The Novelist Exits Stage Left

by Zoe Pollock

Even the greatest writers can fail at applying their talents to the stage, as Rodney Welch learned while reading The Tragedy of Mister Morn, “the latest piece of Nabokov miscellany to find its way into print”:

This convoluted five-act verse 1923 play about the overthrow of an imaginary kingdom is the work of an impassioned young writer who bit off more than he could chew, did not know how to make a complex story look easy, or how to develop cardboard stereotypes into three-dimensional characters. The dialogue is guaranteed to reap little more than confused stares or snorts of derision from the audience. Sometimes, it’s ridiculously expository: “The rain quivers as though in senile drowsiness” or “the moulded whimsy of a frieze on a portico keeps us from recognizing, sometimes, the symmetry of the whole.” Or just ridiculous: “…my face drifts up out of the semi-darkness to meet me, like a murky jellyfish, and the mirror is like black water…” …

On the surface, it seems like he might have succeeded in this career, as his fiction has always had a certain theatricality to it. So many of his characters are lost in plays of their own making, bent on staging their own version of reality. But telling a story in dialogue cramped his style; even in his books, it wasn’t his best means of expression. Like Proust, he was more in his element writing from a deeply interior level, usually through a single tortured consciousness, a single fractured perspective. That’s when his incredibly colorful and comic style took flight, and why he ruled the novel and short story in ways he never could the stage.

For more, check out Christopher Michel’s comprehensive review of Andrea Pitzer’s The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov.