This analysis of The Lower Depths was originally published in The Continental Drama of Today. Barrett H. Clark. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1914. pp. 55-8.
The Lower Depths is rather a picture, or a series of pictures, than what we are accustomed to consider a play. It has no plot -- that is, a developed story with a beginning, a middle, and an end -- it comprises a few more or less disjointed incidents. The writer's purpose is merely to show a number of characters, their motives and their thoughts; he gives them certain situations as background, and not for any inherent interest that may be in them.
Were a well-trained dramatist to treat the material that goes to the making of this play, he would doubtless have made the murder of Kostoloff a more important part of his story; would have prepared, led up to and made much of it through the preceding acts. Yet the accidental nature of the scene as Gorky wrote it is very realistic; the suddenness is terrible, shocking.
The exposition in the first act is of very little importance, for the past history of the characters is told afterward by the people themselves; in fact, the play is little more than a retailing of the lives of the pitiful collection. The "milieu," or environment, is felt at the rise of the curtain, without the aid of spoken word. The exposition, therefore, is of small importance, and the play starts almost "at scratch."
Of development there is very little, for there is hardly any plot to develop. That section of the play lying between the end of the exposition and the climax consists mostly of talk, and may be considered as exposition of character. For a moment it seems that some sort of plot were about to take root, but the incident is not followed up, and is indeed not remembered until the murder of Kostoloff, more than fifty pages later.
The climax happens to fall where it belongs in a conventionally constructed work: near the end of the penultimate act. All technical canons are merely the epitome of what has been found, by natural evolution and continual experiment, to be the best way of accomplishing an end; yet Gorky has here, it seems, followed his natural artistic impulses without reference to set rules. In passing, be it remembered that rules are not arbitrary, they are the summing-up of the experience of those who have learned and succeeded. In The Lower Depths, the climax is truly dramatic, exciting, as Pepel strikes his victim; the scene is well handled and, though abruptly, well developed up to the very "curtain" of the act.
In the last act, Gorky has only to show the result of the murder and the influence of Luka. We learn nothing of the first, but the second causes a fitting and dramatic catastrophe. Luka has left, and his influence is seen to be both beneficent and evil. Satine quotes Luka in a speech that contains the theme -- so far as there is a theme -- of the play; "Why, [men] live for the better man, dearie! Now let's say, there's carpenters and the rest -- masses -- people.... And then out of them a carpenter's born ... a carpenter such as never was in the world: above 'em all: never was his like for carpent'ring. 'E stamps 'imself on the whole carpent'ring trade ... shoves the whole thing twenty years forward.... And so for all the others.... Locksmiths then ... bootmakers and other working folk ... and all the agriculturals ... and even the gentry -- they live for the better man! Each thinks 'e's livin' fer 'imself, yet it turns out it's fer that better man. A 'undred years ... and maybe longer, we 'as to go on livin' till the better man." --But, perhaps ironically, the Actor "he's hanged himself!" And the play ends with Satine's "Ah ... he's spoiled the song ... the fool!"
Luka is the one bright spot in the play; technically, he serves as the contrasting figure to the rest, while his prophetic optimism makes the hopeless misery of his fellow-beings blacker. He is intensely Russian in his philosophic questioning of the meaning and ultimate purpose of all life, as well as in his inordinate desire to talk. Like Turgenev's Rudin, he is forever theorizing, and that tendency is perhaps whas has caused his failure in life.
Compare the characters of Luka with the Stranger in Jerome K. Jerome's The Passing of the Third Floor Back, Manson in Charles Rann Kennedy's The Servant in the House, and Gottwald in Hauptmann's Hannele.
Back to Maxim Gorky