Unnoted manuscripts in the OUP's Vera; or, The Nihilist by Oscar Wilde

This article has been published in Notes & Queries, by Oxford University Press, as Unnoted Textual Witnesses in Oscar Wilde’s Vera. doi:10.1093/notesj/gjab147

In Volume XI, Plays 4 in the Oxford English Texts edition of The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde,1 Josephine Guy collates a number of textual witnesses in her attempted reconstruction of the 1883 performance text of Wilde’s first play, Vera; or, The Nihilist(s). Guy overlooks some textual witnesses, which I describe in this note.2

Marie Prescott in Czeka, around the time she appeared in Vera. Image: NYPL

Stuart Mason, in his Bibliography of Oscar Wilde, reprints emendations to Vera transcribed from ‘28 quarto leaves of handmade paper [that] are entirely in the autograph of the author.’3 Guy refers to Mason’s transcription as MSMason. The emendations are keyed to page and line numbers in Wilde’s 1882 acting edition of the play, referred to by Guy as 1882. As Mason points out, the emendations must have ‘been made for the performance of Vera in New York in 1883’. Guy incorporates these emendations, even though ‘the original twenty-eight quarto pages [...] are not extant’, because of ‘the general reliability of Mason in instances where it is possible to check his transcriptions’.4 In fact, Wilde’s originals are in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library,5 so MSMason can be checked against what I will refer to as MSBerg.

Guy’s faith in Mason is well placed: he makes only three minor transcription errors. Wilde has ‘for “out” read “back”’ at 1882’s page 22 line 2 and line 5; Mason only records the latter emendation.6 Mason’s error has no consequence for Guy’s text as she has consulted the copy of 1882 donated to the British Library by Wilde’s literary executor Robert Ross (referred to by Guy as 1882R), in which Wilde recorded the same emendation.7 In the long dialogue between Vera and the Czar that Wilde inserts in place of the sequence from 1882’s page 57 line 5 to page 59 line 3, Mason silently corrects Wilde’s ‘neither to give money or to take it’ to ‘neither to give money nor to take it’ (emphasis added),8 and inserts ‘already’ where Wilde does not have it in ‘The past is already dead’.9 Guy follows Mason in both instances.10

There are very few corrections to MSBerg, suggesting that Wilde transcribed his emendations from another source. Guy hypothesises that ‘the most likely provenance of the Mason variants is that they were transcribed from 1882R, and in the process further amended by Wilde’.11 This appears to be the case: the tight spacing around some emendations in MSBerg that are not also in 1882R suggests that Wilde inserted them as a second thought while, or soon after, drafting MSBerg. One deletion in MSBerg unnoted by Mason is scored through so heavily that it is not possible to determine what is being replaced: ‘nay, <[2 or 3 illeg. wds.]>, ’tis our wedding night’.12

MSBerg consists not of twenty-eight pages, as Mason states, but thirty-two, fastened into a book along with other materials relating to Vera. The first page is marked ‘x’ in the top right corner, and includes the first emendation described by Mason, which Wilde keys to ‘page 7 of printed copy | insert at line 19 | till line 27’.13 Page 7 line 19 of 1882 is ‘mich. Nothing else is worth doing, Vera.’ Wilde’s emendation begins, ‘vera. But there are so many other girls in the village [...]’. Therefore it is clear from the context that Wilde intended for his emendation to follow rather than precede or replace Michael’s line. In 1882, line 19 is followed by ‘peter. What noise is that, Vera? (A metallic clank is heard.)’ and the scene proceeds to the arrival of the soldiers. Line 27 of 1882 is toward the end of Vera’s next line, quoted below. I have enclosed with asterisks the words that are printed on line 27.

vera: (rising and going to the door). I don’t know, Father; it is not like the cattle bells, or I would think Nicholas had come from the fair. Oh! Father! it is soldiers!—coming down the hill—there is one of them on horseback. How pretty they look! But there are some men with them, *with chains on! They must be robbers. Oh! don’t let* them in, Father; I couldn’t look at them.

Oscar Wilde in August 1883, as he appeared when Vera was premiered in New York. Image: oscarwildeinamerica.org

Wilde’s key in page ‘x’ of MSBerg, which indicates that he meant for his emendation to replace the 1882 text until line 27, means that there must have been pages following ‘x’ that have been lost, as the material on ‘x’ does not end in such a way that it could fit into line 27. Fortunately, a fragment of the prologue at the Clark Library, UCLA, referred to by Guy as F1,14 resolves the problem. As Guy notes, the fragment is not in the hand of Wilde.15 Comparing it with originals of the letters of Marie Prescott, the producer of the play and creator of the role of Vera, indicates that a key at the top of the page is in Prescott’s hand.16 The key reads ‘act 1st Page 7 | ___nothing else worth doing Vera’, which is Prescott’s equivalent of Wilde’s key in ‘x’ (Prescott tended to refer to the prologue as Act 1). A transcription of Wilde’s emendation in ‘x’ then begins in another hand, ‘vera. But there are so many other girls in the village [...]’, and ends in the middle of a page, ‘vera. They must be robbers’, thereby fitting into Vera’s line at line 27 as Wilde specified in his key in ‘x’. The extent of the text in F1 suggests that Wilde’s emendation beginning in ‘x’ ran to around thirteen manuscript pages. Because Guy consulted F1, this emendation is included in its entirety in her reconstructed text.17 Comparing ‘x’ with F1 shows that the unknown person who transcribed Wilde’s emendation did so fairly accurately, with only a few errors in the punctuation.

MSBerg ‘x’ is followed in the Berg’s Vera book by a series of pages numbered 1 to 27 in pencil (Wilde’s emendations are in ink), all of which are reprinted in Mason. It is possible, therefore, that these emendations were part of a different batch to those that began with ‘x’, perhaps sent separately by Wilde to Prescott. Between pages 12 and 13 is inserted a page with ‘page 40’ (the page on which Act III begins in 1882) written in pencil at the top. This page includes Wilde’s suggestion, evidently to Prescott, that Act III should open with her being discovered seated alone. It is transcribed by Mason and noted by Guy.18

Between pages 25 and 26 is an unnumbered page on which is written:

vera: Our wedding night!

Page 25 of MSBerg begins with the same line from Vera, which is longer and is followed by a line assigned to the Czar/Alexis. Page 25 is reprinted in Mason and noted by Guy, but the following unnumbered page is not.19 The unnumbered page may represent Wilde’s earlier attempt to write the dialogue on page 25, or a false start at emending it to shorten Vera’s line.20

Page 27 is followed by two unnumbered pages, both headed ‘[58]’ in pencil, a key to the relevant page in 1882. These pages are not transcribed by Mason and are therefore not noted by Guy. They are given below, with insertions recorded /thus\ and deletions <thus>.

vera: The love of a people! Have you no one within call?
czar: None, love: this palace is as silent as a tomb.
vera: O curséd tomb that holds the living dead within thee! Are you alone?
czar: I am alone with her whom my soul loves: nay sit down here, and my encircling arms will hold you safe though all the swords of Russia sought your life—
vera: My life! No, no, your life: that is in danger: ring the alarum bell! Arm yourself: do something. Call your soldiers. I am powerless:
czar: Those are but idle terrors, love, the world is fallen asleep, and only you and I are watching in this city: nay, closer, sweet, <for I would wound> /let me unlock\ your crescent lips with kisses, and from their portals sweet confessions draw: Vera, I love you: will you not, like Echo, answer me back again. O let me hold your burning hands in mine, for all the turbid passions of my life seem narrowed to one single ecstasy: <this is>

An illustration of ACT IV of Vera from the 1907 Keller edition of Wilde’s works.

Wilde began with Vera’s line ‘The love of a people!’ so that it would be clear that he intended the passage to be inserted at that line (58.22) in 1882. The corresponding point in Guy is at 154.227. In the manuscript the passage ends at the foot of the page, and possibly continued on pages that have been lost. It is therefore unclear whether Wilde intended it to replace dialogue following 1882 58.22 or to supplement it, although, because the passage is entirely new (i.e. not a rewritten version of dialogue already in 1882), the latter possibility seems the more likely. We also cannot know if the passage was used in the New York production exactly as written, but it must have been used in some form. In describing the love scene for which the passage was written, the reviewer for The New York World noted that:

Democratic vengeance [i.e. Vera] then drops its dagger, puts its long arms around the Czar’s neck and allows him to kiss what he is pleased to call ‘her portal lips.’ [...] They sink upon the couch, they renew the ‘portal lip’ business, they become indissolubly mixed.21

The reference to ‘portal lips’ does not appear in other textual witnesses to the play and presumably originated from this passage, although the possibility remains that Wilde repurposed it in another passage that has been lost. Because the passage in 1882 in which Vera’s line ‘The love of a people!’ appears is marked for deletion by Wilde in MSBerg, it may be that before the first performance Wilde reinstated some of this material, including ‘The love of a people!’ and the following lines.

The Berg holds a copy of 1882 with emendations in Wilde’s hand. It is not noted by Guy and I will refer to it here as 1882B. I list all emendations with reference to the corresponding page and line numbers in Guy. At Guy 149.26 the repeated ‘I have often heard so’ is deleted (Guy also marks this as deleted, based on 1882R and MSMason). At Guy 149.29-30: ‘As if there was not enough brawling in the streets already, but we must <give the people a room to do it in> /build the people a house to do it in\.’ At Guy 150.33-4: ‘What is the use of the people except /for us\ to get money out of?’ (Guy notes that Leonard Smithers’ pirated edition, referred to as 1882S, has the variant insertion ‘for the politician’). At Guy 151.87-8: ‘/Your titles\ you may carry <your titles> with you.’ At Guy 151.90 the repeated ‘that excellent virtue!’ is deleted.

On the interleaf opposite page 57 of 1882B Wilde adds this passage:

[czar:] but it is not too late.
v[era:] It is too late
[czar:] I will hew wood and draw water for you: no service will be <too> mean, no labour will be hard – for you alone I kept this crown, for you alone I cast it to the dust: there shall be no Czar in all the Russias now: but each man shall be kinglike, and no man crownèd above his fellows –

This passage is a longer variant of the emendation in MSBerg/MSMason that Guy incorporates at 155.257-61. Also on the interleaf Wilde has written ‘speak not the vow’: the text is partially between the lines of the above passage but does not appear to be an insertion relating to that passage. Instead it may relate to Vera’s repetition of the Nihilist vow (see Guy 154.201-5), near which it is written, and be a line intended for the Czar/Alexis. It does not seem likely that it is Wilde’s note to himself or to Prescott that Vera should not speak the vow, as presumably if Wilde had intended to delete the vow he would have struck it through.

On two pages of 1882B there are passages marked with vertical lines in the margin in pencil (Wilde’s emendations are in ink). On page 50 two passages in Vera’s long speech at the end of Act III are marked, corresponding to Guy 148.323-7, ‘Methinks...Though’ and 148.333-40 ‘Liberty... me’. On page 58 an exchange between Vera and the Czar/Alexis is marked, corresponding to Guy 154.211-5, ‘Our...death’. The meaning of the marks is unclear: Wilde may have intended to review the passages for deletion or for some other purpose.

Another textual witness overlooked by Guy, also relating to Act IV’s love scene, is a holograph manuscript page in the Robert Ross Memorial Collection at University College Oxford Library (Ross Env. e.78.ix). It reads:

where should Kings sit
But at the feet of some democracy
casting their crowns before it
(casts crown at her feet)
O royal, O republican,

There is a note in pencil at the foot of the page in the hand of Walter Edwin Ledger, whose collection forms the body of the Robert Ross Memorial Collection:

(Possibly intended for ‘Vera’? WEL)
From R.R. to C.S.M, to W.E.L. 17 Nov 1919

‘R.R.’ is Robert Ross, and ‘C.S.M.’ is Christopher Sclater Millard (aka Stuart Mason).

At the relevant point in her reconstructed text Guy has:

czar: I do not know if I be king or slave: but if a slave what should I do but kneel, and if a king—where should kings sit, but at the feet of some democracy casting crowns before it!
vera: My love! my love (murmur in street). What is that?\ (clock begins striking twelve.)22

The ‘\’ marks the end of Wilde’s long passage of replacement dialogue, as given in MSBerg/MSMason.23 Ross Env. e.78.ix may reflect Wilde’s earlier intention for this moment, or, because it incorporates a stage direction, it may date from the rehearsals in mid August 1883, at which Wilde was present. ‘O royal, O republican,’ may represent an unfinished thought or else a key to text in another emendation, no longer extant (i.e. that Wilde intended for the material in Ross Env. e.78.ix to be inserted between ‘where should Kings sit’ and ‘O royal, O republican’). This cannot be confirmed either way, as ‘O royal, O republican’ does not appear in any extant textual witness.

In 1882 the play ends with Vera stabbing herself with a poisoned dagger rather than following through with her oath to assassinate the newly crowned Czar, whom she loves. She flings the dagger out of the window, the agreed signal to her fellow Nihilist conspirators that the Czar is dead.

consps: (below) Long live the people!
czar: What have you done?
vera: I have saved Russia! (Dies.)

There is no evidence in the textual witnesses documented by Guy or in the present note that this ending was changed for the first performance. However, the many reviews of that performance are also valuable witnesses. The New York Clipper gives an account of the final sequence of the play:

She [Vera] stabs herself, and then Alexis [the Czar] unconsciously but naturally tries to thwart the clever scheme. Horrified, he snatches the dagger from Vera. More horrified herself, Vera tries to snatch it back. There is a struggle for it, and the woman is of course the weaker. At last she makes known her reason, and begs Alexis to throw the weapon out of the window. He tries to stab himself, but she prevents him. The murmurs of the Nihilists come nearer and grow more threatening. By a cunning and desperate effort, Vera gets possession of the dagger stained with her own blood, and has just strength enough to throw it out of the balcony window. ‘Long live the people!’ cry the Nihilists from below. ‘Long live the Czar!’ cries Vera from above. She has had the strength to live so long as she feared that Alexis might die, and now she sinks to the stage a corpse, and the curtain falls with Alexis senseless at her side.25

Lewis Morrison, who played Alexis in Vera. Image: NYPL

Vera’s line ‘Long live the Czar!’ is not in any of the extant textual witnesses. The review in the Clipper, a weekly newspaper, was published five days after the first performance, and so may incorporate information gleaned from later performances, after the play had been edited (Wilde told interviewers on the morning after the first performance that he intended to ‘cut down the play as much as possible without destroying the sense of the representation or impairing its worth’, but it is not inconceivable that he added as well as removed material).26 However, other reviews that were published the day after the first performance corroborate the Clipper, while also clarifying the reference to the Czar falling ‘senseless’ at Vera’s side. The New York World reported:

So she [Vera] stabs herself and cries exultingly: Long live the Czar! There is only one other thing to be done and that is for the Czar to stab himself also. This he does promptly and touchingly, and the curtain descends upon two fine corpses.27

The Daily Graphic:

Through Prince Paul’s treachery she [Vera] gains admittance to the Czar’s chamber to stab him. Here she turns Juliet while Alexis plays Romeo. Then she stabs herself and Alexis gives the people a new Constitution. It is a pleasant and affecting assassination, and gives another proof that women are not fit for important public trusts. Having finished business, the Czar, to oblige Vera, stabs himself to avoid being stabbed by the conspirators outside.28

And the Springfield Daily Republican: ‘[...] Vera stabs herself instead of Alexis and the czar follows suit.’29

It should be noted, however, that not every review mentioned the Czar’s death. Truth reported that:

In the concluding act she [Vera] plays Cleopatra, and not having the courage to kill her [sic], Mme. Antony kills herself in his presence and dies happy. Then the new Czar proclaims a new Constitution. Immediately Mr. Wilde is demanded, and Mr. Wilde makes a modest speech [...]30

And The Evening Post that:

[...] it is a great relief when Vera at the last decides to stab herself instead of the Czar, and to permit the curtain to fall. What happens to the Czar, the Nihilists, or Russia nobody knows.31

Other reviews are not specific about what happened between Vera’s death and the end of the play, but some do quote Vera’s line: ‘God save the Czar!’32 It would therefore seem that there is sufficient evidence to insert that line after ‘consps. (below) Long live the people!’33 and to note that, on its first performance, the play most likely ended with the deaths of both Vera and Alexis.

  1. Josephine M. Guy (ed), Plays IV, The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, vol. 11 (Oxford, 2021)
  2. With thanks to Merlin Holland for granting permission to quote from hitherto unpublished manuscript material, and to Wolfgang Maier-Sigrist for productive discussions about the Vera manuscripts.
  3. Stuart Mason, Bibliography of Oscar Wilde (London, 1914), 274-81
  4. Guy, 92-3
  5. [Vera; or, The Nihilists]. Holograph corrections and additions to the play, apparently made for the performance of Vera in New York in 1883. The Oscar Wilde Collection of Papers at the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, The New York Public Library.
  6. Mason, 276
  7. British Library C.60.k.8 ; Guy, 124.279.
  8. Mason, 280
  9. Mason, 281
  10. Guy, 155.268 and 156.274
  11. Guy, 93
  12. Guy, 156.282
  13. Mason, 274; Guy, 110.70-111.75.
  14. The variant pages are at W6721M2 V473, Oscar Wilde and his Literary Circle Collection: Manuscripts and Miscellaneous Materials, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, University of California, Los Angeles.
  15. Guy, 97
  16. Prescott’s letters to Wilde are held at the Berg. Guy does not identify who drafted a second fragment at the Clark (Guy refers to it as F2), but comparison with Prescott’s letters indicates that Prescott drafted the second fragment herself. That Prescott drafted F2 and appears to have commissioned the drafting of F1, and that the fragments can be linked to Wilde’s holograph manuscript emendations in MSBerg, is evidence supportive of Guy’s hypothesis that the material in F1 and F2 ‘likely derived from [...] a series of hand-written corrections Wilde forwarded to Prescott for [the] first performance’ (Guy, 98).
  17. Guy, 110.70-112.155
  18. Mason, 278; Guy, Critical Apparatus, 140.0.1-0.2.
  19. The lines at Guy, 156.283-8, from Mason, 281.
  20. Guy, 156.283
  21. ‘Oscar Wilde’s Play’, The New York World, 21 August 1883, 5
  22. Guy, 156.286-90
  23. MSBerg, pages numbered 18-26; Mason, 279-81.
  24. Guy, 156.314-17
  25. ‘Vera, the Nihilist’, New York Clipper, 25 August 1883, 372
  26. ‘Oscar Wilde on ‘Vera’’, The Evening Telegram (New York, NY), 21 August 1883, 4th ed., 1
  27. ‘Oscar Wilde’s Play’, The New York World, 21 August 1883, 5
  28. ‘Record of Amusements’, The Daily Graphic (New York, NY), 21 August 1883, 345
  29. ‘Oscar Wilde’s Play’, Springfield Daily Republican (Springfield, MA), 22 August 1883, 4
  30. ‘Truth’s Wilde Evening’, Truth (New York, NY), 21 August 1883, 1
  31. ‘Music and the Drama’, The Evening Post (New York, NY), 21 August 1883, 2
  32. E.g. ‘At the Theatres’, The New York Mirror, 25 August 1883, 7
  33. Guy 156.314