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Eduardo de Filippo 1900-1984

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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

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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)

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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 tenants, of the tailor who drives you into the poorhouse, of the frauds, extortions, betrayals of friends. … Come here. (She goes towards the cupboard where the conserves are. Matteo follows her automatically.) Do you like jam?
Yes. I'm not mad about it, but a little once in a while. …
(opening the cupboard doors and showing Matteo the little jars). These I made for you.
And what exactitude! (Reading some of the labels:) Amarena, strawberry, apricot. How nice to keep all these things at home. (Fastening his attention on a jar of cherries preserved in spirits.) Oh, those! I'm crazy about them! In winter they're a real comfort. (Reading:) “Cherries in spirits.”
I've taken to these jams. I love them. As if they were my children. When I'm alone and a longing for a bit of amarena comes over me, for example, I talk to it as to a living soul.—“How good you are. How tasty you are. I made you with my own hands. How happy I am you've turned out well.”—And they answer—with their bit of sweetness. The only sweetness a poor woman like me can expect in life. And I understand … I understand why my good soul of a mother did the same and turned the house upside down if someone in the family helped themselves without asking her permission.
Oh yes. Says she: “That's mine!”
Surely. But it's hard. The jam is really mine and nobody can take it away from me. The same with the flowers. You see this balcony. … They're all plants I made grow with my own hands. (Pointing to a plant:) That one, I don't know, I don't recall how many years I've had it. Just think, I was a young lady. Many's the move I've seen. Like that piece. (She points to the writing table.) It was my grandmother's, then my mother's … when we lived at Foria … then at Riviera … then near the Church of the Conception … I can't tell you how many different houses that table has lived in. (In a good-natured tone, thoughtful:) Not long ago your wife said: “Blessed be you that can take life so easy!”
Don Mattè, I never let my sons breathe. From the time they began to use their reason I'd interfere with any of their pleasures rather than lose their company even for a moment. If ever they came home a half hour later than they were expected, I was thinking of a disaster right away. I used to think out ways of keeping them in the house. No good, I couldn't curb them. And sometimes they openly let me know my presence annoyed them. They ran out. They went away. They found excuses, pretexts. They told me a pack of lies to get away, to leave me, to live their own life, which was to be no concern of mine. … Don Mattè, I shut Mariano up! You see now? With a wall of brick and cement … he couldn't get out! And if one of you had gone and reported it, wouldn't the authorities have shut me up in the madhouse? “Crazy!” “See her, she's crazy!” “You know what she's done? She shut her son up in a room and built a wall in front of the door!” “And why?”—Because I wanted to have him near me, because I didn't want to lose him! … You yourself, in the family circle, haven't you said almost these very things? (At this point she can't control her feelings. Her voice becomes thick. But a quick succession of sobs, at once repressed, puts her to rights.) Don Mattè, before God you must believe me. If what I say is a lie may I never see tomorrow's light I am not sorry for what I did. For fifteen days I felt him to be once more—my son. Like when I had him here. (With both hands open she strikes her stomach.) Don Mattè, take good note: here! (She repeats the gesture.) Like during the nine months of pregnancy when I found a way of being alone with him, lying on a couch with my hands like they are now, to talk to him. And he moved inside me and answered. As the jam answers me today. And I ate … I ate more than I wanted, so he'd be born strong and healthy … For fifteen days I slept peacefully—as I'd never managed to sleep since he came into the world. So many things to keep me busy, thoughts, responsibilities. … Ever since he started to walk. “If he falls. … If he hurts himself badly. …” And the vaccinations, the fevers, the illnesses. … And then the war. … You remember hearing the German's giving instructions over the radio? … “Those men who do not present themselves at German Headquarters will be punished with death”. … “Parents hiding their sons will be shot at sight. …” For fifteen days he was my son again. Shut in! And in bed with my hands here (repeating the gesture) I went to sleep happy because I felt him inside me once more. …”


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 should otherwise be in danger of taking something as his personal contribution when it is a representative product of his time and place. Thus some of Eduardo's attitudes, as I have described them, may seem forced when we take them an assertion of his will, whereas as an expression of a social tradition we might let them pass. I have in mind the impression probably produced by the foregoing pages that what Eduardo principally does in a play is to put his own special ideas across—the impression in short that he writes laborious drames à thèse.

The extreme individualism of Matteo's final attitude to war—“if twelve wars broke out one after the other they'd make no impression on me”—may be open to criticism but, in context, is an expression of a traditional group feeling and not a pet idea of the author's. It belongs to Naples where the State is regarded as an enemy—and whose regionalism the fascist State did in fact try to suppress. To tell people to forget the newspapers and get on with their private lives, valid or not as a piece of advice to us all, has somewhat different meaning in a city which for so long has had to consider how to survive under different masters and amid recurrent conflagrations. Eduardo is true to this situation when he shows people, such as Luisa, achieving dignity in their apartness. When he longs for dignity, moreover, he is not an aristocrat or would-be aristocrat bemoaning the inundation of aristocratic culture by plebeian hordes. On the contrary it is the dignity of the plebs he is championing, the urbanità of the poor who throng the alleys and docksides of Naples while the aristocrats and their wars come and go.

Not that Eduardo sees the life of “the other half” as uniformly dignified. The lower depths of Naples form as fantastic a society of adventurers and desperadoes as can well be imagined. Living by the skin of their teeth, a dreary past behind and a blank future ahead, they accept the present with peculiar vehemence. Familiar with death, they do not take life too seriously. They are willing to see it as a joke, a paradox, a fantasy, a show, a game. As absurd, the existentialists would say. There is something existentialist, in one of the popular meanings of the word, about La Grande Magia: the world is lawless, ethics are at best improvised, yet the imperative remains to improvize them. Perhaps it was occupation by the Germans that precipitated the anguish of the French writers and of this Italian. To Eduardo's credit it must be said that he gives also the sense of emerging from under the incubus and looking about him. A recurrent character in his plays is coming to be the man in midpassage through life, tortured, perplexed, deflected from normal paths, but undefeated, questing. But Eduardo has never stuck in the quagmire of “Teutonic” lugubriousness. Here again plebeian Naples came to his aid. There is a philosophy of the absurd, after all, in plebeian humor in general: your life is hopeless but you laugh, you are cheerful, and morally positive, against all reason. Thus, while La Grande Magia is one of Eduardo's most somber pieces, it is also his most ambitious projection of the idea that life is a game. And it is when we feel that fairy-tale quality of the story that we get it right—when, that is to say, we talk less of pirandellismo and more of Naples.

Naples is the reservoir on which, consciously and unconsciously, Eduardo draws. Not only the city as a whole but the Neapolitan theatre in particular. It is a popular as against an art theatre. This means, to begin with, that it is a dialect theatre and not an “Italian” one. It uses a popularly spoken language and not an official, national, bourgeois language—in this respect resembling Synge and O'Casey rather than Pinero and Galsworthy. The lack of a national theatrical repertoire in Italy may be deplorable but the quality of the defect is—the regional repertoire.

The next most salient feature of Neapolitan popular theatre as I have seen it is the style of acting. In Paris today you hear much about commedia dell'arte. What they show you is Jean-Louis Barrault and the Piccolo Teatro di Milano (the latter being more the rage in Paris than in Milan). These things are very fine but they are art theatre, and the commedia dell'arte was nothing if not popular theatre. You would find a much more authentic version of its famous artificial clowning in the Neapolitan comedian Totô. And for another side of the tradition—not famous at all unfortunately—you must go to Eduardo.

It is no slur on his playwriting to say that he is first and foremost an actor, perhaps the finest actor in Italy today, the son of a fine actor, the brother of a fine actor and an even finer actress. For anyone who comes to Italy with normal preconceptions, for anyone who has seen any of the great Italian stars of recent times or who today catches the last echo of D'Annunzio's generation in the voice of the aged Ruggeri, Eduardo on the stage is an astonishment. For five minutes or so he may be a complete let-down. This is not acting at all, we cry, above all it is not Italian acting! Voice and body are so quiet. Pianissimo. No glamor, no effusion of brilliance. No attempt to lift the role off the ground by oratory and stylization, no attempt to thrust it at us by force of personality. Not even the sustained mesmerism of big Ibsen performances. Rather, a series of statements, vocal and corporeal. When the feeling of anti-climax has passed we realize that these statements are beautiful in themselves—beautiful in their clean economy, their precise rightness—and beautiful in relation to each other and to the whole: there are differentiations, sharp or shifting, between one speech and the next: there is a carefully gauged relationship between beginning, middle, and end.

My point here is not so much to praise Eduardo as to observe that here is an actor more likely—for demonstrable historical and geographic reasons—to be the heir of commedia dell'arte than any other important performer now living and that his style is distinctly different from anything one expected. It is a realistic style. It makes few large departures from life. No oratory, no stylization. Both in speech and in gesture, rhythm, accent, and tempo are an imitation of life. The “art” consists in the skill of the imitation, the careful registering of detail and nuance, and a considered underlining of the effects—the outline is firmer, the shape more sure. The assumption is that there is more drama in real speech and gesture—for these are arts and not raw material like a sculptor's clay—than in invented speech and gesture. That this realism is not just Eduardo's personal style or due—God save the mark!—to the influence of Stanislavsky you may prove by visiting the grubby popular theatres of Naples, notably the Apollo and the Margherita, any day of the week.

One of the persistent heresies about commedia dell'arte, often as Italian scholars denounce it as such, is the idea that the actors made up their lines as they went along. The nearest they ever got to this is probably that they sometimes wrote their lines, the script being the fruit of a collaboration between various members of the cast. At any rate Eduardo de Filippo began his career as an actor doing this sort of writing. From reports I gather the impression that the plays he acted in must have been rather like Chaplin shorts. There would often be several to an evening, and they would represent incidents in the life of the little man, the povero diavolo. A play like La Grande Magia is of course as far from a one-act farce or melodrama in a popular Neapolitan theatre as Monsieur Verdoux is from a Keystone Comedy. In each case, however, the later work is made up to a surprising extent of elements from the earlier. And it is these elements which save both film and play from polemical aridity, which give them a tang and an identity, which make them dramatic art.

They would not do so if they operated as mere comic relief or melodramatic seasoning; their function is to lend definition to the author's subject. Thus in La Grande Magia, the idea of life as a game, the world as a show, is given body and form by, among other things, the brilliant theatre of Otto's conjuring, in which we get a back-stage glimpse of all the mechanism of magic. To be told, as my reader has been, that Otto had to convince Calogero of the reality of magic is very little compared to actually seeing Otto play his phonograph record of applause and persuade Calogero it is the sea. To be told, as my reader has been, that Matteo in La Paura Numero Uno is tricked into believing war has broken out is very little compared to actually seeing the enactment of the ruse with the microphone and the comic sequences that follow. Matteo talks at cross-purposes with the other tenants: he thinks they are talking about the war, they think he is talking about the house. Another sequence ends with Matteo's mistaking a multi-national group of pilgrims for an invading army. These two sequences lead up to a climax of laughable absurdity at the conclusion of acts one and two respectively.

For, although Eduardo's plays are chock full of amusing and imaginative details—minor characters, bits of business, meditations as of an unsophisticated Giraudoux—they have a solid over-all structure, usually in three clearly marked phases or acts. If the sequences within the acts often derive from popular farce, the act-structure is even more often that of popular melodrama. Eduardo likes to bring the curtain down, especially the curtain of act two, on a terrific moment—which means “at the psychological moment,” a moment when two lines of narrative suddenly intersect by amazing coincidence. Thus in Natale in Casa Cupiello, the ugly rivalry of husband and lover reaches boiling point just as Luca Cupiello's idyll, the adoration of the magi, comes to actual performance—a big curtain for act two! In La Grande Magia, it is the denouement in act three where the arm of coincidence is longest and most active: it just happens that Marta, absent for four years, re-appears one second before Calogero is to open the box. Eduardo is saying not only “such is the wonder of fairy land” but also “such is the perverseness of reality.” He has not surrendered to melodrama; he has exploited it. For him it is not a jazzing-up of otherwise inert and tiresome elements. It is a legitimate accentuation of the fantastic character of life.

This purposeful manipulation of fable is nowhere more striking than in Eduardo's most popular play, Filumena Marturano. Since this play is also one of his most realistic works, the reader may be interested to see in more detail how the apparently curious mixture of realism and its opposite actually works out. Since moreover the play is Eduardo's most powerful tribute to mother love, a note on it may serve to bind together the first and second parts of this essay and leave us with a rounded if not complete impression of Eduardo's playwriting.

The story is the unprepossessing one of the man who makes an honest woman of a prostitute. What stands out in Eduardo's play is the prostitute herself, a heroic plebeian, a tigress of a mother. The portrait derives half its life from the language—which, in translation, can scarcely be shown. But, as already intimated, the mode of the narrative is a contributory factor.

Filumena comes from the lower depths of Naples. She is rescued from poverty by a prolonged liaison with a rich man, Domenico Soriano. When they are both getting along in years, and he wants to marry a younger, more beautiful, and more respectable girl, Filumena pretends to be dying and arranges a death-bed marriage. The ceremony over, she jumps lightheartedly out of bed, and Domenico realizes he has been had. It is at this point that Eduardo raises the curtain on his first act! The stormy exposition is followed by a revelation. Filumena has not been acting selfishly. Unknown to Domenico she has three grown-up sons: they are now legitimized!

The first act ends with Domenico rushing off for a lawyer to rescind a marriage held under false pretences. In the second, it seems that he will have his way, and Filumena, crushed for the moment, accepts the hospitality of her son Michele. As a parting shot, however, she tells Don Domenico that he is the father of one of the three sons. Another melodramatic revelation! Further: with a secrecy at once melodramatic and realistic, she will not tell him which one, because she wants no discrimination against the other two. End of the second act.

Act three is a happy epilogue. In the time between the acts, Domenico has come around. The old marriage has been rescinded, but a new one is now being celebrated. He gladly accepts Filumena as wife and all three young men as sons. “I am 52, you are 48. We are two mature souls in duty bound to understand what they are about—ruthlessly and to the depths. We have to face it. And assume full responsibility.”

This sententiousness is naive but the language, sunny and bland in the original, implies some unworried awareness of the fact. There is an irony about this happy ending (as there is about many others). What stays with us is the conclusion arrived at and, far more, the sense of danger and

Ferdinando D. Maurino (essay date February 1961)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4459

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 plays were considered as vehicles for his acting. In fact, when in 1955 Theatre Arts devoted an issue to the Italian theater, he was treated chiefly as an actor.4 This is, however, no longer the case. After reading and studying his drama, one may well believe that a new voice and a great playwright has arisen. The maschera of a new Pulcinella has fallen, and the humor has turned to grave considerations of the problems of life, not only in Naples but also in the universe. As Pirandello forsook his Sicilian characterisics in favor of universal concepts, and as Di Giacomo left the Neapolitan environment for a wider world,5 so De Filippo progressed from presentations of local Neapolitan foibles to profound reflections on man's problems.

Like many contemporary writers, he has at times dealt with realistic topics of Naples during the occupation, and he has injected into his work a pathos seldom felt in other contemporary dramatic works. One thinks principally of his Napoli milionaria (Naples Full of Millions), and of some of the poetry from his Il paese di Pulcinella (The Land of Pulcinella). Through these works he made his contribution to post-war realism with a bitter, at times sarcastic, and always pathetic, humor. But what begins as realism becomes towards the end of the play a double reality, an illusion, or an untruth. Thus, a father who inveighs against the disrespectful behavior of today's youths, including his own son, suddenly loses his power of speech; but he only simulates his loss as a hopeless protest against modern society.6 Unlike the realism of Moravia, Vittorini, Marotta, Levi, Pavese, Pratolini, and other contemporary Italian authors known in America, De Filippo's realism is like that of Pirandello's: an excuse to evade realism itself. In fact, the truer De Filippo, both by natural propensity and by training, has always leaned toward the abstract, the illusional, and the metaphysical, as is evident from his short plays before World War II when his mind was being formed in the school of Pirandello in whose troupe he was an actor, and from his recent works in which he has attained a far greater artistic skill.

This revival of Pirandellian influence on the Italian stage is duplicated in other countries, especially in France where the shadow of that modern master can be discerned to the extent that Lerminier recently wrote, “Pirandello est présent partout.”7 His influence has been felt by such writers as Salacrou, Neveux, and even Camus. Among the Spaniards, at least two have imitated him: Alejandro Casona and Victor Iriarte.8

Italian critics have, of course, reminded De Filippo of that influence—an influence the Neapolitan playwright is reluctant to admit.9 When, in the summer of 1958, I told him that I saw Pirandellian traces in certain abstract, fantastic, and illusive situations, he seemed slightly annoyed. With a typical Neapolitan gesture of his hand, he called to my attention that such interpretations of the subjectivity of reality “are as old as Plato.” Thus, he did not deny the similarity of themes or situations, but he denied that he imitates Pirandello. His is the same argument given by Casona10 when Casona was criticized for lack of originality in his plots and style. De Filippo is sincere and, moreover, correct in his assertion, as is Casona; otherwise we would have to accuse Pirandello, too, of having somewhat imitated writers like Sophocles, Cervantes, Calderón, and perhaps (although this may be difficult to see at first) the imaginative Ariosto. With such thoughts in mind I told the affable but pensive De Filippo that I considered that influence and similarity to be principally due to a natural affinity rather than a conscious imitation. He did not answer me, but was visibly pleased.

This Neapolitan writer has, then, treated subjects both of the realistic school and of the school of the subconscious. Realism in his case means what is commonly known to be Neapolitan in language and content. Some critics have even seen in him the traditional Neapolitan school; unfortunately, some of his clichés with farcical expressions and situations are indeed typical of dialectal macchiette and literature, but he is not the successor of Petito, the last of Pulcinellas.11 In De Filippo's Filumena Marturano, Filumena is a prostitute who becomes a real woman because she also becomes a mother. But she is not the fragile Assunta Spina of Di Giacomo, nor an echo of other Neapolitan writers. If she is realistic, she is a realistic heroine in the sense of the French naturalistic or the Italian veristic school. Yet some writers and producers have interpreted the play as mirroring Neapolitan life.12 Without denying the verity of some scenes of local color, one can assert that there is, however, little that is truly traditional or typically Neapolitan in this piece.

The play has been considered to be his masterpiece to date and a well-nigh perfect work. However, Questi fantasmi, Napoli milionaria, and La grande magia exhibit deeper sadness, emotion, and despair respectively. Filumena lacks true passion; she has no tragic or suffering moments. She has experienced hunger, humiliation, and prostitution, but it was all long before the play begins. Now she is bent on avenging her former life. She is entitled to such a revenge, but that fact itself and the fact that she is a strong-minded person, sure of the final outcome, tends to reduce the dramatic action of the play. Weak Amalia of Napoli milionaria is a more tragic, and, consequently, a more dramatic character. Only in Filumena's long speeches,13 resembling soliloquies because she is speaking mainly to herself as she recalls her youth and her later life, does one find a deep and human compassion which truly becomes art despite the sensational scene of the first act. This scene of simulated agony is similar to Gennaro's “death” in Napoli milionaria, and both are reminiscent of some traditional, farcical plays and macchiette. These scenes detract from De Filippo's art.

In Filumena Marturano one sees also, but only to a minor extent, the elusive, the unexpected, the unreal: Filumena's feigned moribund state just mentioned and her disclosure, after many years, that she is the mother of three children and that one of them is the son of Domenico, her lover and later her husband. Which one of the children is the husband's own? The mother refuses to let Domenico know, and the result is that if he is to be sure that he cherishes his own child he must cherish them all. But two out of three times he will be mistaken.

The originality of the plot as a whole must be recognized at this point as equaling the fertile imagination found in Questi fantasmi and Napoli milionaria which are De Filippo's most original plays.14

A true Neapolitan element in De Filippo of course exists, but it does not follow the traditional pattern; it is the every day happenings that he sees in his Naples during and after the war and it bears the unique stamp of the author. Napoli milionaria is a sarcastic title for a tragic plot which ends bitterly. Gennaro has become lost during a bombing raid by American planes and has wandered for a year. When he returns home he discovers that his wife has been unfaithful, his daughter is pregnant, and his son a thief; and all enriched through the black market. Gennaro, realizing that war destroys men and women even after the last shot has been fired, pitifully tells his repentant wife that the war is to blame for everything. Then he forgives all and offers his wife a cup of coffee. What a price to pay for the millions of lire his family had acquired during his absence! Hence, the bitter title: Naples Full of Millions. Gennaro, the real victim, forgives; and herein lies the tragedy, because war remains forever victorious, and humanity remains defeated and in a state of impotent resignation for unexpiated sins.

Many recent Italian writers have dealt remarkably well with war topics, including Moravia in his latest La Ciociara (Two Women); but Napoli milionaria possibly remains the post-war human epic of Italian literature: it is unsurpassed for its poignant and striking pathos which creates an unparalleled mood of powerlessness and human pity as exemplified by the last scene. It must have made many Neapolitans and non-Neapolitans alike weep silently with guilty eyes amidst the many “ruins” of war.

It can be seen that we encounter here a dramatist who for once is devoid of paradoxical, or neurasthenic situations. His Naples is a pitiful city, a Naples which was defeated twice, once by the enemy and once by her own people. Here the Neapolitan playwright shows his love for his city, not with a hyperbolic, melodious Neapolitan song but with ironic and subdued bitterness. He has noticed everything and has wept in the penumbra of a Naples that was: the Napoli nobilissima, the Siren of the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the Capital of the World of Songs, and the Naples Full of Millions.15

The greater part of De Filippo's theater is given, as has been stated, to mental and abstract themes reminiscent of Pirandello but blended with the author's unmistakable, personal style and more genuine humor. The works in which the author ventures deepest into the abyss of the subconscious and the metaphysical are the plays, Questi fantasmi (These Ghosts), La grande magia (The Magic Performance), Le voci di dentro (The Voices from Within), and the poem Vincenzo De Pretore. All have been written since the end of the war but the war is conspicuously absent.

In La grande magia Calogero finds refuge in an illusion, as it were, in the emergence of his subconscious. A magician makes his wife disappear, and in front of all the people watching the performance he gives the husband a little box which he is told contains his wife. His wife aided by the magician during the act has run away with her lover. Calogero believes or forces himself to believe that she is in that box which, however, he does not dare to open. The alternative to this belief or faith is to realize the truth and to react brutally as did Othello and Don Gutierre.16 One may perish in the anguish that reality brings; for reality must be confronted or changed. Othello, for example, met it; Calogero following the traces of Enrico IV changes it. This is a modern solution.

Actually, illusion and reality do not contradict each other as is commonly believed; rather, they fuse to form that dual reality which saves some people from utter destruction. That is why the box is not really empty: it contains a reality, a faith. If the little box does not, nor could not, contain Calogero's wife, nevertheless it holds his firm hope and a real illusion which destroys the hard facts of life. Like Ponza in Cosi' e' (se vi pare), and like Enrico in Enrico IV, Calogero is not insane; he pretends, as one must pretend and at the same time believe. That box, then, has taken the place of someone, something in his pathological and painful state of mind, and is his summa ratio for forcibly believing.

Don Quijote also believed in an illusion, but when it ceased to be a fantasy and he realized the truth, he died. Enrico IV also realizes at a certain moment his true situation, but unlike Don Quijote he chooses to go back to that variable reality as a lasting though painful escape. Calogero likewise remains steadfast in his illusion as did Enrico IV and also Ponza. With Pirandello and De Filippo, reality venishes into simulation.

The play takes on quite often classical and universal overtones. In it the world of the characters encompasses the illimitable cosmos of the mind, and the author soars on the wings of metaphysics to a battleground where the mind and the heart conflict. The mind must believe what is not true because it fears that otherwise reality will break the heart. If the heart knows, it feels … and dies. Therefore, the mind attempts to deceive the heart which pretends to believe. Naturally, it merely pretends because, as the proverb says, and as the Neapolitans know it most particularly, the heart is never mistaken and cannot be deceived (Il cuore non si inganna mai). The mind, on the other hand, is finally convinced by its own illusion, and is convinced that the heart does not know. Only by following such a course can the mind save itself from total disintegration. The heart and the mind form then a state of semi-consciousness in which the heart secretly and softly weeps while the bombastic mind pitifully boasts.

Thus Calogero in the last scene refuses to recognize his returning, wayward wife; and when she openly admits her betrayal so that he can leave his “mad illusion,” he exclaims: “What have you done?” betraying his “madness” if only for a second. But it is exactly here that we encounter the art which makes the play also human and heartfelt, not mental and evanescent. There is veiled in the background a heart pulsating with reality that makes illusion truly painful because the illusion is based on something true: it is sensitive to a subconscious reality that hurts. The mind becomes a true actor on the stage while the human soul or heart remains backstage. Therefore, the illusion is sincere but not totally beguiling; and pain and sorrow remain somewhat distant and ecstatic as if in a trance, yet ever present in that very unreality. This is De Filippo's art.

La grande magia, the play that reflects Pirandellian influence more than any other of De Filippo's works, also shows the defects found in Pirandello. There is artificiality in some of the situations and in the style itself. The dialogue is forced and lacks spontaneity, but the play remains an impressive work nonetheless.

I consider Questi fantasmi De Filippo's best play and am supported in this conclusion by the author himself. When I asked him point blank which play he considered his greatest work, I had expected some hesitation. But Eduardo, as he is affectionately called in Italy, promptly answered, “Questi fantasmi.17

In this pathetic and, at times, humorous play we have the naïve situation of a man who believes in ghosts. It seems like a medieval legend, but it takes place today in Naples. Like Calogero, Pasquale of Questi fantasmi saves himself from actual tragedy because he can think that his wife's lover is a ghost who haunts his house and benevolently leaves him money. The height of the irony occurs when Pasquale welcomes the ghost into his home and when he accepts the ghost's money in order to be able to buy little things for his wife, Maria, whom he loves.

Pasquale is not as dramatic a personality as Calogero armed with a little, “empty” box is; he is a man who is happy in his own fashion because he is able to delude himself. Neither is he the epic Gennaro who painfully but resignedly accepts dishonor. Pasquale will never know the truth, and his young wife thinking that he ignores her lover for the sake of money considers him to be a coward and detests him all the more.18We know the truth and it is we who suffer. Thus, once again we have a prismatic reality; for if Pasquale does not attain to a metaphysical make-believe, he nevertheless believes, like Calogero, in something that is not. He, too, is surrounded by a world of fiction, or perhaps even of fairytale. In this sense De Filippo solves the problems posed by reality in an innocent and novel way: he enables Pasquale to believe in ghosts. This is an original device totally free of Pirandello's artistry.

Pirandellian influence is discernible only in the scene where Armida, the abandoned wife of Maria's lover, appears with her children who, having been badly taken care of, truly resemble ghosts. Here it is apparent that the source for this scene is Six Characters in Search of an Author; and the language used lends definite credence to this opinion. The scene itself, however, has a different significance with a tenderness and grief not found in the play of the Sicilian writer. The poor and unfortunate Armida is in a nervous frenzy and one of her children has a terrible, ugly tic which his neurotic mother cannot bear. Is any one of them to blame? Interrupting her neurasthenic speech, the mother orders the child to stop, but the child cannot and repeats the automatic action. The mother gives the child a resounding slap in the face. The child staggers … and we with him.

Pasquale is a major creation whose soul is like that of a child. When he talks to his wife he is convinced that what he does is right, and that “he knows his business.” These words acquire a different meaning in the poisoned mind of Maria. The result is a double talk that hurts the reader who knows the truth while she continues to scorn her husband. Pasquale, too, becomes epic and classical like Gennaro and Calogero but in a different sense. He does not even suspect that he might be a hero; he is indeed not that kind of protagonist. He is a person who defies time and does not grow old. He is a poet with an innocent, pure imagination whom Vico would have appreciated. In this drama the double side of reality has taken a holiday (except for the reader).

Finally, in the play none of the characters knows the truth, except towards the very end when the “ghost” alone realizes what has happened and leaves forever. Because of this situation we have a different type of tragic play. Pasquale remains a satisfied, rather happy person. He even hopes the “ghost” will come back at some other time to bring him more money. Maria is not repentant or grief-stricken like Amalia because she continues to believe her husband is a coward; consequently, she still feels she is justified in her betrayal. Thus, the truly tragic element does not exist for the characters: not for a cynical Maria, not for an ignorant Pasquale. Yet the tragedy of the drama does exist; it exists among the spectators in the theater or within the readers in their own rooms. The author has placed all of us in the play, but after the last curtain falls—a most disturbing and poignant role. But we know the truth; and it is not easy for us to pretend, nor can we believe in spirits. Tragedy, then, is transferred to the spectator or to the reader as Pasquale happily ends the play pocketing the ghost's money. Then the playwright himself seems to appear on the stage or in our room with an ambiguous smile to tell us: “Choose now: Calogero or Gennaro?”

Once again then, this is not the characterisic Naples of Viviani, F. Russo, Bovio, Serao, or even of Di Giacomo or Bracco.19 It is not the veristic Naples of the camorristi (gangsters), or the lyrical city of the famous “'O sole mio.” This is an intellectual, fantastic Naples with no local color. It is a city steeped now in universal, tragic, and human concepts; a Naples with artistic, dramatic qualities that joins the new Neapolitan world of Salvatore Di Giacomo with its highly poetical horizon.

De Filippo realizes all this when he states in his poetry20 that what he writes is not comical—an adjective stamped on things Neapolitan since the gliommeri21 and the farse cavaiole of the late Renaissance period. Indeed, with the first poem in Il paese di Pulcinella he introduces his reader to his poetry sullenly remarking that people have not understood him. People laugh when they meet him remembering his “funny” plays; but he asks, “Is it a laughing matter when I portray comical situations arising from everyday life?” Then answering his own question: “I don't think so.” In another poem the poet again takes his reader to task, counseling him not to look at the calendar to tell one's age. Regardless of what the calendar says, life lasts but one year; after that year all that remains is superfluous. “And suddenly it is night” (Ed e' subito sera), as Quasimodo says.

De Filippo's Neapolitan language reflects the mood or tone of the content or plot. It is the true dialect when Naples and its people are the protagonists, becoming soft, mellow, and humorous; it becomes Italian or very close to it when the subject matter calls for a loftier expression, as in the plays dealing with unreality. It is not Olympian or classical as in Pirandello, but warmer and mellower. Very often, it is a fresh, natural, and melodious Italian with Neapolitan constructions and nuances. When I asked De Filippo why he so often employed standard Italian rather than dialect he replied that because of the radio, the movies, and television the Neapolitans are increasingly speaking the standard language. But can it be that the author is conscious of his themes and motives and wants to be sure he will reach the whole Italian people at a higher level?

Thus, De Filippo has left his beautiful Naples which he nevertheless truly loves; his dramatic art involves him now in deeper, wider problems in the realm of the mind and conscience. He is concerned with the problems which have occupied the minds and the hearts of great dramatists who have tried to portray the agonizing souls of characters searching for a solution to alleviate their sorrows—Sophocles was concerned with the agony of immovable Fate; Shakespeare with the grief of man or kings. The solution at times is a world of illusion as in Cervantes who created a poetical mirage as an escape; as in Calderón de la Barca who fused life with dream, or as in Pirandello who interpreted life with a bitter compassion, so painful that it must flee to the realm of the intellect. Man has often felt the vacuum that stark reality produces, and through such writers as the foregoing he has attempted to penetrate the mystery of the mind and of the heart. Such an attempt can fuse, not confuse, dream with reality.

Eduardo De Filippo has joined in his own manner this lofty company, and he is still writing.


  1. In Search of Theatre (New York, 1953), pp. 281-95.

  2. The Age of Pirandello (Bloomington, 1951), pp. 124-27.

  3. In College English, Vol. XVII (Nov., 1955), 119. See moreover same (Dec., 1955), 164, Wilder's statement concerning the difficulty of translating De Filippo.

  4. (May, 1955).

  5. See my S. Di Giacomo and Neapolitan Dialectal Literature (New York, 1951), p. 133 ff.

  6. Mia famiglia (1955) which was praised by Vito Pandolfi, “Un umorismo doloroso,” in Sipario (March, 1956), 3.

  7. Pensée française (March, 1958), 59-61.

  8. See A. Valbuena Prat, Historia de la literatura española, 4th Edition (Barcelona, 1953), Vol. III, p. 803.

  9. See especially Corrado Alvaro, “Eduardo” in Sipario (March, 1956), 2; and Bentley, In Search of Theatre, p. 288. De Filippo told me personally that he agreed with Bentley's interpretation that such an influence “was simply nourished from the same sources, and interested in the same problems. …”

  10. From his “Nota preliminar” in La barca sin pescador (Buenos Aires, 1951), p. 9. On this same topic see also Anatole France (La Vie littéraire), and more recently Giraudoux on the plot of his Amphitryon.

  11. For the background of this tradition see MacClintock, The Contemporary Drama of Italy (Boston, 1920), pp. 201-05; for a very recent critical comment on the whole Neapolitan theater tradition in De Filippo, see Federico Frascani, La Napoli amara di Eduardo De Filippo (Firenze, 1958), pp. 13, 22-23, and passim. As this study goes to press two new books on De Filippo have appeared in 1959 and 1960 respectively: Gennaro Magliulo's, and G. B. De Sanctis'. This latest information comes from a well-known scholar: Joseph G. Fucilla.

  12. This play has been given all over Europe including Russia, and in South America; it was also given in New York City on October 26, 1956, at Lyceum Theater under the title The Best House in Naples and ended in a complete fiasco after a little more than a week. The actors spoke English with a strong foreign accent and they could not be understood; the translation by F. Hugh Herbert was really a free adaptation. Notice the title; the connection is obscure. For reviews and criticism: New Yorker, Nov. 3, 1956, 73-4; Theatre Arts, Jan., 1957, 20. For De Filippo's own comment see again Frascani, p. 130. The author, moreover, told me in Naples that Herbert's version had nothing of his own work; he approved it through a misunderstanding.

  13. Those found toward the end of Act I and Act II.

  14. As far as I know, no due credit has been given the author for this originality.

  15. This is not the Naples of Neapolitan “popular tradition” to which Bentley, Frascani, and Pandolfi (Il dramma [May, 1948], 8) refer, which in the end becomes literary tradition. These critics perhaps confuse the actor and his Neapolitan mime with the playwright and his genius. This is a new, contemporary Naples.

  16. See El médico de su honra by Calderón, and notice the similarity of its plot with Othello.

  17. Silvio D'Amico had already highly praised both De Filippo and this particular play, and MacClintock (The Age … p. 124) reports that that foremost drama critic considered this play the best in Italy since 1920.

  18. It is to be noted that Pasquale is not Ciampa of Pirandello's Il berretto a sonagli who rebels against his wife's infidelity only when he knows that others too have learned of her conduct. A touch of this behavior can be found elsewhere in De Filippo: in Libero of Le bugie con le gambe lunghe when Graziella suggests that they get married (Act I).

  19. For these writers see F. Flora, “Poeti napoletani,” in Pegaso (Dec., 1929), 339-49; A. Tilgher, La poesia dialettale napoletana (Roma, 1920); or Maurino, pp. 157-72.

  20. See his Il paese di Pulcinella (Naples, 1951). For a rapid, critical view of Neopolitan poets since World War II, including De Filippo's poetry, see my article, “Neapolitan Poetry,” in Books Abroad (Fall, 1955).

  21. Even the great Sannazaro wrote gliommeri in the Neapolitan dialect.

Mimi D'Aponte (essay date December 1973)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3432

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 smoking. I explain my real wishes in nervous Italian (may I speak with him about his work when he returns to Naples in the spring?) and his answer is honest and to the point: “I won't remember your name. Tell my secretary you spoke with me in Rome.” I compliment him on the first two acts of his new play. De Filippo is dedicated to Il Monumento's philosophy,1 and words begin to pour out of him as he launches into a discussion of Ascanio Penna's character—his character.2 He speaks of Penna's entombment, both physically and psychologically, within his ideals. We sense someone standing at the door, and turn together to see my husband who has come to learn if I have found Eduardo. De Filippo greets him as warmly and openly as he had me, and picks up his thread of thought regarding the play. “People do become monuments because …” The stage manager knocks and calls out, “It is time, Maestro,” and the philosopher turns actor and is ready for his cue. He thanks us for coming and urges me to call him in Naples. He is off.

We have not learned why people become monuments, but we have learned something of the energy and intensity and immediacy of De Filippo. Eduardo is old if one counts by years (born May 14, 1900),3 but it is difficult to think of age in his presence. The gaunt face and body are set in motion by strong and quick movements which suggest youth. His immediate and open friendliness have escaped that aging which comes of “being someone” for too long. His passionate interest in discussing the philosophy which motivates his character reveals a mind continually searching, re-examining, building. Notions suggested by other people about Eduardo—“he is remote,” “he has become a recluse”—during my three-month stay in Italy fall by the wayside. I will see him in Naples in March. …


Signora Quarantotto is Eduardo's secretary. She is charming, attractive, and perfectly bilingual. “Eduardo will be down in several minutes; he has been working this morning.” I begin to ask her opinion of some questions I have prepared, but almost immediately Il maestro appears and takes over. And, happily, organized questions are forgotten as his words begin to flow again.

De Filippo is a writer during the summer, an actor-director during the rest of the year. As writer he must work early in the morning; as actor and director he can function only in the late afternoon. His approach to directing calls for intense preparation (a startling contrast to the seemingly improvised results): he will rehearse his actors in a new play around a table continuously until lines are learned, then set them on stage and provide gestures and movements to fit their words. After twenty to thirty rehearsals the play will be ready for performance. In his writing, whatever preparation takes place is mental. If, as he is writing, he cannot envision the staging easily, he simply stops and ponders the problem until it has smoothed itself out. He uses no notes, and although he may have stored the conception and plot of a play in his head for ten years, he will begin to write it only when the right moment comes; that is, when he has found the right actors for his imagined characters. Two examples. He has revived his interest in a play thought out years ago. He had planned to use his sister, Titania, in the lead role, but she became ill. He is about to begin writing it now because he has finally found the right actress for this part. And he wants to write another play about love again because he has found the right actors for the lovers' parts.

His approach as actor? He mentions working out a characterization before a mirror. He refers to his essay written for Actors on Acting “at Toby Cole's repeated request,”4 in which he states that an actor's art evolves continually, and that the real study of that art begins upon contact with an audience.5 He speaks of knowing one's character so thoroughly that this knowledge may often be reflected in ways unknown to the actor himself. And he remembers that when asked by a young actor many years ago how he developed his characterizations, he had to answer that he did not know.

He does know, however, and most clearly, how his actors are trained (perhaps “planted” might be a better word). After a new member of his company has been selected, De Filippo as maestro demands three things: time, then patience, then impatience. The new actor is hired for a period of either two or three years. During the first year or so, he is instructed to observe—“nothing else!” He is paid to watch his would-be colleagues perform their craft. When, despite his desire to succeed, the actor is ready to quit out of sheer boredom, he is then given a part—a small part. For now, says Eduardo, he has learned as much as possible from observation. And now it is Eduardo's turn to offer time, patience and impatience.

“The theatre is made up of great actors and good actors, of big actors and small actors. All are necessary to the health of the theatre.” These remarks are made with direct reference to an actor in the company whose work Eduardo thinks is going well; he is satisfied with the progress shown. And even as he speaks of giving the actor time to develop and of having patience in discovering the scope of his individual art, I am aware of listening to the voice of a rigorous taskmaster—one whose actors must strive mightily to please, perhaps as much for the sake of his satisfaction as for the aske of their own survival.

We speak of philosophical matters. Eduardo has an intense interest in the multiplicity of things which happen simultaneously. We are speaking happily away about theatre, and at the same time all sorts of terrible things are taking place. The juxtaposition of simultaneous events is one of life's most poignant ironies, Eduardo feels, and a favorite in the dramatic worlds of his creation. In the two De Filippo plays performed at the San Ferdinando theatre in Naples this year, for example, such juxtaposition creates the central conflicts.6 I ask Eduardo whether he thinks the force of human good greater than that of human evil. I expect a negative answer based upon my understanding of that comic pessimism which pervades his writing and often causes a seemingly pure comedy to twist tragically with shocking abruptness. But such an answer is not forthcoming. “There is a balance between the good and bad in man. We never know whether human action has worked out to help the good or the bad. What is evil can have good effects.” And Eduardo goes on to defend, with marvelous intimacy, the actions of Geronta Sebezio—as if that character were among his dearest friends. Geronta Sebezio is the central figure in Il Contratto7 who, after having been established as a comic, quasi-divine hero, is discovered to have been manipulating in the most fraudulent manner the poor and ignorant peasantry.

We return to a more conventional subject—what is happening in contemporary European and American theatre. Eduardo states that, while he approves of experimentation, he does not believe in instant theatre, nor does he believe in coercing audience participation. He believes in the seeming improvisation of gifted and disciplined actors, rather than the improvisation of non-actors. He accepts as theatre new forms of presentation which evolve, but does not think that presentations which change radically from one performance to another can be called theatre. Audience participation comes of wooing, of ensnaring with laughter perhaps—but not of forcing or demanding. “In my theatre, the audience is not in the theatre, but where the play takes place. When the play is over, the audience should wake up in the theatre, as if it has been asleep, dreaming.” As for the development of his own theatre: “It grew because it was left alone. Nobody disturbed it for thirty years. (‘Oh, it's dialect theatre—it will pass.’) And so, with time and the opportunity to grow naturally, a theatre developed. You can't learn to act in a year, or build a theatre in a year.”

Throughout this conversation I am continually struck by the independence of this seventy-one year old man. He does not go out of his way to be diplomatic (must we not all espouse the doings of the theatre of the moment for fear of being outdated ourselves?), nor is he particularly gentle (“I would kill my mother in order to get something done on stage in the way I think it must be done!”). He is forthright and intense and very much his own man. Eduardo is that rarity in the world today—a free artist in the theatre. As an actor he need submit only to his author self. He is free—because of his genius perhaps, because he has achieved worldly success, or because he has cultivated a lifetime habit of going his own way.


Neapolitan traffic on Mondays is unbelievably ghastly, and we arrive at the theatre in a foul humour—late for a rehearsal I had asked a month ago to see. Act 2 of Napoli Milionaria has just begun: a single brush-up rehearsal before the revival, which has been playing in Rome, opens in Naples for a two-month run. Eduardo is simply putting the pieces back just so—to where they were before the troupe left Naples, or to where they were in 1945 perhaps?

Eduardo, three giggly female fans of a young actor and ourselves are the only occupants in the darkened theatre. My husband is having a difficult time controlling his laughter, and, while cursing him inwardly for understanding all the dialect jokes, I am delighted that the dialogue is so quickly alleviating his driver's headache. The laughs are flowing steadily when suddenly Eduardo stops everything. A chair has been moved to the wrong position. The second interruption occurs after another twenty lines or so—this time over the unnecessary addition of the monosyllable “eh” following the line Sono zitella? (“Am I a virgin?” by a female character whose husband departed for the battlefront immediately following their wedding night spent in a crowded air raid shelter.) Another, longer “ehhhhh!” brings about the next correction: its pitch must rise as its volume becomes crescendo. All the actors laugh as Eduardo demonstrates, and my husband laughs as the actress gets it right this time. The would-be lover of the central female character is criticized for seeming antipatico when he suggests casually that perhaps her soldier husband is already dead—the line must be read with concern. The central character is reminded that she has substituted tornati for arrivati. Eduardo is not directing from a script.

Eduardo's transition from director to actor is so deceptively simple that it is all but unrecognizable. At the beginning of Act 3 he walks casually up the stairs which separate stage from house, as he has done several times during Act 2, and proceeds to speak softly. I suddenly realize that he is neither demonstrating nor explaining. He is speaking for himself—in this instance Gennaro Jovine, soldier-come-home and father of a dangerously ill little girl. De Filippo is so polished; his acting is as polished as his directing, or is it the other way around? The word which comes to mind is showman: Eduardo is an impeccable showman.

What remains to be spoken of regarding this look into Eduardo's rehearsal life is that exhausted subject in American theatre, the director-actor relationship. As with so many overly discussed American relationships what is needed, perhaps, is a bit of Italian despotism. Eduardo appears, so Signora Quarantotto tells me, half an hour early at each and every rehearsal. Can minutiae of this sort explain the reverence with which these actors absorb their master's every word? Italian good manners perhaps. (But whenever did so many Italians listen so attentively to one of their number?) Is it crass to mention that Eduardo pays everyone's salary and possesses the ultimate power of hiring and firing? Or is it perhaps that, for these actors, as for most, the embodiment of discipline and devotion and success is hard to come by—and Eduardo represents these qualities to his company. Then there is the way in which Eduardo expresses himself as critic: the actor's smallest action and least sound are worth his highest attention and a trip up onto the stage. Traditional directing perhaps? Or simply good directing? There is not a moment wasted. It is a serious business and very hard work, this creation of laughs.


A chronological reading of De Filippo's plays reveals the initial predominance of dialect writing and its gradual abandonment in favor of formal Italian after the Second World War. I mentioned to Eduardo during our meeting in March that, in this respect, his plays had become increasingly easy for me to read. I wondered in what way this linguistic transformation might correspond to a recent statement of his: “The effort of my life has been to release the dialect theatre, bringing it toward a national theatre.”8 Eduardo's answer was to refer me immediately to a newspaper article he had written in 1938.9 This rebuts the well-known critic, Gherardo Gherardi, who had accused him of helping the Italian theatre to remain a backward and nomadic organization, when he might better have been aiding and abetting its growth and development. The reply which De Filippo offered the readers of Il Giornale d'Italia is inspiring, and doubly so when read thirty-three years later with the results of that inspiration at hand. The dialect actors of Italy are good Italians, asserts De Filippo, and they do not resign themselves to remaining enclosed in regional circles. The methods of dialect companies might well be recommended to all aspiring Italian actors, for these demand discipline and sacrifice and love of the art of theatre. And Eduardo offers Gherardi advice if he is truly interested in the future of Italian theatre: (1) constitute small, but excellent companies; (2) give the actors the security of from three to five years' work so that they may study and work together in tranquillity of spirit; (3) give them strong direction; (4) give the company a free choice of repertory—and look forward to a healthy national theatre! Eduardo has been acting since 1910 and writing plays since 1920 (nearly fifty of these have been produced). It is extravagant, but satisfying nonetheless, to suggest that at the time of writing there is no Neapolitan who is not proud of his fellow, Eduardo De Filippo, and no theatre-conscious Italian who does not claim Eduardo's work as part of his own national theatre.

Perhaps a key to Eduardo's genius is his time sense: in comic dialogue, in comedy-tragedy reversal, in those carefully choreographed, seemingly improvised stage movements which are the trademark (or should one say birthright?) of his actors, in that slow nutritive process of directing and teaching and liberating actors so that their individual techniques become strong, in his staging of the lives of strong acting companies. Eduardo the tightly-coiled philosopher of theatre aesthetics, Eduardo the patiently demanding director, Eduardo the most outwardly relaxed of actors. The when of the theatre is Eduardo's secret, and there are few who understand it as well as he.

Eduardo owns an island—Ischa (not Ischia!), which is directly off the coast of Nerano, and indirectly off that of Positano. He goes there—in summertime only—to take up his morning writer's existence. The parish priest of Positano, Father Raffaele Talamo, tells the story of the young Positanese boy whom Eduardo chose to appear in a television drama of his some years ago. This handsome giovanotto is not an actor today, but a naval officer (for his mother was put down by the other mammas in town for having exhibited excessive pride in the TV performances of her man-child). Perhaps many will heave a sigh of relief to learn that this young man has escaped the grip of the theatre (with money in the bank from the television series), but I would disagree. For the boy at ten, like Eduardo when he was ten, was learning to act under Eduardo's tutelage in that timeless way which produces true actors. The plentiful years of learning without rush—the apprenticeship. An unpopular concept today, for now it is instant theatre, commercial splash, do-it-yourself. But if we are to speak of the theatre of Eduardo De Filippo, then we must speak of a more complete time sense.10


  1. Il Monumento, Torino, 1970. The play proposes De Filippo's social theory once again: the underdog is “the good guy.” This “good guy” is not perfect, but he at least retains his humanity—as men in positions of authority do not. De Filippo's concept of humanity might be illustrated by paraphrasing a sentence from his preface to the play: the belief in love—love between man and woman, man and children, man and country.

  2. The play permits Eduardo to function easily both as director and, philosophically speaking, as central character. Its action develops from what Penna thinks now and did long ago, and from what he, therefore, does not do now. His non-doing causes the other characters to do everything around him, thereby permitting the actor of Penna to function as director of those other characters' actions. Penna's/Eduardo's primary function in the play is to listen; his secondary function is to die.

  3. He has written himself a part in Il Monumento in which his wife demands that he dye his hair—hair which is put on nightly.

  4. Eduardo does not believe that the writing of acting theories helps to create better theatre; the end result is usually argument and misinterpretation.

  5. Eduardo De Filippo, “The Intimacy of Character and Actor,” trans. by Vivian Leone, Actors on Acting, ed. by Helen Krish Chinoy and Toby Cole, New York, 1970, pp. 470-72.

  6. In Il Monumento, Ascanio Penna lives underground, withdrawn from the world above him, which cast away twenty years ago the ideals to which he still clings so tenaciously. In Napoli Milionaria (Torino, 1945), Gennaro Jovine fights a war while his wife becomes rich on the blackmarket and his son becomes a car thief. And when he begins to speak compulsively of war's sufferings on his return, his family and friends refuse to listen and proceed to celebrate—something he is no longer capable of doing.

  7. Besides Il Contratto (Torina, 1967), the following plays contain the comic-tragic twist mentioned above. In Natale in Casa Cupiello (Torino, 1931), the family looks on as Luca dies blessing his daughter and her lover, whom he takes to be his son-in-law—who is also observing the scene! In La Parte di Amleto (Torino, 1940), an old actor is cruelly tricked into believing that he will play Hamlet for the tardy leading man. In Le Voci di Dentro (Torino, 1948), Zio Nicola, the hilarious figure who addresses remarks to the rest of mankind exclusively through the medium of firecrackers, is found dead in his self-devised aerial shelter. In Il Cilindro (Torino, 1965), the central characters seem to have happily escaped their problems only to find that one of them has learned too much of the selfishness of the other three to continue with their family life. Except for the most recent Il Contratto and Il Monumento, all of Eduardo's works may be found in Cantata dei Giorni Pari (5th rev. ed.), and Cantata dei Giorni Dispari (7th rev. ed.) (Torino: Einaudi, 1966).

  8. See Chinoy and Cole, Actors on Acting, pp. 470-72. This statement, translated above from Eduardo's original Italian manuscript, seems to have been deleted from the current edition.

  9. Eduardo De Filippo, “Edùardo De Filippo difende il suo teatro,” Il Giornale d'Italia, Roma: 15 dic. 1938.

  10. Throughout this article, quotations have been translated by the author.

Mario B. Mignone (essay date 1984)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6365

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 time and place. Thus some of Eduardo's attitudes … may seem forced when we take them as an assertion of his will, whereas as an expression of a social tradition we might let them pass”1. To the mind of a foreign spectator, the attitude of Gennaro in Millionaires' Naples!—the husband who disapproves of, yet cooperates in his wife's illegal business—may appear inconsistent. However, his actions, like those of other De Filippo characters, are consistent with the world view of the people of Naples. To Eduardo's people, the state is the enemy. The Fascist suppression of Neapolitan regionalism was only the most recent episode in their long history of oppression. When Matteo Generoso, the protagonist of Fear Number One, says, “If twelve wars broke out one after the other, they'd make no impression on me,” this is not some absurd idea of the author's, but rather an expression of a fundamental Neapolitan attitude. Getting on with the business of day-to-day living, regardless of what happens in the newspapers, is the people's concern.

Naples is a city of paradoxes: poor in industries, rich in the sun, suffering, and song. It is a city that venerates the innocent charm of children and a city where children lose their innocence very early. Naples reflects the practice of dolce far niente (“sweet idleness”) and hums day and night with the kinetic energy of human beings working, selling, arguing, singing, cursing. Neapolitans can cry and laugh at the same time. They are gay, ruthless, life-loving, cynical, superstitious, kindly, and extremely patient. For them life is lived from day to day; luck in the next lottery may be just across the piazza.

De Filippo's Naples is not the stereotyped tourist panorama of Vesuvius and the bay, as it is idealized on postcards, but a complex, volcanic city, full of contradictions, absurdities, and extravagance, reflecting the full spectrum of the human condition. It is the Naples that Thornton Wilder characterized as an “anthill of vitality—cynical yet religious—religious yet superstitious—shadowed by the volcano and the thought of death—always aboil with one passion or another, yet abounding in courtesy and charm. Above all, profoundly knit by the ties of the family, parent and child”2. De Filippo's attention is focused above all on the masses and lower middle class of Naples, on that part of the population for whom the tests of life are harder but not necessarily more tragic than for those “better off,” because they have an innate flair for life. In lower-class Naples the duality of social relations is very evident. People are close to one another, aware of one another, ready to defend one another; but this same closeness provides opportunities for exploitation as well as protection and aid. In short, as Bentley notes, “the lower depths of Naples form as fantastic a society of adventurers and desperadoes as can well be imagined. Living by the skin of their teeth, a dreary past behind and a blank future ahead, they accept the present with peculiar vehemence. Familiar with death, they do not take life too seriously. They are willing to see it as a joke, a paradox, a fantasy, a show, a game”3. Neapolitans of the lower classes run the gamut of human life:

It is because of their capacity for community and individuality at once that the Neapolitan situation is tragic and not merely pathetic. For they are a people who have perfected the art of communitas while at the same time celebrating the human personality for the riches it contains. Could they fashion a utopia of their own, I am certain it would be anti-platonic—a social organization for diversity and maximal self-expression. Just as Plato would have cast out actors and playwrights as subversives, the Neapolitans would give these a central role, for they represent the full range of human feelings and catch all the rays that shine from the prism that is man.4

For De Filippo, Naples is not just a city or his city, but a magnifying glass through which he contemplates humanity in its myriad manifestations.

Even the less keen and sensitive observers are struck by the pulsation of life in this city. And life is an event to be celebrated because existence is a movable, continuing feast. Its living soul is as Belmonte observes:

… resolute and passionate, but it is also unconscious, and insensate to the prod of awareness and reason. As such it can emerge, or it becomes hypnotic. The movement in Naples—the traffic jams, the pushy, shoving crowds, the absence of lines forming for anything, the endless barrage of shouts falling like arrows on ears, the simultaneous clash of a million destinations and petty opposed intentions—combine into a devastating assault on the senses. Or else the entire scene retreats, slowing and settling finally into a brilliantly colored frieze depicting a grand, if raucous, commedia.5

In Naples, behavior is charged with a meaning that may either reveal the truth or mask it, and spontaneity and artifice blend into one another like the tints of a watercolor. Much of Neapolitan life, especially its more passionate side, has a basic and undeniable theatricality. It is not accidental that one of the greatest moments in Naples's theater history is its improvisational commedia dell'arte, with its emphasis on spontaneity, immediacy, and broad physical actions. Anyone who watches Neapolitans in conversation soon realizes that the hands, and indeed the entire body, often communicate as much as the accompanying words. The outsider can easily mistake a simple conversation for a heated argument, since many Neapolitans converse with a commitment and excitement that is often not commensurate with the importance of the subject matter under discussion. This gesticulation and the spirit it expresses are theatrical, if not operatic, suggesting a performance even when none is intended.

Indeed, in the poor quarters of Naples even the most banal events can be elevated to the level of drama. Action is a vehicle of communication, and “in the language of symbolic action, a rage might be a plea, a kiss an economic stratagem.” The tonalities are theatrical. In the poor quarters of Naples every person becomes a playwright and an actor, seeking to determine and organize the reactions of an audience—but a critic too, more than ready to demolish the transparent devices and weaker props of his fellows. In the words of Thomas Belmonte, “if drama was originally invented as a metaphor for life, in Naples the metaphor has overwhelmed the referent, and society presents itself as a series of plays within plays.”6

To love and understand De Filippo's theater one has to love and understand the theater performed on the vast stage of Naples. Because he could capture it in its fullness, De Filippo achieved a high degree of drama and theatricality even in dealing with seemingly cerebral themes. For example, the philosophy of the absurd, very evident in his plays, is not so much the subject matter of his characters' discussions as the Neapolitan way of living. As Bentley says, “There is a philosophy of the absurd, after all, in plebeian humor in general: your life is hopeless but you laugh, you are cheerful and morally positive, against all reason”7. But Neapolitans are believers. In spite of their cynicism about most aspects of life, they give themselves to religion with unconditional fervor. They preserve a facade of Catholic ritual, but prefer their Madonna-goddesses to Christ and maintain an active belief in a myriad local house-spirits, reminiscent of the pre-Christian epoch. Similarly, De Filippo's characters are Christian-pagans for whom God, Christ, the Madonna, and all the saints are little more than agencies on hand for the purpose of healing and punishing, as they are, for example, in I Won't Pay You, Filumena Marturano, and many other plays.

Among the manifold components of this Neapolitan life, De Filippo focuses his attention very often on the family. Pushing aside the mythology of sentimental “familism” that pervades Italian culture, he shows the contradictions of family life, the violent clash of motives, and the tangled web of longings, jealousies, and long-nurtured resentments that form the substrata of so much family interaction. He commonly notes that the individual behaves differently within the family circle than in other social arenas. The home is not a stage for presenting hypocritical spectacles to others. Whatever a person may appear to be elsewhere, the family knows better. The secret weaknesses of the individual, the shame of sins long hidden from the world, the family assimilates and keeps to itself. If the honesty of the family is often cruel, it may also be redemptive and sometimes therapeutic, as in Millionaires' Naples! and My Family! The Neapolitan family remains at the core of De Filippo's art, and he is a keen observer of its minute particularities. Indeed, it is extraordinary what subtle variations he can play on this perennial theme—in Christmas at the Cupiello's, Filumena Marturano, My Love and My Heart, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, and many others.

In portraying Naples, De Filippo writes of the very society from which Pulcinella grew and to which Pulcinella has most meaning. Like him, De Filippo's characters move rather hopelessly around the fringe of life; like him, they possess an indomitable will to live in spite of everything8. However, in contrast to the Pulcinella of the commedia dell'arte, De Filippo's protagonist possesses an activated social conscience. As Mario Stefanile has said:

De Filippo's Pulcinella is made up of Molière and Goldoni, a bit of Shakespeare and a lot of Viviani, almost all of Scarpetta, and most of Petrolini, and even certain formulas of the mature Jouvet. This is because, through Pulcinella, what is expressed is the morality of Naples, the desire typical of the Parthenopean, to correct the social aspects of life in his own favor and to reduce everything to his own image and likeness—splendor and misery, nobility and indignity, racketeers and honest men, the rich and the poor, men and women.9

De Filippo's characters are neither heroes nor clowns. They are men—more often than not part hero and part clown, each one having his own personality, his own nature, and stamped with the character of the land in which he was born and lives. They live in a world that man still values. In it they can continue to live, struggle, hope; they continue to cheat and love each other, to despise and pity one another. And, above all, in spite of everything, they continue to delude themselves in the search for truth. Theirs is not a confused search for abstract truth, but a search based on total suspicion and mistrust—yet tempered with a constant, naive hope for something better, with the same hope that animates the lower-middle-class Neapolitans to live and survive day by day. Illusion and reality are fused, as if man needed to create an unreal world which is all his own, while at the same time keeping close watch on reality. Perhaps some day things will change, but meanwhile life has to go on: “Eventually the night has to pass …,” says the protagonist in the closing line of Millionaires' Naples!

In the plays De Filippo wrote during and immediately after World War II, Naples represents both the human and the economic destruction of a particular city and the fate of the many countries that had experienced the same devastation, the same anguish and existential boredom that dominated the life of those years. In the plays written in the 1960s and 1970s Naples is a city at the mercy of the selfishness, hypocrisy, corruption, and violence of the materialistic society which evolved in those years. Eduardo's attachment to Naples, then, is not merely sentimental. Although his suppositions seem to be those of an earlier breed of popular Neapolitan playwrights with old-fashioned notions, it must not be supposed that Eduardo is a producer of locally acceptable social drama, on a different wavelength from the avant-garde and from modern European comedy in general. On the contrary, while nourishing himself on the rich humus of Neapolitan life and theater, he shows himself perfectly familiar with the comedy of European intellectuals, for the most part born of mistrust, its ethos repeatedly one of meaninglessness and isolation in an absurd world, in which language has ceased to convey meaning and the structures of society are mocked. Yet De Filippo only partially accepts this legacy of Pirandello, Jarry, and their successors, with its special kind of liberating irony which allows the spectator to dismiss, for the duration of a play, the demands of everyday life. The world of these playwrights—socially hollow, reeling, having no center of traditional bourgeois gravity, where one has to be off-center if he is to escape the void, where the heroes are individualists, nonconformists, eccentric, and way-out—De Filippo can accept only for the crisis it presents, not for its nihilistic content.

For De Filippo the world is not hollow. Life has a meaning; when things go wrong it matters; and that meaning and matter may be adequately conveyed by language. However, elements of relativistic and existentialist thinking as well as the idea of a disintegrating world are recurring themes in his plays, explicitly so in Millionaires' Naples!, Those Ghosts, My Family!, The Voices Within, and The Local Authority. These plays are the products not only of a postwar setting but also of a relativistic age, of a world falling apart both physically and metaphysically. The children in My Family! strive for existential freedom no less than the characters of Sartre, and the dialogue echoes, more intimately, less portentously, the same dilemmas faced by the French philosopher. The Cimmaruta family in The Voices Within is fragmented by conflicting versions of nonexistent truth; truth is chimerical in Those Ghosts! and The Big Magic. De Filippo's sophistication extends to a canny understanding of voguish attitudes, and he finds the voguish attitudes wanting.


Many critics have long assumed that Luigi Pirandello served as a key literary influence on Eduardo De Filippo. Eduardo was very young and still unknown when he began to experience the fascination of Pirandello's art and thought. The Pirandellian quality of some plays of De Filippo could be, therefore, a consequence of a youthful infatuation.

De Filippo first saw Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author in 1921. Two years later he had read everything Pirandello had written, and he remained very impressed with his art. In 1933, when De Filippo had reached a certain degree of popularity, he met the older playwright who asked him to produce Liolà10. After twenty-five rehearsals, all of which Pirandello attended, Liolà opened at the Teatro Odeon in Milan, with Peppino De Filippo in the title role. The performance received twenty-two curtain calls. Sometime later they met again in Naples, and Pirandello asked De Filippo about the possibility of adapting his short story L'abito nuovo (The new suit) for the stage, overwhelming him with the suggestion that they write the play together. For fifteen days during December 1935, from 5 to 8 P.M., the two playwrights worked together in Rome, where De Filippo's company was performing. Pirandello wrote a prose outline of ideas and action. From time to time he would hand sheets of paper to De Filippo, seated at a desk next to him, who would write the dialogue. During one of the last evenings Pirandello asked De Filippo to adapt his Cap and Bells. Only a month later this play opened in Naples at the Fiorentini Theater, with Eduardo in the leading role, and played twenty-two sold-out performances.

While performing this comedy in Milan, De Filippo received a telegram from Pirandello asking him to produce The New Suit. He answered that the production of Cap and Bells had exhausted him and that he would prefer to wait a year before staging the work. Pirandello was hurt and did not reply. About four months later Eduardo saw Pirandello during an intermission of Cap and Bells, which he was performing at the Quirino Theater in Rome. To Eduardo, the old and famous playwright resembled a young author eager for his first production, and Eduardo told him so. Pirandello replied, “But you, my dear Eduardo, can afford to wait; I cannot!” A month later, rehearsals started, but Pirandello was dead of pneumonia before the play opened.

This very close contact with Pirandello and his theater inevitably left an imprint on De Filippo which is evident in his view of life and the way he gives it theatrical expression. Corrado Alvaro points out the influence in negative terms: “Eduardo De Filippo, believing himself to be far removed from modern life and the life common to all, tries to exceed his limits by attempting the style of Pirandello, the form least suited to Eduardo and which Pirandello himself finally dropped uneasily”11. But Eduardo has been less ready to admit that he has been significantly influenced by Pirandello. When asked about it, he replied:

When I began to write my plays, I did not know of Pirandello. In 1928 I wrote Chi è chiù felice 'e me! [Who is happier than I!] and made my debut with this play in 1931. Thus I began to write before I began to associate with him. … The conclusions about life which I have come to are not, in fact, Pirandello-like conclusions. We are close in our mentality: Neapolitans are sophisticated in the same way Sicilians are. The characters of Non ti pago [I won't pay you] win out at all costs and actually conquer by their will power, by their stubbornness which is similar to that of the Sicilians.12

Eric Bentley has also maintained that, except in The Big Magic, Pirandello's influence on De Filippo is only superficial. Certainly, many affinities with Pirandello's theater can be found: in the way De Filippo celebrates maternal love, in his metaphysical speculation on the nature of reality and illusion, in his emphasis on the drama of fear and compassion. However, as Bentley points out, while Pirandello deals with abstract concepts, never revealing the truth on any given matter because truth is relative and definite judgment is impossible, De Filippo concerns himself with specific personal traumas. In many plays he deals with the Pirandellian theme that illusions are needed because life is more than we can stand; in some cases the conclusions of the plays recall those of the great master in that the intrusion of reality, which had threatened to shatter the illusion, instead ironically reinforces it and makes it permanent. At times, too, their characters show similarities. It is difficult to establish to what degree these affinities are due to influence because, as De Filippo himself has said, at the base of their art there is a common denominator: the Southern Italian outlook on life. Long traditions bind together the mainland and the island Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Unable to live freely under centuries of Spanish domination, the people of Sicily and those of Naples learned to cope in the same manner, by meditating and philosophizing. But for the dialectical Sicilian fury of Pirandello, De Filippo substitutes Neapolitan cynicism. Even the pessimism of De Filippo's characters, which makes one think of the nihilism of Pirandello's, is a mocking negativism which, while it has the flavor of paradox, has its origin in the traditional popular attitude of “goldbricking.”

Moreover, alike as their plays might appear, they differ greatly in tone. Pirandello's bleak, pessimistic outlook becomes less dreary with De Filippo. No matter how much De Filippo's characters suffer in the play, the endings are often resolved happily. Furthermore, the truth is discoverable to those who wish to find it. Illusions are never allowed to remain ambiguous; if one man has an illusion, others recognize it as such.

De Filippo's plays are not drama in the Pirandellian sense, nor comedies in the sense that English-speaking audiences—and especially the Broadway audience—understand the term. As Bentley observes:

Naples is a different place, and Neapolitan folk drama is a different art; one enjoys it not least for its difference. … One enjoys, above all, the fine blend of comedy and drama, the naive pathos, the almost noble seriousness of what might easily become ludicrous. Some non-Italians are surprised, even displeased, by this last feature. “Why don't they play comedy as comedy?” Fully to answer the question would be to explain and justify a simpler, but also more delicate, realism than our own stage at present has to show.13

There is a wide spectrum of humor in a De Filippo play. The laughter he elicits ranges from chuckles to belly laughs. But there is also a central fiber, a sense of the tragedy of life. For his propensity for the tragicomic, De Filippo could be called the Italian Gogol. This blend of comedy and pathos also recalls some moments in Chaplin's works.

It is the blend of comedy and pathos that lends the work of De Filippo its special tone. His plays may be both realistic and fantastic, both comic and moralistic, both sentimental and grotesque. It is a blend that De Filippo achieves through his examination of the bittersweet plebeian life of Naples.


De Filippo has occasionally spoken about the content and form of his art. In a 1956 interview he said: “The theater is neither a book nor a literary work: it must always be lively, and thus for one-and-a-half to two hours it must always have elements of surprise. That's why the public comes to see my plays, because it enjoys itself and takes something home as well”14. In December 1972, upon receiving the Feltrinelli International Prize for the Theater, he pointed out the elements that contribute to the creation of his plays. Except for a few works written in his youth, at the base of his art “lies always the conflict between individual and society.”

In general, if an idea does not have social meaning or social application, I'm not interested in developing it. It's clear that I'm aware that what is true for me might not be true for others, but I'm here to speak to you about myself, and since pity, indignation, love, and emotions in general, are felt in the heart, this much I can affirm—that ideas spring first from my heart and then from my brain.15

De Filippo points out that it is easy for him to have an idea, difficult, on the other hand, to give it form and communicate it. He has been successful mainly because, as he says, “I was able to absorb avidly and with pity the life of so many people, and I have been able to create a language which, although theatrically elaborate, becomes the means of expression of the various characters and not of their author”16. He explains:

In most cases, the creative process is long. The germinal idea undergoes the seasoning of time to test the degree of its validity: after having had the idea and given it a sketchy form, there begins the long and laborious period during which, for months and more often for years, I keep the idea enclosed in me. … If an idea is not valid, little by little it fades away, disappears, and does not obsess the mind any longer; but if it is valid, with time it ripens and improves and consequently the comedy develops both as text and as theater, as a complete show, staged and acted down to the smallest detail, exactly the way I wanted it seen and felt. In a way this is unfortunate, as I will never feel it again once it has become a theatrical reality.17

Then the play staged in his mind and carried with him for so long is fixed in the pages of the script: “Only when the beginning and the end of the ‘action’ are clear to me and I know to perfection the life, death and miracles of every character, even the secondary ones, do I begin to write”18. He writes the play, staging it in his mind's eye as he goes along. True, this is the practice of every playwright; but De Filippo does it by fusing the writing process to the acting and directing experiences. Such fusion is evident not only in the fluidity, spontaneity, and naturalness of the dialogue, but also in the numerous and often detailed stage directions.

Early in his artistic career De Filippo made a statement that has remained true up to the present:

Our purpose in coming forward on the stage has never been to hold conferences, to conduct discussions about grave problems, or to teach courses in philosophy. We are truly people of the theater, free from every bond and bias, and we are theater people in the sense of being both actors and audience; that is why we concern ourselves with reproducing in our plays life as people see it and feel it, with its elements of comedy and sentiment, poetry and the grotesque, with its contrasts of suffering and buffoonery, and nothing more. To sum up, every day we are more strongly convinced that this is exactly what the public seeks from us, and for this they applaud us generously as actors and as authors.19

De Filippo writes a play basing it not on the presentation of lofty philosophical abstractions, but as a part of life, to make it live in its own right as a work of drama. Every character, like every life, however minor, always has something to say, comic or serious, emotionally or intellectually, and De Filippo aims to create characters who reflect in varying degrees sentiments and ideas possessed of a certain universality.

When the curtain rises on an Eduardo De Filippo play, the audience is not apt to receive a scenic surprise. For over fifty years, the settings of his comedies have been remarkably consistent. One sees the interior of a lower-middle-class apartment. Seldom does Eduardo write a play which, like De Pretore Vincenzo or Tommaso D'Amalfi, moves out into the streets and alleys of Naples. The playwright's choice of the interior setting shows his interest in exploring the motives, values, and plight of the poor and the struggling. Although the strain of naturalism in De Filippo is not of Strind-bergian intensity, it is strong enough in this essentially realistic playwright to cause him to examine people in the environment where they are most likely to be themselves. For Eduardo is committed to exposing the hypocrisy of human beings, and their financial, physical, or spiritual destitution:

Except for a few works I wrote when I was young, … at the base of my theater there is always the conflict between the individual and society. I mean to say that everything always starts from an emotive stimulus: reaction to an injustice, scorn for hypocrisy, mine and others', solidarity with and human sympathy for a person or a group of people, rebellion against outdated and anachronistic laws, fear in the face of events, such as wars, which disrupt the life of the people.20

De Filippo finds drama particularly in the life and language of those living in poverty and suffering social injustice. From the early works—light farces, yet already sensitive to human value—to the great neorealist plays of the immediate postwar period, which explore the drama of humanity ravaged by war, to the most recent works cast in the form of “parables” and some strongly critical of our present-day society. De Filippo shows a continuous effort to reach his audience with his commitment to mitigating the absurdities and incongruities of life through the correction of social ills. By his own admission, he writes in reaction to the injustices perpetrated against the weak in society: the illegitimate, the unhappily married, the poor, the oppressed. From his passionate identification with the socially deprived arises the plays' moral protest, which attempts to produce awareness of the human predicament and to compel reflection. Yet his theater is not political propaganda. De Filippo himself rejected this label: “I am not Brecht, and for that matter I would not like to be him. I do not approve of political speeches in the theater. However, I certainly am in favor of pointing out [social] wounds”21.

Neither can his theater be labeled “social theater,” since it does not, for instance, concern itself so much with the class struggle or with the social and economic condition of the deprived classes, as with moral failure and its social consequences. He focuses his attention on such themes as hypocrisy, evil masquerading as good, egoism disguised as charity, the alienating influence on the individual of a demoralized society, the oppressive condition arising from lack of tolerance and respect for human dignity, the arbitrariness of society, the absurdities and inadequacies of the judicial system. Only a very few plays fail because of De Filippo's commitment to social betterment. Usually, this very commitment accounts for the depth of inspiration, the thematic richness, the authenticity in character and dialogue, the balance of irony and humor, and thus the sense of perspective in his dramatization of social issues. He writes play after play exposing one wrong after another, spurred on by the conviction that the only way to remedy the ills of society is to prompt public reaction to them. He is not always successful in arousing this reaction and often overstates his point, but he is always faithful to his vision of the playwright as society's moral guide. Over the years he has maintained this interest and has increasingly confirmed the importance that he attaches to the involvement of the public, for it is this public that must fulfill the moral function of his work.


Part of De Filippo's artistic achievement is undoubtedly due to his successful working solution to the problems of finding, or inventing, a form of spoken Italian suitable for use on the stage. This is an accomplishment because literary Italian, and above all stage Italian, is essentially an artificial language. While standard English, standard French, or standard American is spoken, if not by the whole population at least by important sections of it, standard Italian only exists on paper. In ordinary life even the most educated Italians have their clearly defined regional accent and vocabulary. It is therefore far more difficult in Italian to write dramatic dialogue which sounds like real speech, yet free from local overtones and the limitations on intelligibility imposed by the use of a dialect. Only during the 1960s, for a variety of reasons—mass communications, the urbanization of large numbers of former agricultural workers and their families, geographical migration, travel for pleasure—did a generalized form of spoken Italian start to assert itself on a wider scale. Theater has mostly used the Italian literary language, an abstraction usually bombastic or stilted, incomprehensible to the majority of Italians, and therefore necessarily restricted both socially and in its range of expressive possibilities. As Pier Paolo Pasolini commented, “traditional theater has accepted … an Italian which does not exist. Upon such a convention—that is, upon nothing, upon what is nonexistent, dead—it has based the conventionality of diction. The result is repugnant”22. Side by side with literary theater exists a tradition of regional theater, richer in expressiveness, but very limited, by reason of the mutual incomprehensibility of Italy's many dialects, in its potential for reaching people beyond the local area. De Filippo is the one playwright who has resolved the division between these two kinds of theatrical language. To overcome the linguistic conventionality of bourgeois theater, he invented a new vehicle of oral expression which has the spontaneity and immediacy of popular dialect while still retaining that minimum of conventional abstraction necessary to reach a wide audience.

In his early works De Filippo used almost exclusively a pure Neapolitan dialect, which was not only appropriate for his characters, who had affinities with those of the cabaret theater and the avanspettacolo, but also reflected with almost obsessive rigor the life of the Neapolitan masses and lower middle class. At the beginning of their careers, the use of the dialect was also unavoidable for Eduardo and his brother and sister, since they saw themselves as continuing the tradition inherited from Scarpetta. But as De Filippo's repertory changed, due to his desire to appeal to an audience all over the peninsula, his means of expression changed too. The Neapolitan vernacular went through a process of Italianization, following the lead of the “half-Neapolitan” already spoken by middle-class Neapolitans and becoming more understandable to other Italians. Since the war, De Filippo has developed a dramatic dialogue that comes very close to the everyday spoken vernacular employed throughout southern Italy, but with the particular inflection and cadence characteristic of Naples. It is, moreover, a language which has a “common denominator” with spoken Italian and is readily understood in other regions.

De Filippo's texts reproduce the rhythm and flow of ordinary conversational Italian as faithfully as possible. They are characterized by run-on sentences, with pauses in the form of dots (…) dividing each clause, instead of carefully constructed, grammatically self-contained periodic sentences. Although in the later works dialect expressions appear only rarely, his scripts are colored with expressive idioms, popular slang, and frequent, sometimes outlandish puns. Sometimes the author inserts a few words in Neapolitan dialect at the end of a punchline, to enrich the local “flavor” and maintain the immediacy of geographical setting. However, dialect never serves merely to add charm or mere local color to his characters' speech, or to give an air of “scholarly” authenticity, as an aesthetic device for its own sake. Rather, it serves to heighten either their plight or their overflowing excitement. With most of the characters, De Filippo mingles dialect with Italian, alternating the pungency of the one with the suavity of the other and extracting all the flavor and fun he can from the rich tonality of their utterance.

The result is a collection of plays free of intellectual abstractions, rhetorical figures, and learned metaphors. It is unfailingly expressive, rich in comic elements, and full of the spontaneous, colorful epithets of “street language.” Thornton Wilder made a particular point of admiring Eduardo's language: “To know and love his plays one must have a relish for dialect and regional speech, for that color and immediacy of the language, used for a longtime by a portion of the society little touched by the over-sophisticated and cultivated ‘polite’ world”23. For this same reason Bentley hails Eduardo's theater as “popular”: “It is a popular theater as against an art theater. This means … that it is a dialect theater and not an ‘Italian’ one. It uses a popularly spoken language and not an official, national, bourgeois language—in this respect resembling Synge and O'Casey rather than Pinero and Galsworthy. The lack of a national theatrical repertoire in Italy may be deplorable, but the quality of the defect is—the regional theater”24. Indeed, with De Filippo as with the Irishman John Millington Synge, half of the effect of the play lies in the dialect. The language of The Playboy of the Western World serves to turn a potentially tragic situation into a richly comic one. Similarly, Filumena Marturano's Neapolitan dialect dispels any lugubrious potentialities of the plot—the old story of the prostitute with the heart of gold—and makes her a truly heroic plebeian. Just as a Synge play would lose much of its value if it were rewritten in American English, so do the Neapolitan comedies of De Filippo seem essentially untranslatable25.

Moreover, in addition to the language, his comedies depend for much of their effect upon the gestures used by the characters. Although the Italian stage does not have an Oriental “gesturology,” different regions, and Naples in particular, have virtually a system of gestures with accepted meanings. The side of one's hand repeatedly jabbed at one's ribs indicates hunger; pulling the lower eyelid down with one finger is the nonverbal way to describe shrewdness in another person. One must, indeed, study beforehand the meaning of Neapolitan gestures to derive the full flavor from a De Filippo performance26. With gestures and dialect both lost in foreign performances, Eduardo's plays in translation hardly approximate the original works.


  1. Eric Bentley, Kenyon Review, p. 119.

  2. Letter from Thornton Wilder to the author dated 9 October 1971.

  3. Eric Bentley, In Search of Theatre (New York: Knopf, 1953), p. 289.

  4. Thomas Belmonte, The Broken Fountain (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979), p. 29.

  5. Ibid., p. 7.

  6. Ibid., p. 30.

  7. Bentley, In Search of Theatre, p. 290.

  8. Robert G. Bander, “A Critical Estimate of Eduardo De Filippo,” Italian Quarterly 11, 43 (1967):44.

  9. Mario Stefanile, Labirinto napoletano (Naples: E.S.I., 1958), p. 115.

  10. De Filippo recounted his encounters with Pirandello in a symbolic letter, “Open letter to Pirandello,” Il dramma, Dec. 1936. It was written just a few days after Pirandello's death (10 December 1936).

  11. Corrado Alvaro, “Eduardo,” Sipario 11 (March 1956):6.

  12. Vito Pandolfi, “Intervista a quatr'occhi con Eduardo De Filippo,” Sipario 11 (March 1956):5.

  13. Eric Bentley, What is Theatre? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1956), p. 200.

  14. Pandolfi, “Intervista,” p. 5.

  15. “Prefazione,” I capolavori di Eduardo (Turin: Einaudi, 1967), p. vii.

  16. Ibid., p. viii.

  17. Ibid., pp. viii-xi.

  18. Ibid., p. ix.

  19. Cf. Corsi, Chi è di scena, p. 49.

  20. I capolavori di Eduardo, p. vii.

  21. S. Lori, “Intervista con il grande autore-attore napoletano,” Roma, 7 May 1969.

  22. Pier Paolo Pasolini, “Manifesto per un nuovo teatro,” Nuovi argomenti 9 (Jan.-March 1968):13.

  23. Thornton Wilder, from the letter cited in Chapter 1, note 1.

  24. Bentley, In Search of Theatre, p. 290.

  25. Indeed, the translation into standard Italian of Filumena Marturano (a dubious enterprise from the start) was not successful and has never been restaged.

  26. Desmond Morris et al., Gestures (Briarcliff Manor, N.Y.: Stein & Day, 1979) gives an excellent account of Neapolitan gestures.

Mario B. Mignone (essay date 1984)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11914

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 wanted to show the world of plot and intrigue and interest: the adulterers, the gambler, the superstitious, the slothful, the fraudulent. All part of a recognizable, definable Neapolitan way of life, but a way of life belonging to the nineteenth century. In those plays I kept alive a Naples which was already dead in part, and in part was covered up and hidden by the “paternalistic” care of the Fascist regime, and which, if it should revive today, would be seen in a different way, under a different aspect.1

But De Filippo's judgment on his work is too severe, for many of these plays have been restaged since 1945 with great success because of their relevancy and their theatricality.

The early works cannot be discarded, not only because they have documentary value, but also because, despite the influence of earlier Neapolitan playwrights, they introduce some of the themes that will become characteristic of him. Focused on the problems of contemporary Neapolitan society, these plays have a satirical bite, a tinge of irony. They reflect “even days” in appearance only; fascism wanted to project Italy as a country with its dreams fulfilled, but even the farces convey the desolate condition of the masses and lower middle class in the 1920s and 1930s.

While apparently simple, though obviously put together by a skilled actor, these first works are not pure experiment, sketches, or “pretexts” for acting. In their preference for jest and movement over words, in the lively action, the comical situation full of surprises and misunderstandings, in the quick lines studied to seem natural and full of the spirit of the spoken language, they echo the pulcinellata2; however, they already manifest a humor which verges on the grotesque, a dramatic tension at times approaching the tragic, a tendency to psychological intimacy, and a moral sensitivity to social conditions. The vivacity of the action is sustained by the many minor characters, at times mere caricatures, who carry with them an inexhaustible mimic potential. Seldom are they solidly fitted into the overall structure; rather, they remain accessories, tending to predictability because they have the fixed, generic characteristics of types. They appear, then just as suddenly disappear, the laughter of the audience trailing after them. The farcical situations do not, however, arise from accident and chance, as in the commedia dell'arte and traditional Neapolitan dialect theater, but from a human condition that is basically dramatic; and the lazzi, or comic business, while they make us laugh, at the same time exteriorize the pain of that state, rendering it sensible, immediate, and visible. At the center of this world is the main character, part of everyday reality, whose vitality stems from the absurdity of humble life observed from a new angle.

The theatrical strength of these characters lies not merely in their mimicry, but also in their language. The dialogue, at times rudimentary, at times abrupt and excited, never becomes monotonous or colorless, but always maintains its spontaneity and the fluidity necessary to remain theatrical. Although the Neapolitan linguistic texture gradually absorbs Italian forms, colored so as to indicate the characters' social levels, De Filippo sustains his artistic preference for dialect even when complying with the prohibition of dialects during the last years of Fascism. And at the base of the farcical situations and the language, there is always Naples itself, with its tragicomic, its humble and desolate reality, its scarcity of sustenance and human resources.

The one-act Farmacia di turno (Pharmacy on duty), the first work in Cantata for Even Days, was written in 1920 for Peppino Villani's company, but never staged. While an actor in the company, De Filippo had begun writing his own monologue. But this play is no product of a tyro's enthusiasm and ebullience. Though only twenty, De Filippo had sixteen years of acting experience behind him, and the play bears the mark of a skilled actor who knows the language of mimicry, movement, pauses, and nuances. Little more than a sketch, it nonetheless contains early versions of later themes: the isolation of the individual, the injustice of the law, the plight of the poor. Moreover, it shows De Filippo's dissatisfaction with the condescension implicit in “picturesque” representation and local caricature. Approaching writing from both his stage experience and his experience in living, he invests familiar comic types with a bitter humanity.

This first work is certainly naive in its use of theatrical conventions and stock types, but the earthiness and spontaneity of the dialogue are arresting. The scenes show no divergence between study and invention, theory and practice. The Neapolitan dialect theater, direct descendant of the commedia dell'arte, acquires a new complexion when filtered through De Filippo's sensibility. The result is a realistic world, with its own characters, and a credible plot which in its comicalness evinces suffering. The work is characteristic of De Filippo's early theater in its focus on characterization. Each character, however sketchy, has some personal story to tell.

The play centers on the pharmacist Don Saverio, a proud man who despite his rational approach to life, is compelled to endure an evil fate. He had approached marriage pragmatically, first making sure that his business was a success. But his wife in the meantime has left him for a richer man, and now he is alone, ridiculed by the neighbors; his inward pain at lacking a family is reflected in his refusal to assent to an annulment on the grounds of childlessness. So, at once resigned and humiliated, he spends his day serving the poor customers of his area, often in the company of his doctor and friend Don Teodoro, who comes in to chat, to take a nap in the cozy armchair, or to ask advice on the best way to get rid of the mice in his house. The play begins realistically, but the plot twists soon recall the pulcinellata. One of the first customers is Carmela, maid to Don Saverio's ex-wife, who comes in to buy some aspirin for her mistress; distracted by the unexpected appearance of her suitor Enrico, she leaves instead with an envelope containing Don Teodoro's rat poison. A wretched couple arrives looking for the doctor. The wife is clearly suffering from malnutrition, but no one would dare diagnose it as such because to do so would reflect on their economic status and deal a severe blow to their pride. Don Teodoro's diagnosis is no different from earlier doctors', and the couple cannot pay for the consultation. Finally, the doorman Gregorio arrives, his face swollen, and Don Saverio is happy to be able to show off his skill in extracting a tooth. But his satisfaction is short-lived: the next visitor is the policeman who has come to arrest him for attempting to poison his ex-wife. Don Saverio is led away with such despatch that the drugstore is locked with the doorman inside. Gregorio's plight, however, is a temporary inconvenience and, coming upon the heels of Don Saverio's arrest, it provides dramatic relief, minimizing the seriousness of the pharmacist's predicament.

Pharmacy on Duty alternates between the bitter reality of poverty borne with pride and the farce of the pulcinellata, over all of which hovers the author's own sense of irony. De Filippo's fatalistic vision of the irony present in everyday life will not allow any of the characters to triumph. Saverio's ex-wife is herself a victim, fatally ill, while Gregorio's temporary imprisonment provides a physical symbol of the common state of the characters, each imprisoned in his private situation and powerless to change it. From his first appearance as an author, without over-insistence, De Filippo shows the moralistic intentions that characterize his most famous plays. Nonetheless, watching this play, one has the impression of being still in the mainstream of the San Carlino theater tradition. The stuff of farce, for example, is the doctor's haste in changing chairs when the pharmacist tells him that his father died sitting in that very chair, Enrico's flirting with Carmela in the presence of Don Saverio, who has no choice but to go along with the love affair, the accidental substitution of rat poison for medicine.

The vis comica is the result not just of unexpected situations, but also of the unexpected and naively witty punchlines, as for example when Vincenzo brings in his young wife Rafilina who has reluctantly consented to be examined by Don Teodoro, the doctor:

Sit down, please. (Rafilina sits down and starts to take off her shoes.) Wait a minute! … Wait a minute! … Leave your shoes alone! … Just undo your blouse a bit.
[To her husband Vincenzo] And you made me change my stockings!
You thought you were taking her out to buy a pair of shoes?
O.K., forget it … When we go home you can put the ones with holes back on.
Well, now, how do you feel, young woman?
How do I feel?! Oh! Nobody knows how I feel!
But I'm the doctor. I have to know!(3)

Here the whole situation is comical, building to an explosion of laughter as the meaning of the expression “Nobody knows how I feel!” (“‘O saccio sul’ io”), a common Neapolitan exclamation, is transferred from the idiomatic to the literal level. No less comic are Vincenzo and Enrico's gimmicks, which nonetheless at the same time evince their suffering. As soon as the spectator stops laughing, he feels the bitterness of the situation.

Dominated by a crepuscular, Chekhovian atmosphere, the play seems only a moment in a faded, melancholic life. De Filippo's way of making the characters speak and move in chiaroscuro goes back to the Neapolitan playwright Lìbero Bòvio. But as Robert G. Bander writes,

The melancholy strain which Eduardo has introduced into the farcical tradition of Italian dialect theater is a measure of his difference from Ruzzante, Goldoni, and Gallina; his comic inventiveness sharply differentiates him from Di Giàcomo, Bracco, Russo, Mùrolo, and most of the other Neapolitan vernacular dramatists of an earlier period. De Filippo's sense of spiritual unrest, and his ability to dramatize it in a colloquial manner with which his audience can empathize, is his mark of individuality as a playwright.4

Most important, even at this early point in his artistic career, De Filippo had already begun to create a mythic, universal character. At the very outset he struck a rich vein of comedy, a vein that led deep into humanity and could therefore be appreciated and understood by all. Incidents in the life of poor Neapolitans come to represent the comic-pathetic condition of the universal “little man.”

The problems of the “little man” are chiefly economic in the one-act Filosoficamente (Philosophically, 1928). Gaetano Piscopo seems at first to be a stereotypical Neapolitan, believing passionately in the power of dreams to give him winning numbers in the weekly lottery and refusing to take responsibility for his obsession, preferring to blame his dead wife. But beneath the humor is real pain. Gaetano's primary worry is not his gambling, or even his perennial losses, but his two unmarried daughters, Maria and Margherita. The first part of the act shows the family trying to scrape together the money to buy pizzas and fruit for one of the modest parties that are Gaetano's way of introducing his daughters to well-intentioned young men. They are under threat of eviction, and to throw the party they have to go hungry for a few days. Gaetano's efforts to keep up appearances despite his poverty show the superficiality, but also the endurance, of the Neapolitan lower bourgeoisie. The party is a failure. Despite the jokes, the conversation between the old and the young comes to nothing, and even in the young people's conversation there is a certain rancor and envy. The characters are united in a lifeless, pathetic attitude, and everything seems placed on the same plane, portrayed with analytical objectivity.

Evident in these early works is De Filippo's ability to turn traditional farce in whatever direction he wants—toward pathos or toward social criticism. Nonetheless, most are dominated by humor for the pure enjoyment of it. The complicated three-act Uomo e galantuomo (Men and gentlemen, 1922), about the interactions of traveling actors with provincial nobility, shows De Filippo's total assimilation of the comic effects of the Neapolitan popular theater. The influence of the pulcinellata shows in the vivacity, freshness, and wit of the spoken language, the fanciful, exuberant dialogue, and the lazzi pulcinelleschi or comic “bits.” The pompous exuberance comes from the plays of Pasquale Altavilla, while from Scarpetta comes the overall scheme, the types, the inner movement of the action, the comical expedients, and the use of social background. The essential elements of De Filippo's comedy—the traditional chase of love and treachery, the slapstick, the craziness and tricks, mistaken identity and misunderstandings, gossip and buffoonery—as well as his skills at interweaving plots and using dialect realistically are all here in this one play.

Quei figuri di trent'anni fa (The old gang of thirty years ago, 1929) is a comic farce; at the same time, however, it criticizes the Italy of the “golden times” of Fascism, showing the misery beneath its alleged heroic grandeur. In this play De Filippo leaves the familiar lower-middle-class setting and turns to another corner of Neapolitan life, to a clandestine gambling house operated by a certain Gennaro Ferri. Gennaro hires Luigi as a shill in a gambling game; and as Luigi is schooled in the secrets of the trade, he shows comic slowness in understanding just what trade he is learning, what is expected of him, and consequently what will be the outcome of his involvement. Luigi's ingenuousness is the source of all the jokes in this play, so obviously rooted in the pulcinellata of Scarpetta and the commedia. As in Men and Gentlemen, here there is none of the pity and desperation expressed in Pharmacy on Duty and especially in Philosophically. The dialogue and funny situations keep the spectators detached from the stage action, so they can better understand De Filippo's implicit criticism of Fascism. In fact, the intent of the play did not escape the censor, Leopoldo Zurlo, who made De Filippo change the title, originally Le bische (The gambling-house), and forced him to set it thirty years earlier, prior to the coming of Fascism, under the pretense that the regime had abolished such illicit practices. Under Fascism there could be no aberrations, only “even days.”

No such political implications are apparent in Pericolosamente (Dangerously, 1938), a modernized pulcinellata on the theme of the taming of the shrew. In the San Carlino theater, as in the Punch-and-Judy show, Pulcinella, a coward outside the house, always used a stick when teaching wisdom to his wife. The twentieth-century Pulcinella uses a gun loaded with blanks, which, like the cardboard slapstick, makes a lot of noise but does no harm.

In most of De Filippo's early works farce serves to veil the wretchedness of the characters as they resort to precarious stratagems in order to save face or to survive. At times, the grotesque situations become pathetic because of the protagonist's inability to establish communications with the surrounding world. From such a world of misery and loneliness emerges Sik-Sik, De Filippo's first major character, who exhibits a hopeless will to survive even as he sorrowfully resigns himself to the squalor around him—the same squalor that will face the protagonists in many of the postwar plays. Sik-Sik, l'artefice magico (Sik-Sik, the Incomparable Magician, 1929), written for Mario Mangini's Pulcinella principe in sogno and interpreted by the three De Filippos, was the first work in which Eduardo wrote a part for himself; his first big success, it became a hallmark of his style of humor and the first clear sign of his future greatness. The stage directions describe the magician as follows:

Sik-Sik is a man of about 40, with a thick black moustache. He is wearing a light-colored jacket that is none too clean; his black pants belong with the tail-coat he will put on during his performance. He wears a soft hat. In one hand he carries a small suitcase and in the other a cage containing two identical pigeons. He has a cigar stump between his teeth. Sik-Sik is the typical traditional strolling actor: poor, tormented, and … a philosopher. Giorgetta, his wife, follows him. She wears no hat and has a threadbare coat over her shoulders. Her untidy dress clearly shows her to be pregnant. Like her husband, she looks tired and discouraged.

[p. 121]

The protagonist might almost be the author himself as he was at the time of his association with the Kokasse company: so thin as to be almost emaciated, sicco sicco in Neapolitan. Sik-Sik and Giorgetta are presented as somewhat lacking in talent, very poor, discouraged to the point of futility, but nonetheless dedicated to their profession. Their magic act reveals their destitution in terms of the magician-actor's belief in his art, in terms of the hunger that forces him to use his pregnant wife in the act, even down to locking her in a trunk, and in terms of the stage on which what amounts to a real contest takes place between him and the audience.

Arriving late one evening Sik-Sik misses his regular assistant Nicola. After scolding his wife, he desperately latches onto Rafele, a “shabby and wretched man” who asks him for a light and whom he asks to be his partner in the act. There follows a dialogue reminiscent of Abbott and Costello's “Who's on first?”:

I'll do very easy tricks tonight because you are new at the job … O.K.,; the curtain rises. You'll know the minute I'm supposed to come on, because the music will go like this: Pe … pepe, pe … pepe, pe … pepe, pe … pepe. Got it? (The tune Sik-Sik hums is the trumpet motif from Mephistophele.)
And he makes his entrance.
Who makes his entrance?
Who's Peppe?
The fellow you just told me about.
No. Pepe is the trumpet.
Oh, the trumpeter is called Peppe.
No, no, no, no, no. That's the noise the trumpet makes. Don't confuse the issue. Then, after the blare of the trumpet, I make my entrance. You'll recognize me at once. I'll be wearing a genuine Chinese kimono, you know, so I look more important. When you see me enter, you say: This guy really looks Chinese. The audience will already be impressed because, as you know, the Chinese are past masters of this kind of show. Their skill and patience are endless. You ought to see how patient the Chinese are.

[pp. 123-24]

Robert Corrigan's statement that “Eduardo De Filippo … is unquestionably the fullest contemporary embodiment of the commedia spirit” finds justification especially in plays like this, where commedia elements are easily identifiable in the linguistic devices, line exchanges, and slapstick visual comedy5. Sik-Sik suggests a combination of Pulcinella and Bragadoccio, Giorgetta a combination of Columbina and Speraldina, Rafele the zanni (commedia clowns), but with a twentieth-century twist. Rafele makes the audience laugh, but he also increases Sik-Sik's desperation to an almost tragic intensity as he gives away the secrets of the three basic tricks that make up the show: the water-drinking trick, the trunk escape, and the trick of the disappearing dove.

At the last moment before the performance, Sik-Sik's usual assistant Nicola arrives and wants his part back. Rafele is aware of his own limitations, but he needs the money and, besides, he needs to prove himself superior to the equally foolish Nicola. In the ensuing scuffle Rafele loses the fake padlock used for the trunk escape, as well as his pigeon, which, however, he is able to replace with a chicken. When during the performance Sik-Sik asks for a volunteer from the audience, he is faced with two. Predictably, the three tricks are disasters. But Sik-Sik's resourcefulness is limitless. When each of the partners testifies that the water went down his gullet, Sik-Sik announces that he has materialized half of the glassful for each of them. There is no padlock for either partner to substitute; to free his wife Sik-Sik has to break the good one. When, finally, a chicken comes out of Rafele's hat instead of a pigeon, Sik-Sik concludes triumphantly that not only has he translated the pigeon from the cage to the hat, but also changed it into a chicken. Though the spectator can laugh at the failure of the tricks, nonetheless he cannot laugh at Sik-Sik and his wife, victims of events over which they have no control. Mechanically, the orchestra breaks into a fanfare, ironically emphasizing the failure of Sik-Sik's act; “the curtain, however, is more compassionate, and it falls to end the play.”

Sik-Sik, the Incomparable Magician might seem no more than the dodges of a second-rate magician capable of extraordinary mimicry, juxtaposed with the pulcinellesque improvisations of a very stupid foil. But it is also the drama of a wretched man forced to make ends meet. Sik-Sik is a character on the edges of society, clinging to life by means of his poor tricks; to convince himself of their adequacy, he often repeats to Rafele that when he comes on stage and performs, “it will bring the house down.” His thirst for applause almost equals the hunger of his stomach; and if his illusion, that he can impose himself on the audience by his appearance alone, crumbles bit by bit when he is actually on stage, nonetheless he resists and finds a way to save at least the illusion of not being wholly beaten.

In De Filippo's work tragic humor is defined by the destruction of illusions, the collapse of ideals, the irony of fate, and, sometimes, the ability to bear it all. One notes a foretaste of the attitude of the characters of the mature dramas—Pasquale Lojacono of Those Ghosts!, Calogero Di Spelta of The Big Magic, Pasquale Cimmaruta of The Voices Within—as Sik-Sik tenaciously refuses to recognize his failure in order to preserve the authenticity of his art, as he stubbornly fights to remain “the incomparable magician” by enclosing himself in illusions. In fact, when Defilippian characters cannot otherwise escape the sad reality that traps them, they often flee into dreams or magic. The difference being that, good or deceitful, dreams come from outside, as a supernatural intervention, supplying, let's say, a winning number in the lottery (Philosophically, I Won't Pay You), or revealing a distressing situation (The Voices Within). Magic, on the other hand, is entirely in the hands of man, who must succeed by his own resourcefulness (The Big Magic, The Top Hat). Gennaro Magliulo put it quite well when he observed that in this short drama we find both “the Defilippian intuition of an oppressing human and social condition and also the intuition of the attitude which the homo Neapolitanus is accustomed to assume in facing that condition”6. The knockabout comedy is qualified by a subtle, painful humor, the “sorrowful humor” that Pandolfi observes as the dominant note of De Filippo's mature plays7.

Much of the serious note is conveyed in the stage directions, which, kept to a minimum up to this work, now increase in number and elaborateness. De Filippo describes in great detail not only the scene but the prelude to it, defining an emotional atmosphere that assures identification with the character:

Once again he draws back the curtain, but the trunk remains inexorably closed. What will the audience say? What will they do? But the magician is thinking of his wife Giorgetta, about to become a mother, and locked inside! The trick, the theater, the audience, everything else vanishes from Sik-Sik's mind. He has an idea, the only way he can help her. He goes off into the wings and comes back with a hammer. He slips behind the curtain, and soon we hear muffled desperate strokes of the hammer, with Sik-Sik's panting voice counting aloud above the hammering: “And a one! and a two!”

[p. 136]

Clearly, the author has also assumed a narrative distance from his creation. His stage directions are no longer merely instructions to the actors. Instead, they articulate the vision of a man who wants to go beyond the limits of theatrical language and comment on suffering humanity. Sik-Sik is enmeshed in a situation which an ambiguous Pirandellian humor addresses with laughter though aware of the tragic undertones of the situation. By this direct intervention De Filippo wants to make us feel the complete, inexpressible drama of Sik-Sik in this moment of surprise, strain, discouragement, and dejection, all of which must be interpreted by an actor in a gesture, in intense and prolonged mimicry. The stage directions are thus like musical cadences, hinted at but not fixed in a definite way and therefore capable of later development and new interpretations, according to the ability of the actor and the receptiveness of the audience. Words thus express only one, partial aspect of De Filippo's artistic personality; along with his linguistic ability goes his acting and directing sense. As the years pass, the significance of the stage directions increases, and in the postwar plays they often are concerned with portraying custom and reiterating satirical social criticism.

Though not added to the text until about 1934-35, the first stage direction of the play nonetheless sheds light on De Filippo's growing consciousness of himself as an artist and commentator on his own works:

It is nine-thirty.

The public is gathering in front of the ticket office. In fifteen minutes the show will start. This is the moment when I am most aware of the awesome responsibility facing me: the crowd is anonymous, all strangers; one enormous question mark. Never more than at this moment am I so completely outside the fiction of my role. I'm not yet convinced of the character I shall become in a few minutes, on the stage. I feel that I'm part of the crowd; it's as if I was going to go up to the ticket office and ask for an orchestra seat to see the show too. Not until the moment when the spotlights blind me with their stars of light and the curtain rises on the dark theater pit, can I possibly take up my part in the fiction. The minutes pursue me inexorably. They sweep me on in their rush, they overwhelm me, they push me toward the little stage door, which closes ominously, with a hollow sound, behind me.

[p. 121]

It is clear that here we are in the presence not merely of stage directions, but of a man addressing his own methods of expression. De Filippo wants to maintain not only the “fictitious character of the stage, but also that degree of freedom of the imagination, that unforeseeable suggestion of the stage—the engulfing stage with its blinding lights,” the extraordinary rapport with the audience which he must constantly enliven and renew, and the deep desire to understand, to interpret, to give a significance to every encounter8. The conception of the nature of theater first suggested in Sik-Sik marks the beginning of De Filippo's interest in the theoretical aspects of the theater, an interest which finds its fullest expression in The Art of Comedy and The Top Hat.

De Filippo's first six plays demonstrate his debt to commedia dell'arte and to the Neapolitan theatrical tradition. And, albeit in germinal form, they establish those features that will later come to characterize his theater: the importance of acceptance by the audience, the emphasis on characterization, the mixture of humor and pathos, the development of a recognizably Defilippian protagonist, and the necessity to theorize on human nature, the dramatic situation, and, of course, the role and status of the theater.


The combination of pain and humor evident in De Filippo's early works is conveyed less in action, more in mood, in some of the plays that follow. Of significance to De Filippo is what is sensed and fleeting, transmitted indirectly through glances, sighs, and subtle crises: a panoply of feelings, from remorse to hatred. The plays' expressive realism reflects the influence of Neapolitan playwrights like Rocco Galdieri, Libero Bovio, Enzo Mùrolo, and Eduardo Nicolardi, and, from outside Italy, Anton Chekhov, whose plays were very popular in Italy during the late 1920s and the 1930s.

It seems logical and perhaps inevitable that De Filippo should follow this course, for he treats characters who live according to outmoded ideals, once cherished, but potentially destructive in a world that no longer honors them. Some people are so sentimentally attached to their ideals that they become blind to reality and to the needs of those around them, even to the extent of destroying their families. Their happiness proves to be naive; and when it crumbles, it leaves a malancholy sense of loss. All in all, the plays are informed with irony, humor, and the playwright's growing pessimism.

In the two-act Chi è chiù felice 'e me! … (Who is happier than I! … , 1928), the protagonist Vincenzo is a sensible, prudent, discreet man who avoids everything that might disrupt his quiet life. He lives on a small monthly income which is enough to ensure his contentment despite the little sacrifices he must make to afford an occasional luxury: a more expensive pipe tobacco, for instance, means fewer cartridges for his biweekly hunting trips. Happiness means order; there can be no risks, no unknown factors. His day includes at least one meal, an afternoon walk, and a card game with friends; he retires every night at twelve o'clock sharp. With his beautiful young wife, Margherita, and a carefully circumscribed life, Vincenzo thinks himself the happiest man in the world. But one day a local dandy, who has killed in self-defense, takes refuge in Vincenzo's home, as if to warn him that his happiness is precarious and that any external intervention could destroy it. Riccardo, the young man, falls in love with Margherita, who, feeling her femininity reawakening after years of boring “happiness,” accepts his attentions. But the neighbors' gossip cannot disturb Vincenzo's peace or compromise his idealism. Realizing that his wife no longer treats him as she used to, he tries to reaffirm his happiness and prove his wife's fidelity to himself and his neighbors by calling them to witness as she begs Riccardo to leave, declaring that she will never give herself to him. Vincenzo is thrilled at these words, then disheartened when Margherita gives Riccardo a passionate good-bye embrace that shows how much she loves him.

In this play the traditional themes of farce—conjugal misfortune, the betrayed and unaware husband—are invested with a new spirit, to become intimate drama. The strength of the play is in its caricatured types set in the realistic context of Neapolitan customs. The betrayed husband appears both comical and humiliated; and events are treated with a bitter sarcasm. Behind the comedy of character, behind the caricatures, the lively dialogue, the sarcasm and farcical episodes, lies a middle-class psychological drama on the theme of conjugal happiness which will be developed more subtly in Those Ghosts!

Vincenzo is something of a negative character. By being content with what he has, he becomes in fact “a priest of the isolated happiness, stubbornly pursuing it with a faith which leaves no room for even modest uncertainties!”9. He is a deserter in the struggle of life, and from his suffering stems an ambivalent tension between tragedy and comedy. On the other hand, Margherita is the first of many positive women in De Filippo's plays. Though she tries to go along with her husband's kind of forced happiness, she can find no lasting personal satisfaction. She is unable to repress her feeling for Riccardo despite her will to remain faithful and preserve the family honor. She thus unconsciously rebels against those conventional attitudes that often define the housewife's domesticity as merely a form of resignation. In this respect she is the first in a long line of De Filippo's women who take an active role in determining their destinies. As its ironic title indicates, with this play De Filippo begins developing paradoxes of the Pirandellian sort. To the unreflecting illusions of the blinkered optimist, he juxtaposes the vulnerability of human certitude in the face of chance, which so easily dissolves conventional beliefs and promises; what dominates, more or less vainly opposed by laws and moral norms, is the sweeping force of passion and carnal desire. The situations thus are more complex and dramatic than in the previous works.

In his concern for characterization De Filippo does not wholly abandon social criticism. In Vincenzo one may easily see the typical attitude of the middle-class Italian of those years: passive submission to the comfortable socioeconomic ambiance provided by a political system—Fascism—which frees the individual from every responsibility while lulling him into self-satisfied optimistic apathy. Moreover, as Scornavacca notes, one may easily see in the treatment of the minor characters an anticipation of De Filippo's later satire of manners:

The hypocritical maneuvers and the fictitious ingenuousness with which Vincenzo's neighbors and so-called friends proceed to stir up suspicion in his brain, instilling it drop by drop, with minced phrases, treating him with malicious compassion, underline the love for the satire of manners which has remained a characteristic of Eduardo's theater.10

The satire of the earlier plays here is more refined, underlying not merely an action or scene, but the whole play.

In most of the plays to this point the main character has consistent features: a weak will and the inability to separate reality from fantasy. In the plays that follow the protagonists often ruin their lives because they are unable to assert their “selves.” Ironically, they are anti-heroes in the supposedly heroic era of Fascism. They do not transcend themselves, though at least they overcome their immaturity. At this point, the drama functions to criticize Fascism implicitly, the middle class explicitly. Later, with the fall of the regime, this kind of protagonist is criticized in order to emancipate him from the past, its moral codes, its doctrines, its atavistic ways of thinking.

Gennariniello (1932) is another variation on the situation of the characters trapped because one of them is unable to face reality. Gennaro, the head of the family, though his authority is somewhat undermined by the double diminutive on the end of his name, is incapable of a decisive, serious act of will; that is, though he can act decisively, he cannot will seriously. Instead of worrying about his son's stupidity, he worries that he does not pursue girls; instead of worrying about his spinster sister's psychological problems, he worries about marrying her off. He makes his living creating and selling foolish inventions and dreaming of others that will make him rich. Deeply discontented with his modest lot in life, he aspires to a higher social station. An attractive neighbor comes to symbolize for Gennaro a life beyond his reach; but when he makes advances to her, she responds by teasing him in front of everyone, causing serious domestic quarrels and finally exposing him to the silent pity of his family, neighbors, and onlookers. This character exhibits the senile sensuality of the poor man who inevitably must make a bitter, grotesque return to the truth and to his gray and advanced autumn. The play presents a picture, at once pathetic and funny, of Neapolitan life as well as a portrait of a human type very dear to De Filippo: the man who seems generally ignorant of the wretchedness around him, and who aspires to a dignity that because of his very ignorance is unbecoming to him.

As in all the prewar plays with similar situations, De Filippo never shows how the character will deal with the discovery that he has been living a lie. The playwright suggests, however, that in those years of strong Fascist control the masses and the lower middle class, exemplified in Gennariniello, had no chance. Implicit criticism of Fascism may be seen in Gennariniello's gallismo—his boasting of his sexual prowess, typical of the current machismo. Gallismo was encouraged by the Fascist regime as an expression of strength and defiance, and Gennariniello's unconscious acceptance of it shows the Italian inability to rebel against anachronistic ideas. Ranged against the male character's empty illusions is the practical world of the female character, Concetta, who plods through the day working as a housemaid to make a few lire and save the family from starvation. She fills the void left by her husband; and though she whines somewhat when he is off in his dream world, she comes to his defense in moments of crisis. Add to these two characters the only son, an adolescent coddled by his parents, yet ready to give them his affection in their worst moments, and the husband's sentimental spinster sister, in other plays often replaced by a bachelor brother, and we see the pattern for the Neapolitan family of many of De Filippo's later works. From the family life portrayed here flows an intimacy strong to the point of sentimentality, but corrected with the same kind of grotesque twist at which De Filippo aims in Sik-Sik11.

More and more, De Filippo seems attracted to a protagonist who lacks any heroic potential, who drifts wherever he is led by his failure to take life seriously. He is a tragicomic character: whereas heroes insist on the truth, he avoids it, and instead of being the protagonist in a conflict between truth and illusion, he, often unwittingly, exposes the conflict between truth and self-deception. His dreams frequently help him evade the future and regress permanently. All this usually occurs against the backdrop of the family, which the protagonist often needs to idealize despite its actual state of degeneration. Nowhere is this situation more evident than in Natale in casa Cupiello (Christmas at the Cupiellos', 1931), which De Filippo himself has called one of his most significant works. The high point of his first creative phase and, for many reasons, a key work in his artistic development, it still enjoys success with audiences and critics; in 1966 it was produced at the Malyj Theater in Moscow, directed by Leonid Varpokhovsky, and for Russian television in 1973, again under his direction, with the well-known Vladimir Doronin in the lead.

The action swings between farce and drama, between naturalistic realism and spiritual investigation, between comedy and irony, all given a balance exceptional for De Filippo in this period. The opening scene is a normal one in the everyday life of the Neapolitan lower middle class. Concetta, patient, calm, a cup in her hand, tries to wake her husband, the monotony of her voice reflecting her resignation:

(With the monotonous tone of someone who knows beforehand that she will have to call many times before being heard) Luca … Luca … Wake up, it's nine o'clock.
Pause. Luca continues to sleep.
(As before, but a little louder) Luca … Luca … Wake up, it's nine o'clock.
Luca grunts under the blankets as he turns over. Pause.
(As before, in the same tone) … Luca … Wake up, it's nine o'clock. Here's your coffee.
(Without understanding, still half asleep) Oh? … The coffee? (Murmuring something incoherent, he sticks his head out, completely swathed in a woolen shawl, then he sits up in bed, stretches out an arm as if he were about to take the cup of coffee, but then slowly lets his arm fall down again; his head sinks back and he falls asleep again. All of this is done with his eyes closed.)

[pp. 221-22]

De Fillippo's scenes and stage directions deserve accurate reconstruction, since he presents his characters not only through dialogue but also suggestive visual details. The opening action really tells us nothing that could not be deduced from the words, but it does emphasize the eternal lethargy of the characters and the fact that they live worlds apart from one another. It presents them visually and therefore more cogently than words can, particularly when words must create the illusion of everyday speech. And it becomes particularly revealing when the protagonist does not speak much. In the scene there is a perfect harmony between the atmosphere created by the stage business and that created by the words and tone of voice; indeed, in this expressive Defilippian language, there is meaning even in the pauses, rich in their interior tonalities.

Luca Cupiello wants to keep alive the joy of earlier years, when the children were small and the family was all united. In a glow of nostalgia he builds the traditional Nativity scene, oblivious to his children's cynicism and his family's struggle against poverty and the threat of dissolution12. Only when the family conflict reaches a climax, at the end of act 2, does Luca peep out from behind his paper toys. Ninuccia, his daughter, is surprised by her husband in the arms of another man. Insults are hurled, the rivals rush outside to fight, mother and daughter are left fainting and hysterical. This is the moment Luca chooses for his entrance as one of the three Wise Men of the Nativity story, a long rug draped over his shoulder, a gold paper crown on his head, a sparkler in one hand and an umbrella in the other as a Christmas present for his wife. With his son and brother behind him, dressed in similar fashion, he kneels before his appalled wife and sings a carol as the curtain falls. Three days later, with the opening of act 3, he lies in bed again, paralyzed by his encounter with reality; and in the end he dies, unable to come to grips with the grown-up world. His eyes are filled with the vision of a vast, world-sized manger in which a giant newborn baby Jesus howls; as he breathes his last, he cries, “What a beautiful crèche!” and, as an added touch of irony, he asks forgiveness for his daughter as he joins her hand with her lover's, mistaking him for her husband.

In the very setting of the first act, the Cupiellos' master bedroom, we are faced with abject poverty. Luca, his wife, and their son Nennillo must all share the one bedroom. The house is obviously unheated: Concetta wears a shawl about her shoulders. Luca's head is wrapped in a woolen scarf, and Nennillo is buried under the bedcovers. A similar setting will be seen in Millionaires' Naples! and Filumena Marturano. The protagonist, despite his advanced age, personifies innate simplicity, purity, and traditional values as he insists on using his Christmas manger to communicate his world to others. Luca is hardly a new character for De Filippo; there were glimpses of him in Vincenzo of Who Is Happier than I!, who pursued happiness, if not as naively as Luca, just as unrealistically. There is, however, a marked difference. More than merely a simple, naive person who does not want to grow, Luca also wants to keep the world around him the way it was. With his manger he pays homage to a very old and not exclusively Neapolitan tradition, motivated by the childlike residue of uncorrupted goodness lying more or less hidden in every man. Convinced of Christ's benevolence, he would like to find that same genuine love among men. But it is a vain desire. He and his manger are rejected by all; and in that rejection is the rejection of the spirit of Christmas—its joy, hope, love, and family unity—and all humanity's rejection of the mystery of love expressed in Christ's incarnation. The manger is on stage for the audience too. More than a way of telling us what is going on in the characters' minds, it forces us to reflect on the contrast between apparent joy and actual misery. In a materialistic world—De Filippo seems to suggest—only innocent and perhaps naive people like Luca are capable of such love.

However, Luca's stubbornness in building the Nativity scene also demonstrates his immaturity and irresponsibility; it is a way of fleeing into a world of illusion. He does not exercise the necessary paternal authority and guidance, either by helping his lazy son make a life for himself or by persuading his libertine daughter to remain faithful to her husband; his family goes to pieces, and he must suffer for his unconscious escapism. Through the attending physician, De Filippo comments bitterly and sadly: “Luca Cupiello has always been a big child who thought of the world as an enormous toy … when he realized that the toy should be played with, not as a child, but as a big man … he couldn't do it. The man in Luca Cupiello is missing.” “Luca dies and must die, even if he arouses pity,” De Filippo told me in an interview. “He is a victim of his own addiction to the game of childish illusions. The manger he builds is a kind of drug which paralyzes his imagination and distracts him from daily living.” In fact, Eduardo concluded that “the manger also symbolizes anything which does not have any relation to the real problems of a man or a class of people, anything which is encouraged by the authorities.” It is a kind of Homeric lotus, a soporific, like soccer, television, or whatever else is used to put the conscience to sleep.

This implicit social criticism, so characteristic of De Filippo's postwar theater, comes through most clearly in the structural elements which will become basic in those later plays. In the majority of the mature works the action centers around a tormented, disillusioned character who suffers from alienation and lack of communication with the surrounding world, particularly the family. On stage, Luca is always shown somewhat isolated from others, often in confrontation with them. But the others do not constitute a solid opposition. They have differing opinions, but, in their own way, they too lack any balanced, realistic approach to life, living their lives in absurd pettiness, busy with concerns important for appearances only. In them one sees the historical condition of Italian society in that period, and one recognizes in particular the spirit of the Neapolitan lower middle class—their desires, resourcefulness, ardor and extravagance, goodness and impulsiveness, misery and will to live—and at the same time their unawareness of their social and political plight. Luca, his neighbors, and their whole class lack the courage to look beyond Fascism's facades and discover the reality; they represent an irresponsible society which, by continuing to play with toys, indirectly indulges the wishes of the political power. In the postwar plays De Filippo tries to show how his characters can deal with a crumbling world by achieving solidarity as a family (witness the Jovine family in Millionaires' Naples!). However, this solidarity is as frequently betrayed within the family as in the society it reflects. This betrayal is developed most poignantly in De Filippo's treatment of World War II, and it is visible in less blatant injustices like the exploitation of the poor and the oppression of the weak through regressive, suffocating social institutions and the indifference of society as a whole.

But even when dealing with such complex themes, De Filippo does not abandon his comic vein. Christmas at the Cupiellos' gets its humanity from its Neapolitan atmosphere and its vivacious comedy from its structure, a series of blunders reminiscent of the pulcinellata. The unsuspecting Luca first delivers to his son-in-law his daughter's confession that she is running away with her lover, then insists that the lover stay for Christmas dinner. But in his Pulcinellesque mistake of uniting the lovers at his deathbed, he imparts a lesson on the importance of love, be it extramarital or not. Like every Pulcinella, he is unaware that he pronounces truths that society would prefer to ignore. And so it is that the farcical elements have a serious side. There are reminiscences of the lazzi of the commedia in the confrontation between the weak father and his stubborn son, in the uncle who is always being robbed and mocked by his nephew, in the boy's persistence in finding the manger ugly. Nennillo and his uncle are still tied to the fixed types of the tradition, but they point toward more individualized characters later on. The one serious character is again a woman. While her husband builds the manger, Concetta must take care of the details of everyday life and even prepare the glue and provide the nails for his project. Like the wife in Gennariniello, she must bear the family responsibility alone and, like her too, she genuinely loves her husband.


In an era that Pirandello characterized as grandiose in the worst sense—“Italians all living the life of the senses, intoxicated by sun, light, color, exulting in song, each one playing some easy musical instrument … fanciful men of letters speaking a grandiloquent tongue, magnificient adorners, and evokers of past glories”—De Filippo portrayed the humble and even the degenerated aspects of life. Inherent in his writing is an essentially ethical purpose: to castigate the moral failure of the men of his times and to condemn dissolute or immoral customs, evil masquerading as good, egoism in the guise of charity. Although his ethical position has a social basis, his interest in social issues is less urgent than his concern for moral or existential issues. With moral themes, his sarcasm and irony are accentuated. However, the reduction of men to puppets elicits pity as well. While openly attacking the games of pretense which convention compels people to play, while demolishing the facade of bourgeois respectability, De Filippo nonetheless takes a sympathetic attitude toward the individual victim, showing genuine feelings crumbling under the pressure of an inflexible code of conduct.

De Filippo brings to these themes his own understanding of the popular theater and the theater of the grotesque. Luigi Ferrante remarks that De Filippo's “grotesque is expressed by means of an irony of popular origin which operates in his plays as a means of demystifying hypocrisies and clichés”13. By ironically decomposing reality, De Filippo reveals the factitious nature of what is taken for reality, displaying in his characters the behavior of man in a post-heroic age. Irony also derives from the playwright's awareness that the values of that period, the age of Fascism, have themselves been shown to be fragile and hollow. The result is a drama of emptiness, of people who have no future.

In the two-act Ditegli sempre di sì (Always say yes!, 1932) the hero Michele is the victim of a conflict between an “idiotic” self-effacement and the practical need for self-assertion. The dominant signifiers here are the “fool” and the “wise man” juxtaposed humorously to suggest that wisdom and madness are not always distinguishable. “Foolish,” like “crazy,” is a label other people impose on someone who threatens their conventional, rigidly prescribed view of reality, and Michele earns both qualifiers as he returns from “a long business trip”—actually a period in a mental asylum—and starts naively revealing everyone's secrets. Out of the “madness” of social relationships—so De Filippo paradoxically suggests—arises the protagonist's personal history. His is the kind of madness described by Roland Barthes in a review of Foucault, a madness which no longer demands a substantive definition as a disease, or a functional definition as antisocial behavior, but a structural definition as the discourse of reason about nonsense. The madman's derangement derives from his belief that others perceive the same reality as he does, and from his failure to recognize that each person must find the truth for himself. Michele speaks with the voice of madness as he rebels against conventional roles and behavior. But his madness is no mere comic resolution to a funny situation, as it was in Men and Gentlemen; rather, it is a paradoxical twisting of social reality by a man who takes euphemisms and clichés seriously and thus judges the “wise” speakers insane. His position therefore is not farcical, but grotesque. In renewing the old theme of the “madman” who reveals the craziness of sane people, De Filippo relates himself to Pirandello, Dostoievski, and the literature of Decadence in general, but with a Neapolitan spirit.

In these works written during De Filippo's association with Pirandello, the master's evident influence never distorts the essentially popular nature of De Filippo's theater; the solid realism at their base saves them from the dry intellectualism and abstraction that often plague the grotesque theater. Uno coi capelli bianchi (A fellow with white hair, 1935) fails for a different reason: the dialectic of being and appearance, face and mask, and the relativity of truth, is never adequately connected to the other motifs, in particular the conflict between the older generation and the younger. This conflict was of great contemporary concern, however, because of the Fascist regime's reactionary doctrine and praxis, and the play was well received by the Fascist public despite its faults.

With this three-act play De Filippo sets aside the lower-middle-class milieu for the arrogant, well-to-do upper middle class. His growing polemical tendency manifests itself as he turns the grotesque to the task of denouncing a specific bourgeois type, the man of privilege who thinks he has the right to impose his views on others and judge them with an air of superiority. Thus, he creates his first wholly negative character—one who nevertheless deserves our pity. The title of the play is a phrase used to describe an older person who acts in a manner unbefitting his age. Old Battista Grossi should be disinterested, serene, indulgent, and trustworthy. Instead, he is hypocritical, impulsive, and irresponsible. He feigns modesty, but is deeply self-centered. He pretends support for youth, but would be the first to blame them. Simulating innocence, he is flagrantly culpable of inadequacy as a human being.

Battista is obviously a caricature; and, as Freud observes, caricature is a means of rejecting those who stand for “authority and respect and who are exalted in some sense”14. Nonetheless, De Filippo does not make Battista a pathological case. The character does not act wholly out of malice, but because, after so many years of hard work, he refuses to accept being replaced by his son-in-law as head of the family business. Because everyone respects the wisdom of someone with white hair, Battista can involve himself again in the life around him; but he does so by creating intrigues, suspicion, and discord, perhaps feeling that only in this way can he regain a measure of power and keep up the illusion of youth. Unfortunately, the more he wants to be part of the family and feel important, the more he forces himself on them and the more he is isolated. Through a protagonist like Battista, living an existential drama in a hostile world, the grotesque situation becomes Pirandellian tragicomedy. The protagonist is a victim, his oppressor Time; and, as always, Time wins. What seems at first a private tragedy thus becomes a profoundly human drama of universal importance.

Battista suggests a more deeply explored Luca Cupiello. However, he lacks Luca's poetry, remaining an aged child, one who does not understand the cycle of life. In him there is the hypocrisy of Molière's Tartuffe and the slander of Don Marcio in Goldoni's La bottega del caffè. De Filippo has suggested that Battista is a product of capitalism: his father and grandfather created wealth, but he himself has accomplished little, living on what others have done and envying whoever replaces him in the world of work. But, however well drawn, he cannot guarantee a good play, and this one lacks the theatricality that one expects from De Filippo and the cohesion needed for it to live on stage. The contrast between life and form—obviously Pirandellian—is not given an adequate problematic suspense, and the play ends up confused in tone, satirical and documentary at the same time.

A Pirandello short story that De Filippo and Pirandello dramatized together, “L'abito nuovo” (The new suit, 1936) rewards attention by showing how De Filippo could bring his theatrical and thematic abilities to bear on a structure not his own15. As with other Pirandello short stories, the world of this story is permeated by a bitter sadness that expresses itself in the grotesque deformation of a man's life. The down-at-heel Michele Crispucci has had to suffer the shame of his wife's desertion and now, on top of that, the indignity of the wealth, of suspicious origin, he has inherited at her death. His colleagues, who mocked him as the betrayed husband, envy his newfound wealth. Michele would like nothing more than to give it away to them, but his mother and daughter are opposed to his wish. It is emblematic of his decision to accept the legacy when he comes home wearing a new suit. More than simply a sketch awaiting broader development, the story is perfect in itself, with its own life. In sharp, concentrated language, Pirandello had created a dramatic work which could easily have been expanded as it was and divided into highly effective theatrical scenes.

But when De Filippo transformed it into a play, he did not merely adapt it; the final three-act work is quite different from the original. While the short story concentrates exclusively on the central character and “the difficulty and the pain of lifting his voice out of that abyss of silence in which his soul had been submerged for so long,” the play fuses realistic, grotesque, and absurd elements to develop a wider significance and a new spirit. The themes remain Pirandellian: an honest man succumbs because he cannot bear to continue wearing the mask that society imposes on him, or perhaps because he realizes that he is not the person others see in him. But De Filippo continues to develop his own drama, the drama of the man attached to a fictitious reality which he has made for himself and which he does not want to see destroyed by others, but who nonetheless—like Luca, Battista, or Vincenzo—is finally defeated. The abstractly allusive surrealistic tone of the short story is not to De Filippo's taste; accordingly he fills the play with characters of a Neapolitan cast and color.

The New Suit is a satire on the bourgeois mentality which values only money and appearances. It is a bitter play, intended to convey a certain warning to a world in which men of moral scruples like Crispucci are getting fewer, while people like Concettino and the greedy neighbors multiply, infinitely multiplying offenses to conscience. The characters are thus larger in the play than in the story, especially the ex-wife, who from a modest prostitute becomes a new Aphrodite and a symbol of lust. The strongest effects—dramatic, ironic, harsh, and irritating—come from the theater of the grotesque, the vivacity comes from the popular theater. The protagonist is obviously Pirandellian, but his existential suffering is typically Defilippian, a suffering that will become more pronounced in postwar plays like Those Ghosts! and The Big Magic.

In Non ti pago (I won't pay you, 1940), as in The New Suit, De Filippo casts Neapolitan milieu and elements from the popular theater in a Pirandellian mold. Again, the focus is on the paradoxes of everyday life, expressed in a protagonist whose innate stubbornness recalls Pirandello, but whose characteristic habits are Neapolitan: the ancient passion for the lottery, the superstitious belief in the power of dreams, and the dependence on a palliative religion—all illusory antidotes for an incurable poverty. As Carlo Filosa has pointed out, in I Won't Pay You De Filippo makes perfect use of two essential methods of Pirandello's theater: the initial static one of giving the basic paradox a striking but apparently realistic context; and the second dynamic one of demonstrating the paradox through an insistent and ultimately sophistic dialectic16. However, here the similarity ends, for De Filippo is most interested in the moral implications of the situation, and he reserves his most powerful condemnation for ignorance, superstition, and the unscrupulous clergymen who exploit them.

The play centers on Ferdinando Quagliulo, the manager of a lotto office, and his paradoxical refusal to pay off on a four-million lire jackpot. He contends that the winner, his dependent and his daughter's fiancé Mario Bertolini, accidentally intercepted numbers that Ferdinando's dead father had intended to reveal to Ferdinando himself. Unbeknown to his father, Ferdinando had changed addresses, and Mario instead was on hand to dream the prophetic dream! After many quarrels, Ferdinando finally pays; but he calls on the realm of the dead to burden Mario with a problem for every lira. And, indeed, Mario faces so many troubles that he is in the end compelled to renounce the money to free himself from the curse.

Ferdinando's strange refusal to honor a legitimate winning ticket reflects lower- and middle-class Neapolitans' belief in dreams and their connection to the numbers game of lotto, a belief so strong that the Book of Dreams, which assigns numbers to dream objects and events, becomes almost a new Gospel, and superstition becomes a faith inseparably fused with religion. Mario's actions too are reactions to a reality created wholly out of his credulity. Thus, in a Pirandellian way, illusions, desires, and fact become one indivisible reality. However, unlike Pirandello, De Filippo indirectly shows the social nature of the illusions. In his view, superstition is a bow to the fearful and inexorable power that the poor people unconsciously feel lies behind the misfortunes of life. Behind the comedy is thus a bitter reality which justifies De Filippo's sarcastic tone when Ferdinando confronts the priest, the one wanting to know about the life beyond and the reason for his father's mistake, the other defining everything as a “mystery” because he is comfortable with other people's superstition. But De Filippo anticipates the solutions devised by the protagonists of his mature plays, especially Those Ghosts! and The Big Magic, in making Ferdinando—still victimized, still trapped by superstition—defend himself by a bold, realistic-fantastic stratagem. Thus, as much as certain situations or attitudes may suggest Pirandello, the influence is on again, off again, often external—sometimes a matter of plot only. Don Ferdinando's “proofs” for his contention, which tend toward the absurd and surreal, never detract in the slightest from the joyful involvement of the spectator; they are staged with rare comicalness, rendered with an able, relaxed attention to dialogue, and moved by a spirit of excitement.

I Won't Pay You marks the climax of the first phase of De Filippo's career as a playwright and, in its portrayal of the central character, a major step in his artistic development. In this play his special brand of paradoxical fantasy is at its freshest. His unbreakable attachment to the San Carlino theater—its types, manners, and traditional subjects—is evident in the swift pace of the scenes, constantly governed by a logic which makes fantasy and reality work naturally together, and in the lively speech, its style ironic but glib and easy. Nonetheless, the deep seriousness of his comedy shows unequivocally that he entertains a more profound purpose and draws his motives from feeling. The play thus has the playfulness of a joke, but is enriched by human excitement and satirical jabs. Italian audiences responded heartily to Eduardo's ironic messages, chief of which was that to gain a little one must work hard, but to gain a great deal one need do nothing at all.

In the postwar plays corruption, misery, and existential desperation are clearly connected to their social causes, and De Filippo often gives his central character a subsidiary function as his spokesman in condemning social evils. In the early 1940s such criticism, however peripheral, had to be disguised because of the Fascist censorship. Nonetheless, Io, l'erede (I'm the heir, 1942), the last of the early works, points toward things to come. Through yet another Pirandellian plot, De Filippo shows how philanthropy can at times be destructive to both giver and receiver. Once again he exploits a situation dear to the popular Neapolitan theater: Ludovico, a sly sponger, manages to trick his way into a household and live without working. Characteristically, the old theme acquires a new value as a vehicle for criticizing the middle class for its unscrupulous charities and—recalling Brecht's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny—commenting on the generally negative effect that philanthropy has had on social progress. A great success abroad, especially in London and Russia, it was revived in April 1968 at the Valle theater in Rome under the title The Heir and was more successful than it had been a quarter century earlier.

Through the protagonist, Prospero Ribera, De Filippo expresses his contempt for the hypocritical gestures of wealthy landowners who attempt to consolidate their power under the guise of charity. Ludovico would like to live according to a human code, and he therefore proposes a new article to be added to the Code of Civil Law:

Any person who, in order to sleep in peace at night and to reserve a place for himself in Paradise, commits an abnormal act of kindness against a fellow citizen, thereby removing from circulation and rendering unproductive a portion of our human capital, and who, to justify this same act of egotistical profiteering, attributes it to Christian charity, shall be punished by so many years imprisonment.

[p. 527]

Ludovico is no simple sponger, but, rather, a living reproach to the world which had made his wronged father its dependent; and he submits to it only in order to take his revenge on it. This society cannot take hold of its conscience by itself; he must shake it loose from ingrained customs by exaggerated, absurd behavior. In De Filippo's mature plays the main character develops beyond Ludovico's kind of self-critical reaction against the system; in demonstrating his thesis, Ludovico does not really succeed as a human character, though he does manage to bring a certain dramatic force to a situation initially stagnant.

In these last plays De Filippo presents a main character who attempts to free himself from a suffocating existence. However, he gives such painstaking attention to the comic-grotesque chorus, in order to portray the moral and social misfortunes of the lower classes, that the humor becomes painful, the irony too biting, the dialogue sometimes too stylized and even pedantic. But, notwithstanding these defects, De Filippo shows a new sureness of structure. The scenes are always functional, ending neatly either with a cap line or with a dramatic turn of events that gives the action new development. The main characters, in the early works mere sketches, maintain the vivacity of their theatrical antecedents and receive more attention, have more purpose. The early works depend on clownish gimmicks, slapstick, surprise, misunderstandings, double entendre, and comic lines that indirectly underline the main character's interior drama. In the last works the comedy is a higher comedy which usually stems not from the lines themselves, but from the more studied situations in which the main character is put. The secondary characters are almost free of the limitations of type; often they function to increase the main character's desperation or to create an atmosphere that contrasts with that desperation and lets us feel it more.


  1. As quoted by R. Iacobbi, “Napoli milionaria!,” Il cosmopolita, 1945; reprinted in English in a pamphlet distributed to the spectator of Millionaires' Naples! at the Aldwych Theatre, London, 1972. De Filippo's collected plays are published in two series: plays from 1920 through 1942 in one volume, entitled Cantata dei giorni pari (Cantata for even days); those produced between 1945 and 1965—with the addition of Non ti pago, which is dated 1940—in three volumes, entitled Cantata dei giorni dispari (Cantata for odd days). The latter group contains his most celebrated successes. Thus stated, however, the order is deceptive, since the first volume to appear was actually the initial volume of the second series, Cantata dei giorni dispari, which came out in 1951 without the indication that it was Volume 1 of a series and without the original dates of the plays. A second edition of the same volume, with play dates ranging from 1945 to 1948, bears the copyright date 1957, by which time the project of publishing his entire works appears to have taken shape. Volume 2 of Cantata dei giorni dispari, containing, in addition to two earlier works, the plays written between 1950 and 1957, came out in 1958. Volume 3, plays produced between 1957 and 1965, did not appear until 1966. The success of the first volumes of Cantata dei giorni dispari led to the publication of the collected early works, in 1959, under the derivative title of Cantata dei giorni pari. The titles—which have been criticized as being not especially descriptive and somewhat pretentious—are in any case ambiguous. The phrase “giorni dispari” can mean either the odd-numbered days of the month or the odd days of the week, considered in Italy to begin on Monday. Perhaps the distinction is unimportant, however, since, in either case, the implication is that the “odd days” are the unlucky ones (cf. our own Friday the 13th). The title Cantata of Odd Days, given in 1951 to the plays dating from the immediate postwar period, referred to the misfortunes of Italy in that time. The “even days” of the title later attributed to the plays of the prewar Fascist period are an ironical adaptation of the former title and presumably should be interpreted to mean “the days when everything seemed to be going well.”

  2. Anton Giulio Bragaglia in Pulcinella (Rome: Casini, 1953) affirms that in the pulcinellata there is a preponderance of jest and movement over word: “it is a theater free of any rigidly schematic form and the major techniques employed were those of repetitions of situations and the use of double meanings attached to situations, words and events.”

  3. Cantata dei giorni pari (Turin, 1967), p. 20. Hereafter page numbers in brackets in the text in this chapter refer to this edition. Translations are mine unless otherwise noted.

  4. Bander, “Critical Estimate,” p. 9.

  5. Robert W. Corrigan, Masterpieces of the Modern Italian Theatre (New York: Collier Books, 1967), p. 8.

  6. Gennaro Magliulo, Eduardo De Filippo (Bologna, 1959), p. 35.

  7. Vito Pandolfi, I contemporanei, vol. 3 (Milan: Marzorati, 1970), p. 363.

  8. Luigi Ferranti, Teatro italiano grottesco (Bologna: Cappelli, 1964), p. 57.

  9. Sergio Torresani, Il teatro italiano negli ultimi vent'anni (1945-1965) (Cremona, 1969), p. 242.

  10. Simonetta Scornavacca, “La storia della ‘Gente’ attraverso l'opera di Eduardo.” Unpublished thesis written at the University of Rome, 1970, p. 27.

  11. In two other early one-acts—Quinto piano ti saluto (Farewell to the fifth floor, 1934) and Il dono di Natale (The Christmas gift, 1932)—De Filippo shows ability to give this intimate note a semimelodramatic cadence, more fully developed in mature works like Filumena Marturano.

  12. The “presepio” or crèche, an elaborate recreation of the scene of Christ's Nativity, is a feature particularly characteristic of the churches and homes of Naples at Christmas time.

  13. Luigi Ferrante, Teatro italiano grottesco (Bologna: Cappelli, 1964), p. 31.

  14. Sigmund Freud, The Basic Writings (New York: A. A. Brill, 1938), p. 77.

  15. For the Pirandello story in English, see Luigi Pirandello, Short Stories, trans. by Lily Duplaix.

  16. Carlo Filosa, Eduardo De Filippo: Poeta comico del ‘tragico quotidiano’ (Frosinone, 1978), p. 132.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 77


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.

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