Vera; or, The Nihilists

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Vera; or, The Nihilists
Written by Oscar Wilde
Date premiered20 August 1883
Place premiered The Union Square Theatre,
New York, USA
Original languageEnglish
Genrepolitical melodrama
SettingRussia, 1800

Vera; or, The Nihilists is a play by Oscar Wilde. It is a melodramatic tragedy set in Russia and is loosely based on the life of Vera Zasulich. [1] It was Wilde's first play, and the first to be performed. In 1880, with only a few copies privately printed, arrangements were made with noted actresses for a production in the United Kingdom, but this never materialized. The first public performance was in New York City in 1883 at the Union Square Theatre, based on revisions made by Wilde while lecturing in America in 1882. The play was not a success and folded after only one week. [2] It is rarely revived.

Play (theatre) form of literature intended for theatrical performance

A play is a form of literature written by a playwright, usually consisting of dialogue or singing between characters, intended for theatrical performance rather than just reading. Plays are performed at a variety of levels, from Broadway, Off-Broadway, regional theater, to Community theatre, as well as university or school productions. There are rare dramatists, notably George Bernard Shaw, who have had little preference as to whether their plays were performed or read. The term "play" can refer to both the written texts of playwrights and to their complete theatrical performance.

Oscar Wilde 19th-century Irish poet, playwright and aesthete

Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was an Irish poet and playwright. After writing in different forms throughout the 1880s, he became one of London's most popular playwrights in the early 1890s. He is best remembered for his epigrams and plays, his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the circumstances of his criminal conviction for homosexuality, imprisonment, and early death at age 46.

Melodrama Dramatic work that exaggerates plot and characters in order to appeal to the emotions

A melodrama is a dramatic work in which the plot, which is typically sensational and designed to appeal strongly to the emotions, takes precedence over detailed characterization. Characters are often simply drawn, and may appear stereotyped. Melodramas are typically set in the private sphere of the home, and focus on morality and family issues, love, and marriage, often with challenges from an outside source, such as a "temptress”, an aristocratic villain.


Production history

Image of the original Union Square Theatre in New York. This building burnt down in 1888 and is not to be confused with the modern Union Square Theatre. Union Square Theatre.jpg
Image of the original Union Square Theatre in New York. This building burnt down in 1888 and is not to be confused with the modern Union Square Theatre.

At the time of writing, the reform-minded Tsar Alexander II was involved in a struggle with revolutionaries who sought to assassinate him (and eventually succeeded). Though none of Wilde's characters correspond to actual Russian people of the time, the above situation was well-known both to Wilde and to the audience for which he was writing. It has been suggested that the plot was inspired by true events. In 1878, three years before the play's completion, Vera Zasulich shot the St Petersburg Chief of Police, Trepov. [3] Wilde described himself as a Socialist, although Ellmann describes his Socialism as more "a general hatred of tyranny" than a specific political belief. [4]

Alexander II of Russia Emperor of Russia

Alexander II was the Emperor of Russia from 2 March 1855 until his assassination on 13 March 1881. He was also the King of Poland and the Grand Duke of Finland.

Vera Zasulich Russian revolutionary (1851–1919)

Vera Ivanovna Zasulich was a Russian Menshevik writer and revolutionary.

Fyodor Trepov (senior) Russian politician

Fedor Fedorovich Trepov Senior (1809–1889) was a Russian government official. He was a natural child of Friedrich Wilhelm von Stenger (1770–1832) and was registered in the Russian nobility on 4 May 1837.

Marie Prescott and her husband, Mr Perzel purchased the rights to perform the play, and she was the leading actress in its first performance at the Union Square Theatre. Wilde travelled to America for the second time in his life specifically to oversee the production. [5]

The play was withdrawn after one week. Mr Perzel stated to newspapers "the play is withdrawn simply because it did not pay," citing that he had lost $2,500 on the piece the previous week. He also implied that he had hoped Wilde himself would lecture between the acts, allowing him to capitalise on Wilde's popularity as a public speaker. [6]


Dramatis Personae




Soldiers, Conspirators, &c.


"Brother Willie- "Never mind, Oscar; other great men have had their dramatic failures!" 1883 cartoon by Alfred Bryan after the failure of Oscar Wilde's play Vera; or, The Nihilists in America Oscar-willie-wilde23.jpg
"Brother Willie- "Never mind, Oscar; other great men have had their dramatic failures!" 1883 cartoon by Alfred Bryan after the failure of Oscar Wilde's play Vera; or, The Nihilists in America

Vera is a barmaid in her father's tavern, which is situated along a road to the prison camps in Siberia. A gang of prisoners stop at the tavern. Vera immediately recognises her brother Dmitri as one of the prisoners. He begs her to go to Moscow and join the Nihilists, a terrorist group trying to assassinate the Czar, and avenge his imprisonment. She and her father's manservant Michael leave to join the Nihilists.

Siberia Geographical region in Russia

Siberia is an extensive geographical region spanning much of Eurasia and North Asia. Siberia has historically been a part of modern Russia since the 17th century.

Moscow Capital city of Russia

Moscow is the capital and most populous city of Russia, with 13.2 million residents within the city limits, 17 million within the urban area and 20 million within the metropolitan area. Moscow is one of Russia's federal cities.

Terrorism use of violence and intimidation against civilians in order to further a political goal

Terrorism is, in the broadest sense, the use of intentionally indiscriminate violence as a means to create terror among masses of people; or fear to achieve a religious or political aim. It is used in this regard primarily to refer to violence during peacetime or in war against non-combatants. The terms "terrorist" and "terrorism" originated during the French Revolution of the late 18th century but gained mainstream popularity in the 1970s in news reports and books covering the conflicts in Northern Ireland, the Basque Country and Palestine. The increased use of suicide attacks from the 1980s onwards was typified by the September 11 attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. in 2001.

Act I

Five years later, Vera has become the Nihilists' top assassin, and is wanted across Europe. She is in love with a fellow Nihilist named Alexis: however, Nihilists are sworn never to marry. A Nihilist meeting is nearly broken up by soldiers, but Alexis thwarts the soldiers by revealing his true identity: he is the Tsarevich, heir to the Russian throne. This act earns him the further admiration of Vera and the hatred of the Nihilists.

Assassination murder of a prominent person, often a political leader or ruler

Assassination is the act of killing a prominent person for either political, religious or monetary reasons.

Tsarevich is a Slavic title given to tsars' sons. Under the 1797 Pauline house law, the title was discontinued and replaced with Tsesarevich for the heir apparent alone. His younger brothers were called Velikiy Knjaz, meaning Grand Prince, although it was commonly translated to English as Grand Duke. English sources often confused the terms Tsarevich and Tsesarevich.

Act II

At a council meeting, Tsar Ivan and his cruel epigrammatic minister Prince Paul Maraloffski criticise Tsarovitch Alexis's democratic leanings, but the Tsar is assassinated by Michael after the Tsarovitch opens the window.


Alexis ascends the throne and exiles Prince Paul Maraloffski, not to Siberia, but to Paris. Maraloffski joins the Nihilists to kill Alexis. The task of assassinating the Tsar is given to Vera. She must infiltrate the palace, stab the Tsar and throw the dagger out the window as a signal to Nihilist agents below. If she does not, the agents will break in and kill him. Vera is reluctant to kill the man she loves, though.

Act IV

Alexis returns to the palace after his coronation, intending to end injustice in Russia during his reign. Vera enters the palace, knife at the ready. Alexis asks her to marry him. She accepts, but then she hears the agents outside crying out for the signal. She stabs herself and throws the dagger out the window, and the agent departs satisfied.

Alexis: Vera, what have you done?
Vera: I have saved Russia. [dies]

Critical reception

The play’s original reception was mostly critical.

Reviewing the first production, the New York Mirror described it as "among the highest order of plays," "masterly," and "the noblest contribution to its literature the stage has received in many years". [7] Other newspapers reviews were very critical: "Long-drawn dramatic rot" (New York Herald), "wearisome" (New York Times), and "little better than fizzle" (New York Tribune). [8] Punch printed that it was "from all accounts, except the Poet's own, Vera Bad". [9] Pilot, meanwhile, complimented the script, and laid blame on Prescott as an "inferior actress". [10]

Since its original production, Vera has been very rarely revived. In 1987, Wilde's biographer Richard Ellmann described Vera as "a wretched play," yet noted that "it did not fall disastrously below the standard set by drama in a century when, as Stendhal said, plays could not be written." [11]

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  1. Wilson, Jennifer. "When Oscar Wilde Colluded With the Russians". The Paris Review. Retrieved October 18, 2017.
  2. Cooper, John. Oscar Wilde in America; accessed 31/03/2014 21:14
  3. Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde, Hamish Hamilton (1987), pg 117.
  4. Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde, Hamish Hamilton (1987), pg 116.
  5. Oscar Wilde in America; accessed 31/03/2014 21:14
  6. "Oscar Wilde's Play Withdrawn", New York Times, 28 August 1883, 8; uploaded by Oscar Wilde in America; accessed 31/03/2014 21:14
  7. The New York Mirror, 25, 1883; quoted in Mason, Stuart. "Bibliography of Oscar Wilde" T. Werner Laurie Lt (1914), p273. Accessed online at Oscar Wilde in America at 1/04/2014 12:39
  8. The New York Mirror, 25, 1883; quoted in Mason, Stuart. "Bibliography of Oscar Wilde" T. Werner Laurie Lt (1914), p273. Accessed online at Oscar Wilde in America at 1/04/2014 12:39
  9. Punch, 1 September 1883, p.99; quoted in Mason, Stuart. "Bibliography of Oscar Wilde" T. Werner Laurie Lt (1914), p273. Accessed online at Oscar Wilde in America at 1/04/2014 12:39
  10. The New York Mirror, 25, 1883; quoted in Mason, Stuart. "Bibliography of Oscar Wilde" T. Werner Laurie Lt (1914), p273. Accessed online at Oscar Wilde in America at 1/04/2014 12:39
  11. Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde, Hamish Hamilton (1987), pg 119.