By Rob Marland
Oscar Wilde’s First Tragedy: The Composition, Production, and Reception of Vera; or, The Nihilists by Rob Marland is a book forthcoming from Little Eye.
At the age of twenty-six Oscar Wilde wrote his first play. A melodramatic tragedy about a plot to assassinate the Russian Czar, Vera; or, The Nihilists was as far as could be imagined from Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest. A London matinee was cancelled, supposedly for political reasons, and the final curtain fell on the New York production after only a week, the critics branding Wilde’s script ‘long-drawn dramatic rot’.
A decade later Wilde would secure his reputation as a playwright of genius with a string of four successful society comedies. He tried to forget his first tragedy, the play even his most devoted friend, Robert Ross, thought ‘worthless as literature or drama’.
Vera is seldom revived. It has been virtually ignored by critics of Wilde’s works, and the ill-fated New York production dismissed as little more than a biographical footnote. But only by closely examining the composition, production, and reception of Vera can the Wilde we know today – the confident, witty, master dramatist – be fully understood. This is the complete and fascinating story of Oscar Wilde’s first, worst, and perhaps most important play.
Rob Marland is the editor of Oscar Wilde: The Complete Interviews (2022) and the author of Oscar Wilde: The Season of Sorrow (2018). His research on Wilde – and on Vera specifically – has been published in The Wildean, the journal of the Oscar Wilde Society, and Notes and Queries.