This play, written by Maxim Gorky in 1902, was widely produced across Europe and made Gorky’s reputation as the father of socialist realist writing.
Gorky experienced the vicissitudes of life. He lost his father at five years old and ended up living in his grandfather’s house where everyone was “choked by a fog of mutual hostility”. After his mother died he was kicked out and left to fend for himself aged eleven. He spent five years wandering across Russia.
The Lower Depths is a product of Gorky’s intimate knowledge of poverty. The cruelty is intertwined sardonic humour and flashes of humanity. Written before the revolution of 1905, it does not portray the way in which organised workers can change and challenge the world in which they live. But it does show that individuals have dreams that go beyond their immediate circumstances.
The Lower Depths is set in lodgings for the homeless by the Volga river. Life is an unending grind, leavened mainly by violence and death.
There is the locksmith in a corner, who sits filing keys, wishing the death of Anna, his consumptive wife; then there is the card sharp recovering from a beating the night before; the actor coping with his alcoholism; the young prostitute reading endless romantic novels; and the baron who has fallen on bad times.
The landlord makes his living by tightening the screw on the tenants. His much younger wife Vassilisa is having an affair with Vaska, the thief, who has his own room. But the landlord is in hock to Vaska over a watch he bought from him and Vassilisa plots to have her husband murdered by the thief. But Vaska wants to transfer his affections to her younger sister Natasha.
In comes Luka, a tramp, a huge cross hanging around his neck. He spreads hope and encouragement to the downtrodden tenants. But the play ends in violence.
Is this the resolution because individuals did not follow their dreams? Or because Luka raised hopes which were left unfulfilled? The play is not about providing answers, rather about seeing the human spark among the ravages of unremitting poverty.
This interesting play is the first production in the Arcola’s Revolution series exploring the impact of the Russian Revolution. The next productions are Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard followed by The New Nigerians by Oladipo Agboluaje.