Invisible Censor


15. Night Lodging

It is sadly inept, not to say jejune, to accuse Maxim Gorki's Night Lodging of "gloom." Gloomy plays there certainly are. Twin Beds was one of the gloomiest plays I ever saw, and what about a play like She Walked in Her Sleep? That defunct comedy was as depressing as a six-day bicycle race. Night Lodging is somber. No one denies that. But to believe that a somber play must necessarily be a "gloomy" play is like believing that Christmas must necessarily be unpleasant. It simply isn't true, and to suppose it is mentally inelastic.

But the trouble is, we are mentally inelastic. We say, Ah yes, Strindberg, the woman-hater; or Ibsen, the man who bites on granite; or Gorki, the Big Gloom; when as a matter of fact these artists are simply human beings who have got beyond the comprehensions of the fifth grade. This is itself an old story in criticism. Only the story has to be re-told every time the New York newspaper critics are called upon to characterize a serious drama. With a regularity as unfailing as the moon, the New York critics reaffirm their conviction that a play concerning derelict human beings must of course be squalid, sodden, high-brow and depressing. It is mentally ruinous to believe and assert such things, yet their belief and assertion are endemic in the New York newspapers, like malaria in the jungle or goiter in the Alps.

Mr. Arthur Hopkins's presentation of Night Lodging at the Plymouth Theatre may or may not be better than the presentation some time ago at the German theatre. I do not know. I never saw the performance at the German theatre and I am inclined to distrust the persons to whom the German theatre is not so much a thing in itself as a stick with which to whack the American theatre. But, better or worse than the German performance, Mr. Hopkins's is to the good. It is a strong, firm, spacious, capable performance, resting not so much on a few pinnacles as on a general level of excellence. It is presented bravely. Making no attempt to sweeten the drama to the taste of American critics, it allows the resolute sincerity of Gorki to penetrate every word and action of the performance. The result is undoubtedly not Russian, even if every actor in the cast talks with a semblance of foreignness. But the result is viable, Russian or not. A sense of human incident and human presence is quickly secured, and after that there comes a stream of events which never loses its reality either in force or direction. The impact is tremendous. Gorki inundates one's consciousness with these human fortunes and misfortunes of his tenement basement. And while occasional accents slip awry in the tumult of his creation, the substance of his story finds one a corroborator-in a way that one simply never corroborates depression or gloom.

The men and women, who come together in this night lodging of a Russian city, are of the emancipated kind that one sees on the benches in Madison Square. They are recruited from the casual worker and the non-worker, the unemployed and the unemployable, the loafers and the criminals and the broken and the déclassé. On the first evening when one hears their voices through the murk of the ill-lit basement, one realizes that their anarchism is bitter. They grate on one another, sneer at one another, bawl at one another, tell one another to go to hell. They are earthly pilgrims whose burdens have galled them. They do not understand or accept their fate. They are full of self-pity. They are, in a word, one's tired and naked self. But this relaxed and wanton selfness is projected by a Russian who keeps for his people the freshness of childhood-a freshness charming in some cases, horrible in others, but always with a touch of immortality. How they reveal themselves in this nudity of common poverty! A woman in the corner is coughing, coughing. She wants air. Her husband does not go to her. His patience is snapped. In the middle of the room lies a man half recovered from a drunken brawl. He aches loudly with stale liquor and stale wounds. In the other corner a youth dreams of his mistress, the wife of the lodging-house keeper-a mistress from whom he pines to escape. The "baron" sits in the shadow, telling of his high antecedents, to weary sarcastic listeners. Elsewhere the broken young actor repeats the medical verdict that his organism is poisoned with alcohol. "You mean 'organon,'" shouts another. "No, organism. My organism...." And so, these lives sweep round and round in an eddy of helpless egotism, the sport of the winds of heaven.

Then arrives a leonine old man, a philosophical patriarchal wanderer. Quite simply he fits into this life of the basement, but unlike the rest he is no longer self-centered or self-afflicted. He walks erect in his anarchism. And gradually the lives of the night lodging group around him. He sits by the dying woman. He talks of women to the young thief, and talks of the fine life in rich Siberia that is beckoning to the young. He stands like an untroubled oak in the gales that toss the others hither and thither. Lord, he has seen life! And he meets them all with compassion, a man among children.

He goes. His presence has not prevented the lodging-house keeper's wife from driving the young man to kill her husband. Nor has it prevented that flashing devil from mutilating her sister whom the young man really loves. But though the old man departs he leaves after him a rent of blue in the clouds that choke these people's lives. One after another the night lodgers question life afresh under the wanderer's influence. The tartar's arm is still smashed. The kopecks are still scarce. Nastia is still helpless. The baron is still reminiscent. The actor is still alcoholic. But there is aroused in the night lodging the imperishable dream of happiness, and no one is ready to quench it.

Why is the grave and beautiful play not gloomy? It is not enough to say that the really gloomy play gives a naturalistic version of life which the spectator rejects as false. Nor is it enough to say that the falsity of a sodden play consists not in its shadows or in its discords but in its absence of the vitamin of beauty. Many plays are denied truth because their truth is not agreeable. Many plays are denied beauty simply because their beauty is a stranger. Yet we know that truth or beauty may be as sable as the night, as icy as the pole, as lonely as a waterfall in the wilderness. The fact is, gloom is the child of ingrained ugliness, not the child of accidental, conventional ugliness. It is the people who think too narrowly of poverty and failure who see Night Lodging as depressing. It does not fail in beholding life. It is not poor in sympathy.