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The Lower Depths shows a society that’s ready to burst

This article is over 4 years, 11 months old
Arcola Theatre’s production of Maxim Gorky’s play captures the contradictions of pre-revolutionary Russia and the potential for change, writes Julie Sherry
Issue 2538
Kvashnia boasts her luck and freedom having landed a husband who died quickly
Kvashnia boasts her luck and freedom having landed a husband who died quickly

Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths—part of the Arcola Theatre’s “Revolution” series—is a descent into a society on the brink of revolution. It paints the intense atmosphere of desperation, capturing ideas in flux.

It’s first production was in 1902. Gorky told the play’s director that it should be set in “a poor lodging house, stuffy atmosphere… during a long monotonous winter. The people… bestialized by the hideousness of their existence… lost patience and hope… they nag each other. Each… tried to prove the other is still a human being.”

The height and depth of the stage layout places the audience within the dingy, iron basement to experience up close the pained and spluttering Anna on her death bed.

The play never leaves this setting. The environment gets under your skin, trapping you in this suffocating bunker. It brings to life the relentless constraints of poverty.

Gorky can seem like Russia’s Charles Dickens. Yet there is more of a sense of a society tearing apart at the seams and ready to burst.

The Lower Depths explores the human response to such tortured and brutalising conditions and is a skilled portrayal of women’s oppression.

The horrors of domestic violence are never far from the surface.

The brutality and injustice is to the fore. There is a sense of the perpetrators being trapped in a dynamic too.

Most women characters kick back. Natasha finds a potential escape in love, but reacts to her prospective husband Vaska, telling him, “It’s too soon for you to start giving me orders!”


Vassilissa plots her abusive husband’s murder.

The cheerful Kvashnia boasts her luck and freedom in landing a husband who died quickly.

The play is full of sorrow—of humanity struggling to hang onto its soul in soul-destroying circumstances.

There’s the sadness of the indebted actor surviving through alcoholism, weeping over lost abilities, or the howling desolation of the husband who never managed to show his dead wife love when she was living. But there’s an uplifting sense of community.

The arrival of an old man who tries to nurture their humanity throws this fine balance into flux. A battle for ideas plays out—cynicism has been a survival technique.

Vaska—struggling not to be broken—screams at the old man, “Why do you tell these nice little lies?”

The “Tartar” answers, “There are lies that are beautiful and there are lies that justify injustice.”

The old man remarks, “People are always looking for something better, God help ‘em.” When asked, “You think they’ll find it?” he answers positively, “They’re human.”

The Lower Depths is a snapshot of a society on the precipice, told through the eyes of the downtrodden and apparently hopeless.

In retrospect, you see Gorky’s incredible foresight of the potential for that to change, and how that came from a belief in ordinary people and their capacity to transform society.

The Lower Depths. Until 11 Feb, Arcola Theatre, London E8 3DL.

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