TORONTO - A couple projected from a blank backdrop; she with a wad of cash in her hands; he with bread buns and salamis inserted in his pants and a string of sausages around his neck.
This is the advance/promo poster preferred by the Stratford Festival 2018 organization to entice enthusiasts to experience Eduardo De Filippo’s masterpiece, Napoli Milionarda. De Filippo was a Neapolitan dramatist and actor, among the very best in the twentieth century and worthy of the title “Olympian of Italian Theatre”. The play itself is a tragi-comedy, in three acts, set in the closing days of World War II.
It depicts the condition of families living a marginalized and precarious condition all too common for families squeezing out a survival during the war’s darkest moments. The head of the family, missing and possibly killed in battle; a wife plying the “underground economy”; an “apprentice thief” of a son; a daughter infatuated with an American GI, now abandoned and carrying his child; and the youngest of the family afflicted with a serious illness and moribund.
Unexpectedly, the father returns, coincidently on the day the Allies liberate Naples, only to discover the strange situation in which the family finds itself. He tries to resolve the circumstance that have evolved and reintroduce a semblance of normalcy, seemingly drawing strength from Neapolitan philosophy that gave rise to the saying “we have to get through this dark period” – we need time to heal if we are to hope.
Even if the three acts are punctuated with some exhilarating scenes, the play is impregnated with the tragedy that hovers over events Eduardo chooses to underscore the existential drama that a world war generates.
Having said this, there is not a single moment, in scene, that alludes even remotely to the character depicted in the promo poster. Quite the contrary. Even when invited to a banquet table organized to celebrate the liberation, he places no value on the food laid out before him, preferring alike a broken record to repeat the bitter experiences of the trenches.
One would have expected that the poster would make an allusion – however remote – to the “work” that theatre goers might anticipate; especially those unilingual Anglophones for whom the play has been translated. The image on the poster is nowhere to be found on stage.
The image in the poster “done up as he is depicted” conjures up a stereotypical Italian in no way representative of any character of the play, nowhere existent in the story – an Italian diminished and ridiculed, whose sole concern is bread and sausages.
Such images are an insult to an entire people who braved oceans and bigotry and would overcome discriminations of all types to earn a living and care for their families. They are disrespectful to the author, De Filippo, one of the premier thinkers and dramatists of the twentieth century. In theatre as a child, he had earned the respect of the public, dramatists, actors, writers and intellectuals the world over. Universities conferred three degrees honoris causa. The Italian Parliament nominated him Senator for life.
Here’s what the author of Napoli Milionaria himself had to say about the essence of the play:” A few weeks after the Liberation, from the balcony of my apartment, I happened to gaze upon a battered, war-torn Naples; it is then that I wrote, in one sitting, my tragi-comedy, like a complete commentary on the war and its deleterious consequences “[on the human condition].
The advance poster does not even remotely approach the essence of that play, much less the character of Italians that a non-Italian public might come to appreciate, even if interpreted on stage by a Festival that chooses to offer the play in its English translation.