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The Tragedy of Mister Morn

The Tragedy of Mister Morn

by Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Karshan, Anastasia Tolstoy

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For the first time in English, Vladimir Nabokov’s earliest major work, written when he was only twenty-four: his only full-length play, introduced by Thomas Karshan and beautifully translated by Karshan and Anastasia Tolstoy.

The Tragedy of Mister Morn was written in the winter of 1923­­–1924, when Nabokov was completely unknown.


For the first time in English, Vladimir Nabokov’s earliest major work, written when he was only twenty-four: his only full-length play, introduced by Thomas Karshan and beautifully translated by Karshan and Anastasia Tolstoy.

The Tragedy of Mister Morn was written in the winter of 1923­­–1924, when Nabokov was completely unknown. The five-act play—the story of an incognito king whose love for the wife of a banished revolutionary brings on the chaos the king has fought to prevent—was never published in Nabokov’s lifetime and lay in manuscript until it appeared in a Russian literary journal in 1997. It is an astonishingly precocious work, in exquisite verse, touching for the first time on what would become this great writer’s major themes: intense sexual desire and jealousy, the elusiveness of happiness, the power of the imagination, and the eternal battle between truth and fantasy. The play is Nabokov’s major response to the Russian Revolution, which he had lived through, but it approaches the events of 1917 above all through the prism of Shakespearean tragedy.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - Michiko Kakutani
Mister Morn…stands as a kind of primer to Nabokov's later work, an index of the motifs and preoccupations that will surface again and again in his stories and novels: the elusiveness of happiness, the beauty of the world, the stubborn fact of death, the transformative possibilities of art, and the blurring of reality and make-believe…this fleet-footed, if at times heavy-handed play provides a road map to what this dazzling sorcerer of words would later create.
From the Publisher
“An extraordinary confection of a play about happiness and its enemies. . . . Mister Morn pulses with verbal brilliance. . . . It puts us in the head of eternal Nabokov.” —Times Literary Supplement (London)

“A road map to what this dazzling sorcerer of words would later create.” —New York Times
“Its speeches are bright with Nabokovian gems. . . . Mister Morn [is] enticingly predictive of Nabokov’s great work. The flutter of magic, the avuncular twinkle, the B-movie danger—it’s all here.” —The New Yorker

“If the unfinished novel The Original of Laura revealed to the world the last embers of Nabokov’s genius, The Tragedy of Mister Morn shows the first sparks of brilliance that would evolve in later works such as Pale Fire. But . . . Morn also shows that instead of just hiding historical material, Nabokov utterly transforms it through the prism of theater.” —Los Angeles Review of Books

“A whimsical, largely allegorical tragicomedy. . . . As in much of Nabokov, love is both necessary and impossible, a delicious and inescapable torture. . . . Nabokov explores more fully and explicitly than he ever would again what he saw as the origins of the revolutionary impulse in a death-instinct and passion for destruction.” —The New Republic

“Contains swerving turns of phrase and ringing contrasts that hint at the glorious writing of the mature Nabokov. . . . The story of revolt for revolt’s sake is powerful, and the play’s strength is how it dramatizes this excruciating truth.” —Booklist

“A kind of primer to Nabokov’s later work, an index of the motifs and preoccupations that will surface again and again: the elusiveness of happiness, the beauty of the world, the stubborn fact of death, the transformative possibilities of art, and the blurring of reality and make-believe. . . . Loss and death are the two electrical currents that run beneath his polished, magical prose, and those themes—as well as the subject of revolution and its consequences—are the animating forces behind his first major work.” —New York Times

“The dynamism of the play’s romantic relationships makes it a firmly modernist work. . . . An intriguing riff on Elizabethan drama.” —Kirkus Reviews
“A gem. The imagery is stunning, metaphor opening out of metaphor. . . . It is visionary and musical. . . . In theme and texture it gives little sense of being early work. With a text whose lexicon seems to contain so many of the novels to come, from Bend Sinister to Laughter in the Dark and Transparent Things, it puts us in the head of eternal Nabokov.” —Times Literary Supplement (London)

Library Journal
The publication of this title is sure to make the hearts of Nabokov enthusiasts beat a little faster. Written between 1923 and 1924 when he was 24, this play was never performed or published during the author's lifetime (1899–1977). It first saw the light of day in a Russian edition published in 1997; this translation is its first appearance in English. Karshan's introduction assures readers that they may see, in the play, the literary beginnings of the novelist-to-be. This five-act piece addresses, in a fantastical way, the nihilism of the Russian Revolution. Its characters speak in iambic pentameter, with enough pauses (indicated by ellipses) to populate a new Harold Pinter play. The text lies rather flatly on the page and does not eagerly engage the reader. On the stage, though, with all the tricks available to an ambitious director, crew, and cast, it has a chance at being charming and accessible. VERDICT Necessary in order to complete the Nabokov collection but of secondary importance otherwise. Those seeking new monologs for auditions or competitions will find it useful.—Larry Schwartz, Minnesota State Univ. Lib., Moorhead
Kirkus Reviews
An early, recently unearthed play by the 20th-century master, heavily critical of politics and hinting at the brilliance to come. Nabokov (1899-1977) was living in Prague in 1923 when he wrote this play, rediscovered in 1997 and published in book form in Russia in 2008. But the communist revolution in his homeland is its key inspiration. Set in an unnamed country, the story tracks a tug of war for power: Tremens is the leader of a failed coup who wants the land reduced to ashes, and Mister Morn is the gentle but successful poet/leader who obscures his status as king. Shakespeare is Nabokov's model in a variety of ways. Most obviously, the play was written in iambic pentameter (attentively but not rigorously preserved by the translators). And its references to Othello, along with its themes of madness, leadership, family lines and how women support powerful men, show Nabokov took plenty of cues from the Bard of Avon. Admirers of Lolita, Pale Fire and Pnin have to work hard to detect glimpses of Nabokov's best-known work here, but it's not impossible: In his introduction, co-translator and Nabokov scholar Karshan explores how the play's references to masks and sex would re-emerge in Nabokov's mature novels. The dynamism of the play's romantic relationships makes it a firmly modernist work. Through Midia, the wife of an imprisoned revolutionary who's in love with Morn, he explores infidelity without high moral judgment. And in Ella, Tremens' daughter, he's imagined a vibrant, nervy woman quick to question her father's "equivocating little words." Morn's vagueness dulls the play's climax somewhat, but he's also the story's chief asset: "All my power lay in my mysteriousness," he proclaims in a final soliloquy, an apt line for a tale about the mysteriousness of power. A minor work in the overall Nabokov canon, but an intriguing riff on Elizabethan drama nonetheless.

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Excerpted from the Hardcover Edition


The Tragedy of Mister Morn was Vladimir Nabokov’s first major work, and the laboratory in which he discovered and tested many of the themes he would subsequently develop in the next fifty-odd years: the elusiveness of happiness; the creative and destructive playfulness of the imagination; courage, cowardice, and loyalty; the truth of masks; the struggle of freedom and order for possession of the soul; the sovereignty of desire and illicit passion; and what one character calls ‘that likeness which exists / between truth and high fantasy’ (I.ii.59–60), a likeness under whose inspiration Nabokov would take reality, fancy, art, and impossibility, and twist them together into the four-dimensional knots of Lolita, Pale Fire, and his other great novels.

Yet Morn, which Nabokov wrote in Prague in the winter of 1923 to 1924, when he was only twenty-four years old, was never performed or published in his lifetime, though several readings of the play did take place in Berlin, then Nabokov’s home, in the spring of 1923. The opportunities in Berlin for staging a Russian play by a nearly unknown writer were limited, and publication cannot have seemed financially attractive to the émigré publishing houses that would later print Nabokov’s novels. In America, and then in Switzerland, Nabokov translated most of his Russian fiction, but not his early plays, and when he died, in 1977, the typescript and fair copy of Morn still lay dormant in his ­personal archive in Montreux. Then, in 1997, Zvezda, a Russian literary journal, published the complete Russian text of Morn; and in 2008 the play finally became available to a wider (Russian-reading) audience when a revised version of the text was published in book form by Azbuka Press of St Petersburg. These publications have in turn made possible this current edition – the first translation of Morn into English.

While Morn is in many respects the seedbed for Nabokov’s major novels, there are also elements in it which are fascinatingly unlike anything in his later work, and which reflect issues in Nabokov’s life at the time of writing. Most prominent of these is revolution. Nabokov came from a distinguished liberal family in St Petersburg: his father, V. D. Nabokov, had been one of the ministers in the short-lived Kerensky government which ruled between the fall of the Tsar and the ascent to power of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in 1917. That year, the Nabokov family fled St Petersburg, first for Yalta, then for London, and, eventually, Berlin – where the young Nabokov would rejoin them in 1922, after completing his degree at Cambridge. Even in Berlin, however, the Nabokov family was not safe from the extremist ideologies of right and left which had vied for power in Russia after the failure of the liberal centre, and on 28 March 1922 Nabokov’s father was shot dead by a Monarchist assassin who was in fact aiming not at him but at another émigré politician.

Nabokov’s hatred of the Soviet regime is directly expressed in much of his writing, most prominently his novels Invitation to a Beheading (1935/6) and Bend Sinister (1947). But he would never again write anywhere nearly so directly about the moment of revolution itself, or so probingly about ideology, as he did in Morn. In the play’s two main revolutionaries, Tremens and Klian, Nabokov depicts a politics and poetics of nihilism which, it is implied, was the driving force behind the Russian Revolution. In this Nabokov was refining a critique of revolutionary ideology which can be traced back as far as Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1862) and Dostoevsky’s The Possessed (1872). He would articulate this critique again in his last, and greatest, Russian novel, The Gift (1937/8), whose fourth chapter is a mocking biography of Nikolai Chernyshevsky – the revolutionary thinker of the 1860s who was the object of Turgenev’s and Dostoevsky’s conservative critiques, and would become Lenin’s hero. But in Morn Nabokov explores more fully and explicitly than he ever would again what he saw as the origins of the revolutionary impulse in a death-instinct and passion for destruction. When Ganus, who had once been a revolutionary, returns from exile and discovers the happiness that the masked King has brought to the kingdom, he asks Tremens why he is not now satisfied. Tremens pours scorn on him. Neither happiness nor equality is Tremens’s purpose, he explains; rather, he is seeking to imitate the violent destructiveness of life itself, which ‘rushes headlong / into ash, [and] destroys everything in its way’ (I.i.287–8). ‘Everything,’ Tremens explains, ‘is destruction. And / the faster it is, the sweeter, the sweeter . . .’ (I.i.295–6). To him, this destruction is beauty:

Did you see,

one windy night, by moonlight, the shadows

of ruins? That is the ultimate beauty –

and towards it I lead the world.


Tremens cites as one aspect of that destructiveness the sexual drive itself, in the figure of ‘the maiden, who prays for the blow of a man’s love’ (I.i.294), and one distinctive quality of the play is an unblushing erotic candour to which Nabokov would not fully return until Lolita (1955). Thus Klian, the violent-minded revolutionary poet who serves as Tremens’s factotum, tells his fiancée Ella that

 . . . To enter you, oh, to enter,

would be like entering a tight and searing

sheath, to gaze into your blood, to break

through your bones, to learn, to grasp, to touch,

to press your being in between my palms! . . .


This anticipates Humbert Humbert in Chapter 2, Part Two of Lolita saying that ‘my only grudge against nature was that I could not turn my Lolita inside out and apply voracious lips to her young matrix, her unknown heart, her nacreous liver, the sea-grapes of her lungs, her comely twin kidneys.’ Yet, as with so many aspects of the play, in the sphere of desire Nabokov explores opposite poles of experience. Against Klian’s dark vision of sexual appetite is set a more salubrious expression of love’s idealizing power – in the faith that Midia, and the other citizens, place in Morn’s nearly magical beneficence, and in Ella’s idea of love as a force that coalesces experience:

 . . . all is one: my love and the raw sun,

your pale face and the bright trickling icicles

beneath the roof, the amber spot upon

the porous sugary snow mound, the raw sun

and my love, my love . . .


This, and the tenderly specific attention paid to the minutiae of Ella’s hair, clothes, and make-up, seem to attest to the fact that Nabokov wrote Morn soon after meeting and falling in love with Véra Slonim, who would become his wife – and the play’s typist. With her girlishness, humour, and idealism, Ella ranks alongside Lolita as one of Nabokov’s few fully realized female characters.

If, in its treatment of revolutionary ideology, death, and desire, Morn shows us elements that Nabokov would not develop again, or not for a long time, there is one respect in which it stands very obviously as the source of Nabokov’s immediately subsequent writing, and this is in its exploration of the twin themes of happiness and make-believe. In 1924, Nabokov would begin writing his first novel, Happiness. The novel was aborted and its drafts are now lost, but there is no question that its title expresses one of the central themes of Nabokov’s oeuvre, in which happiness is a mysterious variable, ‘the zany of its own mortality’, as Sebastian Knight calls it, no sooner found than lost, but always something much more profound than anything ‘happiness’ means in modern use, where it merely names the mirage evoked by the goals we set ourselves. As for make-believe, it is central to Nabokov’s work that any reality worth caring about is one freshly imagined, that, as he puts it in Strong Opinions (1973), ‘average reality begins to rot and stink as soon as the act of individual creation ceases to animate a subjectively perceived texture’, and therefore that, as Vadim’s aunt tells him in Chapter 2 of Nabokov’s final complete novel, Look at the Harlequins! (1974), it is a fundamental imperative for every person that in art and life he should ‘Play! Invent the world! Create it!’ The theme of make-believe also links Morn to two other verse-plays which Nabokov had written in 1923 before embarking on Morn, the one-act closet dramas Death and The Pole, which together mark out the two poles between which Morn moves: in the first, a cynical intellectual related in mentality to Tremens presses the view of illusion as arrant deceit; while the second heroizes Captain Scott, the quixotic Antarctic explorer, a Morn-like figure whose steadfast courage inspires and sustains his followers, who always seems to be playing, even in the face of death, and who is, like Morn, recognized by his laughter.

In Morn Nabokov gave these themes a political significance more explicit than any we find in his later work. Against the revolutionary politics, grounded in the ideals of equality, sameness, and even death, that Tremens and Klian embody, Nabokov postulates a conservative politics, animated by an ideal of happiness. As Morn says, he

. . . created

an age of happiness, an age of harmony . . . God,

give me strength . . . Playfully, lightly I ruled;

I appeared in a black mask in the ringing hall,

before my cold, decrepit senators . . . masterfully

I revived them – and left again, laughing . . .


Morn’s example has aestheticized the world, restoring order by turning it into a fairy tale or a play: if even the King is an actor, then all identity is not something sovereign but something performed, and he shows people how to act as they would wish to be. He is a fantasy of the Foreigner, a mysterious figure who enters at the beginning and the end of the play and comes from the real world of revolutionary Russia:

. . . In our country all is not well,

not well . . . When I wake up, I will tell them

what a magnificent king I dreamt of . . .


The implicit argument of Morn is that for the sake of order, ­morality, and happiness in the real world, people must make-believe in the possibility of an ideal world. The play takes place in an imaginary kingdom repeatedly described as having the air of a skazka or fairy tale. In a synopsis of the play, Nabokov described this atmosphere as ‘neoromanticism’, saying that the setting of the play took ‘something from the 18th Century Venice of Casanova and from the 30s [the 1830s] of the Petersburg epoch’. It also borrows from Shakespeare, for in Morn, as in Shakespeare’s history plays such as Richard III, the state is, necessarily, a play or pageant; a secret passage leads from the throne-room to the theatre. This is one of the many details that Nabokov would reuse nearly forty years later in his most metafictive work, Pale Fire (1962), in which an imaginary poet and imaginary king conjure with each other’s existences. Kinbote, the imaginary King of Zembla, or semblance, may have assassinated Shade, the imaginary poet, just as in Morn Tremens says: ‘it’s a shame, Dandilio, that the imaginary / thief did not destroy the made-up king!’ (V.i.188–9). But in Morn, as later in Pale Fire, this kingdom of imagination is all too precarious: Tremens is determined to unmask Morn’s happy reign of make-believe as a cynical fraud, and to tear down the civic order it supports. He succeeds in doing so, until a false rumour that Morn fled for love, not cowardice, reignites the romanticism of the people. It is to defend that illusion that Morn, ultimately, must kill himself.

This idea of kingship as theatre, or as a work of imagination, is one of the many respects in which Morn is indebted to Shakespeare. The heavy crown is a symbol of the burdensomeness of power, as it is in Shakespeare’s history plays, such as Henry IV, Part 2, towards the end of which Prince Henry stares uneasily at the crown lying on his dying father’s pillow, ‘so troublesome a bedfellow’, which, he says, ‘dost pinch thy bearer’, and ‘dost sit / Like a rich armour worn in heat of day, / That scalds with safety’ (IV.v.22, 29–31). In Morn, too, the ‘fiery crown’ burns and squeezes with ‘its diamond pain’, and Morn complains that

. . . The stupefied mob

does not know that the knight’s body is dark

and sweaty, locked in its fairy tale armour . . .


From Shakespeare, too, Nabokov drew a series of metaphors for civic order which could be deployed to warn against the rash alterations of Bolshevism. The kingdom is like the human body, so that Tremens’s fever symbolizes the convulsions he wishes upon the state, as, again, in Henry IV, Part 2, where the Archbishop of York declares that

. . . we are all diseased,

And with our surfeiting and wanton hours

Have brought ourselves into a burning fever,

And we must bleed for it.


Or the kingdom is like music, as Ganus argues when he says that ‘The power of the King / is living and harmonious, it moves me now / like music’ (I.i.231–3), echoing an idea most famously expressed in a speech given by Ulysses in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. The same idea is implicit in The Tempest, a play with which Morn is associated through the kinship between Prospero and Morn, both of them magician-kings. But the Shakespeare play most obviously linked to Morn is Othello: Ella dresses Ganus up as Othello so that he can visit Midia unobserved, and she twice quotes the lines Desdemona utters when Othello is about to smother her (the first time slightly misquoting them). The Tragedy of Mister Morn is less concerned with doubling, and with the duality of human nature, than Nabokov’s later works. But here already, it is clear that when Ganus wears Othello’s face, he discovers in himself a shadow side, a dark jealousy like that which blackened and distorted Othello. Conversely, Morn, by wearing a mask, becomes a nameless sovereign, King X, as Nabokov calls him in the synopsis, the variable upon which a lucky people can project their fantasies of happiness and order; and when he is unmasked by his cowardice, he betrays not only the ideals of his people and his own self-respect but even the identity and integrity he had once seen when he gazed into the healing silver of the mirror.

But in Morn Nabokov was trying to emulate Shakespeare not only at the level of image and symbol, but also of character and drama, register and rhythm. The simplest expression of this is that Morn is written in the iambic pentameter of Shakespearean tragedy, though Nabokov is more strictly regular in his rhythmic patterns than Shakespeare. Though Morn’s prosody alludes to Shakespeare, it does so through the mediation of Pushkin’s ‘little tragedies’ (all written in 1830, the most famous of which is Mozart and Salieri). More specifically Shakespearean – and ­un-Pushkinian – is the language of Morn, which, especially in the philosophic speeches of Tremens, Klian, Morn and Dandilio, is densely metaphorical and highly compressed in the manner of late Shakespeare. So Morn, saying farewell to Midia, justifies the aberrations of fate by comparing life to music, before suddenly shifting the already difficult metaphor into another key, comparing the music of existence to the structure of a building whose details can detract from an appreciation of its overall harmony:

But, you see – the moulded whimsy of a frieze

on a portico keeps us from recognizing,

sometimes, the symmetry of the whole . . .


Meet the Author

Vladimir Nabokov studied French and Russian literature at Trinity College, Cambridge, then lived in Berlin and Paris, writing prolifically in Russian under the pseudonym Sirin. In 1940, he left France for the United States, where he wrote some of his greatest works––Bend Sinister (1947), Lolita (1955), Pnin (1957), and Pale Fire (1962)––and translated his earlier Russian novels into English. He taught at Wellesley, Harvard, and Cornell. He died in Montreux, Switzerland, in 1977.

Thomas Karshan is the author of Vladimir Nabokov and the Art of Play and editor of Nabokov’s Selected Poems.  Previously a research fellow at Christ Church, Oxford, and Queen Mary, University of London, he is now a lecturer in literature at the University of East Anglia.

Anastasia Tolstoy is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Oxford, where she is writing a thesis on Nabokov. She is the great-great-great-granddaughter of Leo Tolstoy.

Brief Biography

Date of Birth:
April 23, 1899
Date of Death:
July 2, 1977
Place of Birth:
St. Petersburg, Russia
Place of Death:
Montreux, Switzerland
Trinity College, Cambridge, 1922

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