How much should plot matter in a play? In a novel? Is plot a more important driving force for a reader than an audience These are the questions that I consider as I close the Kindle on Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths. I have had a hard time getting into it, and yet, it’s considered a classic of it’s period. It does not, however, have much in the way of plot.
I’m a big fan of Waiting for Godot, so it’s not like I think a plot is an absolute requirement. But I came to Beckett as an audience member first, whereas I’m encountering Gorky as a reader. I’ll never know how I would have responded to Godot purely as literature, and I don’t know if I’d find Gorky’s piece more effective if I saw it staged. I just know it was a difficult read.
Some say that Gorky’s place in the canon is one of being in the right place at the right time. Less than two decades before the Russian revolution, The Lower Depths portrays a slice of the underclass in a naturalistic way that had not previously appeared in theatre, and audiences in Russia, sensitive to the political climate, ate it up. Of course, from the perspective of literature, this was nothing new. Zola was a champion of naturalism, and the underclasses had been portrayed earlier by Dickens and Victor Hugo, among others.
Since there are no performances on the calendar in New Orleans, I turned to Netflix, and found Jean Renoir’s 1936 film. This is an entertaining movie, but Renoir has significantly changed the story. The first half of the movie centers around the financial downfall of The Baron, which is newly invented backstory for a minor character in the play. Renoir also makes the thief Pepel and his romance with Natasha the focus and gives us a real story. Prefiguring Hollywood, he also gives the play an happy ending. I can recommend this as an interesting movie, but it’s not Gorky. Some additional internet research indicates that Kurosawa’s adaptation is more true to the original. If I have time, I’ll see if I can screen it for comparison.
Renoir also has some clever lines that aren’t in Gorky. This exchange between the Baron and his valet made me laugh, “Don’t you want an employer that pays you regularly?” “That type is a dime a dozen,” as did this remark by Pepel, “The nobility is like the pox, you’re never completely rid of them.”
Meanwhile, unless I get evidence to the contrary, I’m siding with the opinion that Gorky was important for doing something first rather than doing it best.