Eduardo De Filippo: Italian Theatre’s Iconic Maestro.
Eduardo De Filippo, commonly known simply as Eduardo, was born in Naples on May 24, 1900, and passed away in Rome on October 31, 1984. He was a renowned Italian dramatist, actor, director, screenwriter, and poet.
Regarded as one of the most significant Italian theatrical authors of the 20th century, Eduardo wrote numerous plays, which he often staged and acted in himself. These plays were later translated and performed internationally. A prolific author, he also worked in cinema, taking on the same roles he did in the theater. In recognition of his artistic merits and contributions to culture, he was appointed a senator for life by President Sandro Pertini in 1981. He also received two honorary doctorates in Letters, one from the University of Birmingham in 1977 and another from the Sapienza University of Rome in 1980. He was even considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Today, Eduardo, alongside Luigi Pirandello, Dario Fo, and Carlo Goldoni, remains one of the most appreciated and performed Italian playwrights abroad.
Eduardo was born in the Chiaia district of Naples at Via Vittoria Colonna n. 5, which is now Via Vittoria Colonna n.14. Like his siblings Titina and Peppino, Eduardo was the natural child of Luisa De Filippo, a theatrical seamstress, and Eduardo Scarpetta, an actor and playwright. Scarpetta, who was already married to Luisa’s aunt, Rosa De Filippo, had other children from that marriage – Domenico, Maria, and Vincenzo Scarpetta. Luisa De Filippo acknowledged her three children and gave them her surname.
Growing up in the Neapolitan theater environment, Eduardo, along with his siblings Titina and Peppino, often found themselves on stage. Titina had already secured her place in Vincenzo Scarpetta’s company, one of Scarpetta’s legitimate sons, in the early 1910s. Peppino, the youngest, would occasionally join Eduardo on stage. At just four years old, Eduardo was brought onto the stage for the first time during a performance of the operetta ‘La Geisha’ at the Teatro Valle in Rome, carried by an actor from Scarpetta’s company, Gennaro Della Rossa.
In 1912, the De Filippo family moved to Via dei Mille, and Eduardo, along with Peppino, was sent to study at the Collegio Chierchia in Foria. During this time, Eduardo began to write, producing his first poem, a humorous piece dedicated to the wife of the college’s director. After returning home, Eduardo went to Rome seeking economic independence, staying with an aunt and looking for work in the film industry, but to no avail. Back in Naples, he embarked on his first acting ventures: performing in Rocco Galdieri’s revue, then in Enrico Altieri’s company, and later with other companies like Urciuoli-De Crescenzo and the Italian Company. It was during this time, moving from one theater to another – San Ferdinando, Orfeo, Trianon – that he met Totò, who would become a great friend.
In 1914, Eduardo permanently joined the company of his half-brother Vincenzo Scarpetta, uniting with his sister Titina. Three years later, with the addition of Peppino to the company, the three siblings found themselves acting together. Near the end of World War I in 1918, Eduardo was drafted into the military. After a temporary discharge at the end of the year, he was recalled in 1920 to complete his service in the Bersaglieri (2nd Bersaglieri Regiment, stationed in the historic La Marmora barracks in Trastevere), where he remained until 1921. His commander tasked him with organizing small performances for the soldiers, in which he was also an author, actor, and company director. During this time, his desire and ability to be an author and director, as well as an actor, grew stronger, leading him to write his ‘first true play’ in 1920, ‘Farmacia di turno’, a one-act play with a bitter ending, performed the following year by Vincenzo Scarpetta’s company.
From his brother Vincenzo, Eduardo inherited a severity and rigor that would characterize his work and relationships throughout his life. These traits, often emphasized by a kind of legend, undoubtedly had a basis in truth. At the time, Vincenzo Scarpetta’s repertoire primarily consisted of his father’s comedies, as well as other comedies, variety shows, and ventures into cinema, enjoying critical and public success.
In 1922, Eduardo De Filippo wrote ‘Ho fatto il guaio? Riparerò!’, which was staged four years later at the Teatro Fiorentini and later retitled ‘Uomo e galantuomo’. In this comedy, one of his funniest, Eduardo introduced themes that would be constant in many of his later works, such as madness (real or feigned) and betrayal, with a vague Pirandellian hint reminiscent of Ciampa from ‘Il berretto a sonagli’, though following the Scarpetta model of traditional farce. Interestingly, Eduardo included in the play a reference to Libero Bovio’s work ‘Mala nova’, which the Neapolitan dramatist and poet did not appreciate.
Eduardo’s prominence in Scarpetta’s company was already notable despite his young age, leading him to gain diverse experiences such as performing with the so-called ‘seratanti’ in 1921 and directing ‘Surriento gentile’, a musical idyll by Enzo Lucio Murolo, for the first time in his long career (September 16, 1922).
After Eduardo Scarpetta’s death (November 29, 1925), Eduardo moved in with a young woman named Ninì, for whom he wrote several love poems (including ‘E mmargarite’, the oldest of those later published). He was then joined by his brother Peppino, who had been acting without any positive economic outcome with the Urciuoli Company and was perhaps hoping to be hired by Scarpetta. But Eduardo decided to venture into theater in language and was hired by Luigi Carini’s company as a ‘brilliant’ actor, convincing the impresario to also hire Peppino. However, Peppino reconsidered to join the Vincenzo Scarpetta Company as a substitute for his brother. This period was brief, and Eduardo returned to the ranks, writing in 1926 ‘Requie a l’anema soja…’ (later titled ‘I morti non fanno paura’), in which he performed dressed as an ‘old man’. Many years later, in an interview, he would say, ‘I couldn’t wait to get old: that way, I thought, I won’t need to make up anymore. And then, if I start playing the old man now, I can keep it up. If instead, I start playing young, they’ll soon say: “He’s gotten old!”‘ The theme of madness, this time real and not feigned, returned strongly in his next play, the emblematic ‘Ditegli sempre di sì’, which Scarpetta’s company first staged in 1927.
At the end of the 1927 theater season, Eduardo attempted an ‘independent’ experiment, setting up a sort of actors’ cooperative without a direct producer or financier, for which he called his siblings Peppino and Titina to act in an artistic partnership with Michele Galdieri (Eduardo’s friend and son of the poet Rocco). Thus, the Galdieri-De Filippo Company was born, with Eduardo as its director, debuting successfully at the Fiorentini Theater in Naples on July 27 with the superstitiously titled show ‘La rivista… che non piacerà’.
During this period, Eduardo met Dorothy Pennington (‘Dodò’), an American from Philadelphia with whom he fell in love and, despite her family’s opposition, married in Rome with a Protestant ceremony on December 10, 1928. Meanwhile, Eduardo continued his attempts to establish himself independently with his siblings and still worked as an actor, author, and company leader in the De Filippo – Comica Compagnia Napoletana d’Arte Moderna. In 1928, he wrote the one-act play ‘Filosoficamente’, portraying the resignation of a small bourgeois; however, the text, like ‘Occhiali neri’, was never staged by Eduardo.
In 1929, using pseudonyms (R. Maffei, G. Renzi, and H. Retti), Eduardo and Peppino staged the comic show ‘Prova generale. Tre modi di far ridere’, a three-act work with a prologue and epilogue by Galdieri, performed at the Fiorentini. Over the years, Eduardo would often use various pseudonyms as a playwright (among the most known are Tricot, Molise, C. Consul), to overcome the difficulties he faced in having his authorship rights recognized by impresarios.
Since 1931, the dream of the three artist brothers to act together in their own company became a reality. Eduardo founded, with the support of his brothers, the “I De Filippo” Humorous Theatre Company, which debuted successfully in Rome. After some performances in Milan, the company was in Naples at the Kursaal Theatre (later Filangieri) where they staged Carlo Mauro’s “O chiavino,” “Sik-Sik,” and for the first time, the comedy “Don Rafele ‘o trumbone,” written by Peppino. They then presented the adaptation “L’ultimo Bottone” (by Munos Seca and Garcia Alvarez) and a new comedy by Eduardo titled “Quei figuri di trent’anni fa” (originally titled “La bisca,” changed due to censorship). During the last days of summer, the De Filippo brothers were in Montecatini presenting some sketches with the emerging soubrette Ellen Meis, but they did not achieve notable success, before returning to perform for the last time with Molinari. 1931 was also the year Eduardo, under the pseudonym Tricot, presented “Ogni anno punto e da capo” at a Piedigrotta festival evening dedicated to songs at the Royal Theatre, with its premiere at the New Theatre, inside the review show “Cento di questi giorni,” on an evening honoring his brother Peppino. The wild comic verve of the three brothers harked back to the farcical forms of the ancient commedia dell’arte, which Eduardo knew well, having studied it and not sharing the view that scholars had of it: he was critical of the hagiography of the actors that was made of it.
Eduardo’s perhaps most famous comedy, “Natale in casa Cupiello,” first staged at the Kursaal Theatre in Naples on December 25, 1931, marked the real start of the successful experience of the “I De Filippo” Humorous Theatre Company, composed of the three brothers and actors who were either already famous or novices who would become so (Agostino Salvietti, Pietro Carloni, Tina Pica, Dolores Palumbo, Luigi De Martino, Alfredo Crispo, Gennaro Pisano). In June, Eduardo had signed a contract with a theatre impresario committing him to only nine days of performances to present his new one-act play immediately after a film screening. The success of the play was such that the duration of the contract was extended until May 21, 1932.
Originally a one-act play (today’s second act), Eduardo added two more acts to the comedy, the opening act (in 1932 or 1933) and the concluding act, the chronology of which is rather controversial (some say it was written in 1934, others in 1943, and a more probable hypothesis supported later by the author himself who would also later define the comedy as “a triplet birth with a pregnancy lasting four years”). In Eduardo’s Christmas, everything revolves around a Christmas lunch shaken by a drama of jealousy. In the background, there’s the tragicomic portrait of the protagonist, Luca Cupiello, a naive figure of an old man with childlike behaviors, immersed in his fantasies and his love for the nativity scene, to which he dedicates himself with passion, seemingly oblivious to the tragic family events around him. Autobiographical aspects are detectable in the comedy, although never confirmed by the author: the names of the protagonists, Luca and Concetta, are indeed those of Eduardo’s grandparents.
The extension of the contract at the Kursaal forced the company into overwork, having to change the show on the bill practically every week, as was customary in those years of vaudeville, where they performed immediately after a film screening. Many works were staged: in addition to “Natale in casa Cupiello,” the company often proposed “Sik-Sik,” “Quei figuri di trent’anni fa,” or comedies in collaboration with Maria Scarpetta, Eduardo’s half-sister, such as “Parlate al portiere,” “Una bella trovata,” “Noi siamo navigatori,” “Il thè delle cinque,” “Cuoco della mala cucina.” Curious is the episode of the parody of “Cavalleria rusticana” that the company staged, which disturbed Pietro Mascagni to the point of having its performances stopped. In the summer of 1932, the company moved to the Reale cinema-theatre, reaping good public and critical success; the three brothers were now simply called by their first names, Eduardo, Peppino, and Titina.
Just when the small cinema-theatres of vaudeville began to feel cramped for the “I De Filippo” company, and at the same time Eduardo and Peppino were engaged with Tito Schipa in the filming of Mario Bonnard’s “Tre uomini in frak,” the impresario of the Sannazaro Theatre signed them up for the season of the famous Neapolitan theatre. The new partnership, which lost Salvietti but kept others including Carloni and Pisano, saw a greater presence of Titina as the lead actress of the company; the debut was dated October 8, 1932, with “Chi è cchiu’ felice ‘e me!” (two acts by Eduardo, written in 1929) and “Amori e balestre” (a one-act play by Peppino). Thus began to form a first “Eduardian repertoire” that the “I De Filippo” company brought to the stage, alternating it with works written by Peppino and Titina themselves or by Maria Scarpetta, Ernesto Murolo, and Gino Rocca.
Eduardo began to feel the need to abandon the Neapolitan “provincialism” of the company and, also motivated by the benevolent reviews received, decided that the time had come for his company to make the decisive leap in quality to start treading the most prestigious Italian theatres. In this sense, a casual encounter with Luigi Pirandello was decisive, which had as consequences a great interpretation of the work “Il berretto a sonagli” in the role of Ciampa (1936), the staging of “Liolà,” and the writing of the comedy “L’abito nuovo.”
In the biennium 1943-44, “the De Filippo brothers treaded the Republican stages.” On December 20, 1944, Eduardo performed for the last time, at the Diana Theatre in Naples, alongside Peppino, with whom he had the final argument: he then founded the new theatre company simply called “Eduardo’s Theatre.”
In 1948, he bought the semi-destroyed San Ferdinando Theatre in Naples, investing all his earnings in rebuilding an ancient theatre rich in history, while Naples was living a sad season marked by the most absurd building speculation. The San Ferdinando was inaugurated on January 22, 1954, with the play “Palummella zompa e vola.” Eduardo tried to preserve the eighteenth-century façade of the building, creating inside a technically advanced theatre to make it a “home” for the actor and the audience. At San Ferdinando, he interpreted his works but also staged texts by Neapolitan authors to recover the tradition and make it a “springboard” for a new Theatre.
He adopted the popular speech, thus conferring the dignity of an official language to Neapolitan, but elaborated a theatrical language that transcended Neapolitan and Italian to become a universal language. There is no doubt that the action and work of Eduardo De Filippo were decisive for the “dialect theatre,” previously judged as second-rate by critics, to be finally considered an “art theatre.”
Among the most significant works of this period deserve special mention “Napoli milionaria!” (1945), “Questi fantasmi!” and “Filumena Marturano” (both from 1946), “Mia famiglia” (1953), “Bene mio e core mio” (1956), “De Pretore Vincenzo” (1957), “Sabato, domenica e lunedì” (1959) written especially for the actress Pupella Maggio in the role of the protagonist.
Eduardo never abandoned his political and social commitment, which saw him on the front line even at eighty when, appointed a senator for life, he fought in the Senate and on stage for minors incarcerated in penal institutions. In 1962 he left for a long tour in the Soviet Union, Poland, and Hungary where he could see firsthand the great admiration that the public and intellectuals had for him.
Translated and performed all over the world, he fought in the 1960s for the creation of a stable theatre in Naples. He continued to be successful and in 1972 he was awarded the “Feltrinelli Prize” for his theatrical activity.
In 1973 came “Gli esami non finiscono mai,” successfully staged for the first time in Rome: this comedy allowed him to win the “Pirandello Prize” for theatre the following year.
Topics: Eduardo De Filippo, Italian playwright, 20th-century theatre, Italian cinema, actor and director, Neapolitan drama, cultural icon, senator Eduardo De Filippo, theatrical works, Italian stage and screen, Italian cultural heritage, dramaturgy and acting, Eduardo’s theatrical contributions, Italian theatre history, Eduardo De Filippo biography.