The Tragedy Of Morn, by Vladimir Nabokov
Vladimir Nabokov was both a very expansive writer and one who had a few themes that he liked to tackle in his writing over and over again . He is someone whose writing crosses over many genres, from poetry to short stories to novels to this, his only full-length play. The title of the play gives one the genre. This play, like many of Nabokov’s writings, is a tragic one, and that makes sense given both the personal politics and larger politics of Nabokov’s oeuvre as a whole as well as in this play in particular. In this play the dramatist explores the politics of the Russian revolution, connecting the Communists who took over Russia in 1917 with the nihilists of the previous century and tying together the decadence and cowardice of the late Romanov czars with his longstanding interests in sexual desire and the tension between fantasy and reality. The fact that this play was unknown and unpublished until the early 20th century when it was written nearly a century ago is astounding, and a reminder that the full body of work of even the most important authors is a hard thing to find given the vagaries of publishing.
The Tragedy of Morn is a powerful, if somewhat fragmentary (some of the lines are missing) and somewhat obscure play. The play is written as a five act Shakespearean tragedy of similar depth to Shakespeare’s political tragedies. At the center of the play we have Morn, an imposter who rules because he is able to inspire the imaginations of his hearers, even if he disclaims being a poet, along with various other people. These include the secretive and feverish revolutionary Tremens, his beautiful daughter Ella, the escaped Siberian exile Ganus, whose wife Midia first falls in love with Morn and then with his loyal advisor Edmin, the creative and doomed Dandilio and an ominous and knowledgeable foreigner. Morn finds himself losing his kingdom due to his cowardice but then retrieves the regard of the people with casting his fall as a fall for love even as the people show themselves sick of the revolutionaries and desirous of a more just and less violent social order, with intriguing consequences. The play itself is one that could easily be staged and is certainly a very worthwhile one to read, even long after it was written and even being a very early Nabokov work from the mid 1920’s.
How then, if this book is so worthwhile, did it manage to get lost and forgotten for so long? For one, the work was the first lengthy work by Nabokov, who at the time this play was written was still a nobody writing the occasional poem published in emigre magazines for a small Russian exile audience in London and Berlin and other European cities. For another, plays are not a particularly popular genre of literature and it is unlikely that the publishing houses available to him at the time were enthusiastic about the poor profits that would result from publishing a drama from an unknown writer. Of course, by the time Nabokov was well-known and well-regarded he had moved beyond drama to lengthy and complicated novels in Russian and English and probably did not consider the play to be worth publishing for him as a work of his youth. And so the book languished in manuscript until it was serendipitously found, published, and translated. Those who appreciate Shakespearean drama and a fair amount of wit and skill in dialogue set in the Russia of the early 20th century wrestling with Nabokov’s usual heady themes will find much to enjoy here.
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