The Price of Conscience: The Lower Depths

Photo: Joe Moore. All rights reserved.

Generally Americans suck at Chekhov. Through their lens in which Stanislavsky only wrote one book and the only translations into English have been Constance Garnett’s, Americans frequently maintain a tripartite dogma that:

  1. Chekhov is humorless;
  2. Chekhov is “impressionistic”;
  3. Chekhov is just like real life.

All three of these tenets are false. First, Chekhov himself complained that productions of his work weren’t funny enough and dropped such subtle hints as “I didn’t make my characters into cry babies! Alexieff [Stanislavsky] did!” Second, “impressionistic” suggests sketchy shapes with no definitive line, rendered quickly to capture moments of light. Anyone who’s read short stories like “Ward Six” or “The Bet” or a play like The Three Sisters would be hard pressed to describe their scenes and characters as sketch-like. I find them exactly the opposite. Finally, the notion that Chekhov is “just like real life” persists only because directors are so completely sloppy and lazy they can’t be bothered to research or intuit that the real inspiration of Chekhov is not the realism of Gustave Courbet, Émile Zola, or even Mikhail Lermontov, but rather the completely mechanical farce of the French “well-made play.” Chekhov’s plays do not resemble the work of Ibsen so much as they do Eugène Scribe. Oh wait, where’d that fire engine come from! Oh yes…good thing Vanya enters just then! Wow, why did that flask of ether explode? Nothing purely coincidental here folks, move along…

This view of Chekhov too colors productions of Russian drama in the US. I’ve seen Turgenev’s Month in the Country played “Chekhovian” and completely stripped of its critique of Romanticism, Andreyev’s He Who Gets Slapped played as a naturalistic tale in a circus, even a shocking Inspector General played for “comic realism.” It’s positively exasperating.

The Seagull Project’s adaptation of The Lower Depths largely avoids The Chekhov Problem™. Yet something sticks in my craw.

No one will question the acting. It is uniformly excellent. Without exaggeration it is one of the finest ensembles I have seen in forty years of going to the theater. A real ensemble. The actors are given multiple areas on the stage in which to act, even simultaneously. Especially early on in the performance there are many times where there are two conversations, or three, going on, all at roughly the same volume, in different areas. Yet everything is absolutely coherent. People are not shouting over each other creating a muddle; they are attempting to carry on a conversation that is important to them, while ignoring others. And for those who find this difficult, I would suggest that any conversation held in a bar after a show is exactly like this to an outside observer. Furthermore the actors are remarkably generous with each other, so no one lets another get lost. Each is trying to be heard, but along with the others, not to the exclusion of others.

It strikes me that this is one of the themes of the production: how to blend in to a community, yet still pursue one’s own goals, even in something as basic as dialogue. Because if people can’t talk and can’t listen, the rest of our chit-chat about community is a non-starter.

I am certain that director Gavin Reub understands this. Mr. Reub’s direction gives space to the actors to do what they do best, and keeps things rough and messy as the play demands. Equally I am certain that rather than having the actors compete for space Mr. Reub is far more interested in exploring how they can share a sense of belonging together. While I question his use of bathos in the climactic fight between the two sisters (the blackout on the action strikes me as ineffective at best, cowardly at worst), and others may carp at his heavy use of sound (I do not), I praise his thoughtful staging and I accept his interpretation of the play.

Or do I?

Photo: Joe Moore. All rights reserved.

Nine years ago when I saw Theater Machine’s production of The Lower Depths in the cold reality of the former INS Building, I wrote the following:

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 its 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.

The Seagull Project’s adaptation helps me answer some of this. Since it isn’t a strict translation, I reserve my judgment on how it would play if done straight without modernizing the mise-en-scène. I do however have a clearer sense of what it is like to deal with a contemporary, politically informed, socially located American version.

Answer: mostly harmless.

That quote from Douglas Adams probably sounds glib. It isn’t. This is very much a mostly harmless production, in the sense that it is highly unlikely to harm any liberal’s virtuous musing on tangentially connected themes of the play, or a techno-libertarian’s smug egotism about what is earned and what is given in life.

Part of this is because the play is presented as an essay on homelessness and houseless populations. The Theater Machine version I saw in 2015 had the same notion. But it is fundamentally incorrect. These are not unhoused people. They pay rent. They live in squalor and oppression despite having a “home.” That is Gorky’s point. It’s as obvious as daylight at dawn. So why do we Americans keep missing it?

I think I finally know.

In my days as a scientist in India and Thailand, I stayed in a village, where our 25 square meters of house (260 sq ft or so) was home to 20 people. People slept in beds in shifts. No one could cook between 4 am and 10 am because the stove was also a bed. There was no running water. There was no toilet, because the ratio of people to toilet in India at the time was about 1 toilet per 625 people. It was, by American standards, surreal.

Every single one of us worked. None of us were drunks or tweekers. Yet here we were, living in something that gave tenements a good name. But — and here is what Americans will not understand — not a single one of us complained or dreamed how it could all be so different. We chose this. We were people of very basic needs and very simple living. We felt just fine.

Photo: Joe Moore. All rights reserved.

This was pre-industrial India, a nation of classes and castes, with possibly the firmest social control system on the earth to keep people exactly where they were and, moreover, make them feel happy while staying in their place because it was all part of the grand wheel of karma anyway. Only an American like me would suggest that there was another way to live.

Yet that’s just it. The “other way” Americans choose is the way that creates a housing crisis because it is to the benefit of select others, those chosen by Divine Right, or Hard Work, or whatever ridiculous analogue thereof you wish. For Americans the cure to crises is oh so simple: fix capitalism. Make industry work for you.

American liberalism relies on the myth that if only you had the same access to money and political sway that the wealthy have, you, too, would be happy and content. Money is always the problem and the solution. But what if you want something no amount of money can buy? Pariahs with money are still pariahs. Brahmins can be completely broke — indeed some swear to be — yet remain powerful as they take your bed, your house, your wife.

The Russia of 1902 was most certainly pre-industrial just as 1980s India was. Furthermore, both societies were completely based on class elitism with virtually zero mobility. Americans are unlikely to sense this element of drama that Gorky’s play so relies on because the only metaphor we have for class is “wealth.” But wealth is not class. Gorky’s characters don’t want power or money. They want to be seen and heard as people, not types or classes. Amid our current American obsession with types and classifications of everything so that we can make ourselves good little consumers for targeted advertising, this is unlikely to come across the footlights.

While the denizens of The Bottom may be living in a messy flophouse (which does get cleaned, and for which there is even a cleaning schedule), they know who they are, and they know what they want: simply to be happy and left to their own devices.

People who come into communities like this talking about all of the wonderful options that are anywhere but here disrupt those communities, corrupt them, and, at worst, destroy them. This is precisely the function the character of Luka fills in The Lower Depths. Luka is not a savior but a destroyer. And so are Americans who peddle “solutions.”

Consider The Actor in the play. The clearer her head becomes, the more she begins to remember, the closer to death she is. The unspoken question is: Would you rather be an addict living in oblivion but unaware of your pain and accepted by your community, or would you rather be conscious of just how far you’ve fallen and realize there is no way back up? American liberals would ignore the question and mumble, “But it’s bad to be an addict!” But what if the addiction is the only thing keeping you alive?

Being told, “Oh! This is a terrible way to live, so why not go where things are better?” sounds at first blush to be filled with concern. In fact, it also contains an incredible callousness and even cruelty. No one ever thinks the answer to their question “Why don’t you move?” is “Because this is my home and has been for thirteen generations, you fool!” Some people don’t want to leave their homes for a better life; they want a better life to come to their homes.

Gorky’s characters do not want their home to change. They want their home to be undisturbed and fulfilling. They do not want to go away, which is why they object so strongly to Luka’s phony metaphysics. They want people like Luka and their landlord Mickey King to go away. Or they think they do. But it turns out that even if those people do go away, things remain just the same as before. The violent disruption of order in Gorky brings every character to consciousness. But that consciousness alone is not enough. It isolates and kills. That is fundamentally the “tragedy” of The Lower Depths: not that people live in horrible conditions but that their conditions are impossible to change — and that it is completely the fault of the bourgeois audience sitting watching plays like The Lower Depths. Becoming aware of this is not the solution; rather, it is the thing to be avoided.

I think director Gavin Reub senses this in the text. But I’m not sure he knows how to reconcile the adaptation with Gorky’s fatalistic concept, any more than most Americans would understand the caste system. Imbued, I suspect, with a certain American optimism he guides the play to be a powerful portrayal of people trying to be human in difficult circumstances. And that will do just fine. But it is just as possible to have it be a powerful portrayal of people wanting to be seen as human, seen as capable, seen as important, yet trapped by people’s stereotypical labels in a world that will not change them unless there is profit involved. In The Seagull Project’s production, all the elements are there to do it– far more than any other production I’ve seen. The emphasis is not. I understand why, but I still lament it.

Categories 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

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