May 24, 2012

Who’s Happier than Me?: The Biography of Eduardo De Filippo

By Niccolò Graffio
"What can one be but frivolous about serious things? Without frivolity they are simply too tremendous." – G.K. Chesterton (as quoted in Gilbert Keith Chesterton by Maisie Ward; Sheed & Ward, 2005)
The process of centralizing the film industry in Italy, begun by the proponents of the Risorgimento almost from the time of that industry’s creation and expedited by the Fascists, virtually snuffed out the embryonic film companies that had sprung up in places like Naples and Sicily.  That and the advent of sound film (along with its vastly increased costs) insured that only films produced in the movie studios of Rome or Northern Italy would ever see the light of day.

The cultural hegemony of the Padanians succeeded in relegating the local cultures of Southern Italy into second, no, third class status!  This was due to the fact Northerners regarded the art, music, languages and cuisines of their newly acquired peons in the south as being inferior to even that of non-Italian Europeans.

What it could not succeed in doing, though, was extinguishing the inner spark that drove the creation of these unique expressions of ethnicity.  This was because that spark was due just as much to innate factors as it was to upbringing.  As has been commented on by a number of people including our adversaries like the early 20th century American nativist Madison Grant, our natural inclinations are to aspire to intellectual achievements, especially in the arts.  One would therefore expect to see Southern Italians achieve distinction in painting, sculpture, music, etc. and one certainly does.

Thus, it is no small wonder that even under the stifling, bigoted atmosphere of the Risorgimento and phony epoch of pan-Italianism that followed it, some of our people would still somehow find a way to rise above the restrictions imposed upon us by our northern conquerors to use our God-given talents as best we could under the circumstances.  Southern Italians, who could not for the most part operate film companies, could nonetheless become actors, playwrights, directors, producers, etc. In fact a careful examination of the history of Italian cinema shows an unmistakably large contribution by Southerners.

Is it just coincidence Italy’s most awarded actress (according to 2009 Guinness World Records) is the legendary Napoletana Sophia Loren?  Likewise, famed film producer Agostino “Dino” De Laurentiis was born in the province of Naples.  As mentioned in a previous article, Italy’s earliest and most prolific female film director, Elvira Notari, was Neapolitan.  Noted ‘Italian’ film director Giuseppe Tornatore (of Cinema Paradiso and Baaria fame) was born and raised in Sicily as was Nobel Prize-winning dramatist Luigi Pirandello.  

Those of our people born outside Italy do just as well if not better than their brethren who remain.  Francis Ford Coppola, arguably the most innovative and influential Hollywood filmmaker of our time, can trace his ancestry back to the regions of Campania and Basilicata.  The list goes on.

Though Italy has produced a large body of film works, surprisingly little of it has reached these shores.  This is no doubt due in large part to the language barrier (quick- name five German movies you’ve seen!).  Dubbing and subtitling are not cheap; neither are all the licensing requirements involved.  Film distributors want to be reasonably assured they will get a nice return on their investment.  As an unabashed proponent of free enterprise Capitalism I can hardly blame them.  

It is because of this, however, that many of the finer works created by our people in Italy never made it to America.  Making a good film is no guarantee it will do well at the box office.  If you want to see proof, just read the history of the critically acclaimed film The Buddy Holly Story starring Gary Busey.

As you no doubt have guessed by now, the subject of this biographical article is someone who was intimately involved with Italian cinema.  Actor, playwright and screenwriter as well as a published author and poet, in his lifetime he was hailed as one of the leading figures in Italy’s film industry.  Sadly, few people in America have ever heard of him!  It is time to right that injustice.

Eduardo De Filippo was born on May 24th, 1900 in the city of Naples.  According to reliable sources, he was the product of an incestuous union.  His father, Eduardo Scarpetta, a renowned actor and playwright himself, had seduced his own niece, Luisa De Filippo.  Luisa worked as a seamstress and costumier.  When the boy was born it was decided (no doubt by the father) that since Eduardo Sr. already had legitimate offspring, the lad would take his mother’s surname.

In spite of the stigmata of illegitimacy and incest surrounding his birth, Scarpetta provided for his son and ‘took him under his wing’.  Young Eduardo made his theatrical debut in 1904, playing a Japanese child in the operetta Geisha at the Teatro Valle in Rome.   Two years later the boy officially began his apprenticeship in the theatre.

Years later in an interview De Filippo would explain his rather bizarre tutelage.  “My father decided that the way to write for the theater was to learn the mechanics of playwriting and to do that you had to copy other plays.  He put me in a room for three or four hours a day just to copy out drama.  I should add mostly his own plays.”

By the time he reached the age of 14 he was working in Naples as a professional actor in the theater company of his half-brother Vincenzo Scarpetta.  In 1931 he achieved his first big success as a playwright with the production of his play Natale in Casa Cupiello (It: Christmas at the Cupiello’s).  

By this time, however, Eduardo was chafing under his father, whom he felt was too restrictive.  Though he was now a professional success, his private life was miserable.  In addition, his marriage to an American, Dorothy Pennington, was failing.  He decided to end his marriage and his collaboration with his father and half-brother Vincenzo.

A year later he formed his own company with his brother Peppino and their sister Titina.  The company was called La Compagnia Teatro Umoristico di Filippo.  It was an artistic success!  The actors toured all over Italy playing to rave reviews by critics and sold out performances in theaters.  Their main genre was comedy.  As a result of the success of this company, leading man Eduardo De Filippo would rise to such a level of fame and respect in the entertainment industry he would receive the ultimate honor – being referred to by colleagues and fans alike simply as “Eduardo”.

Eduardo’s popularity would protect him during the Fascist years from the wrath of Benito Mussolini – whom he hated.


Peppino would remain with the company until 1944, departing after becoming embroiled in a controversy with his brother.  He went on to collaborate on a number of film projects with the legendary Neapolitan/Sicilian actor, comedian, writer, singer and songwriter Totò.  In addition, Peppino worked with famed film director and scriptwriter Federico Fellini.  Titina would remain with the company until the early 1950’s.  Like her brothers, she would rack up an impressive list of movies in her filmography.  Like Eduardo, she was also a playwright.

At the end of World War II he wrote and produced the play Napoli Milionaria (It: Naples Millionaire).  The play received rave reviews and was a box office success.  Five years later Eduardo would co-produce a film with Dino De Laurentiis based on this play called Side Street Story that was entered into the 1951 Cannes Film Festival. 

A year after the end of World War II he wrote and produced the first of his major plays, Filumena Maturana.  He had intended this play to be a tribute to his sister, Titina, a famous thespian in her own right.  She took the title role in the play’s first production in Naples.  The play opened to a lukewarm reception by both critics and theater-goers alike.  Titina saved the play by following her own instincts and playing the part the way she saw fit.  Her performance became so linked to the play that for many years afterwards critics and fans alike affectionately referred to as Filumena.

18 years later Carlo Ponti would produce a memorable film based on this play starring the great Neapolitan actress Sophia Loren (who was also his wife) called Matrimonio all’italiana (It: Marriage Italian-style).

It has been said “You can take the boy out of the country but you can’t take the country out of the boy.”  In Eduardo’s case the “country” was his beloved Naples.  It was never far from him emotionally, even when it was in terms of distance.  Having grown up in the city, he saw both the best and worst aspects of it firsthand, and both made their way into his plays.  As with film director Elvira Notari before him, what made his characters so memorable was the simple fact they were real!  People could easily identify with them because they saw so much of themselves in them.  In addition, and unlike his “Italian” contemporaries, he insisted on writing his plays in the Neapolitan language.

It was this, his refusal to deny his Neapolitan heritage, more than anything else that made him so great!  He not only embraced it, he exulted in it!  It was this refusal to “Italianize” himself, plus his wild popularity with the Italian public that made him the vanguard of the cultural renaissance that was to come in Southern Italy.  Like the Neapolitan scholars of old, he not only wrote in the language but translated other great works (including William Shakespeare’s The Tempest) into it.

Sadly, it was his habit of writing in Neapolitan that no doubt contributes to the fact his plays are virtually never performed here in America.  If plays written in Italian get short shrift, how does one expect those written in Neapolitan, a language even most Italians don’t speak, to fare better?  Translators are hard to come by.  Then again, let us not forget the decidedly American prejudice against all things Southern Italian.   Thanks to generations of inculcation by a geographically feebleminded educational system, Americans, if they know anything at all about Naples, usually think of it as just a slum.  Try to explain to people about all the culture and history in the place and you’ll usually get indifference at best.

In 1974 Eduardo required open heart surgery; those close to him said it did nothing to slow him down.  In 1981, in recognition of his cultural contributions, he was appointed a life senator of the Italian Republic.  He died on October 31st, 1984.  Though he has been dead almost 28 years he remains a major literary figure in Italy.

Further reading:
• Maria Tucci: Eduardo De Filippo: Four Plays; Smith and Kraus, 2002