Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Tenement basement

Tenement basement. Cellarlike rooming house accommodating a varied group of inhabitants, located in an unspecified Russian town along the Volga River. Representative of the kind of living conditions for a large percentage of Russia’s population in the early twentieth century, the setting of the play is a further statement in protest against inequalities.

The play’s stage set represented a combination of elements actually present in slum apartments, of which there were many. Russia was not a nation of great wealth, natural resources, or manufacturing, and its short growing season further increased its poverty. Many citizens considered themselves fortunate to find shelter even in such conditions as those depicted in the play’s damp, dim, sooty, cavernlike communal living area. Privacy, such as it was, occurred only when residents hung blankets or curtains to form cubicles. The setting reminds the audience of a den or a lair where harried and exhausted animals hole up to regain their strength. The setting has the impact of a purgatory in which the denizens wait, caught between life and death, for whatever happens next. At the same time, the residents must pay dearly for their shelter, so that nearly every penny that they make must go to pay their greedy landlords, leaving little money for anything else.