Analysis of Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths

The Lower Depths  . . . is a remarkable play for a relatively inexperienced dramatist. It entertained but confronted, challenged and divided the auditorium. The Moscow Arts Theatre and arguably Russian theater were never to be the same again.

—Cynthia Marsh, “The Lower Depths,” in Reference Guide to Russian Literature

Na dne, meaning literally, “On the Bottom,” but translated into English as The Lower Depths, is the single work by which Maxim Gorky is known outside Russia. Only the second of Gorky’s 15 plays, which in total represent but a small portion of the writer’s considerable output of novels, short stories, memoirs, and essays, The Lower Depths, both in its themes and methods, has exerted an oversized significance and an important legacy for subsequent dramatists internationally. In Russian literary history The Lower Depths is noteworthy as the first time that society’s outcasts—prostitutes, thieves, casual laborers, and the destitute and the derelicts—took center stage in a drama. Anton Chekhov, who served as Gorky’s mentor, provided the younger writer with a dramatic method and technique that Gorky applied to a lower-class, urban milieu into which Chekhov’s plays never ventured. In claiming importance and humanity for a class that the Russians call bosyák (vagabonds, or literally “barefoot”) and that Gorky described as “ex-people” and “creatures who were once men,” he both opened up a new dramatic subject and moved Russian drama into the political and social arena that would lead to revolution and the ongoing debate over the role and purpose of literature as a reflection of contemporary sociopolitical issues and an agent of social reform. The Lower Depths has been variously viewed as one of the groundbreaking realistic and naturalistic works of modern literature that gave voice and stature to the marginalized and invisible, as a visionary and spiritual affirmation and negation of human and social perfectibility, and as effective propaganda for multiple (and contradictory) philosophical and social positions. Its creator is no less contentious. Gorky’s declaration, “I came into the world in order to disagree” can well stand as the motto of his life and works. He has been both heralded as a crucial Russian revolutionary and dismissed as a party apologist who sacrificed his genius (and conscience) for the Soviet state. Regarded by many of his compatriots as the greatest Russian writer of the 20th century, Gorky was canonized by the Soviets as the Walt Whitman of Russia, its revered proletarian bard. To honor him his place of birth was renamed for him, as was the Moscow Arts Theatre, so crucial in the productions of Chekhov’s groundbreaking plays. Yet Gorky’s significance beyond Russia is far less secure. In the West he is more a mystery than a national literary force, with his considerable opus remaining mainly unknown and untranslated. The Lower Depths alone has sustained his reputation internationally, a play deservedly considered a classic work of modern drama.

Born Alexei Maximovich Pyeshkov in 1868 in the Volga river town of Nizhniy Novgorod, Gorky would rechristen himself, in 1892, “Maxim the Bitter,” as commentary on his brutalized childhood and rough-and-tumble development. His father, a carpenter, died of cholera when his son was four, and Gorky was grudgingly raised by his maternal grandparents, proprietors of a dye works, who alternately subjected their grandson to brutal beatings and pietistic sermonizing. The irony did not escape him, with the disjunction between high-minded idealism and reality forming one of Gorky’s persistent themes. By the age of 10, Gorky was largely fending for himself in a succession of menial jobs, including work as a shopkeeper’s errand boy, a dishwasher on a Volga steamer, and an apprentice to an icon maker, who taught him to lie about the age and value of the religious images to enhance sales. Almost completely self-educated, Gorky tried to enter the university at Kazan, without success, but stayed there to work for a baker whose association with radical politics marked the beginning of Gorky’s own raised political consciousness. At the age of 19, convinced that he had no prospects for a better life, Gorky fired a bullet into his left side but missed his heart. After recovering Gorky would spend the next several years working in a fishery on the Caspian Sea and as a railway watchman as well as tramping about Russia, contracting tuberculosis and attracting the attention of czarist police for subversive activities protesting working conditions.

In 1898 Gorky published two volumes of sketches and stories that force-fully and intimately offered an insider’s view of the lifestyle and oppression of Russia’s outcasts and derelicts. They brought him immense acclaim as a cult figure. Imprinted on the popular imagination in his characteristic rustic Russian blouse, worker’s boots, and walking stick, Gorky became the embodiment of his subject, setting the style for romantic individualism and disenchantment with repressive social norms. “Everywhere one could see his picture” observes critic Alexander Kaun, “—on postal cards, cigarette- and candy-boxes, and in endless cartoons. Shady characters stopped citizens in the street and asked for, or rather demanded, ‘a bottle of vodka in the name of Maxim Gorky.’ ” Gorky was befriended by Leo Tolstoy and Chekhov, who found in Gorky’s works much to admire. To refine the young writer’s sometimes ornate writing style, Chekhov sent him plays, such as August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, to encourage a greater economy of expression. Chekhov also introduced him to the Moscow Art Theatre company. On the basis of an outline Gorky had described at their first meeting in 1900, its director, Konstantin Stanislavky, solicited Gorky’s first play. This work, which would become The Lower Depths, initially concerned an ex-waiter whose prized possession was his dress clothes, mementos of his former respectability. The play was set in a flophouse, and, as Stanislavsky recalled in My Life in Art,

The second act finished with an unexpected police raid, at the news of which, the whole anthill came to life, trying to hide stolen goods. In the third act came the spring, the sun; nature bloomed again; the inhabit-ants of the foul-smelling lodging came out into the clean air to work on a farm; they sang songs under the sun, forgetting their former hatred of each other.

Reworking his original conception, Gorky failed to deliver the completed play on time. Instead, in 1901 the Moscow Art Theatre rushed into production another Gorky play, Meshchane (variously translated as The Petty Bourgeois, The Philistines, and The Smug Citizens). In place of Gorky’s popular lower-class subject matter, the play was a scathing attack on middle-class complacency that disappointed audiences. Chekhov considered the play immature but with an important subject. “Gorky’s strength as a dramatist,” Chekhov declared, “is not that audiences like him, but that he is the first in Russia and in the world generally to speak out with contempt and disgust against the philistine—and that he did so just when society was ready to hear such criticism.”


A Scene in Act I The Lower Depths, at the Moscow Art Theatre. Stanislavsky in the role of Satine sits on the table

By the 1902 season Gorky had completed The Lower Depths, and the company of the Moscow Art Theatre, to achieve authenticity in their depiction of Russia’s criminal and indigent subculture, visited the foul-smelling shelters where beggars, thieves, and tramps lived. When asked by the actors what effect he wanted the play to have on his audience, Gorky answered: “I’ll be satisfied if you can shake the audience so much that they can’t sit comfortably in their seats.” Cleared by the censor largely because Gorky’s first play had failed and officials expected no more for this second effort, The Lower Depths proved to be a triumphant success, with its formerly unseen lower-class underworld brought to vivid and violent life onstage. Acclaim for the play and its creator brought government censure, with one establishment newspaper condemning the “mob” that “wildly applauds the stench, filth, and vice of revolutionary propaganda . . . while the leader of the derelicts, Maxim Gorky, using his pen as a lever, shakes the ground on which that society was built. What a dangerous writer! How wretched and blind are his admirers, readers, and spectators!” Banned in working-class theaters and prohibited from being translated into other languages of the empire, the play still managed to be performed and read widely. When it was published, the first edition of 40,000 copies sold out in two weeks; a second edition of 35,000 was gone in under a year. Productions were mounted in Berlin, London, and New York that would establish Gorky’s reputation internationally and influence subsequent dramatists such as Bertolt Brecht and Eugene O’Neill, who called The Lower Depths “the great proletarian revolutionary play” and whose The Iceman Cometh directly imitates.

The four-act drama opens in a “cavelike basement” of a cheap urban rooming house, lit by a single small window and filled with plank beds and a collection of human wreckage—drunken derelicts, thieves, laborers, misfits, and the desperate—a microcosm of life at the bottom of society. The denizens include Bubnov, a capmaker; Klestch, a locksmith, and his consumptive, battered wife, Anna; Nastya, a prostitute; Vassya Pepel, a young thief; the Actor and the Baron, both in decline from their former positions; and the cardsharp Satin. The lodging is run by Kostylyov, a fence, and his wife, Vassilisa, who jealously brutalizes her sister Natasha, who is her rival for Vassya’s affections. Act 1, set on a morning in early spring, presents the lodgers’ routine of facing another day of uncertain and desperate prospects. Through their preoccupations and bickering they reveal their values and the conditions of their lives. A catalyst in their confessions is Luka, a 60-year-old tramp, who arrives with a philosophy of consolation and the expectations of a better life. Reactions to Luka and his message divide the inhabitants into opposing camps of the hopeful and the realists. Luka comforts the failing Anna that death will finally bring her peace, encourages the Actor to seek a cure for his alcoholism, and persuades Vassya to make a fresh start in Siberia. Those sustained by a hope for a better life are opposed by others such as the Baron, who mocks the prostitute Nastya for her romantic fantasies; Bubnov, who claims to revere only the truth but whose cynicism justifies his indifference to others and his own paralysis; and Satin, whose more positive advocacy of truth will dominate the play’s final act.

Employing a similar “collective hero” as in Gerhart Hauptmann’s The Weavers and Chekhov’s polyphonic dramatic structure of overlapping characters and dialogue joined thematically, The Lower Depths pushes its characters to ever more revealing extremes. In act 2 Anna dies, and Vassilisa offers money and Natasha to Vassya if he will free her from her burdensome husband. Act 3 ends with a brawl between Vassya and Kostylyov that ends in the latter’s death. Although Vassya has rejected Vassilisa’s proposal and has acted only to protect Natasha, killing Kostylyov accidentally, Natasha accuses Vassya and her sister of the conspiracy, and both are jailed. The play concludes with the aftermath of the violence. Luka, who has dominated the first three acts, offering the others what Gorky would later describe as the “consoling lie,” has disappeared, as have most of the prospects he has offered to sustain hope. The play’s philosophical spokesperson in act 4 is Satin, who represents an alternative both to the delusions some have taken from Luka’s consoling message and the cynical despair of the mockers. Ridiculing Luka’s remedies as “soft bread to the toothless,” Satin advocates truth, but he also defends Luka and the lies that inspire and confirm man’s self-respect and worth:

The old man is not a faker. What’s truth? Man—that’s the truth! He understood this. . . . Certainly he lied—but it was out of pity for you, the devil take you! There are lots of people who lie out of pity for others—I know it—I’ve read about it. They lie beautifully, excitingly, with a kind of inspiration. There are lies that soothe, that reconcile one to his lot. There are lies that justify the load that crushed a worker’s arm—and hold a man to blame for dying of starvation—I know lies! People weak in spirit—and those who live on the sweat of others—these need lies—the weak find support in them, the exploiters use them as a screen. But a man who is his own master, who is independent and doesn’t batten on others—he can get along without lies. Lies are the religion of slaves and bosses. Truth is the god of the free man.

The truth that Satin offers recognizes the necessity of hope and its delusions as an ultimate affirmation of humanity. In one of Gorky’s most quoted passages, Satin, clear eyed but confident, declares:

What is man? It’s not you, nor I, nor they—No, it’s you, I, they, the old man, Napoleon, Mohammed—all in one. You understand? It’s tremendous! In this are all the beginnings and all the ends. Everything in man, everything for man. Only man exists, the rest is the work of his hands and his brain. Man! It’s magnificent; it has a proud ring to it! A man has to be respected! Not pitied . . . don’t degrade him with pity. . . . You’ve got to respect him!

The final test of pity and respect comes with the revelation that closes the play: The Actor, in despair of gaining a cure for his drunkenness, has hung himself. The news interrupts the lodgers’ drunken revelry and prompts Satin’s final comment: “Ah, spoiled the song—the fool!”

Gorky’s existential drama shocks with the vividness of its characters and the world it portrays, in allowing the marginalized and misfits of society to supply an often profound critique on human possibilities and motives. The play’s strengths—its graphic realism and daring mixture of sociology, psychology, and philosophy—do not come without flaws. One of the plays earliest critics of these was Chekhov. After receiving a copy just after Gorky finished the play, Chekhov praised it but noted: “You have excluded the most interesting characters (except for the Actor) from the fourth act, and now mind lest nothing comes of it. That act could seem boring and unnecessary, especially if with the departure of the stronger and more interesting actors only the so-so remain.” Chekhov’s criticism has been repeated by others, who have similarly complained of Gorky’s odd dramatic structure in which act 4 seems more an afterthought as well as of the ideological positions of Luka and Satin that at times seem contradicted by the play’s action. Gorky himself later decided he had failed to embody fully his conception of his characters, particularly Luka’s selfishness and the destructiveness of his philosophy. Ultimately The Lower Depths works neither as a social message nor as a satisfying philosophy but as a powerful psychological drama of life at the bottom. The Lower Depths presents, in King Lear terms, “unaccommodated man” in which we are instructed, like Lear, “to feel what wretches feel.”

Categories: Drama Criticism, Literature, Russian Literature

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