Naples

American in Italy

Source: Herbert Kubly, American in Italy (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1955), pp. 114-115

Text: Sicily had made me a puppet fancier. I wanted to visit a Neapolitan puppet theater, known as the Olympia. At the consulate I had been urged not to go. The theater was in a northwest corner of the old central section, a crowded and violent part of Naples said to be hostile to outsiders. “Americans are robbed and beaten,” an official warned. “The police had to rescue four American sailors from a mob last week.”

I found an American journalist to make the expedition with me. We climbed narrow crowded streets that rise from the heart of the town. It was an ordinary midweek night, but the streets were noisy and gay as a saint’s feast. Neon light illuminated holy statues, and the smell of roasting chestnuts was in the air. Young women sold American cigarettes, not in packs, but singly, neatly laid out with American contraceptives, also sold singly. At a wineshop we drank a tumbler of extremely potent dark thick stuff. Many persons greeted us. “It’s all in our psychology,” the journalist explained. “If you reflect a feeling of confidence, don’t appear nervous, and never get angry, you avoid trouble. It’s only when you show fear, nervousness, or temperament that difficulties arise.”

We moved deeper into the human jungle. Jagged walls of bombed and deserted buildings loomed up around us. On a bombed side street we found the Olympia. Tickets cost forty lire, about seven cents. It was a new cement structure, clean, whitewashed, and well illuminated; quite different from the dank smelly caves of the Palermo puppeteers. There were about one hundred and fifty chairs and all of them were occupied. Unlike Sicily, there were several shawled women in the audience. The stage was small, and the puppets were smaller than the brass and tin Sicilian warriors. A piano, violin, and horn played Neapolitan folk tunes. Like a movie house, the show, which began at five o’clock, was repeated until midnight. The melodrama upon which we entered ran the gamut from banditry, murder (by stabbing and shooting), and rape to kidnapings. This wide variety of carnage seemed to please the audience greatly. The wicked villain leered at the virtuous lady wearing a tiara and furs and demanded, “Be my mistress or be destroyed!” The virtuous lady screamed, but her husband did not hear her; she chose death and was immediately stabbed. “A scandal! A scandal!” were her dying words. The villain stole the dead woman’s baby and took it to a cabin in the forest kept by a Shakespearean buffoon in pointed boots and a belled cap. The buffoon burned the villain in a furnace and reared the kidnaped child in the forest in the manner of A Winter’s Tale. Twenty years and six scenes later, the child, full grown, was returned to his real father.

In an intermission boys hawked soft drinks, peanuts, and sweets, and members of the audience unpacked lunches from newspapers. The theater became pungent with garlic. The next part of the performance was a variety show, a burlesque with triple-jointed dancers, pumpkin-bosomed female puppets singing ribald songs, sailors paddling little boats across the stage, and a patriarchal fisherman in a candy-striped costume involved in a salty intrigue with some mermaids. I understood very little of the Neapolitan dialect, but the toy performers were wondrously agile and it was enough to watch. The dialogue was peppered with American idioms, G.I. contributions to the patois of Naples. Liberal use of Anglo-Saxon vulgarisms sent the audience into roars. Apparently we had been spotted behind stage as Americans, and the four-letter words were meant as a friendly gesture to us.

Comments: Herbert Kubly (1915-1996) was an American travel writer and playwright.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust