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