Maxim Gorky: Russian Dramatist

By Conliffe, Mark | Canadian Slavonic Papers, September-December 2008 | Go to article overview

Maxim Gorky: Russian Dramatist


Conliffe, Mark, Canadian Slavonic Papers


Cynthia Marsh. Maxim Gorky: Russian Dramatist. Bern, New York, Oxford: Peter Lang, 2006. 382 pp. Index. Bibliography. Illustrations. euro63/£47.30, paper.

Cynthia Marsh's book is the first detailed English-language study of Gorky's collected dramatic works (seventeen full-length plays, including the second version of Vassa Zheleznova, a one-act play, and a scenario for improvisation), and in it she considers each of them, shedding light on their complexity, charting Gorky's development as a dramatist, and enhancing our sense of him as a citizen at home and in exile. Thus, she fills a gap in Gorky scholarship with this commendable examination of the fullness of his dramatic writing, and scholars of Gorky and early twentieth-century Russian drama will welcome her insights and challenges to earlier interpretations of the man, his art, and Russian drama generally.

In the book's three parts, which consist of eleven chapters, Marsh gives special attention to conflict in Gorky's dramatic works - conflict between naturalism and melodrama, the establishment and the dispossessed, and the stage and the auditorium, as well as between generations and social classes - and she underscores Gorky's innovative treatment of women, his complex commitment to Russia, and his noteworthy use of space and language. At the heart of the first part, "Debut: 1 882-1 905," is a thoughtful discussion of Gorky's efforts in dealing dramatically with such timely social issues as political ambivalence, the roles of the bourgeois intelligentsia, and the apparent elusiveness of the Marxist promise. It would be hard to dodge these efforts, Marsh explains. Sensitive to audience response, Gorky confronts theatre-goers with powerful experiences that challenge their expectations. He brings together naturalism and melodrama in order to produce live experiences and shock effect, and comedy and the grotesque to provoke amusement, expose political targets, and engage sympathy. And, in providing such strong heroines as Varvara in Summerfolk Dachniki 1904), who are driven by social awareness, Gorky challenges the treatment of women in theatre and in bourgeois capitalist society at the time.

Gorky's inventiveness and boldness in conveying political points are at the forefront of the book's second part, "Off-stage: 1906-1917." In Enemies (Vragi 1906) workers receive their fullest stage exposure yet - Grekov's appearance, we learn, marks the first for a proletarian - and Gorky's innovative uses of language and silence "undermine claims to space and power" (p. 191). We read of ways in which The Last Ones (Poslednie 1907) targets a more popular audience, which would enjoy "the thrills and spills of melodrama and the sideshow" (p. 214). In Eccentrics (Chudaki 1910), unlike in earlier plays, Gorky unreservedly comments on the intelligentsia's decline, proposing that it "is disengaged from the battle it should still be fighting and has become rootless and purposeless" (p. …

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