The Lower Depths

by Maxim Gorki

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The Flawed Nature of Gorki's Characters

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1683

The Lower Depths is typically characterized as a masterpiece, but one that is glaringly flawed. The flaws most often cited are Gorki’s tendency to impose upon his characters language which rings false or is agenda-driven, and the fact that certain characters are viewed as unconvincing or unbelievable. Luka and Sahtin in particular generate these criticisms. From the first appearance of the play, critics have taken issue with inconsistencies in Luka’s behavior, which weaken the moral objective around his character. Gorki himself gave conflicting interpretations of Luka’s purpose in the story. Critics have also questioned Sahtin as the mouthpiece for truth and mankind’s potential, since this advocacy comes so late in the play and seems incongruous in a previously minor character.

Inconsistent as Luka and Sahtin may be, they are the most developed characters in Gorki’s group portrait. As such, they are ambiguous, and in their ambiguity, quite human. Gorki has been criticized consistently for creating characters whose believability is compromised for the sake of his work’s political messages. In this case, however, although Luka and Sahtin do convey strong political messages, and Sahtin delivers speeches which are slightly implausible, their ambiguous natures—the fact that they do not act in prescribed, consistent ways— make them more like real people, and thus more believable. In this way they also reflect the very ambiguous, conflicted nature of the author, who was known both for his political radicalism and for being profoundly sentimental. The conflicted nature of The Lower Depths is what has provoked debate and discussion over the years, and in so doing, kept both the characters and the play alive.

Richard Hare, in Maxim Gorky: Romantic Realist and Conservative Revolutionary, reports that ‘‘According to Gorky, Luka should have been a sly old fellow, who had become soft and pliable through having been kicked around a lot.’’ Hare continues, ‘‘Luka’s rule of conduct was that men wanted to forget hard facts and be consoled; they had no need of truths which did not help them. If truths were so painful that they destroyed self-confidence, let them remain concealed.’’ The Actor’s experience with Luka exemplifies this; Luka comforts the alcoholic actor with promise of a clinic where he can be cured, although he cannot tell him where it is. The Actor is expected to gain solace from this promised clinic, without the benefit of actual, substantial support. As the advocate of the ‘‘consoling lie,’’ Luka comforts characters with his stories, but leaves them even more disheartened after his departure. In the case of the Actor, he is so disheartened he kills himself.

In Maxim Gorky, the Writer, F.M. Borras suggests,

The influence of Gorky’s particular view of Tolstoy upon his concept of Luka is . . . unmistakeable. . . . Gorky regarded Tolstoyan theories of self-perfection, self-simplification, and non-resistance to evil as spiritual opiates through which the great man encouraged thinking people to devote their attention to problems of personal life instead of to revolutionary activity; Luka appears from nowhere in the dark dosshouse of the brutal, tyrannical Maikhail Kostylev, filled with human wrecks, and indulges their fancy with dreams of escape from the unbearable reality of their lives, instead of urging them to overthrow the tyrant who exploits them.

Luka’s promises of a utopian tomorrow suggest the dangers of such ideology; rather than incite the lodgers into action to change their circumstances, he lulls them into complacency. This is most clear when Luka consoles Anna with promise of peace after death. When Anna suggests that she might live a little longer, Luka laughs and replies, ‘‘For what? To fresh tortures.’’ In effect,...

(This entire section contains 1683 words.)

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he dissuades her from hope for change.

History suggests that this is the Luka that Gorki intended. Dan Levin reports in Stormy Petrel that ‘‘Gorky himself insisted Luka was a charlatan.’’ However, he continues, ‘‘the heart has its own reasons. Luka is extremely complex—as complex as his maker.’’ He goes on to report the way Kachalov, one of the Moscow Art Theatre’s stars, described a rehearsal of Act II with Gorki.

‘‘When he began to read the scene,’’ Kachalov wrote, ‘‘in which Luka consoles Anna on her deathbed, we held our breaths, and a wonderful stillness reigned. Gorky’s voice trembled and broke. He stopped, remained silent for a moment, wiped a tear with his finger, and tried to resume his reading, but after the first few words he stopped again and wept almost aloud, wiping his tears with a handkerchief. ‘Ugh, devil,’ he mumbled, smiling with embarrassment through his tears, ‘well written, by God, well done.’’

From this description it is clear that Gorki was moved by a part of Luka and his ability for compassion. The scene with Anna does ring true, in a way that contrasts with, for example, Luka’s means of comforting Nastiah in Act III. In this scene, Luka appears glib in his insistence that he believes her implausible story, and clearly only means to soothe her in the moment. However, at other points, Luka offers sound advice with solid motives, such as in Act II, when he urges Pepel to avoid Wassilissa and run away with Natasha. The advice is pragmatic, in that Wassilissa is a dangerous woman, and both Natasha’s and Pepel’s needs would be met by such a union. Luka also demonstrates some challenge to Wassilissa and Kostilioff, contrary to assertions that he is a model of non-resistance. When he and Wassilissa meet in Act I, he tells her, ‘‘You are not very hospitable, mother,’’ and in Act III he counters Wassilissa and Kostilioff’s threats with indicting sarcasm. This incongruity in Luka is characterized by Levin such that, ‘‘Both drives are in Gorky: rebellion, and holy wandering. This is why when seen from one angle Luka is a fraud, from another, Gorky’s deepest projection.’’

Sahtin is admittedly a less developed and less complex character than Luka. F.M. Borrass supports this: ‘‘Sahtin plays a relatively small part in the conversations and discussions that make up the first three acts. ’’ For the most part Sahtin maintains a drunken, upbeat realism throughout the play, consistently challenging Luka for soothing the other tenants with stories. His realistic outlook verges on the harsh; in Act II he tries to dissuade the Actor that he will be cured of his alcoholism, and his only response to Anna’s death is, ‘‘The dead hear not. The dead feel not.’’ Although this is the strongest impression of him throughout the play, it is revealed in Act II in his conversation with Luka that he went to prison for killing a man in defense of his sister. This, and the fact that he protects Nastiah from a threatened assault from the Baron in Act IV, support some chivalric impression of Sahtin, which lends itself to the speeches he makes in that act.

Act IV begins with the remaining characters discussing Luka. Through their perspectives, the audience has another opportunity to assess his char- acter; the Baron, for example, claims he was a charlatan, while the Tartar asserts he had a true heart. Sahtin launches into his first monologue with the imperative, ‘‘Be still! Asses! Say nothing ill of the old man. . . . He did tell them lies, but he lied out of sympathy, as the devil knows. There are many such people who lie for brotherly sympathy’s sake. . . .’’ Although he validates Luka’s motivation for lying, he counters it with his primary assertion in the play, ‘‘The lie is the religion of servant and master . . . the truth is the inheritance of free men!’’ He continues later with, ‘‘How loftily it sounds, M-a-n! We must respect man . . . not compassion . . . degrade him not with pity . . . but respect.’’

Sahtin’s monologues summarize a response, advocating truth out of respect for mankind, to Luka’s ministrations of the consoling lie. However, the power of these speeches is diminished by the fact that Sahtin is drunk when he delivers them, and the fact that they come from this seemingly minor character’s mouth. Levin reports that ‘‘Gorky himself said that in Sahtin’s mouth the lordly speech sounded ‘pale’ and ‘strange,’ but that there was no one else into whose mouth to put it.’’ Borrass confirms, ‘‘Gorky revealed his disquiet at this ambivalence in a letter to K.A.Pyatnitsky dated 15 July 1902, in which he said that Sahtin’s speech extolling Man ‘sounded out of place in his mouth,’ but that no other character in the play was suited to make it.’’ Sahtin’s statements about truth are in keeping with Gorki’s political leanings in the sense that they credit the individual with the power to make change (and overthrow Czarism, for example). Yet the fact that they come from Sahtin suggests that the truth is not the unqualified answer to the problems of the lodgers, but perhaps that it is part of a larger, more complicated solution.

In his essay How I Studied, Gorki writes that as a child he learned from books that ‘‘All men were suffering in one way or another; all were dissatisfied with life and sought something that was better, and this made them closer and more understandable to me.’’ He reports that they taught him ‘‘a sense of personal responsibility for all the evil in life and evoked in me a reverence for the human mind’s creativity.’’ In the same collection (On Literature) he writes to Leo Tolstoy, ‘‘I believe profoundly that there is nothing on earth better than man, and I even say—twisting Democritus’ sentence to suit my own ends—that only man really exists, all the rest being merely opinion. I have always been, and will always be a Man-worshipper, only I am incapable of expressing this properly.’’ Couched in these terms, his compassion for the human condition is not so incongruous with his advocacy for man’s power through truth. As personifications of this two-sided, insoluble ethical question, Luka and Sahtin reflect not only the complexity of the author, but the complexity of character itself.

Source: Jennifer Lynch, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.

Truth and Illusion in Gorky: The Lower Depths and After: Essays in Honor of Robert Louis Jackson

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The theme of truth versus illusion, of reality versus invention, haunts Maksim Gorky’s oeuvre from his early story ‘‘About the Siskin Who Lied and the Woodpecker Who Loved the Truth’’ down to his interminable swan song The Life of Klim Samgin, whose unlovely hero is obsessed by the notion of having ‘‘invented’’ himself. Thus, what I will be offering here is no more than a few reflections on the Pushkinian dichotomy of ‘‘base truths’’ versus ‘‘the uplifting illusion’’ in Gorky’s life and work or, to put it differently, no more than a gloss on Khodasevich’s telling reference to Gorky’s ‘‘extremely tangled attitude toward truth and lying, an attitude which was revealed early on and which exerted a crucial influence both on his work and on his life.’’

Lest this tack be construed as unduly invidious, let me offer, in haste, some admissions and distinctions. For one thing, Gorky is not alone among major Russian writers in allowing for the therapeutic value of illusion. Suffice it to mention that paragon of artistic integrity and clear-eyed lucidity, Anton Chekhov. The persistent pipe dream of the Prozorov sisters, ‘‘To Moscow, to Moscow!’’ is portrayed empathically as a way of coping with a profoundly dispiriting reality. And if we rephrase the dichotomy that is at the center of these remarks as ‘‘reality versus dream,’’ is not the intrinsic superiority of the latter to the former one of the timehonored topoi of Romanticism? Nor is this stance necessarily a matter of seeking refuge from ‘‘revolting actuality’’ in dreams. (Need I recall here Gogol’s Piskarev: ‘‘Oh, how revolting is reality! What is it compared to the dream?’’)

In a more active brand of Romanticism, clearly more germane to the young Gorky’s ‘‘folly of the brave’’-type rhetoric, ‘‘the given’’ is often seen as no more than a lump of inert matter, malleable and almost infinitely transformable by human will, commitment, and faith. Some of us will recall Adam Mickiewicz’s early poetic manifesto ‘‘Piesn Filaretow’’: ‘‘For where hearts are on fire, where the spirit holds sway,’’ the dead truths of science need not apply.

And yet Gorky’s case is somewhat special, if not necessarily unique. For one thing, while Chekhov refuses to scorn the lovely sisters’ daydreaming, he is not in the least implicated in their illusions. For another thing, in the early Gorky we are often confronted with the uneasy hybrid ‘‘romantic naturalism.’’ To quote Khodasevich once more: ‘‘Gorky began to portray his none too real characters against the backdrop of thoroughly realistic stage sets.’’ Moreover, and perhaps more important, his temperamental predisposition for romantic voluntarism coexisted rather precariously with other elements of the quasi-scientific worldview toward which he was groping—a philosophy that was too strongly tinged with historical materialism to be openly dismissive of the claims of material reality.

But let us dispense with generalities and get down to cases, or, to be exact, to the salient case in point: for The Lower Depths(Na dne), Gorky’s most famous and, despite some glaring flaws, most arresting play, is a stark if strangely inconclusive dramatization of the theme first sounded in Gorky’s early parable.

You will recall the siskin’s unexpectedly bold challenge to the conventional wisdom of resignation and passivity. It rises to urge fellow birds to fly forward to the land of happiness that beckons from afar. The reality-oriented woodpecker sagely intervenes to point out that the land of happiness does not exist and that what lies ahead is either a bird trap or, at best, the world being round, a return to the same thicket. The defeated siskin muses: ‘‘The woodpecker may well be right, but who needs his truth if it weighs like a stone on one’s wings?’’

In The Lower Depths the role of the woodpecker is assumed by one of the inmates of Kostylev’s squalid flophouse, the dour capemaker Bubnov: ‘‘Now I don’t know how to tell lies. What good are they? What I say is—give ’em the whole truth just as it is.’’ Luka, who enters the stage in the middle of act 1 only to exert a pervasive influence on the wretched assemblage until the end of act 3, takes a different view of the matter. When the spirited young thief, Pepel, whom he urges to seek a better life in Siberia, that land of golden opportunity, accuses the old man of fibbing, he answers in words that unmistakably echo the siskin’s: ‘‘Anyway, what do you want the truth for? The truth might come down on you like an ax.’’

It is a matter of some moment that the champion of ‘‘truth’’ in The Lower Depths should be one of the bleakest among the derelicts. The epitome of weary resignation and grim adjustment to degrading reality, Bubnov—to echo another early Gorky dichotomy— is a ‘‘garden snake’’ (by contrast to the falcon of the oft-quoted parable) par excellence.

But how about Luka? Who is this professional ‘‘comforter’’ who offers to nearly everyone a word of solace or encouragement? Is he a holy wanderer or a fraud? To put it differently, is he a man of compassion and kindness or a canny purveyor of false hope, or both? Clearly, a tenable interpretation of The Lower Depths hinges on a more or less plausible answer to this query.

Predictably, Russian Marxist criticism, whether of prerevolutionary or of Soviet vintage, has had little use for Luka. (Though his message is at times elusive and equivocal, one thing is certain: it is a far cry from the clarion call to revolutionary struggle against the social order presumably responsible for the existence of such petty infernos as the Kostylev night lodging.) More noteworthy is the fact that Gorky himself arrived early on at a negative view of the play’s chief protagonist and expressed it over the years with increasing vehemence.

There is no dearth of evidence that this was not his initial position or, in any case, not his initial attitude. M. F. Andreeva has recorded a moving scene. On September 6, 1902, Gorky read The Lower Depths to the actors of the Moscow Art Theater: ‘‘Gorky read splendidly, especially the part of Luka. When he came to Anna’s death, he couldn’t contain himself and burst into tears. He tore himself away from the manuscript, looked at us all, and said, ‘A good, a damned good job of writing!’’’ Another reading of The Lower Depths by Gorky elicited similar testimony from a Moscow writer, Teleshov: ‘‘He read very well and held his audience spellbound, especially by the part of the old man Luka.’’ And V. A. Lunacharskii was clearly assuming that Gorky was strongly drawn to the old wanderer when adjudging The Lower Depths the author’s temporary fall from grace.

It is a matter of record that shortly after the resounding success of The Lower Depths Gorky turned his back on what was arguably his most effective, certainly his most intriguing dramatic creation. As early as 1910, according to Piatnitskii, Gorky called Luka a ‘‘crook’’: ‘‘Luka is a crook. He actually does not believe in anything.’’ The abuse escalates in a much later conversation with one D. Lutokhin: ‘‘What a crummy old man this Luka is! He deceives people by sweet lies and lives off them. From the outset, I conceived the wanderer as a con man and a crook, but Moskvin [who played Luka in the first Moscow Art Theater production of The Lower Depths] was so convincing that I did not want to argue with him.’’ Parenthetically, this curious authorial self-effacement vis-a-vis the admittedly brilliant actor sounds a trifle unconvincing, the more so since Moskvin’s interpretation of the part, though clearly engaging, was not as positive as it might have been. According to Iu. Iuzovskii, a number of reviewers took Moskvin to task for overemphasizing Luka’s slyness at the expense of his kindness. The final authorial unmasking of Luka is found in Gorky’s much-quoted 1933 article ‘‘On Plays’’ (‘‘O p’esakh’’). Luka, it turns out, repre sents the most harmful and most repelling kind of comforter—the type of cold, cunning, self-serving manipulator who tells suffering people comforting lies in order to get them off his back: ‘‘This is the kind of comforter Luka was intended to be, but apparently I did not carry it off.’’ For once, it is difficult not to agree.

To suggest that this retrospective denigration finds scant support in the text is not to claim that Luka as he actually appears in the play is an unambiguously positive character, for he cuts a thoroughly unheroic figure. When the dying Anna compliments him on his ‘‘softness,’’ he counters her praise with a candid pun: ‘‘I’ve been put through the wringer—that’s why I’m soft’’ (‘‘Miali mnogo— ottogo miagok’’). Having been ‘‘pummeled’’ by life, he takes few chances. When Kostylev and Pepel fatally collide, Luka takes advantage of the turmoil and slips away quietly. He may or may not believe in the afterlife that he invokes while ministering to Anna, in the bright prospect he holds out to Pepel, or in the free-of-charge hospital for alcoholics that would cure the Actor of his addiction and restore to him his professional identity. But if Luka lies knowingly—which, in view of his scant concern with truth, is a strong possibility—he does so, I submit, not for his personal gain but out of compassion for his fellow humans.

Interestingly enough, this happens to be the contention of the protagonist, who comes as close as anyone in the play to being the authorial mouthpiece, notably Satin; conversely, it is the unspeakable Baron who, after Luka’s quick getaway, declares him ‘‘a fake.’’ To be sure, Satin is not uncritical of the ‘‘old man’’: at the beginning of the postmortem he likens him to ‘‘soft bread to the toothless.’’ And in the course of his impassioned but rather incoherent monologue, he intones at some point: ‘‘Lies are the religion of slaves and bosses. Truth is the god of the free man.’’ Yet, if act 4 was supposed to feature a post-factum unmasking of the false prophet, this does not quite come off. For in spite of a significant difference of emphasis, Satin’s overquoted harangue is at least as much a consequence of Luka’s intervention as it is a challenge to his message: ‘‘The old man had a head on his shoulders. He had the same effect on me as acid on the old, dirty coin—let us drink to his health.’’ Also, ‘‘Don’t touch her! Don’t hurt another human being! I can’t get that old man out of my head!’’ Shortly thereafter Satin revises the message: ‘‘We have to respect man, not pity him, not demean him with our pity!’’ Though the polemical intent here is obvious, it is equally apparent that Satin has been stirred by Luka’s meeker preaching into his ringing— and at least to this reader somewhat hollow and unearned—celebration of man. (Whether one should be grateful to Luka for having triggered one of the most tiresome clichés in modern Russian literature—‘‘Man! . . . It has such a proud ring!’’ — is quite another matter.)

More broadly, Luka’s presence in the Kostylev flophouse proves as much a stimulant as a tranquilizer. However tame or ‘‘toothless’’ his gospel, it injects a discordant and humanizing note into the dark and brutish universe of the play. The notion that every human being, however lowly, destitute, or sinful, is worthy of concern, that, to quote Mrs. Willy Loman, ‘‘attention must be paid,’’ may not set the world on fire, but for the profoundly demoralized and dispirited denizens of the Kostylev hellhole, it proves strangely catalytic.

That Luka is at his best or at his most demonstrably benign in dealing with a terminal case such as Anna’s—that is, in comforting a dying woman, virtually abandoned by everyone, including her harsh, dejected husband—is as much a commentary on the nature of the situation into which the wanderer has stumbled as on the built-in limitations of his ministry. When at the conclusion of his wideranging and hitherto judicious essay ‘‘Ideas and Images’’ Iuzovskii speaks of Luka’s ‘‘total bankruptcy’’ and his ‘‘catastrophic’’ impact on the proceedings, he clearly yields to the Soviet Gorky scholar’s characteristic temptation—that of Lukabashing. For as the critic admits earlier, no one, least of all a frail old man without a passport, could have prevented the bloody encounter between Pepel and Kostylev. True, the blame for the Actor’s suicide could arguably be laid at Luka’s door. After a brief moment of euphoria, the hapless Actor must have realized that he was too far gone to be able to shake off his crippling addiction. But even if in his case the attempt at rescue or cure proved counterproductive, indeed lethal, it simply pointed up the hopelessness of the patient’s condition. Ironically, the purveyor of ‘‘exalting illusion’’ has produced a moment of truth.

Now this is no more than one possible diagnosis of the Luka syndrome. (One of the refreshingly un-Gorkyan qualities of The Lower Depths lies in its allowing, indeed encouraging, more than one reading.) What is incontestable and possibly significant is the avowed discrepancy between Gorky’s alleged intentions vis-a-vis Luka and what he has actually wrought. So is the fact that, in looking back upon his most resounding dramatic success, Gorky should have been drawn into increasingly harsh and simplistic verdicts that were demonstrably at variance with the actual tenor of the play. Was his ‘‘protesting too much’’ a symptom of an unresolved inner conflict, of a struggle with a part of himself he was eager to submerge or control? Or is it that his instinctive attraction to any attempt to embellish and to inject color, spark, and hope into intolerably grimy and degrading reality was being overtaken and reduced to the status of a temporary ‘‘lapse from grace’’ by a more exacting, more doctrinaire, and more relentlessly activist mode of mythmaking?

At the time when Gorky found The Lower Depths unsuited for the Soviet repertory without drastic revisions, he was about to assume the mantle of the patron saint of Socialist Realism. He had already become the most authoritative and influential literary spokesman for Soviet culture and society. As some of us will recall, at the dawn of the Soviet system he had his differences with its architects, and he stated them with remarkable clarity and forthrightness. Yet en route to his triumphal homecoming, he stifled such lingering doubts as he may have had in order to commit himself with a quasi-religious fervor to what he saw primarily, I believe, as a grand and inevitably costly project of rousing Russia out of age-old inertia and of releasing and mobilizing the immense dormant energies of the Russian people for creative toil, for industrial and cultural construction (stroitel’stvo).

Significantly enough, when Gorky recalled his initial ‘‘wavering,’’ he spoke of it by referring to such dichotomies as personal observation versus a theorist’s vision or the present versus the future. In a 1933 letter to the playwright A. Afinogenov, he avers: ‘‘In 1917 my empiricism served as a basis for my skeptical attitude toward the victorious proletariat. The theoretician [Lenin] turned out to be stronger than the empiricist, closer to the historical truth; I have made a costly mistake.’’ Another major difference between himself and Lenin, claimed Gorky in a letter of April 13, 1933, to his biographer, Ilia Gruzdev, had to do with their respective vantage points: ‘‘It is impossible to reach the proper altitude of a vantage point without the rare ability to look at the present out of the future.’’ Let me suggest at this point that this ‘‘rare ability’’—a salient aspect of the utopian or millenarian frame of mind—has farreaching consequences. For if what matters most, or if all that really matters, is a future whose total radiance is vouchsafed, indeed made imperative, by the total hatefulness of the past, then the ontological status of the immediate, the observable, is reduced accordingly. The present in this scheme is no more than a brief and necessarily unpleasant prelude to a preordained bliss. Its hardships, ordeals, or, if need be, horrors fade into insignificance or near irrelevance, as they are no more than way stations en route to the Promised Land. To put it differently, it is easy to construe what is demonstrably and bleakly but only provisionally there as somehow less real than what is dimly perceived, if at all, on the horizon.

Now it is my contention that, at the late stage of his far-flung career, Gorky’s congenitally ambivalent or ‘‘tangled’’ attitude toward mere fact made him singularly vulnerable to the temptations of political utopianism and especially prone to deny recalcitrant realities or to explain them away. Perhaps the most dismal example of this tendency is the notorious collective volume in which, under Gorky’s aegis, thirty-four gifted Soviet writers— Gorky was forever mindful of literary quality—cheerfully reinterpreted a major forced labor camp as an educational institution. And then there is a revealing outburst, briefly referred to by Khodasevich, in a 1929 letter to an incisive emigre essayist, E. G. Kuskova, who had just accused Gorky of taking a one-sidedly favorable view of the Soviet regime:

The fact is that I hate with a passion the truth which for 99% of the people is an abomination and a lie. I know that reality is miserable for 50 million who make up the masses of the Russian people and that men have need of another truth which does not debase them but which lifts their energy in toil and creation. What is important for me is the rapid and general development of the human personality, the birth of a new . . . man. What is important for me is that a worker in a sugar refinery reads Shelley in the original. He is an excellent man, full of fervor and confidence. He does not need this impoverishing and lying truth in which he defeats himself and has need of a truth in which he creates himself.

It would be churlish and pettily empiricist to require statistics about Shelley-lovers at the Soviet sugar refineries. What is more serious is the hasty dismissal of the avowed misery of fifty million people. Yet especially unsettling and germane to my argument is the rhetorical manipulation of the word truth, the slippery distinction between two kinds of truth—the good (mobilizing, uplifting) and the bad (disheartening, paralyzing). Clearly, where the main requirement is not congruence with some observable fact but rather uplift and edification, the very notion of truth is effectively subverted.

It is this instrumental approach to truth that informs some of the advice that the grand old man of Soviet literature was dispensing to his younger confreres in the 1930s. Solicitude for talent, delight in genuine creativity, had always been one of Gorky’s most admirable characteristics. His encouragement of, and empathy for, that spirited band of gifted and searching young writers, the Serapion Brothers, including their fiery spokesman, the irrepressible Lev Lunts, was first and foremost testimony to Gorky’s concern with the quality of Russian prose fiction. Yet it was also a token of his regard for the freewheeling Russian literary imagination. Gorky the Socialist-Realist pundit is much more circumspect and pragmatic. The core of his already-quoted letter to A. Afinogenov is a sharply critical assessment of the younger man’s then-current play, The Lie. According to the editors of the Gorky issue of Literary Heritage, The Lie, despite several revisions, incurred Stalin’s displeasure; as a result, ‘‘Afinogenov asked the theaters to remove The Lie from their repertories.’’

Gorky’s judgment is largely negative. Were the play, he opined, to be performed before a select and ideologically mature audience, it would not do much harm. Yet to show it to millions of Soviet citizens would not be appropriate. Gorky goes on to invoke the awesome resonance of Soviet literature: ‘‘We write not only for the proletarians of our land but for the world proletariat.’’

Let us note, on the run, the openly paternalistic variation rung here on the traditional Russian theme of the writer’s social responsibility. A man who in 1917-18, aroused by the revolution, felt that nothing less than candor was owed to the people now seems to urge a distinction between two truths—the exoteric and the esoteric. As it happens, what is at issue here is precisely the legitimacy of tampering with the truth for the good of the cause. At some point in The Lie a Communist would-be intellectual (intelligent) declares: ‘‘The masses ought to trust us, without asking whether this is true or not.’’ Another protagonist, apparently a well-intentioned but somewhat muddled activist, chimes in: ‘‘With a lie one can live snugly [lit. teplee, ‘‘warmly’’].’’ Gorky is clearly unhappy about this: ‘‘If you intended to posit in this muddled fashion the necessity of lying in the struggle for the victory of the proletariat’s universal truth, the effect of the way you have done it is to call into question the greatness of this truth.’’

I find it difficult to shake off the impression that what Gorky is objecting to here is not the nature of the sentiment expressed but infelicitous attribution. Gorky seems to allow that temporarily withholding from the masses the truth for which they are not ready, so as to hasten the triumph of ‘‘the proletariat’s universal truth,’’ may well be necessary. Yet in order to lend credibility to this proposition, Afinogenov would have to find a more impressive vehicle. By failing to do so, his play, if shown to a mass audience, would be apt to confuse an ideologically immature viewer, not to mention the fact that its inordinate candor might give aid and comfort to the ‘‘enemy.’’

Some Gorky watchers have claimed that he found it increasingly difficult to countenance this kind of moral double-bookkeeping. Presumably, the ‘‘base truths’’ of the terrible decade began to seep through the barrier of his insistent denials. Did he come to feel, as his long journey was coming to an end, that, to paraphrase his letter to Afinogenov, he ‘‘had made a costly mistake?’’ We may never know.

Source: Victor Erlich, ‘‘Truth and Illusion in Gorky: The Lower Depths and After: Essays in Honor of Robert Louis Jackson,’’ in Freedom and Responsibility in Russian Literature, edited by Elizabeth Cheresh Allen and Gary Saul Morson, Northwestern University Press, Yale Center for International and Area Studies, 1995, pp. 191–98.

Signifying and Popularizing Foreign Culture: From Maxim Gorky's The Lower Depths to Huang Zuolin's Ye dian

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2261

Stage and screen productions of Ye dian [Night lodging] were quite familiar to urban Chinese born in the 1910s and early 1920s. The play was first performed in 1946 and won considerable acclaim. It must be regarded as one of the ten or twenty most important Chinese plays (huaju) of the first half of the twentieth century. The movie version was screened widely in China in spring 1948 and is generally viewed as one of the most serious films of the early post-war era. In the 1950s the play was staged in Singapore and other overseas Chinese communities. Both the play and the film were banned in China during the Cultural Revolution, but enjoyed a measure of renewed popularity in the early post-Mao period. Older people in particular expressed a strong nostalgic interest in Republican era works and thus were especially eager to see plays and films of this sort rehabilitated and relegitimized. In summer 1979 the play was restaged in Shanghai, and in fall 1983 the film was featured in Beijing and Shanghai in major retrospectives of notable pre-1949 movies (Zhongguo dianying huigu)

Very little detailed scholarly attention has been paid to Ye dian, but short, glowing commentaries on its popularity and merits abound. Invariably these writings note that both the stage and film versions of Ye dian are ‘‘adapted’’ (gaibian) from Maxim Gorky’s 1902 play entitled The Lower Depths(Na dne) But what exactly does ‘‘adapted’’ mean? Almost nothing is said in such writings about the precise relationship between Gorky’s work and the Chinese productions. Since critics have not been inclined to dwell upon the differences between the Chinese works and the Russian original, the impression is often left that the stage and screen versions of Ye dian strongly resemble what one finds in The Lower Depths. The distinguished film historian Cheng Jihua and his collaborators briefly discuss the film under the heading of ‘‘Ke Ling’s adaptation based on Gorky’s play.’’ Jay Leyda goes so far as to refer to the movie as Huang Zuolin’s ‘‘filming of Gorky’s [The] Lower Depths.’’

A related matter is the connection between the Chinese play and the Chinese movie. A biographical sketch of Ke Ling, who co-authored the stage play and single-handedly wrote the screenplay, observes that the film is a ‘‘cinematized’’ (dianyinghua) variation of the play, but that the ‘‘content [of the film] is basically the same as [the content of] the play.’’ Cheng Jihua and his co-editors write that ‘‘With the exception of a reduction in the number of lines for [the character] Jin Buhuan, a comparison of the film Ye dian and the stage adaptation shows that the rest is basically the same. The film adopts (caiqu) some of the plot (qingjie) and characters (renwu) from the original Gorky work, but what it describes is Chinese social life. To be more precise, the film Ye dian is a new creation that refers to the original work.’’ Vague as these characterizations may be, they share one thing in common: they underscore essential continuities that link all three works. In brief, the underlying spirit of Gorky’s play was retained in the sinified stage and screen adaptations. Writing in 1947, director Huang Zuolin himself emphasized the commonality of ‘‘meaning’’ (yisi) that bound the Chinese play to the Russian original.

These types of commentaries simply do not prepare one for a comparative reading of the three texts. The Chinese play and movie most certainly brought Gorky’s original work into the mainstream of twentieth-century Chinese stage and film culture, but the sinification process fundamentally altered the work. The discontinuities are far more pronounced than the continuities. Furthermore, as Ke Ling pointed out to me in a 1983 interview, the Chinese play and the Chinese movie are strikingly different. Gorky might have been able to recognize the contribution of his own work to the Chinese stage production, but he probably would have denied the existence of any substantive link between The Lower Depths and the remarkably sentimental Chinese movie.

The Lower Depths: A Russian Play To understand better the relationship between The Lower Depths on the one hand and Ke Ling’s screenplay and Huang Zuolin’s film Ye dian on the other, it is necessary to begin with a discussion of Gorky’s four-act play, which was first performed by the Moscow Art Theater in 1902. Two general points need to be underscored. First, there is not much of a plot in this play, and what there is of a plot is relatively unimportant to the communication of the play’s moral message about the relationship between illusion and truth. Similarly, no single character becomes a central focus of attention or dominates the dialogues. Instead, the play offers a collective sketch of the pathetic inhabitants of a rundown lodging house in a Volga town at the turn of the century. The inn caters to a ‘‘bosyak’’ clientele, that is, an underclass of people ‘‘who did occasional odd jobs but mostly lived by their wits,’’ a ‘‘motley, shiftless, and often criminal fringe’’ that was especially numerous in port towns.

A second basic point about the play is its deeply pessimistic implications. Gorky’s portrait of the downtrodden masses is extremely dark and grim (or, as one critic put it, ‘‘bleak and sullen’’). Indeed, Gorky seems to be indicting Russian culture and society in general when he highlights the profound backwardness of this repulsive corner of society. Daily life involves little more than endless cycles of drunkenness, violence, vulgarity, fear and persecution. No heroic figures emerge and there are no indications that meaningful change is ever going to take place. In The Lower Depths human beings resemble a pack of caged animals, each struggling to survive one more day.

Sympathetic and hostile critics alike generally agree with this assessment. Harold Segel, who liked the work, has observed that the play is ‘‘static and oppressive in atmosphere’’ and that ‘‘the total environment of the cellar flophouse lingers longer in the memory than any finely etched individual portrait.’’ Writing in 1903, Max Beerbohm, who despised the play, complained bitterly that The Lower Depths had ‘‘no meaning, no unity, nothing but bald and unseemly horror.’’ He added that the theater audience demands of the playwright who deals with ‘‘ugly things’’ something more than the mere ‘‘sight of his subject matter.’’ F.M. Borras noted that ‘‘When The Lower Depths was first presented most critics regarded it as a static play, a series of sketches from life without internal links, a naturalistic work almost devoid of action and dramatic conflicts.’’ Anton Chekov, who liked almost everything but the last act, wrote a letter to Gorky in which he said, ‘‘you can say goodbye to your reputation as an optimist.’’ Critics also note that Gorky strongly discouraged sentimental renditions of the play.

There is virtually no action in the first act. Instead, a host of colorful characters who reside in the inn are overheard in detailed and animated conversation on a wide range of topics. These figures include a thief named Peppel, a capmaker, a locksmith and his sickly wife, a pudgy woman who sells dumplings, a cobbler, a broken-down actor, a fallen aristocrat and his female companion who works as a prostitute, an incompetent local policeman, a couple of longshoremen, an elderly wanderer, and a murderer named Satin.

The lodging is run by its miserly owner, an old man named Kostylyov, and his vicious young wife, Vassilissa. Their family unit includes Vassilissa’s younger sister, Natasha.

Peppel, the thief, works closely with Kostylyov and Vassilissa, who support and encourage his criminal activities. They buy, at significantly discounted prices, many of the objects Peppel steals. Furthermore, Peppel is Vassilissa’s lover. Kostylyov is suspicious of the relationship, but has no concrete evidence. Peppel, however, has grown tired of Vassilissa and has decided to terminate their romantic ties. He is now attracted to her unmarried younger sister, Natasha. Vassilissa is aware of his new interest and realizes she has no future with Peppel, but she is jealous of Natasha and abuses her. Natasha, for her part, distrusts Peppel.

The second and third acts of The Lower Depths are the important ones for the purposes of this discussion, because they constitute the raw material reprocessed by Chinese stage and screen artists more than forty years later. It is in these acts that something resembling a plot surfaces from time to time. By dwelling on these traces of a plot, however, I do not mean to contradict the view that the plot is of secondary importance in this play.

In the second act two relevant developments take place. First, Anna, the locksmith’s sickly wife, comes increasingly closer to death. Her abusive husband ignores her suffering. Luka, the elderly, somewhat senile and highly religious wanderer, tries his best to comfort Anna. He reassures her that there is a heaven, that she will go to heaven, that there is no suffering in heaven, and that any additional suffering she has to endure on earth will be worth enduring because she can look forward to an eternity of peace. Gorky scholars have paid an enormous amount of attention to Luka, a figure who specializes in giving hope to desperate people by telling them sweet lies about the future. Luka is a peddlar of ‘‘illusionary truth.’’ It is Peppel, the thief, who cruelly spoils Anna’s momentary peace of mind by loudly ridiculing the old man’s soothing commentary. This episode ends with Anna lying distraught on her bed.

A bit later Vassilissa wants to discuss a private matter with Peppel. She knows their relationship is almost over and that Peppel is attracted to her younger sister. She offers to facilitate the union of Peppel and Natasha and to pay Peppel 300 rubles if he will do her a favor: arrange at once to have her husband, the innkeeper Kostylyov, killed. Peppel immediately rejects the offer. Neither he nor Vassilissa knows that Luka, the old wanderer, has overheard the entire conversation. The meeting ends when Kostylyov walks in, curses his wife, engages in a minor scuffle with Peppel and withdraws with Vassilissa. Luka, who has seen everything, senses that there will be more trouble and advises Peppel to seek a happy future by running away with Natasha.

Immediately thereafter Luka and Peppel discover that Anna, the locksmith’s suffering wife, has died. They depart in search of Anna’s husband, and the body is discovered for a second time by Natasha, who fears that one day she will end up the same way. Act two ends with a discussion (that does not include Peppel or Luka) about what to do with the body. It is agreed it should be buried soon, otherwise it might begin to smell. The residents urge the locksmith to report the death to the police immediately, lest the authorities think foul play was involved. A few tenants agree to make minor contributions to cover funeral expenses, not because they feel compassion, but because they want to get rid of the body as soon as possible.

It is not until the third act that the relationship between Peppel and Natasha is treated in detail. This requires a long dialogue in which an uncharacteristically charming Peppel finally declares his love for Natasha. In the end she agrees to run away with Peppel, as the friendly wanderer has suggested, but her distrust and suspicion of Peppel never really disappear. Unfortunately for the couple, Vassilissa has overheard the conversation and suddenly intrudes on the scene. Before long Kostylyov shows up and gets into another shouting match with Peppel. Eventually Peppel exits and Natasha is taken back into the family quarters.

After a substantial delay, Natasha is subjected to a savage beating by her ruthless sister. Her screams fill the inn and draw a crowd. Before long Peppel shows up and, together with others, gets into a fist fight with Kostylyov. It is important to note here that Peppel is seen striking Kostylyov. Suddenly the old man collapses and dies.

In an extremely interesting turn of events, Vassilissa accuses Peppel of beating her husband to death and demands that the police be summoned. Peppel responds by saying that she should be pleased because she had been encouraging him to kill her husband. Natasha does not know what to believe and concludes at the end of the act that she has been lied to by Peppel and that Peppel and Vassilissa conspired all along to get rid of the old man so they could be together. Both Peppel and Vassilissa are jailed by the police.

The final act, the one Chekov disliked so much, is much like the first one. There is very little action. The dialogue is mainly among the other residents of the inn, who speak randomly on a variety of unrelated topics. In other words, life is back to normal after the recent commotion. Peppel, Vassilissa, and Natasha do not appear in the last act. Luka, the wanderer, has vanished into thin air. It is revealed, however, that both Peppel and Vassilissa are still in jail and that Natasha simply disappeared after a brief stay in a hospital. Just before the curtain falls, the rambling conversations of the residents are interrupted by the news that the drunken actor, realizing that he too was given false hopes by the old wanderer, has just hanged himself. No one seems to care.

Source: Paul G. Pickowicz, ‘‘Signifying and Popularizing Foreign Culture: From Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths to Huang Zuolin’s Ye dian, ’’ in Modern Chinese Literature, Fall, 1993, Vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 7–31.


Critical Overview