Vera; or, the Nihilists is Oscar Wilde's earliest play. It is not very well-known, and many will say that its obscure place in the annals of Literature is justified. The play cannot, alas, rank with Wilde's later work. It is, however, not below the standard of most contemporary popular dramas, and deserves to be included in this Guide, if only because it stands at the beginning of Wilde's dramatic output.
"To strangle whatever nature is in me; neither to love nor to be loved; neither to pity nor to be pitied; neither to marry nor to be given in marriage, till the end is come." (the Nihilist creed)
The people of Russia suffer greatly under the tyranny of the Czar. The Nihilists, a band of conspirators, have sworn an oath to kill the Czar and establish a Republic in which power will be given to the people. Vera Sabouroff, a young Russian peasant girl, converts to the Nihilist creed in order to revenge her brother Dmitri, a Nihilist who got captured and was sent to Siberia. She takes up her role with such devotion that she becomes the conspirators' mascotte and their symbol of Liberty.
Alexis, the Czarevitch, is a Nihilist as well. He loves the people and thinks his father is misgoverning Russia under the influence of his sardonic advisor, Prince Paul Maraloffski. The Nihilists are not quite sure whether to trust him or not, but Vera believes in him - in fact, she is in love with the young prince. Difficulties arise when the Czar is assassinated. Alexis, true to his Nihilist creed, should refuse the crown, but instead he decides to accept it. The Nihilists consider him a traitor and want to kill him. The lots are drawn, and Vera is appointed as a regicide.
Alexis, in the meantime, seems a promising Czar: he has ordered the return of the Siberian exiles, among which Dmitri Sabouroff, and has dismissed the old clique that used to surround his father. Vera has decided to kill him for breaking his oath, but is mollified when the new Czar tells her he has accepted the crown only in order that they might rule Russia democratically together. Vera must now choose between her Nihilism and her love, and when the Nihilists draw near, she kills herself in order to save Alexis. In doing this, she believes to save Russia.
Vera; or, the Nihilists suffers from a strange discrepancy of styles within the work. On the one hand, there are the Nihilists, with first and foremost among them Vera Sabouroff and Prince Alexis. Their language is the rhetoric of noble heroism, which makes them sound rather stiff, old-fashioned and pompous. Their lofty phrases are hardly life-like, as shown in this empassioned speech of the Czarevitch in Act II:
CZAREVITCH: [...] Boy as I am in years, I have seen wave after wave of living men sweep up the heights of battle to their death; ay, and snatch perilous conquest from the scales of war when the bloody crescent seemed to shake above our eagles.
On the other hand, then, there are the courtiers, led by Prince Paul Maraloffski, and the Czar. Their lines are essentially funny. Even the cruel Czar has many characteristics of a comical figure: he is unconsciously ridiculous in his paranoia, and has lost all sense of proportion. He says about himself: "Am I a tyrant? I'm not. I love the people. I'm their father. I'm called so in every official proclamation."
A sample of aristocratic conversation:
MARQUIS DE POIVRARD: [T]alking of the taxes, my dear Baron you must really let me have forty thousand roubles to-morrow; my wife says she must have a new diamond bracelet.
COUNT ROUVALOFF (aside to BARON RAFF): Ah, to match the one Prince Paul gave her last week, I suppose.
PRINCE PETROVITCH: I must have sixty thousand roubles at once, Baron. My son is overwhelmed with debts of honour which he can't pay.
BARON RAFF: What an excellent son to imitate his father so carefully!
GENERAL KOTEMKIN: You are always getting money. I never get a single kopeck I have got no right to. It's unbearable; it's ridiculous! My nephew is going to be married. I must get his dowry for him.
PRINCE PETROVITCH: My dear General, your nephew must be a perfect Turk. He seems to get married three times a week regularly.
GENERAL KOTEMKIN: Well, he wants a dowry to console him.
COUNT ROUVALOFF: I am sick of town. I want a house in the country.
MARQUIS DE POIVRARD: I am sick of the country. I want a house in town.
BARON RAFF: Gentlemen, I am extremely sorry for you. It is out of the question.
PRINCE PETROVITCH: But my son, Baron?
GENERAL KOTEMKIN: But my nephew?
MARQUIS DE POIVRARD: But my house in town?
COUNT ROUVALOFF: But my house in the country?
MARQUIS DE POIVRARD: But my wife's diamond bracelet?
BARON RAFF: Gentlemen, impossible! The old régime in Russia is dead; the funeral begins today.
COUNT ROUVALOFF: Then I shall wait for the resurrection.
PRINCE PETROVITCH: Yes; but, en attendant, what are we to do?
Because Wilde is at his best in the play's funny lines, the bad guys in Vera are definitely more enjoyable than the good characters. Vera and the Czarevitch are noble, but they lack the charm and mischievous attraction of the courtiers and the wit of Prince Paul. Also, the clash between their respective styles is rather awkward. The result is that the main characters seem a bit pale and hollow when confronted with the delightfully wicked secondary characters, most notable among which is Prince Paul.
If we may believe the other characters of the play, Prince Paul is the devil in disguise. Alexis believes that his father, the Czar, became a cruel tyrant only because he allowed Prince Paul, his Prime Minister, to influence him profoundly. Prince Paul is an aristocrat pur sang and cares nothing about the people, whom he consideres to be a mob of stupid Philistines.
Prince Paul is also a political chameleon. He manages to adapt himself to the situation he finds himself in, and is a master of intrigue. Subtle, witty, he will always find a way to work himself up to the centre of power. When the new Czar banishes him, he becomes a Nihilist, explaining: "I would sooner annihilate than be annihilated. [...] As I cannot be a Prime Minister, I must be a Nihilist. There is no alternative."
Prince Paul's dry humour undercuts the seriousness of the Nihilists, as when he observes, "You have so many spies that I should think you want information", or the pompous phrasing of characters like the Czarevitch:
CZAREVITCH: The mighty brotherhood to which I belong has a thousand such as I am, ten thousand better still! [...] The star of freedom is risen already, and far off I hear the mighty wave Democracy break on these cursed shores.
PRINCE PAUL (to PRINCE PETROVITCH): In that case you and I must learn how to swim.
Apart from being the saving (dis)grace of Vera, the character of Prince Paul is important in another respect: he is the prototype of that marvellous Wildean creature, the witty dandy. Wilde recycled several of the Prince's lines in later works.
Some samples of Prince Paul's epigrams:
"Indifference is the revenge the world takes on mediocrities."
"Life is much too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it."
"To have friends, one need only to be good-natured; but when a man has no enemy left in the world, there must be something mean about him."
"In good democracy, every man should be an aristocrat."
"There are few things easier than to live badly and to die well."
The idea for the plot probably derived from an article that appeared in English newspapers in 1878: in that year, a young woman called Vera Zassoulich shot the chief of police of St Petersburg, General Trepov. The General had imprisoned Miss Zassoulich's lover, who was a Nihilist, and had one of her women friends flogged in jail.
The Nihilist oath, Richard Ellmann points out, appears to come from 'The Catechism of a Revolution', a book written by S. C. Nechayev and the famous anarchist Bakunin; and the opening of the Nihilist meetings is adapted from the rituals of the Oxford Rose-Croix Lodge Wilde belonged to.
Finally, Wilde must have found inspiration in his own background. His mother, Lady Wilde, had written revolutionary poems and articles under the name of 'Speranza' in the late 1840s, when, as a result of the Great Famine, Irish intellectuals began to stir a rebellion against England. Moreover, Vera was written at a time when Charles Stuart Parnell was starting his campaign for Irish Home Rule, a claim Wilde ardently supported.
Vera was accepted by the actress Mrs Bernard Beere, and the opening was planned for 17 December 1881. However, the recent assassinations of Czar Alexander II and President Garfield caused such outrage among the public that the play was withdrawn, probably under official pressure.
Wilde then tried his luck while on tour in America in 1882. He drew up a contract with the actress Marie Prescott, who was to play Vera in New York in 1883 and take it on tour afterwards. Sadly, the play failed, although the vermilion dress Wilde had designed for Ms Prescott attracted some attention. Marie Prescott tried to boost ticket sales by announcing that Wilde himself would take the role of Prince Paul, but Wilde in fact had no intention of doing so and in the end Vera ran for one week only.