather than a restraint to their imaginations.

Due to the exuberant physicality of the extract, rehearsals were usually an enjoyable time for both director and cast and the pace of the performances at such an early stage was a delight. At mid-point in the rehearsal process, however, I became concerned that the actors were in danger of 'peaking' too soon. Another constant worry was that we were in danger of overlooking the grotesque aspects of the farce in favour of the humorous ones.

I constantly warned against 'playing the laugh rather than the point' and devised a simple method to suddenly distance the actors from the humour to which they were accustomed. I asked them to change the gender of the anarchist/terrorist, to refer to 'him' as a 'her'. The effect was instantly chilling and the whole extract acquired some very unpleasant undertones of possible sexual abuse. Afterward, during the post-rehearsal feedback, one actor remarked knowingly “It seems almost OK to chuck a bloke out of a window, but not a girl”. The exercise had achieved its purpose with the actors; they now knew exactly the right balance between laughter and chills which we needed to strike in the audience.

I made a conscious decision at the outset of my directing role to avoid relying upon theory wherever possible. Although I would occasionally refer to the Brechtian nature of performances needed when giving notes to the cast, I relied on a working knowledge of Brecht's theories amongst my cast rather than conducting tedious workshops on particular techniques. I tended to direct according to instinct and experience rather than recently consumed (and half-digested) theory. Parallel reading enabled me to recognize various historical precedents which would recur in my (sometimes contradictory) directing style. I did not consciously try to emulate any of them; from Joan Littlewood's principles of collaboration, pushing people to their limits, through Roger Planchon's development of scenic writing as the equal of dramatic writing, to the humbling of the director's role as simply a catalyst and regenerator of the actor's talents by practitioners as diverse as Ariane Mnouchkine, Jerzy Grotowski and Peter Brook.

At the risk of over-simplification, my reasoning was akin to the action of simply tossing and catching a ball. As instinct and experience worked and confidence increased, so the ball could be tossed ever higher and still caught. If, however, I paused in mid-throw and tried to calculate what I was doing instinctively by using a complex theory (like differential calculus), I would inevitably have dropped the ball. I decided, rightly or wrongly, that the appropriate time for discussing directing theory would be in my Directing Unit essay.

One possible heresy I should confess is that I did not conduct any warm-ups with my cast. This was not a deliberate act of protest but simply a practical expedient based on the observation that my cast usually arrived for rehearsal seeming keen, active and ready to go. Since rehearsal time and space were limited, and my cast seemed already warmed-up, I took a calculated risk by proceeding straight into the rehearsal.

The omission of warm-ups did not seem to have any adverse effect on the rehearsal process; in fact, quite the reverse. When attending other director's rehearsals as an actor I considered that some warm-ups seemed irrelevant, lasted far too long and often proved an irritating distraction to cast members who just wanted to 'get on with it'. My conclusion is that warm-ups should not be a didactic process. The decision whether to have a warm-up and the nature and duration of the exercises should be determined on the basis of appropriateness. e.g. the nature of the play text, the skill and temperament of the cast, the space and time available for rehearsal, the physical, vocal and mental demands which will be placed upon the cast during rehearsal and their state of preparedness on arriving at rehearsal.


My chosen skill was to be part of the 'links' group whose initial responsibility was to write short passages which would link the various and disparate comedy extracts. By the very nature of the task, this was going to be a collaborative process. Unfortunately, in my opinion, it proved to be an almost disastrous one.

While many collaborative enterprises are caught between clashing egos, this particular venture seemed to drift without any direction. Since I was already directing Accidental Death Of An Anarchist with a relative degree of autonomy, and was aware of a tendency in myself to offer my views with a lack of apology which sometimes borders on the offensive, I was wary of imposing my ideas on the link group.

Initially I suggested (with an appropriately modest lack of enthusiasm) that we should see the bathroom set as a place of Pinteresque menace, the room in the house where people are at their most vulnerable and would least like to be observed. Following on from this came the idea of the ownership of a space which, between extracts, was handed over from one group to another by the device of a house owner in the previous group and a house buyer in the new group. At this point, one member of the group mentioned that she would appreciate a part in the links as she was not performing in any of the extracts. This then developed into the idea of a constant character, the Char Lady, who could comment humorously on the action.

The device of a house owner and a house buyer from disparate comical and historical eras proved too problematic and so simply the Char Lady remained as a comic device for shooing characters on and off stage. I acquiesced and watched as the Char Lady, without any real direction, drifted more and more into a Monty Python style caricature without any substance.

After my loss of interest in the Char Lady links, my main responsibility became to write a mock radio debate which would parody pretentious intellectual debate while still actually debating the philosophical issues raised by The Serious Business Of Comedy. An initial 'fun' draft (with many 'in-house' references to members of staff) was returned (justifiably, in retrospect) by the co-ordinating director as too juvenile.

From then on, it became an impossible juggling act. In one hand, I was trying to mock pretentious intellectuals in a way that was funny; in the other, I was discovering increasingly disturbing and depressing theories about the nature of comedy. Cosmo Landeman's condemnation of comedy in Channel 4's Without Walls season (J’Accuse Comedy ) was particularly depressing; his accusation that our modern obsession with comedy is just puerile escapism which stops us from confronting serious issues seemed to directly undermine the theoretical scaffolding I had constructed for Accidental Death Of An Anarchist (avoiding catharsis).

This then had to be combined with my readings on various physiological and psychological theories of humour in Glen Wilson's Psychology For Performing Artists . Wilson's physiological observations on the origins of humour from comparisons with apes (signaling submission and aggression), together with psychological theories of tension and release and parallels with Ancient Greek tragedy did not sit easily with in-house jokes about Theatre-In-Education. It became increasingly impossible to reconcile these findings with the cooing antics of a trivial Char Lady. It became just plain boring when listening to disembodied voices with no action on stage.

On the eve of watching the Classifieds production of Sexual Identity, with one week remaining to our performance, all members of the links group suddenly expressed their frustration and dissatisfaction with the links we had not so much created as let happen. Various extreme alternatives were proposed (the most extreme of which I recall was my suggestion of a fake aggressive dispute between actors onstage under the somewhat hopeful justification of ‘invisible theatre within visible theatre’). Although these extreme suggestions stood little chance of being approved by the co-ordinating director at such a late stage in the proceedings they at least created enough concern to allow some changes.

Ironically enough, we returned to an early abandoned idea of the bathroom as a place of menace and the Char Lady as a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz. With intense and focused improvisation, we rewrote the existing links to create a progressive narrative (from survival to depression). The climax was a deliberate contrast between the Brechtian style of the intellectual debate and the raw emotional horror of the Char Lady's pain (between the 'humour' of racism and the cruelty of its consequences).

Review of product and process

I think it appropriate at this stage to review both product and process in terms of success or failure with appropriate reasons.

As performers rather than audience, we do not 'see' the finished product because we are part of it. Even in run-throughs we still do not see the finished product. However, as directors or performers, we should know if we have achieved our stated aims. As a director, I feel that I achieved all of my stated aims and have not yet received any negative criticism from cast or audience. As a performer, I do not feel that any great demands were made on me and (apart from a sense of having been miscast as Quack in The Country Wife) I see nothing of importance to review in my role as a performer.

With regard to skills, I consider the evolution of the link sequences to have been a near disaster and ultimately a frustrating disappointment. While (arguably) the final link concept needed a lengthy gestation period, I do feel that labour should have been induced much earlier. Also, an unfortunate consequence of such a pervasive late change was a sense that the entire production was being made to carry a message which had not been debated in advance by the group.

Audience feedback on the link sequences varied. Some people understood the narrative by the end of the links while others were bemused throughout. A consistent comment was that there should have been more links, a point I agree with. Unfortunately, there was not enough time.

The most consistent comment I received from audience members about the radio show was a quiet confession that they had wanted to laugh (albeit nervously) at the 'gas chamber' joke but realized it would not be politically correct. The ironical remark after the joke allowed audience members to laugh without seeming anti-Semitic (although many admitted it was actually a delayed reaction to the offending joke). Ironically, some audience members said that it was the portrayal of Mowgli with his stereotypical German accent which they considered to have been the most racially offensive aspect of the radio show. This had been discussed at the rehearsal stage but unfortunately, without the pseudo-Nazi parody, Mowgli's character lost both his humour and his irony.

This begs an uncomfortable question; if a racist joke is used to attack racism, does the irony remove the offence or does the use of a racist joke remain racist? Are people justified in taking offence where no offence is intended? Have they not understood the point or has the offender missed the point? My conclusion is that, despite provoking debate, I did not succeed with the radio show because I did not address or resolve these basic dilemmas. Maybe next time ...

The convention of adapting each extract to the bathroom set was an imaginative inspiration. However, I did not feel that it was a strong enough concept to act as a framing device for the whole production. Although I was delighted with the set I would like to register my disapproval of the way in which the bathroom was promoted from suggestion to decision without being agreed beforehand by the group.

I appreciate that it is a difficult balance for the co-ordinating director to strike; when co-ordination is unwanted by particular members of the group then it becomes imposition; when help is unwanted it becomes interference. However, if the group is led (or misled) to feel that they have ownership over the Directed Production, only to discover that they have no control over the decision-making process, such a discrepancy is bound to lead to frustrations at a later stage. It is not so much the decisions that were made but the way that they were made which caused some initial upsets. My only recommendation for future Directed Productions is that the authority of the co-ordinating director and the degree of group ownership over the initial premise need to be honestly addressed and clarified from the very beginning.

Chris Port,1997


Channel 4, Roots Of Evil: Torturers, 1997.
(First broadcast at 9 p.m. 5th October 1997).

Channel 4, Without Walls: J' Accuse Comedy, 1997.
(First broadcast at 9 p.m. 28th May 1996).

Cowan, S. (ed.), Dario Fo; bibliography, biography, playography, TQ Publications, London 1978.

Fo, D., Accidental Death Of An Anarchist, Methuen Drama, London 1987.

Forrest, D., A Glimpse Of Hell - Reports On Torture Worldwide, Cassell,
London 1996.

Hirst, D., Dario Fo and Franca Rame, Macmillan Modern Dramatists, London

Le Carré, J., ‘Dark side of the star’,The Guardian (The Week supplement),
London 1997 (issued on 15 November 1997).

Mahnaimi, U., ‘Death plot backfires on Israel’, The Sunday Times, London 1997
(issued on 5 October 1997).

Mahnaimi, U., ‘Netanyahu cornered by Hamas truce offer’, The Sunday Times,
London 1997 (issued 19 October 1997).

McDowall, D., The Kurds, Minority Rights Group International Report, London

Shiach, D., From Page To Performance, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1987.

Short, M. The Kurds, (MRG Report No. 23), Minority Rights Group Ltd., London 1983.

Wilson, G.D., Psychology For Performing Artists; Butterflies and Bouquets,
Jessica Kingsley Publishers Ltd., London 1994.


  1. 'Never Be Rude to an Arab...'

  2. 'The Dark Psychology of Being a Good Comedian'
    Olga Khazan, The Atlantic, 27 February 2014

  3. “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” ~ Mel Brooks

    “The world is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think.” ~ Horace Walpole

    “Horror is just comedy with the laughs taken out.” ~ Marty Gull

    cf. Humour in the Holocaust

    Talking Out Your Arts

    ‘The Serious Business of Comedy’

  4. 'The #CancelColbert Response Has Basically Amounted To Hate Spewing. Good Job, America'
    Jessica Prois, HuffPost Impact, 3 April 2014

    cf. 'On Directing Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Dario Fo: An Evaluation of ‘The Serious Business of Comedy’ '

    'This begs an uncomfortable question; if a racist joke is used to attack racism, does the irony remove the offence or does the use of a racist joke remain racist? Are people justified in taking offence where no offence is intended? Have they not understood the point or has the offender missed the point?'