A Review of Vladimir Nabokov’s
The Tragedy of Mister Morn
The Tragedy of Mister Morn
Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Summer 2013
Translated by Thomas Karshan and Anastasia Tolstoy
In a 1941 lecture entitled “The Tragedy of Tragedy,” Vladimir Nabokov posed the idea to students at Stanford University that the theater as we know it is severely hampered by nearly ineradicable conventions that prevent any innovation that could lead to artistic transcendence: “The highest achievements in poetry, prose, painting, showmanship are characterized by the irrational and illogical, by that spirit of free will that snaps its rainbow fingers in the face of smug causality. But where is the corresponding development in drama?” He points to a few magical plays, notably Hamlet and King Lear, which he calls “dream-tragedies” and which he declares are the rare exceptions that can be named alongside “the numberless glories of novels and short stories and verse produced during these last three or four centuries.” Nabokov always opted for complete artistic freedom, which he found and exploited to amazing effect in the modern novel, while his forays into the theater achieved and encompassed significantly less. He also famously disliked novels with a lot of dialogue, favoring in his own works to have the narrative tunnel its way through outrageous labyrinths that no character could ever actually say, and with drama being virtually all dialogue, it’s no wonder that he found the theater encumbered by its own form.
Nabokov had two periods of involvement with the Russian émigré theater, the first in the mid-1920s, when he was still largely a poet and had not yet begun writing novels, and the second in the late 1930s, soon before he abandoned Russian and began writing in English. These were times of transition for Nabokov, and in each of the plays from these periods the reader can sense a yearning for connection—to Russia, to his fellow émigrés, to the audience, to the dramatic form itself—that’s much less present in his other work. Only in his screenplay for the film version of Lolita does he seem the supremely confident artist enjoying his complete faculties, even though the script is much more of a literary creation than it is a feasible dramatic work (which may be why director Stanley Kubrick completely ignored it, simply using Nabokov’s name as the screenwriter to add prestige to the film). Nabokov the playwright is always surprisingly self-conscious and gimmicky, and this tentativeness may be why he only allowed one of his plays to be translated into English during his lifetime: the 1938 political farce The Waltz Invention, which was translated in 1966 by Nabokov’s son, Dmitri. Seven years after Nabokov’s death Dmitri translated a collection of four plays entitled The Man from the USSR and Other Plays, leaving only a few early plays untranslated, most notably the five-act verse drama The Tragedy of Mister Morn, which only exists in incomplete form in two slightly different copies. Leaving almost no Nabokov unpublished, however, Knopf has finally edited and released this missing work in English, lacunae and all.
Written in the winter of 1923/4, when Nabokov was only twenty-four, The Tragedy of Mister Morn finds Nabokov at his most mimetic. Channeling Shakespeare almost shamelessly, The Tragedy of Mister Morn is a semi-fantastical political drama in which the personal machinations of a few warped individuals play out on the stage of an unnamed and idealized kingdom. Morn is a mysterious and benevolent monarch who rules behind a mask and mixes with his subjects as an ordinary man, and Tremens is a brutal revolutionary who yearns much more for destruction than for positive change, and when Morn falls into a not very believable dispute with Ganus, another would-be revolutionary, over his wife, Midia, the stage is set for Tremens to strike. Written in a much stricter iambic pentameter than Shakespeare ever employed (and translated into loose and readable five-stress lines by Anastasia Tolstoy and Thomas Karshan), the play’s five acts work around the clock to emulate their Shakespearean model. Each interaction is a chance for Nabokov’s characters to mouth soul-stirring conceits, and even the most walk-on characters have something profound to say about the human condition. At the end of Act II, Scene I, a servant cleaning up after the other characters ends his eleven-line mumblings with these thoughts on aging:
O, how my bones ache, how they ache! Cook
shoved some ointment at me,—says, try it,
rub some on . . . Try arguing . . . That’s all I need . . .
Old age isn’t some ugly mug daubed on
a fence, you can’t just paint over it.
There are some lovely observations jammed into these characters’ speeches, but Nabokov often forces the profundity to the point of accidental comedy. His stagy masques also amuse with their overt playness, and while his Shakespearean referents (especially Othello) are very well woven into the drama, he’s just way too overawed by his British master, which is all to be expected in a young and inexperienced playwright trying to find his voice.
Prefiguring the personal/political nightmares of his later novels Invitation to a Beheading, Bend Sinister, and Pale Fire, The Tragedy of Mister Morn finds Nabokov already transforming his lost Russia into a dreamscape overcome by madness. While Morn’s benevolence may be a bit too facile and uncomplicated for real tragedy, and with Tremens’s brutal nihilism strangely echoing the dismissive way that Dostoyevsky portrays Raskolnikov’s revolutionary ideas in Crime and Punishment (a comparison that Nabokov would doubtless reject outright), The Tragedy of Mister Morn doesn’t serve as a very sophisticated examination of power, but like the Lolita screenplay, it is a very good piece of writing. Like Iago, Tremens has no motive for his atrocities other than criminal mischief, and while this works less for Nabokov than it does for Shakespeare, the density and lyricism of Nabokov’s verse work far better here than it does in his lyric poetry. Nabokov needed a larger and more forward-moving vehicle for his poetic ideas at the time, and because he idolized Shakespeare so much, verse-drama was a natural progression for him. Thankfully he soon moved on to the novel, which in his fifty-year career he took to a nearly unmatched poetic level.