“The Tragedy of Mr. Morn”, A Play by Vladimir Nabokov

“The Tragedy of Mr. Morn”, A Play by Vladimir Nabokov (1924) – 144 pages   Translated by Anastasia Tolstoy and Thomas Karshan


I have been a fan of Vladimir Nabokov for a long time and consider him one of the great novelists of the twentieth century.  My favorites of his work have always been the literary send-up “Pale Fire” and the college novel “Pnin”.  Both of these novels are uproariously funny, and the individual sentences within each novel are nearly perfect.   I’ve also read and enjoyed several of his other works, both those he wrote in Russian and those he wrote in English.  For me “Lolita” is a less entertaining work, because the obsessive situation in the novel is inherently not comedic.

“The Tragedy of Mr. Morn” is a play that Nabokov wrote when he was just 24 years old in 1924.  Nabokov and his family were living in Germany after having escaped the Bolshevik revolution in Russia.  Nabokov’s father had been an official of the liberal progressive government of Alexander Kerensky which had originally ruled Russia after the Tsar abdicated in February, 1917, but was overthrown by the Communist Bolsheviks in October, 1917.   This is another example of a revolution eating its own people.  Later in 1922 Nabokov’s father was murdered in Germany by a Russian monarchist assassin.  After these events Nabokov had a deep distrust of revolutionaries which is quit evident in this play.

“The Tragedy of Mr. Morn” is a lively busy play with several colorful characters, both male and female.  Although I’ve considered Vladimir Nabokov a great Russian novelist, I never saw the connection between him and all the great Russian novelists of the 19th and early 20th centuries. His writing always seemed far removed from Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Bely, Turgenev, Gogol, etc. This play is the missing link.  The play is deeply Russian beginning with a large dance ball in a Russian villa, then an illicit love affair, proceeding to a duel.  What could be more Russian?  Later we even have a fortune teller reading of a card from the deck which could have sprung directly from Alexander Pushkin.

Even more than Pushkin, William Shakespeare was the guiding force behind this play.  Before writing the play, Nabokov spent a couple of years at Cambridge in England, and he must have immersed himself in Shakespeare. Nabokov got the very movement and spirit of the play from Shakespeare.  The play is written in iambic pentameter, the same rhythmic pattern as Shakespeare’s dramas.  Just as in Shakespeare, there is high drama and low comedy in the interaction of the many characters within the play    I would like to see this play staged in a theater here in the United States today.  It has the theatrical qualities to be a success today.

Young_Nabokov I’ve always had one theory about Vladimir Nabokov which frankly may not have any validity whatsoever.  Nabokov’s works written directly in English have always appealed to me more than the ones that have been translated from the Russian.  This might be explained by his maturing as a novelist, but I have a different theory.  Nabokov always assigned his son Dmitri Nabokov to translate each of his Russian books.  I’ve always suspected that Dmitri may not have been the best translator for these works.  “The Tragedy of Mr. Morn” was not translated by Dmitri.  It has an energy and liveliness that is missing from some of the other Russian works in translation.  I would really like to see a new translator start from scratch with one of Nabokov’s Russian novels.  The results could be very interesting.

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