The Lower Depths

Citation metadata

Editor: Ira Mark Milne
Date: 2000
Drama for Students
From: Drama for Students(Vol. 9. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Play explanation; Work overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 23
Content Level: (Level 4)

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The Lower Depths


The Lower Depths is Maxim Gorki’s best known play, widely considered both a masterpiece and an extremely problematic work. Subtitled Scenes from Russian Life, the play was a huge success from its first performance. The idea for the play was conceived in 1900, and it was written during the winter of 1901 and the spring of 1902. It was produced by the Moscow Arts Theatre on December 18, 1902. Konstantin Stanislavsky directed the play and starred in it as Sahtin, and as it was one of his earliest successes, it became a hallmark of his work, the Moscow Arts Theatre, and Russian socialist realism. The play is a portrait, without much overriding plot, of a destitute, lower-class group in a lodging house in Volga. Realistic depiction of this segment of Russian society was new and avant-garde at the turn of the century, in contrast to the age-old trend towards romanticizing the underclasses. Some critics at the time took issue with Gorki’s subject matter, and his pessimistic, unredemptive presentation of the lower depths. Others disliked the ambiguity of the moral message about the human condition, and the unconventional structure of conversation around this. Most agreed, however, that the play’s character sketches were powerful and moving, and the subject matter, at the very least, provocative. Debate over its chief theme, the merits of the “truth” versus the “consoling lie,” continues to engage audiences and scholars today, and it continues to be produced worldwide a century after its inception.

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Maxim Gorki was born Alexei Maximovich Peshkov in Nizhy Novgorod, Russia, on March 16, 1868. His father died when Maxim was five years old, and he was raised by his maternal grandparents. His childhood was a brutal one; he was abused by his grandfather and forced to earn his own living from the age of eight. While he was still a child, Gorki became a menial laborer and a tramp, experiences that informed the works for which he is most famous. He was frequently beaten and abused by his employers, and to escape the miserable conditions of his life, he became an avid reader. In this way Gorki was self-educated, and came to see literature as a means of salvation for all people, as he details in his autobiographies and the essay collection, On Literature.

Gorki spent his early adulthood in Kazan, where, at 19, he attempted suicide by shooting himself in the chest. The event transformed the young man, and motivated him to begin his career as a writer. By 1892 he had published his first piece under his pseudonym, meaning Maxim the Bitter. His first major work, Chelkash, commenced his rise to recognition. In 1902 The Lower Depths was produced to enormous acclaim. The play was performed worldwide and established Gorki both at home and in the West.

Throughout this period Gorki was viewed with suspicion by Russian authorities, who saw his work as contributing to growing social unrest. He was briefly imprisoned in 1901 on account of his revolutionary poem, “Pesnya o Burevestnike,” and the following year his election to the Russian Academy of Sciences was rescinded. Gorki was active in the 1905 revolution, and after its defeat lived in exile, mostly in Capri. Mark Twain, who supported American intervention on behalf of the revolution, hosted him for a short period in the United States. When Gorki returned to Russia in 1913, he continued his political activities and supported the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, although he disapproved of many of the new regime’s unethical tactics.

During the early post-revolution years, on behalf of many intellectuals and in the interest of preserving works of art, Gorki complied with Lenin’s demands that he cease speaking out against the new regime. After the revolution he returned to Capri, where he wrote his autobiographical trilogy: Detstvo (My Childhood), Vlyudyakh (In the World), and Mao universitety (My Universities). He entered a period of compliance with the new Soviet government, and, as Russia’s foremost living writer, was used to promote Soviet views. He died on June 14, 1936, under suspicious circumstances amid speculation that he was assassinated.

Although Gorki has consistently received mixed criticism, his work marks the innovation of socialist realism and reflects tremendous advocacy on the part of Russia’s oppressed people. While his work is compromised by adherence to ideology and an overly didactic tone, his sensitivity to character and environment are moving and powerful. The conflicting forces in his life, the socio-political movements in Russia with his emotional sensitivity to the plight of mankind, determine his work and make him very much a man of his time.


Act I

The Lower Depths opens in a cavernous, underground lodging house. Kvaschnya, the Baron, Bubnoff and Kleshtch argue about whether or not Kvaschnya will marry again. In the course of the conversation, the Baron mocks Nastiah, who is engrossed in her romance novel. Meanwhile, Anna moans from bed about the noise and her ailment. Kvaschnya urges her to eat while her husband, Kleshtch, ignores her.

Sahtin rises and a conversation ensues over who will sweep the floor. The Actor claims he is too debilitated by alcohol poisoning to do it. In the course of what turns into an argument, the audience learns about Sahtin’s former education, the Actor’s flair for drama, and Bubnoff’s past career as a faker of furs. Nobody sweeps the floor, and the Actor takes Anna outside for some air. All the while Kleshtch works away at an old lock.

Kostilioff comes downstairs in search of his wife, Wassilissa. Wordplay is exchanged between Kostiloff and several others over his status as a slumlord, and he appears to feign a Christian attitude. He wakes Pepel and they discuss money in a conversation revealing that they barter for stolen goods, even though Kostilioff professes innocence throughout. Shortly afterward, Natasha escorts in Luka, who is carrying a staff, a sack and a kettle. His role in the play is made immediately clear, as he declares he sees all men as equal and will be glad to sleep anywhere. Natasha urges Kleshtch and the

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Maxim Gorki Maxim Gorki

others to have compassion for Anna as she approaches death. After she leaves, the men speculate on her, and Pepel’s interest in her is revealed.

Luka begins to sing a song about how no path can be found in darkness. The song leads to a discussion about despair, and Luka restates his conviction that all men are equal. Alyoshka enters the scene drunk, carrying an accordian, and proceeds giddily to ramble on about caring about nothing. Wassilissa enters and berates him for spreading rumors about her. She tries to kick him out but he darts around, teasing her. When Luka laughs, Wassilissa turns on him, asking for his passport and calling him a vagabond. Bubnoff tells her that Pepel is not around and she bristles at the suggestion that she has any motives besides keeping order. As she leaves she demands the floor be swept, and Bubnoff and Nastiah explain that she is bitter because Pepel no longer loves her. Luka concedes to sweep the floor. Nastiah explains that Wassilissa is angry with Alyoshka for spreading rumors that Pepel is finished with her. She mentions her own misery and feelings of superfluousness, and Bubnoff says that all people are superfluous.

Medviedeff enters and introduces himself to Luka, and Luka lightly mocks him, reinforcing the impression that he tests authority. Medviedeff describes dealing with the drunken Alyoshka and the rumors he is spreading about his niece, Wassilissa, but nobody explains the situation to him. Kvaschnya enters and flirts with the policeman, but again says she will never remarry. Anna feebly makes her way back in, and when others joke about it, Luka wonders at how they can treat another human so. Medviedeff misinterprets him and points out that if she dies it will be legal trouble for all. There is noise from above as Wassilissa beats Natasha, and, as the others move to intervene, Anna and Luka make acquaintance.

Act II

It is evening in the same scene, and Sahtin, the Baron, Krivoi Zoba and the Tartar are playing cards while Kleshtch and the Actor watch. Bubnoff and Medviedeff play partidame, while Luka tends to Anna. Bubnoff and Krivoi Zoba sing a song about life as a prison while Anna moans about her life and Luka ministers to her. Luka comforts Anna with promises of peace and salvation while the players sing and argue, the Tartar advocating fair play. When the Actor bemoans his alcoholism, Luka tells him there is a clinic where he can be cured, although he cannot tell him where.

Pepel enters and asks Medviedeff about Natasha’s condition, revealing his interest in her. They argue, and Pepel threatens to report the family for buying stolen goods. Medviedeff storms out and Luka urges Pepel to run away to Siberia with Natasha. Pepel accuses Luka of lying to give people hope. Luka responds that people believe what they need to believe.

Wassilissa enters to see Pepel, under the guise of seeing Anna. Luka conceals himself above the stove. Pepel makes clear he does not love Wassilissa. She offers to help him leave with Natasha if he will arrange to have her husband killed and free her from her life. Pepel refuses. Kostilioff enters and alternates between feigning courtesy and screeching hysterically. Kostilioff shakes Pepel by the collar, but is interrupted by noise that Luka makes from his hiding place. Kostilioff and Wassilissa leave. Luka emerges and explains that he didn’t want Pepel to lose his head and kill Kostilioff. He warns Pepel away from Wassilissa and urges him to flee with Natasha. Their conversation is interrupted by Anna’s death rattle, and they leave to find Kleshtch. The Actor enters and, newly inspired, recites a poem. Natasha enters and discovers Anna dead. The players enter and make callous remarks about the death. Kleshtch worries about funeral costs and the Page 233  |  Top of ArticleActor seeks Luka for more advice. Sahtin argues that Luka’s advice is a hoax and declares that the dead neither hear nor feel.


Nastiah and Natasha sit in a vacant lot with Luka, the Baron and Kleshtch. Bubnoff looks out from a window in the house. Nastiah tells the story of her lost love, but the Baron interrupts her because of her shifting account of the lover’s name. She gets upset, and Luka defends her right to some consideration while Natasha comforts her. Luka says he believes her, which opens a conversation on the merits of lying to oneself. Natasha admits to dreaming of being rescued. When Natasha tells Luka he is a good man, he tells a story of human potential, about two thieves he befriended after they tried to rob him. Kleshtch bursts out that his version of the truth is his terrible circumstance, and says he hates everyone.

Pepel enters and they continue the discussion about truth. Luka tells a story about a man who believed in a land of justice, but when he learned it did not exist he killed himself. Then Luka reports he intends to leave, and this provokes Pepel to declare his love for Natasha and ask her to leave with him. Wassilissa appears and overhears the conversation as Luka encourages the union. Kostilioff appears and berates Natasha for neglecting duties as Wassilissa makes a sinister promise of a wedding. Kostilioff warns Luka that he will set Medviedeff on him if he doesn’t leave.

Luka says he will leave that night. Sahtin and the Actor enter, arguing about the rumored clinic. Luka questions Sahtin’s motives in weakening the Actor’s resolve, and Sahtin reports that prison changed him from a jolly man into the realist he is now. Their conversation about Sahtin’s former life is interrupted by noise of Natasha being brutally beaten. The Actor runs to fetch Pepel. As the beating continues audibly, the Tartar and Krivoi Zoba enter, followed by Medviedeff, who is trying to retrieve his whistle from Alyoshka. Natasha enters, aided by Nastiah, with Wassilissa and Kostilioff in pursuit. Pepel bursts in and strikes Kostilioff, accidentally killing him. Natasha, hearing the commotion, accuses Pepel and Wassilissa of planning it all and conspiring to kill Kostilioff.

Act IV

The scene is an approximate recreation of the first. Kleshtch tinkers with an accordian and he, the Baron, Nastiah and Sahtin discuss Luka. The Tartar says he followed the law of his heart. Nastiah says she loved him and that she is disgusted with her companions. The Actor makes oblique reference to leaving forever. The Baron calls Luka a fool and a charlatan. Sahtin delivers monologues in which he appreciates Luka’s motives for his lies, but advocates the truth as the inheritance of free men.

Nastiah reveals that Natasha has left town and that Pepel and Wassilissa are in prison. Nastiah continues to provoke the Baron and insult everyone, then leaves. Sahtin delivers a speech on the glory of man’s potential. The Baron goes in search of Nastiah. The Actor takes a drink and rushes out. Medviedeff and Bubnoff enter with whiskey, followed by Alyoshka. It is revealed that he and Kvaschnya have married and now run the lodging house. Kvaschnya enters and confronts Alyoshka for spreading rumors that she beats her husband. Bubnoff and Krivoi Zoba begin their song about life as a prison, and the Baron and Nastiah burst in with news that the Actor has killed himself.


A Baron

The Baron is a slightly ridiculous, cynical character, once an aristocrat, now a resident of the lower depths who reminisces on his former status. His philosophy is “all is past”, and he expects little from the world although he retains his aristocratic bearing. A great deal of animal imagery is associated with this aristocrat who has fallen to the level of beast.

A Tartar

The Tartar has little role until the final act, when his hand has been mashed and he has little hope of supporting himself without it. Before then he participates in a game of cards and repeatedly advocates fair play. He offers such practical insights as “someone can have the bed” when Anna dies. In Act IV he champions Luka’s reputation and tells the others that the Koran leads his heart, while for Russians religion is law. When the actor asks him to pray for him, he replies, “Pray for yourself,” suggesting both practical, personal advocacy and lack of brotherly love.

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Sidebar: HideShow


  • The Lower Depths was adapted as a Chinese film entitled Ye ‘dian or Night Lodging in 1948. It was first performed on stage in 1946. Both stage and screen versions were banned in China during the Cultural Revolution.
  • In 1957, Akira Kurosawa directed a Japanese film adaptation of The Lower Depths (translated as Donzoko) starring Toshiro Mifunge.
  • In 1936, Jean Renoir directed a French film adaptation of The Lower Depths entitled Les Bas, or The Underworld. At the time the film was made, the French social climate resembled pre-Revolutionary Russia in its utopian yearnings.

The Actor

The actor is an alcoholic whose addiction has obliterated his memory. His hypochondria is humorous, and he shows compassion for the ailing Anna, but he is a pathetic character who pines for his past. He gets some false hope from Luka that his addiction can be cured, and attempts some restraint, but ultimately he fails and commits suicide at the end of the play.


Alyoshka is a comic character, often drunk, who shows up largely for comic relief. He is provocative and tells rumors about people in authority, namely Wassilissa and, later, Kvaschnya.


Bubnoff is a capmaker, whose first line in the play is a grunt of skepticism. This foreshadows his role as one of several cynical voices throughout the play. For example, when he hears that Anna is dead, his response is “There will be no more coughing.” At more than one point in the play, Bubnoff and others sing about life as a prison, offering a sense of his world view.

Wassilissa Karpovna

Wassilissa is the young, bitter wife of Kostiloff. She wishes for freedom from her circumstances and tries to achieve it by coercing her lover Pepel to murder her husband. When Pepel refuses and she learns of Natasha’s intent to run away with him, she brutally beats her sister. This leads to Pepel’s accidental murder of her husband. Natasha accuses Wassilissa and Pepel of conspiring to the murder, and Wassilissa ends up in jail.

Anna Kleshtch

Anna is the terminally ill wife of Kleshtch. She both wants to die and escape the misery of her life, and is afraid to die, but she takes some consolation from the ministrations of Luka. When she dies nobody cares very much, aside from concern about the smell and the authorities.

Andrew Mitritch Kleshtch

Kleshtch is a locksmith who is always working on a lock that can’t be mended. He sets himself apart from the others on account of his work ethic, which they do not share. He is extremely bitter, and claims he will be free from his circumstances when his wife, Anna, dies. When she finally does die, he has to sell his anvil and other tools to cover funeral costs, and so he can neither move on nor work. He is an angry man with no sense of brotherhood, and says in Act III, “I hate everyone.”

Michael Ivanowitch Kostilioff

Kostilioff is the hypocritical, corrupt landlord of the lodging house. He preaches religion, salvation from hardship, and brotherly love, but he takes his tenants for all they are worth. Although he purchases stolen goods from Pepel, he treats him with suspicion and disdain, and is always trying to confirm the suspected affair with his wife. In Act III, Pepel comes to Natasha’s defense when Kostilioff is beating her, and accidentally kills him.

Krivoi Zoba

Krivoi Zoba is part of the same chorus of skeptical voices as Bubnoff. He too sings the song of disaffection and life as a prison, and when Anna dies he asks, “Will she smell?”


Kvaschnya is a spirited middle aged woman who, at the opening of the play, sermonizes on why she will never marry again. She shows up sporadically, generally pouring forth on the same theme, Page 235  |  Top of Articlebut when the play closes she is married to the policeman and running the boardinghouse.


Luka is the central catalyst of the play. He is an old man, labeled a pilgrim, who arrives in Act I, greeting the decrepit lodgers with “Good day, honest folk.” Throughout three of the four acts, he maintains this role of champion of mankind, but his methods of support are shifting and problematic. While he bolsters the Actor’s hope and resolve with a story of a free clinic where he can be cured, for example, he can never tell him where it is, and thus appears to advocate self-deception. Because of his shifting messages, Luka is the most problematic character in the play. Having set in motion the conflict in Act III, Luka disappears, leaving the remaining characters, except for Sahtin, disheartened and changed for the worse.


Medviedeff is a policeman and the uncle of Natasha and Wassilissa. He is generally ineffectual and some characters make a mockery of him, but he ends up marrying Kvaschnya and running the lodging house with her.


Nastiah is a prostitute who pines for a lover, real or imagined, left behind. She reads romance novels and tells improbable stories of this lost lover with shifting accounts of his name. Nastiah is strongly impacted by Luka, and in the course of the play her view of life grows increasingly dim. By the end of the play she says she is disgusted with everyone.


Natasha is the younger sister of Wassilissa, who abuses her throughout the play because Pepel fancies her. While she wishes to be rescued from her life of drudgery, she is leery of Pepel’s advances. In general she is a kind, compassionate character, but after she is beaten in Act III she turns on her protector, Pepel, and her accusations send him to jail. It is revealed that once she is released from the hospital, she disappears from the area.

Waska Pepel

Pepel is a young thief who sells his goods to his landlord and has an affair with Wassilissa, his landlord’s wife. He is a good man at heart despite his life of crime, and aspires to marry Natasha and make a better life. When Wassilissa and Kostilioff brutally beat Natasha, he comes to her defense and accidentally kills the landlord. Natasha turns on him and accuses him of planning the murder with her sister. When the play ends, Pepel is jail.


Sahtin is a former convict who apparently was once well-educated and is a lover of words. At the opening of the play he has been beaten after losing a card game. Throughout most of the play he is drunk and gambling, but he generally offers witty, intelligent, and provocative wordplay. He challenges Luka for pacifying people with lies and philosophically is his opposite, but after Luka leaves he says he understands his impulse to comfort and soothe the troubled. In Act IV he delivers three monologues about the righteousness of mankind and the theme of “truth” versus the “consoling lie.” His assertion is that compassion and the consoling lie are necessary for the weak, but the truth is the way of the free man. In the final act of the play, Sahtin is the only character who has not been changed by having given in to illusions of hope provided by Luka.


The “Truth” vs. the “Consoling Lie”

The main philosophical issue in The Lower Depths is the central theme of the work, the merits of the truth versus the consoling lie. Luka, the pilgrim, embodies the philosophy that people need lies as buffers against the hardships of life. The first instance in which he demonstrates this conviction is when he soothes the dying Anna with promise of peace after death. His conversation later with Bubnoff and Pepel indicates that he may not believe in such an afterlife, but, rather, is committed to consoling one who suffers. Through Acts II and III Luka bolsters the hopes of characters who are downtrodden and suffering, by kindling hope with potentially insubstantial information. For example, he is quick to assure Nastiah that he believes her love story although it is clearly not true, in the interest of protecting her feelings. Similarly, he tells the Actor that he can be cured of his alcoholism at a free clinic in an unnamed town, if only he resolves to change. The Actor does achieve some personal change in the short term, and for a while he is inspired and can recite lines of poetry as in days of yore. In much the same way, Nastiah is comforted by Luka’s moral support, and Anna dies more contented than she would have otherwise. However, once Luka disappear,

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Sidebar: HideShow


  • The Lower Depths was made into a French film in 1936, a Chinese film in 1948, and a Japanese film in 1957. What social, political, and economic factors in France, China and Japan might have contributed to the play’s appeal at those respective times?
  • The Lower Depths is considered a prime example of Socialist Realism. Research Socialist Realism and explain how and to what ends the play embodies this literary device.
  • Research both Romanticism and Realism in literature. How did they evolve, and how are both manifested in The Lower Depths?
  • Research the period preceding the Bolshevik Revolution. What social and political influences do you think the characters Luka and Sahtin represent?
  • Consider social and economic conditions in the United States today. How might a contemporary American version of The Lower Depths look?
  • Consider the central theme in The Lower Depths. Discuss the merits and problems of the “truth” and the “consoling lie,” and argue your own moral stance on the issue.
  • Very few props and stage instructions are provided by Gorki for The Lower Depths. If you could direct the play, how would you make the set support the thematic material of the text? Use plenty of detail and back up your reasoning.

and with him his encouraging stories, the characters are disappointed and more downcast than they were before he came.

Different characters question Luka’s soothing fabrications throughout the play. When he consoles Anna, Pepel asks Luka if he believes his own words. Bubnoff, Kleshtch, and Medviedeff also question Luka, but Sahtin most fully embodies his foil as a character in pursuit of the truth. During most of the first three acts, Sahtin operates as a background voice projecting skepticism and harsh realism, as at the end of Act II, when he responds to sentimentalism with “The dead hear not. The dead feel not.” In Act IV, however, he is thrust into the foreground with three monologues concerning the power of the truth for mankind. Although he appreciates Luka’s motives for showing compassion to people who suffer, he does not advocate compassion himself. Rather, he asserts that “The lie is the religion of the servant and master... the truth is the inheritance of free men!” He continues in this vein to praise man and credit him with the ability to advance himself through the pursuit of truth. The disparity between Sahtin’s wild optimistic humanism associated with the truth and the human need for sympathy and compassion is the life-giving center of the play.


The theme of life in the lower depths as like prison or hell circulates throughout the text. The title is immediately telling; these scenes from Russian life are about what is dark, underground, buried. Lower depths, as opposed to height or the heavens, suggest hell by sheer proximity, and the miserable lives of the residents make this connection clear. Lack of light also suggests the dark side, or hell. So does lack of meaningful work, or progress, as suggested by Kleshtch’s ceaseless scraping at a lock that can never be mended. In Acts II and IV, Bubnoff and Krivoi Zoba sing a song about being in prison, never seeing the sun rise or set, and this sets a tone for life in this underground cavern. Even in Act III, which is set outside, a brick wall is described as blocking out “the heavens.” The fact that there is little or no private space, and that benches and bunks operate as beds further serve as prison imagery. Different characters throughout the play make reference to release from this life, as if they are serving time. Anna awaits death as relief Page 237  |  Top of Articlefrom a life of suffering, Kleshtch waits for her to die so he can be free of the boardinghouse, and Natasha fantasizes that someone will come and rescue her. None of the characters are released except by death, and in fact two characters actually go to prison. Kleshtch in particular is even more firmly rooted in the lower depths once his wife dies, because he must sell his work materials to cover funeral costs. The song about prison is the last impression before the announcement of the Actor’s suicide at the end of the play. The fact that Sahtin responds with, “He must spoil our song... the fool” suggests that, like the sinner condemned to an eternity in hell, he may not have any insight into his own condition.

Men as Animals

Degradation is a part of life in the lower depths, and the undercurrent theme of people as animals or beasts indicates this condition. Early in Act I the Baron calls Nastiah a “silly goose” for reading romances, humiliating her in front of the rest of the boarders. Moments later the former aristocrat dons a yoke for carrying containers to market, suggesting he is a workhorse. Shortly afterward, Kleshtch sarcastically suggests Kostilioff “Put a halter around my neck... “to use and degrade him further. All this imagery so early in the text sets the tone for the play, in which people are degraded and treated inhumanely. The lodgers’ social and economic circumstances have reduced them to subservience to their landlord, but the way they behave toward each other also reflects inhumanity and a survivalist, animalistic mentality. For example, the fact that most characters are unmoved by Anna’s suffering and death, aside from how it hurts or benefits them in a practical sense, reflects a lack of feeling that distinguishes human from other animals. In addition, much of the time the lodgers display a lack of intelligent insight into their own situations, but rather compound their problems by getting drunk and gambling away their money or getting beaten up. Subsisting in the underground cavern like animals in a den, the lodgers cannot see beyond their circumstances, but huddle together for survival.



As a realistic play, characters, plot and setting are crucial components of The Lower Depths. Socialist realism entails lifelike depiction of characters’ behavior and speech for purposes of conveying a political message. In The Lower Depths, characters speak and behave in somewhat fragmented, lifelike patterns and what they do and say are not romanticized to elicit audience emotions. Instead their various words and behaviors, however unappealing, are aimed at being realistic and provoking an impulse toward change or revolution. In The Lower Depths, some characters provoke contempt, others compassion, but the general sense at the end of the play is that social change is necessary. For example, when Nastiah complains that she feels superfluous, and Bubnoff confirms that everyone is superfluous, the response of the reader or audience is reflexively that a world should exist in which people do not feel superfluous.


Setting in The Lower Depths is minimal, as are stage directions. In Acts I, II, and IV, the set is dark and cavernous, with very little furniture aside from a few bunks and benches, suggesting a prison or a pit. The set in Act III is a depressing vacant lot, with various piles of rubbish and a wall which blocks out the sky. There is little or no color, and stage directions give the sense that characters are dressed in rags. Both settings convey a sense of the impoverished conditions of the lodgers, and attribute to them a feeling of desolation and despair. They generate in the audience the sense that these conditions are inhumane and should be changed.

Point of View

Throughout The Lower Depths, the audience gathers opinions about key characters, especially Luka, through the points of view of other characters. Every time Luka offers solace or tells a story, some character engages him or criticizes him, and especially in Act IV there is a detailed conversation analyzing him. In this way, the audience is offered multiple options for interpreting this provocative character, and for developing a personal opinion of the central moral question. This structure also keeps the audience from developing a strong emotional identification with any one character, which makes for more even-handed political assessment.


Monologue is used to similar ends in the play. The most important monologues are delivered by Sahtin in Act IV to convey his opinion on the importance of the truth. Use of this device draws Page 238  |  Top of Articleattention to the subject matter by making it stand out from the rest of the lines. In this case Sahtin voices a response to discussion of Luka’s ethics, and in so doing establishes himself as Luka’s moral foil. The monologues in this act depart from the realistic structure of the play in the sense that people tend not to speak in such substantial chunks in a conversation. In this case the author’s moral agenda takes precedence over realism.


Foreshadowing is the use of symbols, lines or events to suggest something that will happen later in the play. In The Lower Depths the main events are foreshadowed before they occur. First, in Act II Pepel and Kostilioff are arguing heatedly, and as the conflict comes to a head, Luka makes his presence known, ostensibly to prevent Pepel from striking Kostilioff and getting himself into trouble. This foreshadows the fact that Pepel will in fact strike Kostilioff in Act III and inadvertently kill him. Earlier in the same scene, Luka tells a story of a man who believed in a land of justice, but when he learned it didn’t exist, he killed himself. Later, in Act IV, the Actor interjects into the conversation that soon he will be gone, and quotes, ‘“this hole here... it shall be my grave... ‘” Shortly afterward he actualizes those words, and, like the disillusioned man in Luka’s story, commits suicide.


Gorki provides few physical props to serve as symbols in The Lower Depths, but those he does provide resonate with meaning. The lower depths themselves are symbolic of the conditions for the lodgers, as a grave, as prison, and as hell. The bunks and lack of furniture also speak of a prison or hell. One item stands out from the drab, minimalist setting, and that is an old Russian stove. The characters cluster around the ornate piece of antiquity for warmth in much the same way they gain solace from reminiscing about their pasts. The stove suggests a connection with the romantic Russia of the past.

Above and beyond the presence of physical objects, human characters serve as symbols in The Lower Depths. Luka and Sahtin represent the philosophies they embody and, some critics would conjecture, conflicting beliefs of the author. The ridiculous, ostentatious Baron stands for all of aristocracy, in much the way that Medviedeff’s silliness pokes fun at law enforcement in general. Kostilioff stands for anyone who lords power over others, while the Actor plays a fool. The characters represent components of Russian society as well as the moral messages each advocates.


The period in which Gorki lived and wrote The Lower Depths was the end of a long period of repression and unrest in Russia, during which the czardom increasingly became an autocracy which governed by force. In 1861, under the Edict of Emancipation, Alexander II freed peasants from serfdom. Serfs were emancipated from servitude to nobles in much the same way blacks would soon be released from slavery in the American South: with little or no support to smooth the economic transition. Freedom afforded the peasantry was extremely limited, and although they were no longer considered chattel, peasants had access to even less farmland than they had before Emancipation. This new freedom imposed harsh economic conditions on the peasantry, and as a result, many moved to cities and centers of industry for work. Gorki’s youth as a tramp on the move fits the description of many of the newly displaced, looking for work.

Emancipation effectively opened the doors for industrialization of Russia, and factories underwent phenomenal growth. Waves of peasants in an unfamiliar, urban environment, were, naturally, exploited. Factory work conditions into the turn of the century were far worse than those revealed in the famous investigations of English factories, including child labor, interminable workdays and unsafe, unhygienic conditions. Cities were newly crowded and could not accommodate the influx of people with suitable housing. Recurrent crop failure resulted in severe and widespread famine, which was at its peak in 1891. Poverty, already the norm in the days before Emancipation, was compounded by a severe trade depression in 1880, resulting in the dismissal of thousands of workers. Between 1880 and the turn of the century, unemployment was a huge problem, and created the community of drifters such as those depicted in The Lower Depths. In Maxim Gorky The Writer, An Interpretation, F. M. Borras points out that “Klesctch of all Kostylev’s [Kostilioff’s] lodgers most richly deserves compassion, because he does not dream of escape from the

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  • 1861: Alexander II emancipates serfs from landed nobility. Upon release, they are provided with less land than they previously held, and many were forced into the corrupt factory system and an even more brutal quality of life.

    Today: Virtually no signs of the antiquated class system of peasantry and nobility exist.
  • Mid-1860s: Emancipation gives rise to industrialization and, as a result, the beginnings of capitalism in Russia. It is squelched by the Bolshevik Revolution, after which workers gained control of factory management.

    Today: Since the end of the Cold War in 1989, Russia has been moving in the direction of capitalism. Although some conditions have improved, Westernization of the former Soviet Union has recently been disastrous for its economy.
  • 1917: The Romanoff family, czarist heirs of the Russian Empire, along with many other heads of state, are executed as the Bolsheviks take power.

    Today: Boris Yeltsin resigns from power with diplomatic immunity.
  • 1917: Milyahov, the first foreign minister under the new government after the Bolshevik Revolution, is forced to resign based on his insistence on continuing the war effort.

    Today: Yeltsin is pressured to resign, and is replaced by Vladimir Putin, a former unknown, who is propelled into leadership based on his enthusiastic support of war in Chechnya.

depths through a miracle, but plans to achieve it by means of hard work and yields only when he realizes that this most reasonable of all purposes, because of social conditions, cannot be fulfilled. In the years of industrial recession, 1899-1903, such men as Kleshtch, wishing to work but unable to find jobs, would strike a chord with the audience.”

As a writer and an intellectual, Gorki was not among the working class who were so impacted by Russia’s social conditions, but he was extremely sympathetic to the plight of the masses, having been a drifter as a child and a young man. His use of socialist realism in The Lower Depths is geared toward representing both the terrible living conditions and the feeling of unrest in the country at the time. The fantasies of release and escape, such as Pepel’s dream of running away to make a new life with Natasha, reflect the utopian dream which was universal in Russia, especially among the working class, who were influenced by Marxism. The tension between the Utopian fantasy that Luka instills and the brutal truths and self-reliance that Sahtin advocates reflects Gorki’s view of forces at work in Russia. His didactic tone in Luka’s and Sahtin’s speeches, while characteristic of his own style, reflects his agenda of social reform. Around the same time, Tolstoy, another famous Russian author, had taken on a similar tone in what amounted to propagandistic writing.

Production of The Lower Depths preceded the Russian Revolution of 1905 by just over two years. This revolution was characterized by strikes, assassinations, and peasant outbreaks in protest of the corruption of the czarist government, although little reform resulted from the event. World War I resulted in massive food shortages and such widespread civilian suffering, however, that a new revolutionary climate was created by the end of 1916. Lenin and Trotsky led the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, which resulted in many radical reforms, such as abolition of private property and introduction of workers’ control into factories. The Russian Civil War followed, between the Bolsheviks (Reds) and anti-Bolsheviks (Whites), from 1918 to 1920. The Bolshevik party was victorious, but the country was devastated, and the Soviet regime which followed largely perpetuated Russia’s legacy of repression and suffering.

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When The Lower Depths was first presented in 1902, it was met with mixed criticism, but spectacular popular success. It was so successful, in fact, that the printed version of the play became a bestseller, with fourteen editions printed in 1903. Many critics took issue with the play’s unconventional structure and lack of plot. Others criticized its preaching, didactic tone. Most agreed, however, that the Moscow Arts Theatre production was outstanding and amplified character sketches that were powerful and moving. Debate over the play’s chief theme, the merits of “truth” verses “the consoling lie,” continue today, and it is generally accepted that the play, although flawed, is considered a masterpiece.

At the time The Lower Depths was first performed, the vagabond life was in vogue, and realistic depiction of the lower classes was avant-garde. The play’s presentation of the squalid underbelly of Russian society was the first of its kind and drew huge attention for its novelty. Much of the play’s initial success was owed to the masterful work of Konstantin Stanislavsky and the Moscow Arts Theatre, which was then and continues to be considered one of the finest theater groups in the world. In A History of Russia, Jesse D. Clarkson notes that the play was a success “largely thanks to Stanislavsky’s casting rather than to its author.” Stanislavsky and Gorki insisted that the players spend time in dosshouses resembling the one in the play in preparation for their parts, and word of this approach also added to its novelty. Although Gorki himself gave the theater company credit for the scale of the play’s initial success, it proved just as popular performed by German actors in Berlin. The play swept world capitals, and by 1903 Gorki’s American publishers claimed his name was better known than Tolstoy.

Chekhov (as critic Sumie Jones records) was perhaps the most famous critic of The Lower Depths, and he took issue with some of Gorki’s character choices. He claimed the characters that remain in Act IV are not interesting, and critics continue to take issue with this point today. Barry P. Scherr, in his essay “Gorky the Dramatist,” asserts that “at least some of the characters do not seem entirely necessary. The Baron, the Actor, Bubnov, and the locksmith Kleshtch are all dwellers in the lower depths. Gorki manages to make individual characters out of each of them, yet the play would clearly be easier for audiences to follow had he combined these four figures into one or two, and the story-line would have remained intact.” He also points out that “the characters who are most important for the play’s intrigue—the thief Vaska Pepel, Kostilioff, owner of the lodging-house where the action takes place, and Kostilioff’s wife and sister-in-law—have relatively little to do with the play’s philosophical concerns.”

Many critics disliked the structure of the play and its lack of driving action or plot. German critic F. Mering (as critic F. M. Borras records) wrote in a 1934 article that the only real conflict in the play took place between Kostilioff and Pepel, and that Act IV was unnecessary since all the action was completed in Act III. Chekhov declared Act IV superfluous as well, because all the stronger characters were absent from it. He also disliked that Act for what he felt was Gorki’s preaching tone. Sumie Jones, in her essay, “Gorki, Stanislavsky, Kurosawa: Cinematic Translations of The Lower Depths,” quotes Stanislavsky in reporting that Chekov could not bear “to see Gorki mount the pulpit like a clergymen” to voice his opinions, as he does through Sahtin’s monologues in Act IV. The play elicits the same criticism today, as in a review of a production at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh. Kate Bassett, in The Daily Telegram writes, “... several of Gorky’s big speeches about the ineradicable worth of every individual and about man’s responsibility for himself do verge on the wooden.”

In the years after the first production of The Lower Depths, Gorki was his own chief critic. Over time, as his philosophical and political beliefs changed, he gave shifting interpretations of key characters, and suggested he intended them to be different than they were. According to Yevgeny Zamyatin in A Soviet Heretic, he called himself “a poor playwright” and suggested the play was even harmful in the time it was produced. Nevertheless, the play is, in Barry Scherr’s words, “the prime example of a work that is an acknowledged masterpiece and yet contains several seemingly glaring weaknesses that would be enough to destroy a lesser work.” He continues, “... the strength and originality of the secondary figures, the creation of a strange yet powerful central character, the very exotic quality of the lower depths that Gorky depicts, and the complexities of the play’s theme largely account for its deserved success.” The Lower Depths continues to be produced almost a century later as, for example, in Seattle in 1998, by the Vladivostok Chamber Theater. In the words of John Longenbaugh in a promotional piece in the The

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Sanneke Bos (lying on the stage) from a production of Gorkis The Lower Depths. Sanneke Bos (lying on the stage) from a production of Gorki’s The Lower Depths.

Seattle Weekly, the work is still considered masterpiece of naturalism.”


Jennifer Lynch

Lynch teaches at the Potrero Hill After School Program and the Taos Literacy Program. Lynch also contributes to Geronimo, a journal of politics and culture. In the following essay, Lynch argues that the flawed nature of Gorki’s characters reveals the complexity both of the author and of humankind in general.

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

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  • Twenty-Six Men and a Girl, published in 1902, is considered Gorki’s best short story. It describes the brutal conditions of a provincial bakery.
  • Anna Karenina, written By Leo Tolstoy in 1877, is one of the most widely read Russian novels ever, and considered an artisitic masterpiece. This story of love, romance, deceit and jealousy is characteristic of traditional Russian themes in literature.
  • Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard was, like The Lower Depths, produced by Stanislavsky’s Moscow Arts Theatre. Written in 1904, Chekhov’s characters are dominated by an atmosphere of hopelessness and disillusionment, much the way Gorki’s characters are.
  • Beween 1930 and 1937, reform-oriented John Dos Passos wrote his U.S.A. trilogy, The 42nd Parallel, 1911, and The Big Money. These experimental novels paint a portrait of America through stream of consciousness and news articles.
  • Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) shocked the world with its gruesome depiction of conditions in a meat-packing plant. Controversy over the novel colored the labor movement at the time.
  • Cesar Chavez: Labor Leader, written by Maria E. Cedeno in 1993, details the life and times of America’s most prominent labor leader of the late 20th century.

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, 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, Page 243  |  Top of Articleremained 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 character;

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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.

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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.

Victor Erlich

In the following essay, Erlich discusses Gorki’s attitude toward truth and lying, suggesting that Gorki may have accepted the need to lie to further the truth but also realized the effect of lying upon people’s perception of the truth.

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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.

Paul G. Pickowicz

In the following excerpt, Pickowicz discusses Gorki’s The Lower Depths to show that the differences between it and the Chinese adaptation Ye dian are more significant than the similarities.

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 Page 249  |  Top of Articlein 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

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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 Page 250  |  Top of Article(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 Page 251  |  Top of Articleadvises 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.


Bassett, Kate. “The Arts: Modern Depths Hit Heights,” in The Daily Telegraph, August 26, 1999.

Borras, F. M. Maxim Gorky the Writer: An Interpretation, Oxford University Press, 1967.

Clarkson, Jesse D. A History of Russia, Random House, 1961, p. 364.

Gorki, Maxim. The Lower Depths, Branden Publishing Company, 1906, pp. 7–108.

_______. On Literature, University of Washington Press, 1973, pp. 16,22,363.

Jones, Sumie. “Gorki, Stanislavsi, Kurosawa: Cinematic Translations of The Lower Depths,” in Explorations: Essays in Comparative Literature, University Press of America, 1986, p. 189.

Longenbaugh, John. “Diving the Depths,” in Seattle Weekly, November 19-25, 1998.

Scherr, Barry P. “Gorky The Dramatist: A Reevaluation,” in 50 Years On: Gorky and His Time, Astra Press, 1987, pp. 40–41.

Zamyatin, E. I. A Soviet Heretic, University of Chicago Press, 1970.


Borras, F. M. Maxim Gorky the Writer: An Interpreta-tion, Oxford University Press, 1967, pp. 167–177.

Borras discusses much of Gorki’s work, and The Lower Depths in particular, in detail.

Page 252  |  Top of Article

Becker, George J. Realism In Modern Literature, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1980, pp. 151–162.

This book provides a short discussion of Gorki’s work, and substantial information on Realism in Russian literature and the evolution of Realism in general.

Levin, Dan. Stormy Petrel: The life and Work of Maxim Gorky, Appleton-Century, 1965, pp.88–95.

This book both provides analysis of Gorki’s work and contextualization of that work in his life.

Hare, Richard. Maxim Gorky: Romantic Realist and Conservative Revolutionary, Greenwood Press, 1962, pp. 56–61.

Hare discusses Gorki’s work in the context of his life, with focus on the influences of Romanticism and Realism over his writing.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2693400021