Going Down: Maksim Gor′kij’s The Lower Depths and Eugene O’Neill

Ever since Helen Muchnic’s pioneering 1951 article, critics have acknowledged the influence of The Lower Depths on Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (written in 1939; first staged in 1946). Further explorations of Gor′kij’s importance for O’Neill, however, have occurred only sporadically and have largely been confined to comparing specific aspects of these two plays (cf. Behrendt).

My contention is that Gor′kij’s significance for O’Neill is arguably broader than has been recognized to date. In the first part of this paper I review O’Neill’s specific references to Gor′kij, noting in particular that O’Neill mentions The Lower Depths in a letter near the beginning of his playwriting career and that his acquaintance with Gor′kij’s work may go back even further. Here too I touch (very briefly) on Gor′kij’s comments about O’Neill, whom he knew by reputation by the early 1920s. Part Two contains a reexamination and an extension of Muchnic’s comparison between the two plays. Her focus was almost exclusively on character and theme; my discussion also begins with thematic comparisons and goes into two or three topics not examined by Muchnic, but then moves on to setting and, especially, to certain aspects of dramatic structure: Hickey’s long monologue (cf. Satin’s speech in Gor′kij), the use of characters who express opposing ideas but who barely intersect within the plot of the drama, the tendency for dramatic intrigue, as such, to recede into the background. In the third and final part I suggest that certain qualities evident in O’Neill’s plays virtually from the start may in fact stem from his early acquaintance with Gor′kij. I acknowledge that it is difficult to judge the precise extent of Gor′kij’s influence; for instance, even in The Iceman Cometh, where both the setting and individual characters seem to owe much to The Lower Depths, there are likely biographical sources for many of the figures and, quite certainly, for Harry Hope’s bar. Yet several of O’Neill’s plays from his earlier periods also employ settings in a way reminiscent of Gor′kij, indicating that the use of a tightly enclosed and “low” (in more than one sense) atmosphere was of importance to O’Neill; similarly, the dramatic structures of several O’Neill plays recall features of The Lower Depths and suggest that O’Neill may have absorbed much from his early reading of Gor′kij.

Muchnic, Helen. “Circe’s Swine; Plays by Gor′kij and O’Neill.” Comparative Literature, 3 (1951), no. 2, 119–28.

Behrendt, Patricia Flanagan. “Images of Women and the Burden of Myth: Plagues on the Houses of Gor′kij and O’Neill.” Drama and Philosophy. Ed. James Redmond. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.