Before Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest Oscar Wilde had less-successful attempts at writing for the theatre. This is his first,
Vera, or the Nihilists (1883).
What are the play’s themes?
Vera is set in Russia, in the time period 1795–1800, but tends to be rather inaccurate with its treatment of Russian history: the heroine of the title, Vera, plots to kill the country’s tyrannical Czar, in league with the Nihilists – a revolutionary political group which did not actually exist at that point. In a letter of the period, Wilde explained that, for him a Nihilist was a,
strange martyr who has no faith, who goes to the stake without enthusiasm, and dies for what he does not believe in […] a purely literary product. He was invented by [Turgenev, in Fathers and Sons (1861)] and completed by Dostoyevsky.
In this play, he wrote to the actress Marie Prescott, he had,
tried in it to express within the limits of art that Titan cry of the peoples for liberty, which in the Europe of our day is threatening thrones, and making governments unstable from Spain to Russia, and from north to southern seas. But it is a play not of politics but of passion.
The concern with revolutionary topics is a link from Wilde’s work to that of his mother, who, under the name ‘Speranza’, had written poetry in favour of Irish Independence. Though associated with some of the most aristocratic sections of society, Wilde repeatedly declared himself to be socialist, in the sense that he had a generalised hatred of tyranny. In 1891 he would publish an important essay titled ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’, aligning himself with radical writers of the period such as William Morris.
How did it do in the theatre?
Wilde had enormous trouble getting the play staged. When he finally did, it was in at the Union Square Theatre New York, in 1883, after he had spent 1882 touring America giving lectures. The New York Herald called it ‘long-drawn dramatic rot’ and the New York Times ‘unreal, long-winded and wearisome’. It closed after a week.
Why is this particular copy interesting?
As the letter and note inserted into it explain, this copy of Vera originally belonged to Robert Ross (1869–1918), who bequeathed items including this book to Wilde’s son Vyvyan Holland (Constance, Wilde’s wife, had changed the family name to Holland).
This copy would have been worth more to booksellers as it has been expensively bound in full olive-green levant morocco. As the letter inserted into the book explained, in 1953, Vyvyan found himself ‘more than usually hard-up, pending the release of some funds’ and ‘laboriously working’ on his autobiography’, and made enquiries about selling the book to keep himself going. Via the collection of Sir Herbert Leon (named on the bookplate), the book subsequently found its way into the Eccles Collection, and then the British Library.