Eduardo De Filippo de Filippo, Eduardo - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Eduardo de Filippo 1900-1984

Italian playwright, screenwriter, poet, and director.

De Filippo was among Italy's most distinguished contemporary playwrights. Strongly influenced by the social milieu of his native Naples, de Filippo continues to be highly respected in Europe for his farces, in which reality is often treated as shifting and transitory.

Biographical Information

De Filippo was born in Naples, Italy, in 1900, to Eduardo Scarpetta and Luisa de Filippo. He entered the theater while still an adolescent, performing with siblings in his father's acting troupe, then moving to comedic and musical companies. By 1930 de Filippo had collaborated—frequently under pseudonyms—on numerous skits and one-act farces. Around this time he reteamed with family members and began performing his own works in Naples. He also commenced his film career, appearing in the 1932 production Tre uomini in frak. Five years later he made his screenwriting debut with Sono stato io! (1937). During World War II de Filippo worked only sporadically, but once peace was restored he resumed his varied careers, and throughout the remainder of the 1940s he produced what are usually considered his greatest works. De Filippo continued to write plays and later screenplays through the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and in the early 1980s he was a lecturer at the University of Rome. He also maintained a very successful acting career, both on stage and in films. He died in 1984.

Major Works

Among de Filippo's most important works is Napoli Milionaria (1945; Naples Millionaire), a realistic drama about a family's involvement in the Italian black market. He followed this work with Questi fantasmi! (1946; Neapolitan Ghosts), a comedy in which a husband mistakes his wife's ever-present lover for a ghost. In 1946 de Filippo also wrote Filumena marturano (Filumena), in which a former prostitute obtains financial stability for her three offspring by successfully conning her lover—who is already engaged to a younger woman—into marriage. De Filippo continued his success in Italy with Le voci di dentro (1948; Inner Voices), in which a man mistakes for reality his dream in which a friend is murdered by neighbors. After learning of his folly, the dreamer is visited by the falsely accused neighbors, who accuse each other of plotting the crime. Shifting reality is also the premise of La grande magica (1949; Grand Magic), de Filippo's complex comedy about infidelity and faith. In this play an adulteress cuckolds her husband after vanishing as part of a magic show. When she fails to return, her husband is given a small box from which she can be produced if he trusts in her fidelity. Four years pass before the untrusting husband, convinced by the magician that only a few minutes have elapsed, decides to open the box. But before he has opened it, his wife reappears. The husband, however, prefers to believe that she is still inside the box.

It is probably as a screenwriter that de Filippo received his greatest recognition in the United States. Italian sex comedies were particularly prevalent among foreign films shown in America during the 1960s. Among de Filippo's contributions to this genre included such films as Matrimonio all'italiana (1964; Marriage Italian Style), featuring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni—adapted from de Filippo's Filumena,—and, Shoot Loud, Louder … I Don't Understand (1967), adapted from Le voci di dentro and pairing Raquel Welch with Mastroianni. With English-speaking audiences, de Filippo enjoyed perhaps his greatest theatrical success in the 1970s with Saturday, Sunday, Monday, a translated production of his play Sabato, Demenica e Lunedi (1959).

Critical Reception

Largely because his language and themes do not translate well, de Filippo is not generally known in the United States. However he still enjoys immense status in his native Italy, with some critics ranking him second only to Luigi Pirandello, with whom de Filippo once worked. Some critics have also seen de Filippo's influence in the works of later Italian playwrights, notably Dario Fo. He developed such a following as an actor of both stage and screen that he is readily identified by just his first name in Italy.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Farmacia de turno (play) 1920

Ditegli sempre: si (play) 1931

Natale in casa Cupiello (play) 1931

Chi è chiù felice 'e me! (play) 1932

Ditegli sempre si (play) 1932

Gennariello (play) 1932

Quei figuri di trent'anni fa (play) 1932

Sik-Sik, l'artefice magico (play) 1932

Uomo e galantuomo (play) 1933

La speranza ha trovato un alloggio [with G. Riva] (play) 1936

Sono stato io! (screenplay) 1937

Pericolosamente (play) 1938

Uno coi capelli bianchi (play) 1938

La parte di Amleto (play) 1940

Non ti pago! (play) 1941

Io, l'erede (play) 1942

Napoli Milionaria [Naples Millionaire] (play) 1945

Filumena marturano [Filumena] (play) 1946

Questi fantasmi! [Neapolitan Ghosts] (play) 1946

San Carlino 1947 (play) 1947

Le bugie con le gambe lunghe [Lies With Long Legs] (play) 1948

Le voci di dentro [Inner Voices] (play) 1948

La grande magica [Grand Magic] (play) 1949

La paura numero uno (play) 1950

Il paese di Pulcinella (poetry) 1951

Amicizia (play) 1952

Il morti non fanno paura (play) 1952

Il successo del giorno (play) 1952

Bene mio e core mio (play) 1955

Mia famiglia (play) 1955

Cantata dei giorni pari (plays) 1959

Sabato, Demenica e Lunedi [Saturday, Sunday, Monday] (play) 1959

Il sindaco del Rione Sanita (play) 1960

De pretore Vincenzo (play) 1961

Ieri, oggi e domani [Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow] [with Alberto Moravia and Cesare Zavattini] (screenplay) 1963

Matrimonio all'italiana [Marriage Italian Style] [adaptor; from the play Filumena marturano with Renato Castellani, Antonio Guerra, Leo Benvenuto, and Piero de Barnar] (screenplay) 1964

Shoot Loud, Louder … I Don't Understand [director and adaptor; from the play Le voci di dentro] (screenplay) 1967

Il contratto (play) 1971

Il monumento (play) 1971

Ogni ano punto e da capo (play) 1971

Gli esami non finiscono mai (play) 1973

La poesie di Eduardo (poetry) 1975

*Three Plays (plays) 1976

Four Plays (plays) 1992

*This work contains translations of Il sindaco del Rione Sanita, La grande magica, and Filumena marturano.

†This work contains The Local Authority, Grand Magic, and translations of Filumena marturano and Napoli Milionaria.

Eric Bentley (essay date winter 1951)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bentley, Eric. “Eduardo de Filippo and the Neapolitan Theatre.” Kenyon Review 13 (winter 1951): 111-26.

[In the following essay, Bentley surveys de Filippo's themes in his major plays and discusses the influence of his life in Naples on de Filippo's work.]

Both in technique and philosophy, Eduardo de Filippo is traditional. At the same time he strikes me as one of the three or four original figures in the theatre today. Let me tell something about his plays, beginning with the two latest: La Grande Magia (The Big Magic) and La Paura Numero Uno (Fear Number One).

Calogero di Spelta is so jealous he will hardly let his wife Marta out of his sight. Her friend Mariano has to resort to strategem to be alone with her. He bribes a visiting conjurer to use Marta in a disappearing act. The conjurer thus brings her where Mariano is—but instead of returning after fifteen minutes, as arranged, the young couple run off to Venice. Meanwhile the conjurer must save face before his audience. He tells Calogero that his wife can be produced out of a small box—which he shows the company—if he, the husband, has complete faith in her, that is, is sure she is “faithful” to him.

Otto the conjurer saves the occasion. But days pass, and weeks, and months, and the waiting husband is not to be appeased by the improvisation of a moment. He has to be convinced of the truth of the whole magical philosophy of life: what seems real is only illusion. Thus, while Calogero has the illusion of time passing, he yet, under Otto's influence, has faith that no time has passed: all this is but a dream transpiring in the moment before Marta's reappearance at Otto's performance.

The idea grows on Calogero. It is a game, which he is more and more determined to play out to the end. He is so eager to agree to the basic premise (time is not passing) that he tries to do without eating and excreting. Otto, who had practised conscious deceit from the start, takes pity on him and urges him to open the box and finish a losing game. Calogero, however, is determined to win. He will open the box only when his faith is complete. He is just reaching this point and is bracing himself to open the box, “one, two …” when Otto cries “… and three!”—Marta has returned, after four years. But it is a moment too soon. The box is still closed, and Calogero's faith still untested. He cannot accept Marta on these terms. He clings to the box, and does not open it.

When this story was first placed before an audience, in Rome last February, everyone cried “Pirandello!” Like the Sicilian master, Eduardo had insisted that illusions were needed because the truth was more than we could stand. Like Pirandello in Il piacere dell'onestà (The Pleasure of Honesty) and Ma non è una cosa seria (But it isn't a serious matter), Eduardo had shown an idea beginning as fiction, an escape from life, and later incorporated into life. There are even more specific resemblances to Enrico IV. At the beginning of each play a man retires from the bitter reality—of sexual rivalry into a deliberate unreality in which time is supposed to stand still (though its not doing so is in both cases indicated by the protagonist's greying hair). At the end of each play reality irrupts into the illusion in a way calculated to shatter it; but the result is the opposite; the illusion is accepted by the protagonist in perpetuity.

Whether Eduardo was influenced by Pirandello or was simply nourished from the same sources and interested in the same problems was not discussed. Worse still: the word “Pirandello,” as such words will, prevented people from seeing things that would otherwise have been evident. For all the superficial “Pirandellism” of La Grande Magia, the play is really a much simpler, more commonsensical affair. Pirandello, if I am not mistaken, manufactures out of his despair a nihilistic relativism. The veiled lady at the end of Cosî è (se vi pare) is one person or another as you choose; in which proposition the law of contradiction itself (that a thing cannot both be and not be) is denied. In Eduardo, on the other hand, no such nonsense is thrust upon the universe. If one man has an illusion, another sees it as such. The apparent magic in even his spookiest play Questi Fantasmi (These Phantoms) is all explained away as the chicanery of a servant or the secret generosity of a friend. So in La Grande Magia, Otto's “little magic” is rather brutally exposed from the beginning as mere charlatanism. The “big magic”—the magic not of the parlor but of life itself—is magic only honorifically. The word “magic” is a figure of speech. Illusions, mad ideas (we are given to understand), may be instrumental in a man's moral development. Thus Calogero's sin had been jealousy, lack of faith in a woman. Once he has entered upon the great moral game of life, he must not be deflected from it until he has ceased to be jealous, until he has found faith. Otto's assumption that it would be enough to produce Marta—as out of a hat—shows to what a degree his understanding is limited to the realm of the little magic. His actually producing her is the completest betrayal of the greater game. Now Calogero will never open the box: his faith is locked in it.

La Grande Magia, then, is not about the nature of reality, it is about faith in one's wife. Eduardo likes to use some big, much-discussed subject as a kind of come-hither. It turns out to be incidental. He may almost be said to have tried this once too often with La Paura Numero Uno where the big, much-discussed subject is right now so bothersome that, once mentioned, it is not easily shaken off. This subject—our “fear number one”—is the third world war. Eduardo deals so cleverly with it in his first act, and even his second, that the third, in which it is definitely pushed into the background, seemed pretty much of an anti-climax to the audience that gathered to see the play at the Venice Festival in July. We should have to be as free of “fear number one” as Eduardo wishes us to be to recognize all at once that the subject of his play is parenthood.

Eduardo shows us a father and a mother. Matteo Generoso, paterfamilias, is so possessed with fear of the third world war that all business on hand, and notably his daughter's wedding, keeps being postponed. The young people decide to put his soul at rest by faking a radio announcement that war has actually broken out. … The mother of the play is the bridegroom's mother, Luisa Conforto. She also is an obstacle in the young couple's way since she resists the loss of her son. She has lost his only brother already and his father. In the fanaticism of her maternal love she contrives to postpone the marriage for eleven days by walling her son up in a little room where she feeds him all his favorite dishes.

In the end the marriage is celebrated, and war has not broken out; the play is a comedy. What of the delusions and distortions in the minds of the two parents? The conclusion enforced by the action of the play is that the father's case, though “normal,” is more deplorable because it disqualifies him from being a father. The mother's case, though a psychiatrist would take a stern view of it, is found excusable, a case of virtue driven into a corner. One recalls the conjurer's accurate description of Calogero in La Grande Magia. “[He] is not mad. He is a man who knows he has been stricken and reaches after the absurdest things in order not to confess it even to himself.” Calogero will continue his fight for faith if he has to “reach after the absurdest things” in the process. Luisa Conforto will continue to be a mother even if she too does the absurdest things in the process.

In calling Eduardo traditional, I had in mind, among other matters, that drama has so often and over so long a period been a defense of family piety. In Greek tragedy it is the desecration of this piety that horrifies us. In the comedy of Molière it is the desecration of this piety that we find ridiculous. Then in modern times there has been that enormous assault upon all our intimate relations which Balzac described through all the volumes of his great comedy and which Marx and Engels announced in their tragic rhapsody of a manifesto.

Italy has written its own sad chapter in this story. After the heroism of Garibaldi and his thousand, the indignity of the millions. The fascist era was but the lowest point of a steep descent, and whether the long climb up again has really got under way since 1945 seems doubtful. Abroad, people know about the brutalities of fascism, far more indeed than the citizens of fascist countries. What they know less about is something evident in every institution and every social group where fascism has secured a foothold—the corruption, the petty knavery, the bottomless indignity, the dishonor.

There is no politics in Eduardo but in play after play he has put his finger on the black moral spot. Perhaps Le Voci di Dentro (The Voices from Within), famously written in 17 hours, is its most devastating diagnosis. A man accuses a whole family of mudering a friend of his. Later he realizes that he dreamt it all, perhaps not even dreamt it. The friend is alive. But the accuser is not mad. He had sound intuitions (“voices from within”) and they crystallized into a single clear hallucination. Eduardo's main point is in the subsequent behavior of the family. They accept the charge because each thinks it quite possible that one of them has committed the murder. As their accuser cries:

I accused you and you didn't rebel although you were all innocent. You thought it—possible—normal—you have written Murder in the list of daily events, you have put Crime in the family book of accounts. Respect, mutual respect, that puts us on good terms with ourselves, with our conscience … what shall we do to live, to look ourselves in the face?

In Questi Fantasmi, it is the petit bourgeois protagonist who has lost self-respect:

If you knew how humiliating it is, and sad, for a man to have to hide his poverty and pretend to be playful with a joke and a laugh. … Honest work is painful and miserable … and not always to be found. … Without money we become fearful, shy, with a shyness that is embarrassing, bad. [To his rich rival:] With you I don't feel envy, pride, superiority, deceit, egoism. Talking with you I feel near God, I feel little, tiny … I seem to be nothing. And I like destroying myself, seeming nothing … in this way I can free myself from the weight of my own being which oppresses me so.

In Napoli Millionaria (Millionaire Naples), Eduardo shows how common folk are de-humanized, how a family is ruined and divided—mother from father—by blackmarketeering In Natale in Casa Cupiello (Christmas with the Cupiellos), he portrays a father who lacks paternal maturity and we realize to what a large extent the childishness of the “little man” may contribute to catastrophe.

Luca Cupiello, your father, was a big baby. He took the world for an enormous toy. When he saw it was a toy you couldn't play with as a child any more but only as a man … he couldn't make it.

The special relevance of Eduardo's defence of the pieties may now be clearer. They are the bedrock above which everything else, even sanity perhaps, has been shot away. The sane are only hypocritical parties to the general offence. Humanity has taken refuge in the crazy and infirm. Uncle Nicolo in Le Voci di Dentro has vowed himself to silence because he holds that mankind is deaf. From time to time he spits. Old Luisa Conforto in La Paura Numero Uno needs no convincing that war has broken out because she holds that it is in full swing already! Deprived of both her sons, she now has nothing much to call her own save her jams and conserves. How these can mean so much is perhaps explained by a longish quotation. The passage is worth exhibiting also because, however simple, it could be by no playwright but Eduardo.

Now, I swear, if twelve wars broke out one after the other, they'd make no impression on me. But you never believed in this “outbreak of war.” You've been convinced all the time that we're at war! And I don't know what I'd do. …
Don Mattè, you're a darling! I'm old now as you see … you are much younger than I am—but I assure you I wouldn't change my brain for yours!
Why not?
Why, because you believe a thing when the radio says it. I mean: to you the radio is more important than your own thoughts. You want to convince me there isn't a war on while you yourself talk of it—as a “tragic problem that makes you sick of life itself”: you complain of the chauffeur who forces you into selling your car so as to be rid of a nuisance, of the maid who doesn't take a liking to you and robs you, of your struggle with...

(The entire section is 5500 words.)

Ferdinando D. Maurino (essay date February 1961)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Maurino, Ferdinando D. “The Drama of de Filippo.” Modern Drama 3, no. 4 (February 1961): 348-56.

[In the following essay, Maurino presents an overview of de Filippo's plays, focusing on their Neapolitan themes.]

At the end of World War II the plays of Eduardo De Filippo, a Neapolitan writer, began to attract not only the audiences and readers in Italy but also those abroad. Eric Bentley1 and Lander MacClintock2 wrote briefly on him; and a few years ago Thornton Wilder3 stated that De Filippo was his favorite contemporary dramatic author.

Previously De Filippo had been known mainly as a comic actor whose...

(The entire section is 4459 words.)

Mimi D'Aponte (essay date December 1973)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: D'Aponte, Mimi. “Encounters with Eduardo de Filippo.” Modern Drama 16 (December 1973): 347-53.

[In the following essay, D'Aponte recounts discussions she has had with de Filippo.]


“People do become monuments.” Eduardo De Filippo is sitting alone in his dressing room, smoking. I come in without an introduction (having made my way backstage between Acts 2 and 3 of Il Monumento by looking stranded and murmuring something about an American study of Neapolitan theatre), and he immediately gets up and shakes my hand. He invites me to sit down, returns to his chair, and continues...

(The entire section is 3432 words.)

Mario B. Mignone (essay date 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mignone, Mario B. “De Filippo's Inspiration and Creative Process.” In Eduardo De Filippo, pp. 20-36. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984.

[In the following excerpt, Mignone examines the role of the city of Naples in shaping de Filippo's art.]


Eric Bentley has put well the need for examining De Filippo's art in the context of his city: “It is sometimes debated how far we need to know an author's background in order to judge his work. I should think we need to know it whenever we would otherwise be in danger of taking something as his personal contribution when it is a representative product of his...

(The entire section is 6365 words.)

Mario B. Mignone (essay date 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mignone, Mario B. “Early Works: Range and Versatility.” In Eduardo De Filippo, pp. 37-66. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984.

[In the following excerpt, Mignone explores the development of de Filippo's major themes as they appeared in his early, often critically neglected plays.]


De Filippo's theatrical works of the first phase, written before World War II and collected under the title Cantata dei giorni pari (Cantata for even days), are usually neglected by critics. In 1945 De Filippo himself characterized them as “plays of the old theater”:

In those plays I...

(The entire section is 11914 words.)

Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Acton, Harold. “Eduardo de Filippo.” In The Genius of the Italian Theater, edited by Eric Bentley, pp. 551-63. New York: The New American Library, 1964.

Acton notes the difficulty of translating into English de Filippo's poetic Naples dialect in his work.

Additional coverage of de Filippo's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 114, 132; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 1; and Reference Guide to World Literature, Ed. 2.

(The entire section is 77 words.)