Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2593
One of the more remarkable aspects of Maxim Gorky’s career as a dramatist is the rapidity with which he mastered the playwright’s art. His first play, Smug Citizen (also known as The Petty Bourgeois and The Philistines), contains imperfections but is nevertheless very promising. The Lower Depths , which...
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One of the more remarkable aspects of Maxim Gorky’s career as a dramatist is the rapidity with which he mastered the playwright’s art. His first play, Smug Citizen (also known as The Petty Bourgeois and The Philistines), contains imperfections but is nevertheless very promising. The Lower Depths, which premiered in the same year as Smug Citizen, is generally regarded as his dramatic masterpiece. At the same time, Gorky did not stand still as a playwright. Indeed, his treatment of the tramp figure in The Lower Depths was to be the last time that he devoted a major work to these social outcasts. He goes on to describe members of Russia’s intelligentsia in a mini-cycle of plays, to tackle political issues, and, most interestingly, to write a group of what could be called morality plays during the 1910’s. These last plays reveal a sparser set of characters than do the earlier plays, but they also contain a greater psychological and dramatic intensity.
Gorky’s beginnings as a playwright owe much to his relationship with Anton Chekhov. The two began a correspondence shortly after the first collection of Gorky’s stories appeared in 1898. At that time, Chekhov, well established as a brilliant short-story writer, was about to gain recognition for his equally outstanding contributions to world theater; the plays by which Chekhov is best known were staged by the Moscow Art Theater between late 1898 and 1904. Chekhov encouraged Gorky in his dramatic experiments and lent his younger colleague support when work on his first play went badly. Chekhov’s influence on Gorky’s early plays was considerable, even though Chekhov himself was often to find fault with specific aspects of Gorky’s dramatic technique.
That influence is particularly evident in Gorky’s first play. The basic four-act structure of Chekhov’s plays appears in Smug Citizen as well as in most of Gorky’s other plays. Like Chekhov, Gorky sets his work in the provinces, and he focuses on a single household that is in turmoil. Gorky, too, tends to emphasize situation over plot. The play deals with the well-to-do head of the housepainters’ guild and his two children, both of whom are deeply troubled, caught between the expectations of their father and a vague desire for a better life. The action of the play does not so much involve a complex intrigue as it involves the changing relationships among characters while they are undergoing a critical moment in their lives. The personal dilemmas of the characters, as well as a number of small details in the play, recall Chekhov’s Tri sestry (pr., pb. 1901, rev. pb. 1904; The Three Sisters, 1920).
At the same time, even before the end of act 1, the play embraces a new, non-Chekhovian element. Gorky introduces a character, Nil, who is meant to be the play’s true hero. The character is not sufficiently developed to carry as much of the play’s message as Gorky desires—and Chekhov in fact criticized the play on these grounds. Yet in his rejection of bourgeois society and his scorn for the abstract philosophizing of other characters, Chekhov represents a social and political outlook that is close to Gorky’s own. Chekhov is more willing to let the audience draw its own conclusions about his characters; Gorky wants to convey a specific message.
This first play, while containing many fine scenes and well-drawn portrayals, seems static. Some characters who should be more prominent—Nil, the figure of the father—remain on the periphery; too much time is spent with others who add little either to the plot or to the play’s message. Still, the work marked an auspicious beginning and enjoyed some success from the time of its first performance.
The Lower Depths
Gorky’s reputation as a playwright, though, was established only with the triumphant opening of The Lower Depths. Like Gorky’s first play and Chekhov’s major works, its original staging was by Konstantin Stanislavsky. The cast for the premiere included some of Russia’s finest actors; Stanislavsky himself played the role of Satin, Olga Knipper (Chekhov’s wife) had one female lead, and Marie Fiodorovna Andreyeva, soon to become Gorky’s companion, another.
The play’s chief strength lies in its characters. Gorky presents a large group of figures who have been living “on the bottom” (the literal translation of the play’s title), which in this case happens to be the dirty basement of a flophouse. Despite the large number of roles, each of the individuals is carefully delineated and distinguished from the rest. For example, the Baron is a person who has come down in life, and he mocks those who try to imagine a better life for themselves; yet he expresses pride in his supposed pedigree, and when his musings about his noble family are attacked as lies, he is not able to cope. Although most of the figures have reached the bottom by the time the play opens, the locksmith Kleshch drifts down to that level as the action unfolds. His wife, Anna, whom he had brutally mistreated, dies in the course of the play, yet he seems less malicious than simply inadequate to deal with the challenges that life sets before him. The play’s main intrigue involves the efforts of a thief, Vaska Pepel, to run off with the sister-in-law of the lodging’s owner and start a new life. In an altercation, Pepel kills the owner and ends up in jail.
The play’s thematic concerns are expressed most directly through two figures who stand somewhat to the side of the rest: Satin, a cardsharper who has spent time in prison for killing a man, and Luka, a wanderer who comes to the lodging house for only a short time. Luka offers others consolation. He tells Anna that death is nothing to be feared, for she will have peace at last. He advises Pepel to run off to Siberia. Luka believes in lying when necessary to inspire people or at least to avoid despair. Although he acts more humanely than any of the other characters in the play, Gorky meant him to be a negative character, somebody who consoled others only to preserve his own peace and comfort. Satin, whose monologue dominates the final act after Luka has left the play, offers a ringing affirmation of truth, of a life that lacks illusions, of a humankind capable of anything. The distinction between Luka and Satin is in fact less sharp than Gorky’s later interpretations would indicate. Characters such as the Baron, who believes only in a harsh truth, are indeed the opposite of Luka, whereas both Satin and Luka do ultimately want to help people better themselves. During the course of his monologue, Satin even quotes Luka’s words to good effect.
The play has been criticized both for its multitude of concerns and for its seemingly lopsided structure, with the fourth act so different from the preceding ones in its set of characters and in its type of action. Yet the various themes all do build on one another, and it can be convincingly argued that the somewhat sparser final act is necessary to focus attention on Gorky’s central themes. To be sure, the fourth act is in many ways redeemed dramatically by the final scene. The Actor, a habitual drunkard who has found a bit of hope in Luka’s assurance that there are places where people like him can be cured, comes to realize under the taunts of his fellow lodgers that his dreams are in vain. While the other lodgers loudly carouse, he leaves, and the Baron bursts in a short while later to yell over the singing that the Actor has hanged himself. All fall silent, and only Satin’s response—that the Baron has spoiled the song—can be heard as the curtain falls.
The play Summer Folk, part of the cycle that deals with the intelligentsia, concentrates on the efforts of certain members to break away from that society. Gorky divides his characters into three groups—as in The Lower Depths, no single figure is predominant. Some, such as the lawyer Basov and his assistant Zamyslov, seem totally at home in the corrupt society of which they are part. Others, including those who are intellectuals or at least aspire to intellectual pursuits, sense that something is wrong but are inept in every undertaking. This group includes a writer, Shalimov, and Basov’s sister Kaleria. Third are those who fully understand what is wrong with their lives. A few of these characters are also too weak and indecisive to make a break, but others—notably Basov’s wife and her brother, along with a woman doctor named Marias Lvovna—reject the milieu of the “summerfolk” and strike out for a new life.
Although the play never quite attains the vibrancy of The Lower Depths, Gorky’s effective character portrayals and the occasional comic relief make it a particularly satisfying work. Appearing as well are several elements that bear witness to Gorky’s growing confidence and maturity as a playwright. As part of the summertime activity, an entertainment is being planned. Actors drift past the other characters on the way to rehearsal and bring into relief the artificiality of those who live in the dachas—their life is only a game; real life is somewhere else. Gorky also makes fine use of the tension created by hints of imminent violence, which dissolve into empty threats and one almost comically inept attempt at suicide. His restraint, his not feeling the need to rely on a sudden death for dramatic effect, shows that he is willing to let the inherent tension of the situation he has set up carry the play. Also pervading the work is the shadow of Chekhov, albeit this time the play that is recalled is not Three Sisters but Chayka (pr. 1896, rev. pr. 1898; The Seagull, 1909): the staging of a play, the presence of both a writer (Shalimov) and a would-be writer (Kaleria), and so forth. Yet in comparison with Smug Citizen, the Chekhovian qualities of Summer Folk seem less obtrusive; in it, Gorky’s own manner carries the play.
Gorky’s works of the 1910’s were to represent a sharp departure in his playwriting. He came to concentrate on only a few characters, and his plots began to have only one or two lines, instead of the multisided relationships that predominated in his earlier plays. Previously his main characters were rarely sympathetic; now they tended to appear in a more favorable light. Social and political issues moved to the background, and Gorky shifted his attention to moral issues. At the same time he allowed representatives of the merchant class—who were often treated with scorn earlier—to take on positive features.
All these qualities are evident in Old Man (originally translated into English as The Judge). The hero, Mastakov, is a well-to-do individual who has done much good. As the play opens, he has just completed work on a school building for his town. Mastakov, it turns out, has a secret that he has withheld from everybody. He was once unjustly accused of murder and sentenced to hard labor, from which he escaped and started life anew. Now a fellow prisoner from that time, Pitirim, the “old man” of the title, has wandered into the town as a tramp. He seeks retribution from Mastakov, who did not serve out his term and whose life has been far more successful than Pitirim’s. However, Pitirim cannot decide on the nature of that retribution. He apparently wants to see Mastakov suffer in such a way as to bring Mastakov down to his level. Mastakov, feeling himself more and more trapped, ultimately resorts to the only way out—suicide.
Gorky himself defined his main concern in Old Man when he wrote a preface for the first English translation: “I have tried to show how repulsive a man may be who becomes infatuated with his own suffering, who has come to believe that he enjoys the right to torment others for what he has suffered.” On a number of occasions, Pitirim refers to himself as Mastakov’s judge, but he is less a judge than he is an executioner. Pitirim’s “aggressive suffering” has been seen by some critics as a response on Gorky’s part to Fyodor Dostoevski’s Dmitri Karamazov. Convicted of a crime that he did not commit, Dmitri implies that suffering can in some cases purify the individual. For Dostoevski, the higher goal is what is important; he did not believe in suffering for its own sake. Gorky, who admired Dostoevski’s genius but quarreled with his ideas in both his essays and his fiction, claims here and in other plays of this period that suffering rarely leads to any good at all. Further, Gorky rejects the right of any individual to pass judgment on another; the attempt to assume such power leads only to disaster.
In simplifying the plot and cast, Gorky brought issues of universal concern into much sharper focus. The last few plays he wrote before the revolution are hardly less interesting than the earlier work for which he is better known; they are deserving of greater attention than they have received outside the Soviet Union.
Yegor Bulychov and Others
Among Gorky’s late plays, the most accomplished is Yegor Bulychov and Others. As in the plays of the 1910’s, the central character is a merchant who is by no means totally evil, and the play’s success depends strongly on the strength of that figure’s portrayal. In his earlier years, Bulychov was as grasping and greedy as any of his fellow merchants, but he has accomplished his goals by dint of inner strength and hard work. In the play he is faced with a dual crisis. He discovers that he has cancer of the liver; in his futile struggle with death, he begins to question the values by which he has lived. The other aspect of the crisis is more social and political. The fateful year of 1917 arrives, and with it the upheavals that will bring down the entire order within which he has achieved success. What distinguishes Bulychov both from his fellow merchants and from the petty family intrigues that surround him is his awareness and acceptance of what has happened both to him and to his world. The clarity with which he sees the wrongs of his own life, of organized religion, and of the government under which he has lived gives him a certain grandeur.
The play, though, is more than another work about the merchant class. In the last half of the play, Gorky creates a mad, at times grotesquely comic whirlwind of strange happenings that come to symbolize the decline of the old system. At the end of act 2, Bulychov is introduced to a fire fighter who is also an amateur trumpet player. The fire fighter, significantly named Gavrilo (Gabriel), believes that blasts on his instrument have curative powers; as he blows on his trumpet, Bulychov proclaims the end of the old world. In the third act, a sorceress and a “holy fool” come to help cure Bulychov but create only further disruptions. The play’s contrasts in mood, from the intensely serious to the maniacally comic, as well as its range and the originality of its characters, attest that even at the end of his life Gorky’s powers as a playwright had not diminished.