Eduardo De Filippo Critical Essays


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Eduardo De Filippo’s early, intensive training in the Neapolitan theater led him to believe in the importance of strong characterization rather than of plot; thus, his plays revolve around the everyday life of the people of Naples—their language, customs, beliefs, superstitions, mannerisms, habits. He made it a point to show the seamier side of life, and so he filled his plays with those types who lived on the fringes of acceptable social behavior and who were either victims of social injustices or who perpetrated injustices on others.

Indeed, in De Filippo’s plays, there is a continuous examination of the concept of justice—or, if one wishes, the concept of injustice. He primarily focuses on the oppression of the disenfranchised because it is they who have been beaten, reviled, and abused. The guilty are those who have the power, who rule, who command, and they, in turn, are morally corrupt. Their corruption engenders a disrespect for the law, a lack of faith in social mores, and an invalidation of all the rules of living within a social order. The only avenue left for the weak is to fight back, to rebel, to take the law into their own hands, to seek vengeance—in short, to create their own laws. The end result can be, and often is, an anarchic way of life that strengthens the power of the corrupt and weakens the victims of corruption. Consequently, distrust, threats, thievery, ransom, and lies become an integral part of the lives of the masses. Even when those who have suffered injustices at the hands of corrupt leaders become a part of the middle class and seem to have what they need to live well, they care only for their own well-being and they will do anything—illegal and corrupt, if necessary—to maintain their newly found social position.

De Filippo dedicated his life to combating injustice and corruption, and his plays were the vehicle with which the battle was fought. He realized that people had to defend themselves constantly from the onslaught of those evils. Yet if the common people could not find justice and purity in the laws of the land nor in those who upheld the laws of the land, what were they to do? To whom could they turn for help and guidance? The countervailing force should have been the nuclear family, according to De Filippo. Unfortunately, the family was, in effect, simply a microcosm of life, of reality, so that the family in his plays reflects those difficulties and problems that face all members of society: a lack of communication between people (in the family it would be a lack of communication between husband and wife and/or between parents and children), a distrust of one another, the experiences of jealousy, hate, bitterness, greed, treachery, and oppression, and the agony of illness and death. The conclusion is that when the family is no longer a haven from the evil in the world, people can find solace only by isolating themselves from everyone. In their isolation, they create an ideal, fantasy world in which the ugly and repulsive modes of living are nonexistent. It is here that De Filippo is a master as he skillfully plays illusion against reality. Many critics see the influence of Luigi Pirandello, with whom De Filippo had collaborated on a stage presentation of Pirandello’s Liolà (pr. 1916; English translation, 1952) and Il berretto a sonagli (pr. 1917; Caps and Bells, 1957), and his own L’abito nuovo.

It is clear that De Filippo wants one to believe that people need illusions when they no longer can face the harsh realities of life, and his characters tend to create those illusions when they have reached the breaking point. De Filippo, however, also conveys the belief that people cannot shut out reality forever; they must struggle to face it, to grasp it firmly, to wrestle with it, and eventually to change it. This is the challenge that De Filippo makes his characters face; this is the challenge that he offers to all his public. Corruption and injustice can be destroyed if one is willing to fight them and to reestablish true moral values, especially if those values revolve around the traditional one of family unity. The metamorphosis of the isolated individual into a caring, loving member of the family unit is not an easy or rapid one; rather, it is extremely difficult and gradual, for those who surround the isolated individual constantly erect barriers that hamper the transformation. What the individual must do is recognize that there are barriers, identify them, hurdle them, and then be prepared to defend his newly found moral stance against the derisive jeers of the other members of the family. He must pronounce convincingly the importance of the essential values of family unity.

De Filippo divided his plays into two groups: Cantata dei giorni pari (cantata of the even days) and Cantata dei giorni dispari (cantata of the odd days). The former encompasses all the plays written up to the beginning of World War II and the latter all the plays written after 1940. The “plays of the even days” generally reflect De Filippo’s fascination with the farcical Neapolitan theater. They have been characterized by critics as the least important of his works, yet they show, in some fashion, his preoccupation with the ideas and the themes that dominate his “plays of the odd days.” The farcical may be the most evident aspect of those early plays, but underneath the farcical there already is a satiric current that probes the social injustices of society.

Farmacia di turno

De Filippo’s first play, Farmacia di turno, lacks the nuance and the bite of his later plays. This one-act play, however, anticipates, in modest form, the characterizations, the realistic locales in Naples, and the themes of his mature works. The story takes place...

(The entire section is 2375 words.)