The Tragedy of Mister Morn, a Play by Vladimir Nabokov

Review by Peter Cowlam

Nabokov, an aristocrat dispossessed by the October Revolution, in what is typical for him applies aesthetics rather than political discourse as filter over the coup Mister Morn has successfully repelled. The distortions of social unease are just a spectre to be poeticised over. It is Morn, who is secretly the King, who has delivered what Tremens, the revolutionary leader, could and would not – four years of peace and prosperity. That figurehead of revolt, in a breeze of world-weariness, has ensured his survival only in feigned denunciation of himself – at least as the action opens – having entered a tacit pact with the King, whoever that personage is. The sole image the people have of their monarch is masked, such as that appearing on coins of the realm. His royal presence permeates his nation through pageant and ritual, while his carriage is probably empty when out on official procession, explaining why its blinds are permanently drawn. That veil on the actuality is what facilitates the King’s other life as Morn, a man free to walk the city and judge the mood of its market squares, and know what his people think.

To Tremens – a man who deplores previous ages of revolution – that amorphous concept of ‘the people’ is all a wasted effort. History’s worst outcome has been the elevation of the common man, whose gift to the world is the debased culture a long issue of Nabokovian characters has subsequently debunked and satirised. Tremens is not motivated politically to deliver a better world. That disposes of the need the play might have to engage with revolutions, with why they occur, and with how new leaderships emerge in their aftermath. Tremens carries with him a brand of Schopenhauerian insistence on blind will, a force infusing everything, one that reduces all before it to poetic, romanticised ruin. In Ganus, a fellow-revolutionary, who has escaped exile, who is on the run, who has come to believe the revolution was a mistake, there is an absence of that true calling. Perversely nihilism has its own optimism, when Tremens adds that ‘somehow I sense…hidden within him…that spark, that scarlet comma of contamination, which will spread the wondrous cold and fire of tormenting illness across my country: deathly revolts; hollow destruction; bliss; emptiness; non-existence’ [I.1, ll 320–25].

Morn’s is not the only disguise. Ganus, in his conjectures of adultery, agrees to attend his wife Midia’s soirée, made up and costumed as Othello (Othello, consumed by jealousy and suspicion). Once there he gets himself quietly drunk in a corner, having to put up with Morn, the central guest, who shows as a force for good with a lightness of touch and a poet’s sensibility. He happens also to have infatuated Ganus’s wife, Midia, a part probably best played with chic scheming astuteness. There are other things Ganus has to tolerate. The century (the twentieth) is characterised as a northern country (like Zembla, one assumes, ‘a distant northern land’ (cp Nabokov’s Pale Fire)), a remoteness of visions, bombs, churches, golden princes, revolutionaries in raincoats, and blizzards. Ganus/Gradus suffers also the revolution’s poet, Klian, a coward ultimately, and a man locked into ancient structures, where genius cannot thrive without the eroticisation of its Muse. Other outpourings are from Dandilio, a rationalist buffoon, who has defined human happiness according to scientific theory. The tragedy of Mister Morn is his flirtation with Midia, Morn challenged to a duel when Ganus can stand it no more. In the drawing of lots to establish who will take the first shot, that etiquette is subverted by Tremens and Dandilio, who engineer matters in Ganus’s favour. The King’s bodyguard and confidant later lets him know who Morn really is, but he’s saved the bother of committing regicide when Morn elects to shoot himself. Easier to say than do. Morn, a force for life, now rues his liaison with Midia – ‘a shallow woman’, he says – then in an abrupt volte-face is prepared to sacrifice his kingdom for her. When he flees, renouncing his kingship, Tremens urges his rebels to further destruction. When Ganus thinks the King is dead, he is quiescent; when he learns he is not, he vows to kill him. By now he’s fully in the Othello role, but without make-up.

So these self-deceptions perpetuate themselves. Morn without his kingdom wastes in lassitude, conforming less and less to the cult that has given him artist status. Midia is exquisitely bored, both with him and with the rebellion, whose destruction hardly touches her consciousness. She throws him over, in favour of Edmin, the King’s confidant, a man whose presence has the air of apology. Into that debris of human relations Ganus arrives, at the point where Midia and Edmin have just eloped. He aims his pistol at Morn just as Act IV’s curtain falls.

Act V. ‘The people’, that amorphous entity above, fight back against the rebels, because it’s rumoured the King isn’t dead. Dandilio has worked out who Morn really is. Soldiers close in. Klian pleads for his life, and says he will serve the King. Tremens and Dandilio philosophise ludicrously. All ends ambiguously, with Morn declaiming the illusory nature of statecraft, then receding into the night, either to shoot himself, or end Morn’s delusion once and for all and resurrect himself as King.

Therein is also the curse of pseudo-democracies.

Written in the winter of 1923–24, The Tragedy of Mister Morn first appeared in book form in Russian in 2008. Its verse translation into English is by Anastasia Tolstoy and Thomas Karshan.

Peter Cowlam studied Performance Writing at Dartington College of Arts. He has had plays performed at the Barbican Theatre, Plymouth, and by the Dartington Playgoers, and has had readings at the State University of New York and for the Theatre West 100 Plays project in Bristol, England. As a novelist, he has won the Quagga Prize for Literary Fiction twice, most recently in 2018 for his novel New King Palmers, which is at the intersection of old, crumbling empires and new, digital agglomerates. The Quagga Prize is awarded for independently published works of fiction. As poet and writer of fiction his work has appeared on the Fairlight Books website, in En Bloc, The Battersea Review, The San Francisco Review of Books, The Blue Nib, The Galway Review, Easy Street, Literary Matters, Eunoia Review, The Brown Boat, Valparaiso Fiction Review, The Four Quarters Magazine, Ink, Sweat & Tears, The Liberal, the Criterion, and others.

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