Maxim Gorky’s exceptionally well-crafted play The Lower Depths is a transitional piece between nineteenth and twentieth century literary masterpieces. As such, it shares in the best of both worlds. The play is constructed with a nineteenth century eye toward dramatic structure at the same time that it treats twentieth century sociopolitical themes. Among the most important of these is the issue of freedom versus slavery, a frequent topic of conversation—implicit or explicit—among the denizens of “the lower depths,” a cellarlike rooming house that accommodates a varied group of inhabitants.
Also threading its way through the play is the naturalistic assumption of predestination, which forces the audience to ask—without really expecting an answer—whether the Actor was foredoomed to alcoholism, whether Anna was destined to die of tuberculosis and leave her husband penniless because of medical and burial expenses, and whether Satine was the only one who recognized how low the lower depths were. Many more such questions arise, but all serve only to illustrate the essential slavery of the characters to the lower depths of the socioeconomic system and their lack of freedom to rise above it.
This theme is also reinforced by the poetic imagery in the play, which revolves around references to light and dark, clean and dirty. The interior of the cellar rooming house, for example, is dark, but ideas and hopes are light. Conventional...
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