31 October 2016

Eduardo De Filippo - Neapolitan dramatist

Playwright captured essence of city's spirit

A playwright and dramatist, Eduardo De Filippo was also an accomplished actor
A playwright and dramatist, Eduardo De
Filippo was also an accomplished actor
One of Italy’s greatest dramatists, Eduardo De Filippo, died on this day in 1984 in Rome at the age of 84.

An actor and film director as well as a playwright, De Filippo – often referred to simply as Eduardo – is most remembered as the author of a number of classic dramas set in his native Naples in the 1940s that continue to be performed today.

Arguably the most famous of these was Filomena marturano, upon which was based the hit movie Marriage, Italian Style, which starred Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni under the direction of Vittorio de Sica. 

De Filippo’s other memorable works included Napoli Milionaria, Le voci di dentro and Sabato, domenica e lunedi.

All of these plays showcased De Filippo’s ability to capture the essence of life in Naples in his time, particularly in the working class neighbourhoods that he felt were the beating heart of the city.

Rich in Neapolitan dialect, they were often bittersweet comedies of family life. They were social commentaries in which typical themes were the erosion of morals in times of desperation, the struggle of the downtrodden to retain their dignity and the preservation of family values even in the most poverty-stricken households.

Born out of wedlock, the son of a playwright, Eduardo Scarpetta, and the seamstress and costumier Luisa De Filippo, Eduardo was destined for a life in the theatre and appeared in one of his father’s plays at the age of five.

De Filippo often played opposite his sister, Titina
De Filippo often played opposite his sister, Titina
At 32 he formed his own stage company, the ‘Compagnie del Teatro Umoristico i de Filippo’, with his brother Peppino and sister Titina. The trio enjoyed success in films and on the stage in the 1930s but broke up soon after the Second World War.

But it was his plays that were his enduring legacy, for which many critics place him among the greatest of Italian dramatists, in the company of Carlo Goldoni and Luigi Pirandello.

Napoli milionaria (Naples Millionaire), written in 1945 is a realistic drama about a family's involvement in the Italian black market, set against the deprivations of war.He followed this with Questi fantasmi! (Neapoliitan Ghosts), a 1946 comedy in which a husband mistakes his wife's lover for a ghost.

In the same year came Filumena marturano, in which a former prostitute obtains financial stability for her three children by persuading her lover he is the father of one of them, without saying which.

De Filippo continued in 1948 with Le voci di dentro (Inner Voices), in which a man mistakes for reality a dream in which a friend is murdered by neighbours.

De Filippo (right) with the Italian president, Sandro Pertini. De Filippo was made a life senator
De Filippo (right) with the Italian president,
Sandro Pertini. De Filippo was made a life senator
His work became popular outside Italy.  In 1972, with his own production company, he took Naples Millionaire to London. The following year, the National Theatre in London produced Saturday, Sunday, Monday, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, with Joan Plowright and Frank Finlay. It won the London drama critics’ award as the best play of the year.

De Filippo, who had begun directing films in 1940, had some success as a director in the 1950s, his films largely light comedies.

In 1979, Laurence Olivier directed Frank Finlay and Joan Plowright in Filumena. Later, Sir Ralph Richardson had the final role of his career, playing Don Alberto, in the National Theatre's 1983 production of Inner Voices.

Filumena remains popular in Russia, where it is not forgotten that, in the 1960s in Moscow, the audience demanded and were granted 24 curtain calls after Eduardo's own company performed the work.

Napoli Milionaria, which opened at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples in March,1945, featuring Eduardo himself, became a film in 1951, with him in the leading role. It was also adapted as an opera with music by the film composer, Nino Rota, and a libretto written by Eduardo himself. It opened in June 1977 at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto.

In 1981, De Filippo was appointed life senator of the Italian Republic. He died three years later.

The sumptuous interior of the Teatro San Carlo
The sumptuous interior of the Teatro San Carlo
Travel tip:

The Teatro San Carlo, Europe’s oldest theatre and opera house, suffered bomb damage during the war and its rebirth was a testament to the determination of Neapolitans not to allow their city’s heritage to be crushed. After one raid in 1943, the foyer that runs the whole length of the theatre suffered blast damage, many of the boxes were unusable, the dressing rooms were hit, the scenery and paint shop, the costume and wardrobe stores left beyond repair. Yet within a week the theatre was up and running again and staging musical productions. De Filippo’s play. Napoli Milionaria, which premiered there in 1945, was hailed for reflecting the city’s resourcefulness in the most testing of circumstances.

Travel tip:

Although Italian spoken by Neapolitans is often clear and easy to follow if you have some acquaintance with the language, dialect is widely used and many words differ from standard Italian. For a tomato, for example, Neapolitans say pummarola rather than pomodoro; for boy or girl they use the word guaglio/a rather than ragazzo/a; and for this and that (questo e quello) they say chisto and chillo.  In O Sole Mio, the famous Neapolitan song, the ‘O’ means ‘the’, as in ‘The sun of mine’ not ‘Oh sun of mine’.

More reading:

Roberto Benigni - Oscar winning director and star of Life is Beautiful

Arnold FoĆ  - versatile actor still doing stage work in his 90s

Anna Magnani - earthy character actress who won over Rossellini


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