Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Poverty Comes to the Stage

"The Lower Depths,” by Maxim Gorky.  December 16, 2013, Nimbus Theatre
 

This play does not wear as well as it should.  When it was first written in 1902, nothing like it had been seen in Russia.  Similar to Orwell’s work, “Down & Out in Paris & London,” ‘The Lower Depths’ depicts the world of the unemployed or working poor, a group of people hidden in the culture of that time.  It was set in the Bugrov 'homeless' shelter - more like a bunked rooming house - near the Volga in Nizhny Novgorod, a place Gorky was familiar with.  Nimbus Theatre updated the play to reflect the U.S. during the Depression in the ‘30s, as the prior setting was perhaps too archaic.  The update helps, but even the ‘30s are now a distant memory.  It should have been updated to a shelter, rooming house or transient hotel in the present, though that might have involved a significant amount of adaptation.  Yet it is the present that is the source of the future, and where most theatre-goers live.

Gorky's writing here pulls you through the 2.5 hours of stage time quite well.  Politically this play reflects his pre-Marxist period.  Gorky himself lived as an orphan, and began working at 12, so this play is drawn from his life.  He probably lived in this place and knew these people. As such it is an early and ground-breaking example of Russian realism.  The pseudonym “Gorky” means ‘bitter’ in Russian.  The central character in the play, Luka, is a wandering peasant philosopher who comforts everyone in the shelter and encourages kindness.  Luka is not a proletarian.  The people in the shelter are thieves, alcoholics, prostitutes, piece-workers, unemployed workers, fallen petit-bourgeois and dying consumptives. There is little plot, just a passing of time by playing cards, singing, drinking or arguing. Sort of a “Waiting for Godot” without the universalities. 

The central conflict is between ‘the truth’ of misery and some comforting fictions that allow humans to endure poverty and oppression.  Luka tells the alcoholic actor that there is a hospital which will cure his alcoholism for free.  He comforts the dying consumptive when her husband will not.  He tells the thief that he can go to Alaska with his love Natasha, and find a new life.  He compliments the gambler on his good spirits.  He chastises the cynics when they make fun of the prostitute for imagining a real lover.  Luka is so ‘good’ that he becomes, not a real person, but the idea of ‘Christian’ charity, much like Dostoevsky’s idiot.  A waft of opium fills the bunkhouse air. 

Class conflict is not really a big part of the plot.  The thief Vasska confronts the miserly owner of the shelter, Kostylyov several times.  But Kostylyov is killed near the end, not by Vasska but by the owner’s wife, Vassilissa, who hates him.  She then blames the killing on Vasska.   A bad marriage seems to be the only plot in existence. 

Nimbus’ stage set is excellent, the clothing accurate, the price very reasonable, the theatre itself intimate without being crowded.  The acting, however, was uneven. 

While revelatory in 1902, a play like this loses impact in 2013, especially considering developments over the last 110 years in the class struggle.  It is primarily a character study, and not like Gorky’s later, more political works like “The Mother.”  While some may find a play on poverty to be voyeurism, the Lower Depths is not that. These are clearly human beings.  No one watching is absolutely immune from ending up in a shelter or transient hotel themselves.  It could even be staged in these locations.  Why a real update?  The ‘distancing’ of poverty to the distant past or even more distant past aestheticizes it, and makes it less real.  So what we really need on stage is the poverty of now, with all the adaptation that might entail.  Our own ‘lower depths.’   

Red Frog
December 18, 2013

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