Maxim Gorky Drama Analysis

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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.

Smug Citizen

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,...

(The entire section is 2593 words.)