YIDDISH THEATRE 101 > THE YIDDISH PLAYS > THE PLAY IN HISTORY  >  THE LOWER DEPTHS                                                 

THE LOWER DEPTHS1, by Maxim Gorky

(Yiddish: Na dnie)

New York
Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

Here is the cast from the Yiddish Art Theatre production of this play when it was produced in 1929 in the Pacific Coast, mostly likely in Los Angeles, California (listed in alphabetical order):

Celia Adler, Anna Appel, Anna Bordovsky, Izidore Casher, Lazar Freed, Berta Gerstin, Sonia Goldfaden, Wolf Goldfaden, Ben Zion Katz, Sonia Cotliar (Kotliaer), Sam Lehrer, Maurice Schwartz, Morris (Moshe) Strassberg and Anatole Winogradoff.

So, here is the synopsis of Gorky's "The Lower Depths". The name of the actor or actress who portrayed a particular role is indicated in parentheses:



Maxim Gorky. The Russian playwright and author, ranks not only in his own country as one of the greatest living literary figures, but is universally recognized as one of the few really great writers of our present age. As in "The Lower Depths," Gorky deals in his works with the lower classes: The peasant, the tramp, the laborer, the petty thief, the underdog. He has a keen sympathy for these people and draws his characters with a vividness and redolence which can only come from one such as Gorky, who has lived their life and knows and feels their joys and sufferings.

The action of this play takes place in a disreputable cellar which is run as a night shelter by Kostoloff and his wife, Vassilisa. Here characters from all walks of life, who have sunk to the utmost poverty and degradation, seek lodging. Though they have sunk so low, life, with all its intrigues, still goes on for them. The coming of an old pilgrim who symbolizes the Christ-like sprit, kindles in them the spark of hope and regeneration.


Kvashnya tells the Baron of a prospect of marriage for her which she has refused, while Kleshtch tells her she lies. This causes her to goad Klesshtsh about his inhuman treatment of his wife Anna who is very obviously dying of a lung disease. The noise of the quarrel awakens Anna. As the Baron and Kvashnya go out, Satine wakes up and an altercation as to who shall sweep the place arises between Klesshtsh and the Actor. The Actor refuses, claiming the dust will harm him, as the doctor has said his organism is poisoned with alcohol. Anna begs for air, and as the Actor leads her into the passage, Kostoloff enters and asks for Pepel of whom he is rightfully suspicious of carrying on an affair with his wife. Boobnoff, Pepel and Klesshtsh are arguing when Natasha comes in followed by Luka--a new boarder. Luka makes himself at home and engages the attention of the other boarders whose characters he seems to be searching out. Alyoshka comes in drunk and is turned out by Vassilisa. She questions Luka, but is looking for her lover, Pepel. She is jealous of her sister Natasha with whom she is heard fighting as Luka leads Anna in from the passage. Anna senses the kindness and gentleness of Luka, whom she says is like her father. "It's the hard knocks I've had. They've made me gentle," says Luka.



Satine, the Baron When and the Tartar are playing cards and singing, while Luka sits comforting Anna. As the others are sharpers, the Tartar is trimmed. The Actor offers to take Luka for a drink and to recite verses for him, but he forgets them. He tells Luka of his downfall through alcohol, and Luka tells him of a a free hospital in a distant city where he may be cured and allowed to start over again as a new man. This puts hope into the Actor. Anna, who is dying, calls for Luka. He sits by her, talking to her of another life and giving her hope of rest and joy. Medvyedyeff, who is a policeman, threatens to catch Pepel as a thief. He is silenced when Pepel threatens to involve Kostoloff and his wife who is Medvyedyeff's niece. Luka advises Pepel to go to Siberia and start afresh. When asked if there is a God, Luka answers: "If you believe it--there is; if you don't believe it--there's not... That which you believe in, that is." Vassilisa enters and tries to bribe Pepel to kill her husband, of whom she is tired. But Pepel is tired of her and wants nothing more to do with her. Kostoloff enters and an argument between him and Pepel ensues. Luka is found eavesdropping by Pepel, and he again urges Pepel to take the one he loves and leave for a new life. They go to see how Anna is faring, and find her dead. The Actor comes in filled with the hope of cure and regeneration. Satine tries to disillusion him by telling him that Luka is lying. The cellar is now charged with the atmosphere of both death and hope.


Nastya, her mind over-stimulated by cheap love novels, is telling of a love affair which she tries to imagine as true. While the others make fun of her, Natasha and Luka sympathize with her. Luka talks to them of teaching men goodness, truth, and faith in something better. Pepel asks Natrasha to go away with him to Siberia where they can start life anew. They are interrupted by Kostoloff and Vassilisa who order Luka to leave the place, feeling that he is a disrupting influence in their shelter. Boobnoff tells Luka how he came to be as he is. Satine and the Actor enter. The latter has given up drinking and is saving to go to the hospital Luka has told him of. Satine is skeptical, but also tells Luka the story of his downfall. Klesshtsh comes in. He has no tools to work with now as everything had to go to pay for Anna's funeral. He is changed since the death of his wife. A noise is heard. Kostoloff and Vassilisa are beating Natasha. The others try to call for Pepel. When he comes in a scuffle ensues in which he knocks down Kostoloff and kills him. Vassilisa accuses Pepel of murder, and Natasha accuses her sister of complicity, having wished and urged the death of her husband.

Luka has disappeared, but he has left his influence on the inmates of the cellar. Their talk is now influenced by the hope instilled in them by Luka, but they do not quite seem to understand it. As Kleshtsh says: "He pointed them some place and then never showed them the way." The Actor has left, presumably for the distant hospital. Bobnoff and Myedvyedyeff enters with liquor which they share. Bobnoff feels kindly to everyone and even gives Satine his money. The boarders slowly straggle in to sleep. Some are drinking and When and Bobnoff are singing when the Baron enters and tells them the Actor has hanged himself. "Ah," says Satine in a low voice. "He's spoiled the song--the fool."


1 -- From the playbill for "The Lower Depths", Yiddish Art Theatre, Pacific Coast production. Courtesy of YIVO.

2 -- Synopsis prepared by Jacob Cooper.





Photograph courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

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