In the late 19th century, capitalism in Russia developed rapidly. As a result, Russia was able to increase its industrial output and move toward modernization. However, at the same time, for the country’s increasing numbers of urban workers, life under capitalism became much harder. Likewise, for those in rural areas, who lost their land or their jobs and were forced to wander through Russia in search of work, life under capitalism brought social and economic hardships. Moreover, as those who worked the land were suddenly dispossessed, Russia’s farmlands began to deteriorate. These events are the background of Maxim Gorky’s play ‘The Lower Depths,’ which students from CAU’s Theater department recently staged to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the department’s foundation. The department’s production of ‘The Lower Depths’ brought to life how, for the Russian laborers at that time, life was, indeed, hell.
About the Play
Kostilyoff – He is an innkeeper. He always has doubts about the fidelity of his wife Vassilisa, and assaults her all the time. He only talks about rent payment to the people who live in his inn and thinks how he can receive more money from them. He is indeed crazy about money.
Vassilisa – She is the wife of Kostilyoff, but shares love with Vaska before he goes to jail. Owing to her husband’s incessant assault, she tries to kill him with the help of past lover Vaska.
Vaska – He goes to jail in return for Kostilyoff, and steals habitually things. He loved Vassilisa before he was arrested, but now has fallen in love with Natasha, sister of Vassilisa. However, love with Natasha is not smooth either due to the interruptions around them.
Natasha – She is the younger sister of Vassilisa, and the only character who is naïve among those who live in the inn. She never loses hope though she lives with the harassment of Vassilisa and Kostilyoff. She comes to accept Vaska as her spouse, but she earns scars due to her sister’s opposition.
The Actor – He once was a famous actor, but now lives as an alcoholic. He always misses his splendid past and has a hard time facing the reality that he has forgotten even his own name, yet he still cannot manage to quit drinking alcohol.
The background of the play is Russia in the beginning of the 20th century. In an old and dilapidated inn, the tenants live together and struggle against the forces of poverty, alcohol, and despair. One day, Luka, who calls himself a pilgrim, appears in the inn and lifts the hopeless mood of the place. Luka sympathizes well with the pain and sorrow of the people at the inn and gives them hope. Thanks to Luka, Anna can close her eyes in peace, and the alcoholic actor begins to believe he can overcome his disease. Vaska is emboldened to propose to Natasha. In the presence of Luka, the people at the inn are able to live a day with the feeling of hope. Their happiness proves elusive, however. After Luka leaves the inn, nobody meets a happy ending, but instead faces tragedy.
Deep into the Play
Author of the Play, Maxim Gorky
Maxim Gorky is called the Shakespeare of Russia, and is a creator of social realism. His real name is Alexei Maximovichi Peshkov, but decides to work as a pen name Maxim Gorky, which means ‘Maximum Pain’. Like his pen name, he is an author who depicts agony of human in detail. Since young, he could not enter school due to his poverty and grew up from the very bottom of the society. In the beginning of the 20th century, when the social crisis of Russia intensified, Gorky wrote the play ‘The Lower Depth’. Gorky’s detailed description of the reality of Russia brought his work to the public’s attention.
Meaning of ‘Lower Depths’
The appearance of the inn of the lower depths shows the miserable lives of the characters, who represent the lower class of Russia in the early 20th century. Their surroundings are very dirty, noisy, and oppressive. At the same time, they struggle to overcome disease and hunger. However, the scariest thing is not the material suffering they experience but rather their deadening of their spirit. Moral conscience, in the midst of their deprivation, seems like an extravagance for them. In this sense, their lives are arguably not much different from the lives of beasts, in that they mechanically accept a destiny that has been decided for them. The ‘Lower Depths’ in the play literally means the ‘Bottom’ of life, a bottom from which there is no lower place left to fall.
The Message This Play Gives
All the characters in the play have agony, so we cannot say who is in the worst situation. What makes their agony seem so painful is their isolation, which leaves them with nobody to share their pain with. We all pass through hard times, but unlike the characters, most of us have someone near and dear to share our pain with. Gorky’s play tells us that the absence of people to share their agony with is the most tragic part of living in society’s lower depths. Moreover, the play depicts the lives of the lower class not just to show the squalor of poverty, but to show that poor people also have hope and goals. This implies that the poor should be respected as members of society and should never be looked down by others.
Indeed, the play shows the dark side of the lives of the lower class, yet the mood of the play did not seem only dark. Somehow, the characters’ conversation is dumb but also delightful. People who felt alone in the world would have surely received great courage by watching the play. Every single line of the characters is full of consolation even if the play ends in tragedy. Even though CAH is living in totally different environment, there were many scenes that CAH could sympathize with since we are all human beings. Yet the tragic ending provokes questions in the minds and hearts of the audience members. Between fake hope and true reality, which one do the characters need more? Did the appearance of Luka really change their lives in a positive way?
Location: Space1959 Chung-ang University Performance Art Academy
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