While it’s very instructive to analyze the mature and fully envisioned works of a master stylist and storyteller, gaining a glimpse into their early, sometimes painfully earnest, literary efforts can be equally valuable. I was reminded of this when some members of my writing group and I attended The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s reading of The Tragedy of Mr. Morn by Vladimir Nabokov.
This play was written by Nabokov when he was just 24, he had left Russia, and he was struggling to find a foothold in life. Though he was an apprentice at his craft, the play is very ambitious and some of the hallmarks of his style are already clearly evident: the lush, lyrical sun-and-shadow drenched prose; the love of Shakespeare; the fascination with masks and subterfuge; and many of his major themes: the fleeting nature of love, the solitary nature of pain and suffering, and the power of words to delight, beguile, wound, and betray.
But while there is much to admire, Mr. Morn also bears the hand of a fledgling playwright. Nabokov must have been well aware of its flaws: this was his first and only play, and he left it in a drawer somewhere. While the play’s language is often dazzling and its characters often appealing, it’s unwieldy and frequently adrift in an ocean of words.
Probably the clearest sign that The Tragedy of Mr. Morn is the work of someone just learning his trade is that it is in serious need of pruning. The play has five acts and the reading took 3-1/2 hours — with staging, it would have been far longer. As the words tumbled over me, I found myself drowning in them and losing the thread of the storyline.
Clearly, Nabokov may have admired Shakespeare, but neglected to take to heart the Bard’s amazing ability to dazzle concisely while driving his story forward relentlessly. No wonder Nabokov went on to pen novels instead of plays! Write on!