Tuesday, November 20, 2012

At the Bottom

I read Gorky's The Lower Depths to prep me for a Lithuanian production this past week.  I couldn't help being reminded of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, especially in Luka's role in the play.  Made me wonder if O'Neill stole a page from Gorky.  Both of these playwrights drew on their own experiences in creating a view from the bottom of urban society. 

Gorky's play had more resonance in 1902 with theater viewers used to plays that dealth with either a fading or debauched aristocracy.  The reaction was visceral according to Solomon Volkov who wrote extensively  in his book, Magical Chorus, about the play and Gorky's relation to Chekhov and the Moscow Art Theater.  Gorky quickly found himself the hottest property in Moscow and soon St. Petersburg. 

The play, which focuses on a group of lost souls in a squalid tenement building in Moscow, was picked up by the London Theater in 1911 and made into a movie by Jean Renoir in 1936.  It can be found in the Criterion box set with Kurosawa's 1957 version,  Luka is a pilgrim who brings a bit of hope to the beleagured denizens who struggle to cope with the crumbling world around the world.  In many ways the play presaged the revolution that would come in 1905, which is one reason it remains a very popular play.  But Gorky had no way of knowing this then, anymore than Dostoevsky in his presicent novels.

What makes the play work is that it deals with specific human emotions and gives a vivid account of those living at the bottom of society.  Each still seems to hold out for something better like the Baron who is constantly referring to his aristocratic past, much to the chagrin of the whore, Nastya.  Satin is the deepest cynic, but even he is moved by Luka, who has his strongest influence on the Actor who tries to recapture his golden moments on stage.

Oskar Koršunovas in his recent production, Dugne, dispenses with the intrigue of the first three acts and focuses almost exclusively on the fourth act, giving the play a very contemporary feel.  Luka, the landlord and the landlady have been dispensed with, although they are referred to by the others.  Satin takes the principal role with the Baron and the Actor also having key roles.

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