Vera; or, The Nihilists

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Vera; or, The Nihilists
Written by Oscar Wilde
Date premiered 20th August, 1883
Place premiered The Union Square Theatre,
New York, USA
Original language English
Genre political melodrama
Setting Russia, 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 story of Vera Zasulich. 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 the United Kingdom, but this never materialized. The first ever public performance was in New York 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.[1] It is rarely revived.

Production history[edit]

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.[2] Wilde described himself as a Socialist, although Ellman describes his Socialism as more "a general hatred of tyranny" than a specific political belief.[3]

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.[4]

The play was withdrawn after one week. Mr Perzel stated to newspapers "the play is withdrawn simply because it did not pay," citing that he had lost $2,500 on the piece the previous week.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.[5]


Dramatis Personae[edit]


  • Peter Sabouroff (an Innkeeper).
  • Vera Sabouroff (his Daughter).
  • Michael (a Peasant).
  • Colonel Kotemkin.


  • Ivan the Czar.
  • Prince Paul Maraloffski (Prime Minister of Russia).
  • Prince Petrovitch.
  • Count Rouvaloff.
  • Marquis de Poivrard.
  • Baron Raff.
  • General Kotemkin.
  • A Page.


  • Peter Tchernavitch, President of the Nihilists.
  • Michael.
  • Alexis Ivanacievitch, known as a Student of Medicine.
  • Professor Marfa.
  • Vera Sabouroff.

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

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 terrorism group trying to assassinate the Czar, and avenge his imprisonment. She and her father's manservant Michael leave to join the Nihilists.

Act I[edit]

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.

Act II[edit]

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 opened the window.

Act III[edit]

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[edit]

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]


  • To make a good salad is to be a brilliant diplomatist – the problem is so entirely the same in both cases. To know exactly how much oil one must put with one's vinegar.
  • Life is much too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.
  • There is always more brass than brains in an aristocracy.
  • Good kings are the enemies of democracy.
  • Heaven is a despotism. I shall be at home there.
  • There are few things easier than to live badly and to die well.
  • Experience, the name men give to their mistakes.
  • Indifference is the revenge the world takes on mediocrities.
  • When a man has no enemy left there must be something mean about him.
  • I cannot understand your nature.
  • If my nature had been made to suit your comprehension rather than my own requirements, I am afraid I would have made a very poor figure in the world.


  1. ^ Cooper, John. Oscar Wilde in America; accessed 31/03/2014 21:14
  2. ^ Ellman, Richard. "Oscar Wilde", Hamish Hamilton (1987), pg 117.
  3. ^ Ellman, Richard. "Oscar Wilde", Hamish Hamilton (1987), pg 116.
  4. ^ Oscar Wilde in America; accessed 31/03/2014 21:14
  5. ^ "Oscar Wilde's Play Withdrawn", New York Times, August 28, 1883, 8; uploaded by Oscar Wilde in America; accessed 31/03/2014 21:14

External links[edit]