Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Drunks Aren't Always Drunk

Maxim Gorky's 1901 play, The Lower Depths, was an international success. Jean Renoir's 1936 film of the same name is one expression of the play's enduring power to inspire Leftist sentiment. Although Renoir's version of The Lower Depths transports scenes of misery from the banks of the Volga to the banks of a French river, and, according to the IMBD, turns an ensemble production into a star vehicle for its leading man, it's easy to see why socialists and socialist sympathizers were energized by the play's storyline, or at least its rich cast of characters.

In the film, a "comme-il-faut" aristocrat gambles his money away, but retains his serene dignity--demonstrating a stoic capacity to accept the results of that ultimate game of chance, life--even as he joins the ranks of the ruined denizens of a flophouse. Simultaneously, a professional thief encounters the baron in the very act of attempting to steal from the recently bankrupt gambler, and that encounter leads to mutual understanding and respect when the baron, bereft of butler and home, winds up living at the flophouse. Lower Depths is appealing for two reasons. First, the play gives sympathetic voice to a wide variety of men and women from the previously neglected social underclass, including beaten and overworked women, thieves, gamblers, workers, and drunks. Second, it offers an avenue for personal as well as social redemption, but without becoming Manichean or unrealistic, and without utterly dehumanizing all representatives of the upper classes.

While Natasha, the heroine of the play, is victimized by a cruel and tyrannical adoptive father who exploits his lodgers lodgers, and the police and government inspector are clearly propping up an unjust social structure, Gorky's characters are complex: the landlord's cruel wife has redeeming values, and the social outcasts who are, ostensibly, the play's protagonists, have obvious and varied flaws and sins.

So how do the poor and disenfranchised achieve redemption? The answer isn't simple. Papel, the professional thief, is redeemed by the love of an innocent Natasha, by his violent defense of Natasha's honor and safety, and ultimately by physical escape from the city with Natasha by his side and the biblically significant forty coins in his pocket. The flophouse residents find it by participating in their first act of resistance against the social order, i.e., their participation in Papel's murderous attack on the landlord, and their willingness to publicly claim ownership of the avenging murder when the gendarmes arrives on the scene. The baron finds it by realizing real solidarity with people from lower social orders. Life is a game of chance after all, and it's only a strange twist of fate that leads some people to live lives of wealth and privilege, and others to live in squalid poverty and moral turpitude.

More darkly, the alcoholic actor achieves a more tragic form of redemption through suicide. Considering Hamlet's dilemma, this actor has set out at least to explore the "undiscovered country." But, as one character sadly observes in reference to the death of another flophouse resident: "Death is kind to the poor."

Redemption is also offered to the viewer or audience member. According to Gorky, liberation starts with sympathy for those who live in the "lower depths." "How," one character asks, "can we pity the dead when we don't even pity the living?" How indeed. One senses a profound humanizing tendency in Gorky's artistic vision. People are neither good nor evil; they are both, depending on the circumstances in which they find themselves. For even drunks "aren't always drunks," and even thieves "aren't always in prison."

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