First produced in December, 1902, this is Maxim Gorky's best known play, and considered by many to be his masterpiece. It
hasn't much plot, but is more an account of the everyday lives of a group of impoverished Russians living in a sort of group home near Volga.
According to Wikipedia, it was
modeled after the Bugrov Homeless Shelter. "It became his first major success, and a hallmark of Russian socialist realism." Wikipedia also notes
that Gorky used photos of the underclass taken by Maxim Dmitriev to help create realistic costumes.
In the Notes to this Dover edition, however, evidence is given that Gorky wrote this play also as a reflection of his own life and hardships. Born Alexey Maximovich Peshkov, he changed his name to Gorky, which means "bitter." He was five years old when his father died, and was sent to live with his grandparents. His grandmother was kind, but his grandfather was brutal, and beat him and his female relatives. His first beating left him unconscious. Not only that, but the family was impoverished. To keep from starving, he began to work at odd jobs from age eleven on, but also hung out with the wrong people and became an experienced thief. And though uneducated, he also developed a passion for books, and writing. The Lower Depths was a turning point in his life.
As mentioned above, there is really very little plot in this play—it is more a series of character studies, both individuals with their particular life challenges, and the group as a whole which represents the impoverished in Russia during that period. Most of these people have drinking problems, and certainly honesty and integrity issues, too. Andrei Mitritch Kleshtch is a brutal man who makes his living as a locksmith. He has beaten and abused his wife Anna so much that she is dying, and does die as the play progresses. Nastya is a prostitute, but longs for real love and romance. She seems more tender-hearted than the others, and reads novels that make her cry. Mikhail Ivanoff Kostilyoff owns the lodging, and is also mean and cruel, but not as bad as his wife Vassilisa. She is having an affair with Vaska Pepel, the thief. Her husband knows and tries to catch them.
Natasha is her sister, and she lets an old man, a pilgrim named Luka, stay there. He is cheerful and optimistic and tries to bring harmony and hope to the group. For instance, he tries to convince The Actor that he can get help with his drinking problem, which has destroyed his ability to remember lines. He tells him there are people who can help him go straight, but the others call him a liar and resent him. He sits with Anna as she is dying and tells her about how God and the angels are waiting for her in Paradise, and she will never suffer again. Other than Anna, the only other ones who really like him are Natasha and Nastya, who realize he is trying to lift up spirits.
Now Vassilisa knows that Vaska has grown tired of her, but what infuriates her is that he is in love with her sister Natasha. He admits that is true. She says she doesn't care, she just wants her husband dead.
In Act III, Vaska has stopped his thieving ways, and begs Natasha to marry him. He has made plans for them to go away where he can find work. Luka is told to leave. But then Natasha goes inside, where her sister awaits her. She and her husband beat her up, then pour scalding water on her feet. Vaska rushes in and kills Vassilisa's husband. Natasha ends up in the hospital. Vaska escapes.
Life in Russia must have been extremely difficult during certain periods. Not that every country hasn't had its share of horrors, but there is something so agonizing about so much Russian literature, certainly Gorky, Dostoyevsky, even Gogol . . . or maybe it's just that Russian writers have such a mastery of describing the sufferings of humanity in such a potent and powerful way. In any case, I am a huge fan of Russian literature and I hope you are, too. This one is certainly a must-read.
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