The enterprising Arcola Theatre in East London has chosen to start its Revolution Season with a revival of Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths (1902), which has opened a couple of months short of the 100th anniversary of the February Revolution that toppled the Tsar and began the process that led to the triumph of the Bolsheviks in October.
The Lower Depths is a rarely performed large-cast play that offers a panorama of poverty in the last years of Tsarist Russia. Its portrait of human degradation in a doss-house somewhere on the Volga, far from the great urban centers, was originally staged by Konstantin Stanislavsky at the Moscow Arts Theatre.
Whilst visiting a Caribbean island about 100 years ago, Brutus Jones, an African American train driver, some how ends up emperor of the island’s native tribe. His reign is brutal, so Jones knows it will eventually end. Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 The Emperor Jones begins with Jones’ initially relaxed attempt at escape from the uprising citizens, and inevitable guilty descent into the madness of a Shakespearian villain. The script is entirely spoken by Jones, barring the first and last scenes, with his madness peppered with ghosts that won’t let him rest in the darkness of the island’s woods.