Proto-Absurdity: The Lower Depths

At the bottom, there is still music.Photo by Robert Falk.

At the bottom, there is still music.
Photo by Robert Falk.

One of the big problems of Russian drama production in the USA is not that Americans do not understand Russia, but rather that they do not care. American companies tend to be more interested in trotting out Stanislavskian “Method” explorations of psychology than in any kind of social awareness. What Vera Gottlieb said about British productions of Chekhov–that in eighty years of production no one had bothered to notice that Chekhov is a political writer–holds just as true for American productions. But psychology is bounded by sociology. There is no individual who exists outside of historical time nor outside of social conditions. Those conditions create the boundaries in which individual psychologies must live.

What is true of productions of Chekhov is even more true of Gorky, who was an even more overtly political writer. Both writers use comedy not to make the audience giggle in their Hobbesian momentary superiority to the characters on stage, but to smack the audience across the face, to make them aware of their complicity in the social milieu of the characters.

In that sense, The Lower Depths is the flipside of The Three Sisters. In The Three Sisters, inaction leads to disaster. At almost any time in the play, any of the heroines or their brother can change their so-called fate simply by saying no. That they don’t, yet they proffer to the audience their lamentations about how terrible it all is, is the target of Chekhov’s barbs. In Gorky’s Lower Depths, it is not inaction that leads to disaster, but rather incomplete action.

Gorky’s characters are self-possessed. They are perfectly aware of what they need, but they have given up and have grown satisfied where they are. The arrival of Luka is the arrival of chaos. Luka enters their miserable yet stable existences and brings false hope. When they need actual medicine, Luka dispenses homilies, bogus reassurances, phony hopes. He represents the Russian Orthodox Church, who were content at the time to sit idly by as people slaved and starved, comforting the masses with the refrain “Well, you’ll be better for it in the next world.” From Gorky’s own Reminiscences of Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy:

All Russian preachers are cold men, for they do not possess an active and living faith. When I was writing Luka in The Lower Depths, I wanted to describe an old man like that: he is interested in “every solution” but not in people. Coming inevitably in contact with them, he consoles them, but only in order that they may leave him in peace. And all the philosophy, all the preaching of such men is alms bestowed by them with a veiled aversion, and there sounds behind their preaching words which are beggarly and melancholy: “Get out! Love God or your neighbor, but get out! Curse God, love the stranger, but leave me alone! Leave me alone, for I am a man and I am doomed to death.”

Photo by Robert Falk.

Photo by Robert Falk.

The early exchange between Kostilyoff and The Actor is a clear parody of this Russian trope also, but the character of Luka embodies the parody. The character is not a bringer of light. If anything he’s a destroyer of worlds. He comes into the play all full of words for every situation. But once violence breaks out and something really has to be done, he leaves not only the scene but also the entire play. He is fundamentally a loud-mouthed coward. He beckons people to go somewhere but doesn’t show them the way, as the blacksmith puts it–let them suffer instead! It is telling that his final line in the play is spent wishing that someone else would come and solve things.

This is the essence of the Russian tragicomedy of Chekhov and Gorky. While Chekhov has often been cited as the beginnings of absurdism, Gorky is in a sense much closer. In Waiting for Godot, the play opens with “Nothing to be done.” Passive voice, not active. By comparison, Chekov’s plays do not show “nothing to be done”; they show “no one doing anything.” And somewhere between the two is The Lower Depths, which might be summarized as “no way to do what needs to be done.”

Director Melissa Fenwick gets most of this right. This is a pretty fine production, and much closer to Gorky than any other version I’ve seen. Like all Americans doing Russian drama these days, she tends to let the Theatre Machine production drift too much into Beckett territory. These characters are just a little too resigned. On the other hand, she takes this absurd approach seriously: whether or not it matters, these characters still play the game, whether it’s checkers, cards or the game of life itself. This keeps the play from being stupidly gloomy and restores to it at least one level of the comedy it absolutely must contain if anyone is to take Gorky seriously. Everything here moves, and there is a fair use of humor–gallows humor, to be sure, but humor nonetheless.

Photo by Robert Falk.

Photo by Robert Falk.

The cast is absolutely fantastic here, with excellent performances all around. I am especially fond of Mark Waldstein as The Actor and Michael Ramquist as Kleshch who do the one thing that needs to be done above all in the play’s fourth act: make the audience feel that even though Luka is physically not on stage yet he is still very much there, and not just by talking about him. Chris MacDonald, too, is excellent at this. I’m also very impressed with Sharon Barto’s skill at holding her character together over the entire piece without being too strident, and Pearl Klein gets a small but crucial role in the play as the only character to make it out of the lower depths and into something like a real life–a role which she plays with her usual aplomb and charisma. It is pleasant, too, to see Cole Hornaday come from out of the wings to show off his acting skills. One wishes he would do so more often.

The one decision I wish Ms. Fenwick had made more firmly concerns Bill Badgley’s Luka. Ms. Fenwick seems to be of two minds about him. Is he a holy man? Is he merely a criminal who talks a good game? Watching the play, I’m still not sure. I admire Mr. Badgley’s performance on a certain level. He is obviously a fine actor, completely dedicated to his portrayal. But the actual role that his character plays in making everything happen remains unclear–or at least not as clear as I should like. I should like Ms. Fenwick to make a stronger decision about this to shape the production more firmly.

Some of this I chalk up to adaptation from the original language. Some translations of the play I’ve read are very colloquial, attempting to transpose Gorky’s Russian idiom into London East End, or worse. Virtually all of them have the problem of being British, with all the condescension toward Russian life and the emphasis on individual romanticism that being British implies. It makes me wonder how a contemporary, politically informed, socially located American translation would play. I’m not suggesting the piece needs to be “modernized”–I think it’s basic situation remains modern as long as capitalism remains modern–but I would love to see a good American translation that takes the social circumstances of the play’s time seriously. Gorky was, after all, an optimist who believed once Russia had rid itself of its institutional rot that anything would be possible. I imagine many Americans feel that same way about their own country at the moment. Anything that one of those talented Americans could do to help dispel the well-entrenched clichés about Russian life and Russian drama that pollute English language productions would be just swell.


Filed under Theater

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net