Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 859
When The Lower Depths was first presented in 1902, it was met with mixed criticism, but spectacular popular success. It was so successful, in fact, that the printed version of the play became a bestseller, with fourteen editions printed in 1903. Many critics took issue with the play’s unconventional structure and lack of plot. Others criticized its preaching, didactic tone. Most agreed, however, that the Moscow Arts Theatre production was outstanding and amplified character sketches that were powerful and moving. Debate over the play’s chief theme, the merits of ‘‘truth’’ verses ‘‘the consoling lie,’’ continue today, and it is generally accepted that the play, although flawed, is considered a masterpiece.
At the time The Lower Depths was first performed, the vagabond life was in vogue, and realistic depiction of the lower classes was avant-garde. The play’s presentation of the squalid underbelly of Russian society was the first of its kind and drew huge attention for its novelty. Much of the play’s initial success was owed to the masterful work of Konstantin Stanislavsky and the Moscow Arts Theatre, which was then and continues to be considered one of the finest theater groups in the world. In A History of Russia, Jesse D. Clarkson notes that the play was a success ‘‘largely thanks to Stanislavsky’s casting rather than to its author.’’ Stanislavsky and Gorki insisted that the players spend time in dosshouses resembling the one in the play in preparation for their parts, and word of this approach also added to its novelty. Although Gorki himself gave the theater company credit for the scale of the play’s initial success, it proved just as popular performed by German actors in Berlin. The play swept world capitals, and by 1903 Gorki’s American publishers claimed his name was better known than Tolstoy.
Chekhov (as critic Sumie Jones records) was perhaps the most famous critic of The Lower Depths, and he took issue with some of Gorki’s character choices. He claimed the characters that remain in Act IV are not interesting, and critics continue to take issue with this point today. Barry P. Scherr, in his essay ‘‘Gorky the Dramatist,’’ asserts that ‘‘at least some of the characters do not seem entirely necessary. The Baron, the Actor, Bubnov, and the locksmith Kleshtch are all dwellers in the lower depths. Gorki manages to make individual characters out of each of them, yet the play would clearly be easier for audiences to follow had he combined these four figures into one or two, and the story-line would have remained intact.’’ He also points out that ‘‘the characters who are most important for the play’s intrigue—the thief Vaska Pepel, Kostilioff, owner of the lodging-house where the action takes place, and Kostilioff’s wife and sister-in-law—have relatively little to do with the play’s philosophical concerns.’’
Many critics disliked the structure of the play and its lack of driving action or plot. German critic F. Mering (as critic F. M. Borras records) wrote in a 1934 article that the only real conflict in the play took place between Kostilioff and Pepel, and that Act IV was unnecessary since all the action was completed in Act III. Chekhov declared Act IV superfluous as well, because all the stronger characters were absent from it. He also disliked that Act for what he felt was Gorki’s preaching tone. Sumie Jones, in her essay, ‘‘Gorki, Stanislavsky, Kurosawa: Cinematic Translations of The Lower Depths ,’’ quotes Stanislavsky in reporting that Chekov could not bear ‘‘to see Gorki mount the pulpit like a clergymen’’ to voice his opinions, as he does through Sahtin’s monologues in Act IV....
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The play elicits the same criticism today, as in a review of a production at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh. Kate Bassett, inThe Daily Telegram writes, ‘‘. . . several of Gorky’s big speeches about the ineradicable worth of every individual and about man’s responsibility for himself do verge on the wooden.’’
In the years after the first production of The Lower Depths, Gorki was his own chief critic. Over time, as his philosophical and political beliefs changed, he gave shifting interpretations of key characters, and suggested he intended them to be different than they were. According to Yevgeny Zamyatin in A Soviet Heretic, he called himself ‘‘a poor playwright’’ and suggested the play was even harmful in the time it was produced. Nevertheless, the play is, in Barry Scherr’s words, ‘‘the prime example of a work that is an acknowledged masterpiece and yet contains several seemingly glaring weaknesses that would be enough to destroy a lesser work.’’ He continues, ‘‘. . . the strength and originality of the secondary figures, the creation of a strange yet powerful central character, the very exotic quality of the lower depths that Gorky depicts, and the complexities of the play’s theme largely account for its deserved success.’’ The Lower Depths continues to be produced almost a century later as, for example, in Seattle in 1998, by the Vladivostok Chamber Theater. In the words of John Longenbaugh in a promotional piece in the TheSeattle Weekly, the work is still considered ‘‘a masterpiece of naturalism.’’