Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Accidental Death Of An Anarchist, Or, A Difficult Job To Do

Yesterday, I went to see Black Watch at the Barbican. It's an excellent play, excellently performed: the range of registers it manages to find, the way it gives a dignity to what it would be easy to dismiss as only a brutalised and brutalising life and the often rather brutal men who inhabit it. I'm not sure I've ever seen a scene as moving as the one in which the soldiers receive letters and one by one break off to read them, dropping the paper to the ground and turning away from each other to perform strange little repetitious movements, half-caught representations of the contents of the letter; the privacy of it, the escape, was nearly heart-breaking. That wouldn't work, I think, without the contrast with the physicality, the machismo, of much of the rest of the performance: that it's not cloying is partly because of how carefully it's done - one man comes on with a bundle of letters, takes his, and lets the others be taken by another man, who steps away, takes his, and lets the rest be taken by another, and so on - but also because these are not men given to admissions of an inability to cope; problems are confronted, often in the manner which they are most used to, with camaraderie and the threat of physical violence. Appropriately, the play is full of physicality, often relying on it to create a sense of context: men running, jumping, fighting, performing military drills, being shaken about inside armoured vehicles improvised out of pool tables.

It'll be interesting to see, though, how it stands up in five or ten years, when the political controversies which inevitably form its backdrop now are less fresh. It's difficult to tell how much it relies on those to create the sense that there's been some kind of breach of trust, the sense that this isn't quite what it was supposed to be like, that it uses to give dignity to the lives it's trying to document. For a play mostly set in Iraq, it's not really very directly political: obviously, there's a thought that the military are owed better than this, and an awareness of and respect for the culture that the squaddies come from, but it's not really an attempt to indict the war, either in execution or conviction. As one of the characters puts it, the job is bullying. That's not a criticism, although for some it might be: it's not supposed to be a comment on British foreign policy, but a reconstruction of the lives of some of those who end up carrying it out, and it can remain neutral about the backdrop against which they are tasked.

That's in stark contrast with another play I was thinking about today, Dario Fo's The Accidental Death of An Anarchist. Fo's play is a piece of standard though pretty good agit-prop: at least in the production I saw, the Fool outwits the police who are holding him at every turn, except the one which matters most, where wit isn't what matters anyway. Although dull and brutish force wins out in the end, the lesson to take away is that it is dull and brutish, that it is only through a kind of regression, a backwardness, that the laughing grace of the Fool can be destroyed: in a way, it's the ultimate triumph of what Nietzsche called ressentiment, the internalisation of a system of moral rules which disfigure capacities for self-expression. The Kantian in me bristles at that a bit, and so maybe that's why I found it difficult to take away quite the right message: the Fool's not quite the right kind of truth-teller, because honesty would get in the way of his self-expression. But he is supposed to be a kind of truth-teller, just as the play is. One wonders, though, how much of an example of libertine self-expression Guiseppe Pinelli was, whether he ran verbal rings round, played the jester to the police before they threw him out of a fourth storey window, or whether, as seems rather more likely, he behaved like most people would when falsely accused of a terrorist bombing, denying, clamming up, frightened.

The attempt to mythologise the immediate aftermath of the Piazza Fontana bombing suffers, for me at least, because it is so obviously a myth: it lacks the right narrative structure to fit with what one must assume actually happened. Pinelli wasn't some trickster god, brought crashing back to earth by mortals incapable of understanding his grace, but an ordinary man with ordinary vulnerabilities killed in a quite ordinary way by other ordinary men, who presumably found him uncooperative in their attempts to frame him. Unfortunately, there is nothing miraculous about agents of the state, and perhaps particularly the Italian state, being willing to use a little more force than is strictly necessary: a slip here, a slip there, a chokehold and maybe a kick to the ribs here, a truncheon blow there, it's all so bloody quotidian.

After all, as a spokesman for Tony Blair said after the Italian riot police half-beat to death, falsely imprisoned, denied medical treatment to, and ritually humiliated 93 peaceful protesters - most of whom were preparing for or in bed when the police arrived at the school building they were staying at around midnight - at the anti-G8 protests in Genoa in 2001, "The Italian police had a difficult job to do. The prime minister believes that they did that job." Presumably that's why none of the officers involved in turning makeshift dormitories into something which they themselves described as looking like an abbatoir will serve any time. As Nick Davies' description of the attack and its aftermath makes clear, it took advantage of people's embodiedness, of their ordinary physical vulnerability: its violence was not a last resort, but the first. It didn't fuck about with phone calls and attempts to get confessions, but instead went through a building beating its occupants with truncheons and boots until they were all lying on the floor in pools of blood. There's none of the confusion or incompetence of the state's agents that marks Fo's play: this is the efficient application of overwhelming force in order to utterly crush opposition. That's how these things work; that's why, I think, Fo's play - or at least the version I saw - doesn't quite work.

But of course this isn't really about Fo's play, or Black Watch. Maybe Black Watch will carry the same charge it has now after the Iraq War is forgotten. Maybe it won't. There's a scene in it where the soldiers are watching the Americans obliterate something or other in the middle distance, planes roaring over their heads, screens replaying grainy black and white footage of cross-hairs hovering over dull rectangles which then erupt into clouds of what looks like dust but must be rather more colourful than that. They seem ambivalent about this use of massive force on what later turns out to be a couple of probably empty houses: it somehow doesn't feel right to them, a kind of cheating. It's presented without a context, and without a casualty list, so it's difficult to judge it. But Diaz Pertini does have a causalty list. Non lo dimenticare.


rachele said...

I was hoping you would write about it. Reading that article made me feel physically sick. And of course the Italian media is barely reporting anything about this mockery of a trial. As you say, it must not be forgotten, so thanks for bringing it up - and sorry I don't have anything more meaningful to add.

Rob Jubb said...

Yeah, it's horrible, really fucking horrible. I don't really have anything to add either.

el said...

Being out of the country I had missed this. It made me feel sick. I had to leave my office and put water on my face. Amnesty's released a statement, did they do a campaign?

Rob Jubb said...

I think Nick Davies in the Guardian is about all you're going to get, which is really quite depressing. I might somewhere still have footage of a Swiss policeman cutting a rope that protesters were blocking a bridge with despite the fact that it had two people hanging off the ends of it over the sides of the bridge to stop it being cut. I don't remember hearing anything about that either.