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See De Filippo and die

Alan Howard is starring in Eduardo de Filippo's La Grande Magia. Jasper Rees looks at the enduring legacy of the Neapolitan playwright
The phenomenal Eduardo de Filippo has no parallel in British theatre. Cross Olivier with Ayckbourn and you get a national institution who acted in and directed his own plays in his own theatre. As old as the century, it seems odd that he had to wait until 1977 for his first honorary doctorate, odder that the award came not from his native Naples but from the University of Birmingham.

De Filippo (or Eduardo, as he was universally known) first tied a bond with this country when he brought Napoli Milionaria, his first mature post-war work, to the Aldwych in 1972. The bond has since been tightened by the National Theatre's steady progress through his finest plays. Zeffirelli directed Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Filumena Marturano in the Seventies, Ralph Richardson took his last role in Inner Voices in 1982, and four years ago Richard Eyre triumphantly revived Napoli Milionaria in an adaptation by Peter Tinniswood which substituted Scouse for the Neapolitan dialect of the original. With Eyre now turning to La Grande Magia, De Filippo is giving David Hare a run for his money as the National's most performed 20th-century playwright.

But this isn't another simple case of the Anglo-Italian love affair, of chasing after bright southern colour. Eyre, admiring "the energy and the humanity" of the plays, reckons: "There's nothing quite like it in the British dramatic tradition. They're rooted within a world that he knows very well and inhabited for the whole of his life. It's much more like the Irish, like O'Casey and Synge."

De Filippo was not merely Celtic on stage. On the playwright's death in 1984, Fellini observed that "this acute and profound connoisseur of Neapolitanity in his private life more resembled a Scotsman: he maintained the reservation, the indifference and the silence of an Anglo-Saxon northerner".

De Filippo was born out of wedlock and into the theatre. He first acted in his father Eduardo Scarpetta's company at the age of four, left school to act full-time at 14, and staged his first one-act play at 20. He performed in various companies throughout the Twenties until, with his brother Peppino and sister Titina, he formed Il Teatro Umoristico dei De Filippo.

Fascism required him to mask his social commentary in burlesque, but the end of the war brought a new company, Il Teatro di Eduardo, and a more detailed social realism. Napoli Milionaria, a dark comedy about the plight of the poor in occupied Naples, was premiered in 1945. La Grande Magia came three years later. In its story of an abandoned husband who believes a magician has hidden his wife in a box, it finds him tinkering with the illusionism of the theatre. De Filippo once co-wrote a play with Luigi Pirandello, but this is as close as he got to borrowing his one- time collaborator's box of tricks. "It is a play about plays," says Eyre, "but at the same time it is about people."