Gender and Theatrical Naturalism

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The challenge to gender stereotypes, as well as provocative statements on women’s rights, and attacks on sexual inequality are a fundamental basis of theatrical Naturalism. ’ Critically analyse your chosen text with specific reference to this statement. Naturalism and Realism are frequently interpreted in the broadest sense as synonyms, referring to an objective portrayal of daily life that appears true to the spectator or readers actual experience. (Innes,C. 000,p2)) More attentively the terms ‘Naturalism’ and ‘Realism’ refer to a fixed theatrical movement. In 1902, the founder of the social-realism, Maxim Gorky wrote his first published play ‘The Lower Depths’ in which was rewarded with colossal success by the Moscow Art Theatre. The public didn’t only get drawn to the play as a political play of misfortune and freedom but it was a way of opening the eyes of the theatre and society to show that it was capable of presenting illustration of a social conscience.

This essay will demonstrate the fundamental basis of theatrical naturalism by critically analysing The Lower depths, By Maxim Gorkii, with specific reference to the challenge to gender stereotypes, provocative statements on women’s rights and attacks on sexual inequality. The lower depth is set in Russia in nineteenth century, where women were controlled by their father or husbands on every aspect of their own lives. They were not able to vote, attend high schools or universities and were not able to hold their own passports. Higher education was unavailable right up until the 1870’s.

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The main career goal for a Russian woman was to marry to a wealthy man and become a housewife. The 1836 code of Russian Law stated, “The women must obey her husband, reside with him in love, respect and unlimited obedience, and offer him every pleasantness and affection as the ruler of the household. ” (http://www. pbs. org/wgbh/masterpiece/anna/ei_women. html) As you can see from this ruling Russian women were truly oppressed and any women who disobeyed these rules were considered ‘unnatural’ and were treated harshly either by violence or social out casting.

In 1861 Russian academics became more attentive to the dilemma of women or what was known as the ‘women question. ’ It was a search for women’s rights and freedom where male writers took it upon them to investigate. They did not seek revolution but equality between men and women. A fundamental base of naturalistic plays such as The Lower Depths is the challenge to gender stereotypes. In the lower depths Gorki has divided the women into two categories, the exploiters and the exploited. An obvious exploiter would be Vasilissa and the way she exploits men and her sister.

She finds a way of challenging the gender stereotype by rexamminig the conventional gender roles. She is comfortably exploring the qualities of both. Females around the 19th century in Russia were stereotypically housewives and were to obey their husbands. Nevertheless, Vassilisa breaks through the typical stereotypes of gender and begins to create a new aspect of theatrical naturalism. Bubnov refers to Vassilisa “she’s a vicious one that one. ” (Gorkii,M. (2009)p17). It is evident that Vassilisa is challenging the gender stereotype of a typical housewife and creating a new theatrical naturalism.

Luka, is talking to Pepel about Vassilisa and clams “She’s worse than a harpy. ” (Gorkii,M(2009) p31) For a woman in Russia in the 19th century to be identified as worse than a loathsome, voracious monster with the head and trunk of a woman was not normal in society at that time. Pepel continues to refer to her as a monster “you’re a savage and you’re proud of it. ” (Gorkii,M (2009)p30) The word savage is normally referred to someone who is violent and has very little or no remorse about their actions. Stereotypically, a ‘savage’ is normally looked upon as a ‘villain’’ which is normally type casted as a male in theatre and in social reality.

However in The Lower Depths it is Pepel, a thief, calling the women that he used to love, a savage which brings us to believe that it can be considered to question traditional ideas of gender. Vassilisa, unlike other women in the play is able to always find a way of manipulating a man, especially Pepel, to make him do whatever she wants. The lower depths are set in an underground lodging house, which is hideous and foul where they gather the social derelicts, in the poisonous air where everything withers and dies.

Using this background makes us believe that Gorki is challenging gender when Kostyliov refers to The Actor and Anna as “The gallant knight and damsel in-. ” (Gorkii,M(2009)p 7) We know that at the beginning of the play Anna is extremely ill so she is portrayed as the damsel which is following the gender stereotype however for The Actor to be classed as ‘The gallant. ’ is contrasting from his characteristics in the play. The actor is also sick and drinks heavily which is far from the stereotypical ‘gallant’ in traditional context. Gender stereotypes can also be established in thnicities and religions. Most people in traditional and current times are able to decipher the difference between Christians, Muslims and Judaism. In the lower depths religion is a large factor to the play however more specifically The Tartar explains “Allah- these women- they’re savage, Russian women! Disgusting, loose. Muslim women know the law. ” (Gorkii,M(2009) P57. ) ‘A Muslim woman’ or any women traditionally in the 19th century were put ‘under’ the care of their husband and were responsible for taking care of the household and children.

Nevertheless, Tartar is challenging Russian women’s values and traditions and calling them all ‘savages. ’ On the other hand you could say that TarTar is attacking on sexual inequality by calling Russian women ‘disgusting’ and ‘loose’. The reasoning behind this is if a man was to behave ‘disgusting and loose’ he would not be called or classed as anything, people would not even lift an eye. Another fundamental basis of theatrical Naturalism is the attacks on sexual inequality.

One of the main sexual inequalities portrayed in the Lower Depths is the indication that men are smarter than women. The men use this to their education to an advantage in the play to make them feel more powerful and upper class. This is evident from the beginning when The Baron strikes a book over Nastya’s head “You’re a fool, Nastya. ”( Gorkii,M(2009)p2) Traditionally, it was mainly the male population who were able to read and write which makes the Baron’s action of striking Nastya over the head with a book and calling her a ‘fool’ is quite ironic.

It is as if he is mocking her, slapping her on the head with a book demonstrates ‘the slapstick’ comedy idea where a women having a book is a joke however a book would be classed as an educated resource so by calling her a ‘fool’ is implying she is dumb. This is a reoccurring sexual inequality which continues when The Baron is talking about Nastya again “Really, what a fool she is that girl! ” Kind, perhaps, but unbearably stupid. ” (Gorkii, M(2009) P57. ) It is apparent here that The Baron is being patronising towards Nastya because he feels he has a higher status than her.

Thus demonstrating ‘men and cleverer than women. ’ In addition, another attack on sexual inequality is also apparent when ‘The actor’ says to Natasha “Ophelia! Get thee to a nunnery! ” (Gorkii,M(2009) P33) This quote was taken from Hamlet (Act 3 Scene 1. ) and is an ambiguous statement where In Elizabethan parlance a nunnery would not just mean a convent, a community of nuns but also can be displayed as a brothel. The attack on sexual inequality is ostensible because in the context of this play he is telling Natasha to go the ‘brothel’ as she is far from innocent unlike a nun.

A woman would never have the right to insinuate this to a male. No one would ever challenge a man about their ‘sexual partners’ because there are different rules for men and women. Throughout tradition it has always been said that ‘Men are better than women. ’ This statement is still being questioned at present day. In the play Gorki has written in more male characters than female characters and one female character is too weak that she passes away, just with basic evidence like this leads us to believe that he confronts ideas of sexual inequality.

In the play we have The Baron speaking to Natsya “you ought to respect your betters! You’re just….. dirt” (Gorkii,M(2009) p57) For The Baron to first say ‘respect your betters’ is obvious that he feels he is better than her and secondly for him to call her ‘dirt’ portrays that she is nothing in his eyes as she is a women. This brings us to conclude that in The Lower Depths there is a massive attack on sexual inequality Maxim Gorki has also used provocative statements on women’s rights to create a fundamental basis of theatrical naturalism.

A prime example is when the baron says “sweep the floors for me Nastya there’s a good girl. ” (Gorkii,M(2009) P4) This is an attack on Women’s rights because why should the women clean the floor? Traditionally, the women were known as the housewives, who were in charge of cleaning and cooking. Nevertheless, Women are capable of working and providing for the families so why should it be that the men aren’t able to clean the floor. The lower Depths explore different relationships e. g.

Vassilisa and Kostyliov, Anna and Kleshch and throughout their relationships it is clear that men used to treat their women with no respect and most are violent. When Natasha decides to run away with Pepel she explains to him that if he was to ever hit her she would leave “ the very first time you hit me, or-or-hurt me…any way at all. I swear I won’t spare my own life, I-“(Gorkii,M(2009) p43) this is not a provocative statement yet it explores women’s rights by questioning why women can’t have a peaceful and non-violent life.

On the other hand, it does demonstrate a challenge on women’s rights and Natasha is sticking up for herself and laying down the law within her relationship to Pepel. In conjunction to this Luka says “the girl you want, take her arm and quick march. ” (Gorkii,M(2009) P31) This shows that men believe they can treat women like objects and are able to pick them up when they want. Is it not fair to ask for Natasha’s opinion on whether she wants to be with Pepel and run away with him? Women are being oppressed by men and have no voice to shed their opinion or be asked their opinion.

Evidence to back this up is also apparent when Kostyliov asks Pepel “when did you buy her? How much did you pay? ” (Gorkii,M(2009) p43) By Kostyliov saying this it is clear he see’s women as merchandise you can buy and pay for. Nonetheless it is completely out of order for a woman to speak about a man in that way. Why are women having to deal with this kind of treatment especially in The Lower Depths were none of them have money and have all been excluded from the social circles of Russia? This should determine that men and women are equal.

Another example that exploits provocative statements on women’s rights: Luka refers to Anna as a “Poor Little Pigeon. ” (Gorkii,M(2009)p 21) A gentleman would look down at his lady as if he was the master and she was the servant. Nonetheless being referred to as a ‘pigeon’ is a term used to describe unattractive, trashy and usually poor females. In comparison to the Lower Depths, Anton Chekov portrayed his women, ‘especially his middle-aged ones, toy with the generally melodramatic framework bequeathed by the nineteenth century. (Marsh,C (1999)p619)They were portrayed as women who were dependent upon men and show their weaknesses as women. At the beginning of this essay I explained it was possible to divide the female characters up into the exploiters and exploited. This is also possible to see the women from Chekov’s ‘Cherry Orchard’ as an ‘oblique response to the attitude. ’ (Marsh,C (1999)p617) Unlike Vasilissa who was illustrated as the ‘new women’ who is independent and strong. The character ‘Charlotta’ (Chekov,A. (2009) raises the issue of femininity and exploitation’ (Marsh,C(1999)p617. With women changing throughout the naturalistic plays it demonstrates the dramatists are changing views of women which is helping to create a fundamental basis of theatrical naturalism and not just the shock and thrill of melodrama with the stereotypical characters. In conclusion, Maxim Gorkii has created a piece of drama set in a doss house, with no food and mainly filled up with criminals and prostitutes it is clear that the challenge to gender stereotypes, as well as provocative statements on omen’s rights and attacks on sexual inequality are all fundamental basis of theatrical Naturalism. References Chekov,A (2009). The Cherry Orchard. London: Faber and Faber limited. 57-69. Gorkii,M (2009). The Lower Depths. Twickenham: Matt Beresford. 2-61. Innes,C (2000). A sourcebook on Naturalist theatre. london: Routledge. 2. Marsh,C. (1999). Gor’kii and Chekov: A Dialouge of text and performance. The Slavonic and East European Review. 77 (4), 601-319. Troyat,H. (). The Women Question. Available: http://www. pbs. org/wgbh/masterpiece/anna/ei_woman. html. Last accessed 28th December 2012.

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