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main index © Jeff Matthews entry Feb. 2004
Raffaele Viviani (1888-1950)
The bread and butter of many Neapolitan dialect writers, actors and musicians, especially in the early twentieth century, was portraying the seamy reality of Naples, the hard-core world of petty crime, prostitution, and poverty—the underclass grind. Raffaele Viviani stands between Salvatore di Giacomo (1860-34) and Eduardo de Filippo (1900-84) chronologically as well as stylistically, his work generally having pretensions neither to the erudition of the former nor the humor of the latter. Viviani is what critics call "an autodidact realist," meaning he acquired his considerable skills as an actor, playwright and musician at the school of hard knocks.
Viviani was born in Castellemmare of a poor family. He appeared at the age of 4 on the stage in Naples, lost his father at 12, and took over the care of his mother and the rest of the family. By the age of 20, he had a solid stage reputation throughout Italy. As a young actor, he also played in Budapest, Paris, Tripoli, and throughout South America. His plays are in the "anti-Pirandello" style; that is, they are less concerned with the psychology of people than with the lives they lead, in this case the human stories of the common people of Naples. Perhaps his best known work is L'ultimo scugnizzo (The Last scugnizzo) (1931), scugnizzo being the underclass Neapolitan street kid, who lives by his wits on the fringes of legality. In this case, the "last scugnizzo" tries to adjust to a more normal adult life, almost makes it, but reverts to his earlier self as a result of a personal tragedy.
Viviani was a good musician, as well, and composed songs and incidental music for many of his earlier works. One such well-known melodrama is "via Toledo di notte," a work from 1918 in which Viviani reprises some of his earlier melodies and even employs American cake-walk and ragtime rhythms to tell the story of the "street people" of via Toledo, the most famous thoroughfare in Naples. It is presented in the form of a succession of songs with little or no linking dialogue and with only a few instruments as accompaniment. Thus, it was a somewhat anomalous form for Italian musical theater of the day. English terminology has used "music drama" to describe such items. Viviani, himself, described it as a "Commedia in un atto (versi, prosa e musica)."
The disastrous Italian defeat at Caporetto in 1917 in WWI led to a reappraisal in Italy of national values and a subsequent crackdown on such frivolities as musical theater and vaudeville. This austerity led Viviani to concentrate more and more on straight drama, a trend that he continued until the end of life. During the Fascist era, he also had to contend with the regime's hostility towards theatrical works presented in regional dialects rather than the national standard language. Viviani persisted and has been vindicated; all in all, however, he is not as well known outside of Italy as he deserves to be. Jane House Productions will present a US premiere of his Via Toledo di Notte at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York in late 2004. A edition of the complete theatrical works of Viviani was published by Guida in 1987.
[A plaque (photo, above) marks Viviani's home on the Corso Vittorio Emanuele in Naples. As well, a nearby public park was opened about 10 years ago and named in his honor.]
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