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 associations of good with light or white and bad with dark or black abound. The conventional system gets turned on its head when the Actor begins to view death by suicide as a hope for his salvation, whereby death becomes white, but throughout the play, dark or black retains its traditional connotation of hopelessness and doom.
Gorky’s use of light/dark imagery is particularly evident in the amalgamation of this imagery into another effective literary device that he uses most strikingly—foreshadowing or prescience, a subtle hint or prophecy of events to manifest themselves in the future. Anna’s death, for example, which occurs at the end of act 2, is already predicted in act 1. The Actor’s death is suggested in the middle of act 3, although he does not commit suicide until the end of act 4. Natasha foresees an apocalyptic doom in act 3 that does not come to pass until act 4. In fact, the Actor senses his own fate at the beginning of act 4, although it does not occur until the end of that act.
In the resolution of this precisely structured play, only Luka and Satine go unaccounted for; the rest play out their roles as though programmed. Yet the impact is undeniable, and the two escapees do not really escape, because they bear responsibility for the fates of others. The victims survive spiritually—despite death or other devastation—as reminders of the inexorable workings of the socioeconomic system. It could be said that the end was prophesied from the beginning and that Gorky merely worked out the details, but those details were sufficiently compelling to support a revolution and to sustain a remarkable play.