A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

Maxim Gorky

In its premiere by the Moscow Arts Theatre in 1902 the stark realism of Gorky’s "The Lower Depths," with its cast of derelicts and drifters struck the death knoll for stage romanticism. Gorky’s harsh early life contributed to his accuracy in depicting the low life of Russian society.

Born Aleksey Maksimovich Peshkov March 16, 1868 in Nizhny Novgorod, he was sent at the age of five to his maternal grandparents when his father, a shipping clerk, died. When he was eight, his grandfather removed him from school and apprenticed him to various tradesmen, who often beat and starved him. At twelve, he ran away from home and worked as a dishwasher on a Volga boat, where a cook taught him to read. As a teenager he worked in Kazan as a baker, docker, and night watchman. At twenty-one, he attempted suicide, shooting himself in the lungs, resulting in lifelong attacks of tuberculosis. For two years he tramped through the countryside, associating with the "lower depths" of society, including drifters, thieves, and prostitutes.

Knowing their lives at first hand, Gorky frequently criticized the society that produced such persons. This led him to associate with revolutionaries, which in turn led to his being jailed. Becoming a journalist for a local paper when he was twenty-four, he published short stories about the derelicts he had met on his travels. He chose as his professional name Maxim Gorky, meaning "the bitter one."

The popularity of Gorky’s short stories led to recognition of his talent in 1900 by the Moscow Art Theatre, which commissioned a play. Gorky wrote two plays in the next two years, "Philistines" (The Smug Citizen), produced in 1902 in a censored version because the police considered him a troublemaker worth watching, and "The Lower Depths." In the former, the head of a prosperous household is a strict, conservative landowner who oppresses his tenants as well as his wife, son, and daughter. His repressed grown children lead unhappy lives, discontented and lifeless, but unable to strike out and change their circumstances. In contrast, a worker whom the daughter fancies, is able to plan a productive life married to a servant. In the National Theatre 2007 production, the end comes as a startling reminder that a revolution is imminent.

But it was "The Lower Depths" produced by the Arts Theatre that same year that made Gorky’s reputation as a major modern dramatist. In a broken-down rooming house, derelicts, drifters, thieves, and prostitutes huddle together for warmth from the bitter cold outside, outcasts based on those Gorky had met in his own wanderings. These realistically drawn characters play cards, tell stories, flirt, fight, and debate their points of view regarding "truth" and "illusion." Clearly a protest against a society that turns a blind eye to such misery, the play, as well as Gorky’s short stories and novels evoked the wrath of the Tsarist police and the author spent time in jail. During one stint in jail, he wrote "The Children of the Sun" in 1905.

Raising money abroad for the Marxists, Gorky continued writing plays, among them "Summer Folk (1903) "Barbarians" (1906), and "Enemies" (1906). The last-named, along with "The Last Ones (1908) were banned by the authorities from being produced. "Summerfolk" is a somewhat Chekhovian pastoral, with bustling, active working people ready to replace the inert visitors who waste their summers in idle speculation.

In 1917 Gorky opposed the Bolsheviks who had seized power, and he criticized Lenin. As the revolution did not turn out as he had hoped, he went to Italy and lived there for eight years. When he returned to Russia, he was hailed as a hero, and his home town renamed itself to honor him. He was receiving treatment for his recurrent bouts of tuberculosis when he died in 1936 under mysterious circumstances. It was believed that he may have been murdered, possibly under orders from Stalin.