Vera; Or, The Nihilists by Oscar Wilde
Author: Oscar Wilde
Published: August 20, 1883
Genre: Play, Tragedy
Vera; or, The Nihilists is a play by Oscar Wilde and first premiered at The Union Square Theatre on August 20, 1883. Nestled within Oscar Wilde’s literary repertoire, often overshadowed by his more celebrated works, lies a theatrical gem that delves into the realms of political turmoil, moral quandaries, and the allure of nihilism. Vera; or, The Nihilists takes us on a gripping journey through 19th-century Russia, unraveling a tale of intrigue, rebellion, and the relentless pursuit of absolute power.
In this blog post, we embark on an exploration of this lesser-known Wildean masterpiece, shedding light on its intricate plot, captivating characters, and the profound themes that lurk beneath the surface.
1. Vera; Or, The Nihilists Synopsis
Set against the backdrop of a Russia undergoing radical transformation, Vera; or, The Nihilists unfolds a narrative that interweaves the lives of its complex characters with the burgeoning nihilist movement. The central character, Vera Sabouroff, emerges as a compelling protagonist torn between her aristocratic upbringing and her association with a group of nihilists. This clandestine collective, driven by their vehement rejection of societal norms and a thirst for revolution, hatches a plot to assassinate the formidable Governor of St. Petersburg, Count Rouvaloff.
As the plot thickens, Vera’s mysterious past unravels, revealing her involvement with the nihilists and their audacious conspiracy. Secrets are laid bare, loyalties are put to the test, and the characters grapple with the repercussions of their choices.
2. Vera; Or, The Nihilists Summary
In a Russian inn, Peter Sabouroff anxiously waits for a letter from his son Dmitri, who has been away in Moscow. Peter’s daughter, Vera, and Michael discuss Dmitri’s absence and their concerns. Meanwhile, a group of soldiers, accompanied by chained prisoners, arrives at the inn. The soldiers demand food and lodging, and the prisoners are identified as Nihilists, arrested for seeking liberty. Among them, Vera recognizes her brother Dmitri, who has been tortured and imprisoned for his beliefs. Dmitri secretly passes Vera a note, revealing his dire situation and desire for revenge. Peter pleads for Dmitri’s release, but the Colonel refuses, and the prisoners are taken away. Vera vows to keep an oath to seek revenge for her brother’s suffering.
In Act I, the story is set in a large garret in Moscow, where a group of conspirators, known as Nihilists, have gathered in secrecy. They wear masks to conceal their identities and are engaged in a clandestine meeting. The President of the group leads the proceedings by asking a series of questions, and each conspirator responds with the appropriate answers, reaffirming their commitment to their cause of freedom, annihilation, and revenge.
The main characters in this scene include Michael, Alexis, Vera, and the President. Michael is suspicious of Alexis, believing him to be a spy, especially after learning that Alexis spent a night in the Czar’s palace. This suspicion causes tension within the group, and some members even contemplate killing Alexis. However, Vera defends Alexis, believing in his loyalty to their cause.
As the conspirators debate Alexis’s trustworthiness, General Kotemkin and his soldiers arrive unexpectedly, causing panic among the group. It is revealed that Alexis is, in fact, the Czarevitch (heir to the throne), who had been secretly mingling with the Nihilists in disguise. The General is initially suspicious of the group but is eventually convinced by Alexis that they are merely actors.
Alexis persuades the General not to reveal their identities, and the General agrees to keep their secret. The General leaves, and the group is relieved that they have been saved from exposure. Vera, in particular, is grateful to Alexis for his intervention, and the scene ends with a sense of tension diffused.
In Act II of the story, the scene takes place in the Council Chamber of the Emperor’s Palace, with several nobles present, including Prince Paul Maraloffski, Prince Petrovitch, Count Rouvaloff, Baron Raff, and Count Petouchof. They discuss the Czarevitch’s return to favor and his recent experiences, including witnessing Nihilists being executed.
The Czarevitch expresses his desire for a change of air and criticizes his father’s actions, especially the brutality of the executions. He accuses Prince Paul of being involved in his father’s tyranny and laments the loss of his father’s love.
The conversation then shifts to more light-hearted topics, including food, diplomacy, and the idea of inventing a new sauce. The Czarevitch confronts Prince Paul about his role in his father’s actions, and tensions rise.
As the Czar enters the scene, he exhibits signs of extreme paranoia, suspecting everyone around him, even his own son, of conspiring against him. He receives a letter about an assassination attempt on a provincial governor, further intensifying his fear and anger.
When the Czarevitch speaks out against his father’s tyranny and oppression, he reveals that he is a Nihilist, shocking everyone in the room. The Czar orders his arrest, but in the midst of the chaos, the Czarevitch warns his father about the consequences of his actions and the potential for the people’s vengeance. As tensions rise, an unidentified voice from outside declares, “God save the people,” and the Czar is shot dead. The Czar accuses the Czarevitch of being the murderer before succumbing to his wounds.
In Act III of the story, set in a secret meeting place, a group of conspirators, including the President and Vera Sabouroff, gather to plot a revolution against the Russian monarchy. They are joined unexpectedly by Prince Paul Maraloffski, a former Prime Minister who has been banished by the new Czar. Initially suspicious, they decide to admit him into their circle as he offers valuable information about the Czar’s plans and the layout of the Winter Palace.
As they discuss their plans for the revolution and the assassination of the Czar, tensions rise within the group. Vera passionately pleads for a delay in the assassination, citing the Czar’s previous support for their cause and her belief that he loves the people. However, her plea is met with resistance, and the conspirators are determined to proceed with the assassination that very night.
The conspirators draw lots to determine who will carry out the assassination, and Vera is chosen for the task. She reluctantly accepts the responsibility, armed with a dagger. The President provides her with the key to a private entrance to the palace and instructs her to signal their group from a window after the deed is done by throwing out the bloody dagger.
The act concludes with Vera’s solemn oath to dedicate herself to the cause of liberty, vowing to save Russia from tyranny. The curtain falls as the conspirators prepare for the assassination.
In Act IV of the story, the setting is the antechamber of the Czar’s private room. Several characters are present: Prince Petrovitch, Baron Raff, Marquis de Poivrard, Count Rouvaloff, and General Kotemkin. They discuss the young Czar’s unusual and idealistic actions, such as amnestying political prisoners and advocating for reforms. They express their concerns about these changes and the impact on their personal interests, like monopolies and financial matters. They also mention their displeasure at Prince Paul’s exile.
Unbeknownst to them, the young Czar enters and overhears their conversation. He confronts them about their corrupt practices and banishes them from Russia, confiscating their estates for the people.
After their departure, the Czar reflects on the weight of his newfound responsibilities and how he came to power. He longs to see Vera, with whom he shares a secret love. They meet, confess their love for each other, and plan to lead Russia together with the people’s love and trust.
However, as they embrace, conspirators gather outside, seeking to overthrow the Czar. Vera, fearing for his life, poisoned herself with the dagger, which was meant to be a signal of the Czar’s death. She throws the dagger out of the window to prevent his assassination.
Vera Sabouroff – At the heart of the narrative, Vera embodies the quintessential Wildean complexity. Her inner turmoil, born of conflicting allegiances, forms the emotional epicenter of the play.
Alexis Ivanacievitch – The Czarevitch of Russia, who secretly joins the Nihilists under the alias “Alexis.” He is torn between his royal heritage and his sympathy for the Nihilist movement.
Michael Feodoroff – A devoted and suspicious Nihilist who questions Alexis’s loyalty and plays a significant role in the story’s tension.
The President – The leader of the Nihilist group, responsible for organizing their activities and discussions.
General Kotemkin – A high-ranking military officer tasked with maintaining order and suppressing revolutionary activities, including tracking down Vera and the Nihilists.
Count Rouvaloff – As the formidable Governor of St. Petersburg, Count Rouvaloff represents the oppressive regime that the nihilists are determined to overthrow. He serves as the primary target of the plot and symbolizes authority.
Prince Paul – A cunning and manipulative figure, Prince Paul is Vera’s cousin, thrust into the web of the nihilists’ conspiracy, where betrayal and deceit become the order of the day.
Beneath the surface of Vera; or, The Nihilists, Wilde masterfully explores the theme of nihilism, a philosophy that vehemently repudiates traditional morals, values, and beliefs. The play unravels the consequences of such a rejection and probes the depths to which individuals will plunge in pursuit of their ideals. Moreover, it underscores the generational clash between Vera’s unwavering commitment to nihilism and her family’s steadfast adherence to aristocratic traditions.
While Vera; or, The Nihilists may not bask in the same limelight as some of Wilde’s more iconic creations, it remains a testament to his literary prowess and versatility. This hidden gem invites readers into a world replete with suspense, moral quandaries, and thought-provoking themes. As Wilde delves into the tumultuous waters of nihilism and its profound impact on individuals and society, he crafts a play that resonates long after the final curtain falls. So, for those seeking a Wildean masterpiece that seamlessly blends drama, philosophy, and intrigue, Vera; or, The Nihilists is a must-explore work that will linger in your thoughts, urging you to contemplate its themes.