Vera by Oscar Wilde.
|Oscar Wilde in America (1882).|
Vera; or, The Nihilists is Oscar Wilde's first play, written in 1880 and first performed in 1883 in New York in the Union Square Theatre. It didn't do too well, the New York Times said it was "unreal, long-winded and wearisome" and the New York Herald described it as "long-drawn dramatic rot". It was closed after just a week, and, after another bit of bad luck with The Duchess of Padua (performed the same year), Wilde left the U.S. for Paris.
But, what do critics know? Vera is actually a great read, though far removed from his comedies of the '90s. Firstly it's a tragedy, secondly it's not set in drawing rooms but Russia following the French Revolution of 1793. It tells the story of Vera, "the priestess of liberty, the flame of the revolution, the torch of democracy" as she's referred to in the later part of the play. The play begins with a prologue set in a tavern in Russia, which is on the road to Siberia where prisoners are taken. One day she sees some of the prisoners, amongst them Dmitri - her brother, who is accused of being a Nihilist. Heartbroken she begs him to escape and for her to take his place but he refuses and asks instead for her to take revenge on his behalf. As he leaves she says,
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." My brother, I shall keep the oath. You shall be revenged!
And so she joins the Nihilists and becomes an infamous assassin, and falls in love with Alexis, who we learn is the Tsarevich, who will thus become the Tsar when his father is killed. And, of course, the Tsar is killed and Vera must chose between her love for Alexis and her mission to avenge her brother's imprisonment.
It is grand-scale melodrama and is almost indecently unsubtle. Yet, what an exhilarating read! It is fun in a way it ought not to be quite probably, but that doesn't mean that it's a bad play, it's not "rot" at all, nor is it "wearisome". The theme of the clash between passion and reason and intellect is nothing new, and it should be noted that historically the play is wildly inaccurate (I don't think it should be condemned for that, however), but all the same it's enjoyable and interesting. It's also of note to compare with Wilde's more famous and successful comedies that came later. I can see it's not a great play but all the same I recommend it. It is, at times, clumsily touching and there are some great witticisms: my favourite - "experience, the name men give to their mistakes".
And Vera was my 33rd title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week, another Wilde and coincidentally his second play: The Duchess of Padua.