1902 Encyclopedia > Thomas Otway

Thomas Otway
English dramatist of the Restoration period

THOMAS OTWAY (1651-1685), the best English tragic poet of the classical school, was the son of the Rev. Humphrey Otway, rector of Woolbeding, near Midhurst in Sussex, and was born at the adjoining village of Trotton, March 3, 1651. He acknowledges his obligations to the care and education of his parents. He went to school at Wickham, near Winchester, and in 1669 pro-ceeded to Christ Church, Oxford. In 1671 he appeared at the Duke's' Theatre, Lincoln's Inn Fields, in the Forced Marriage, a new play by Aphra Behn, but failed ignominL ously. Declining to take orders, he quitted the university in 1674, and obtained a cornetcy in a troop of horse. Within a twelvemonth he sold his commission, and came to London as a literary adventurer. In 1675 his Alcibiades, a poor play, was performed with indifferent success at the Duke's Theatre. In the following year Don Carlos, a vigorous rhymed tragedy, puerile in conception and show-ing little knowledge of human nature, but full of declama-tory energy, took the town fairly by storm. He followed it up with translations of Racine's Berenice and Moliere's Fourberies de Scapin, and with a very dull and indecent comedy of his own, Friendship in Fashion. He next went as a volunteer to the wars in Flanders, an unfortunate expedition which pointed the merciless lampoons of Rochester, to whom Berenice had been dedicated, but with whom he had now quarrelled. It also prompted his mediocre but not uninteresting play, The Soldier's Fortune (1679), in which he has turned his military experience to account. Next year he produced The Orphan, founded upon a novel called English Adventures, one of the two plays which have placed him in the first rank of English tragic poets; and Caius Marius, a wholesale but acknowledged plagiarism from Romeo and Juliet. In 1682 appeared his masterpiece, Venice Preserved, the plot of which is taken from Saint Real's Histoire de la Conjuration du Marquis de Bedemar. Its success was decisive, but it brought little pecuniary advantage to the author, who was already sink-ing into abject poverty, and, as appears by some letters attributed by Mr Gosse to this date, was further tormented by a hopeless passion for the beautiful Mrs Barry, the principal female performer in his plays. Some of his letters to her were first published with Rochester's works, and subsequently included in his own. Desponding and broken-hearted, he seems to have given himself up to dissi-pation, and produced but one more insignificant play, The Atheist, a second part of the Soldier's Fortune (1684). On April 14, 1685, he died on Tower Hill, under most melan-choly circumstances if the tradition can be believed that he was choked by a piece of bread begged from a passer by. There is no absolute confirmation of this sad story, or of a later account which attributes his death to a fever caught by over-exertion in pursuing a robber. Whatever the exact manner of his decease, he certainly expired in obscurity and want. A tragedy called Heroic Friendship was published under his name in 1719. It has generally been regarded as wholly spurious ; but Mr Gosse, his most sympathetic critic, recognizes some traces of his hand.

Otway's strong point is pathos. In this respect, though in no other, he is the Euripides of the English stage. When he would excite compassion he is irresistible. Unlike Shakespeare's, however, his pathos springs entirely out of the situation. His characters in themselves are not interesting, but the circumstances in which they are placed afford scope for the most moving appeals, and merit and demerit are altogether lost sight of in the contemplation of human suffering. The love scenes between Jaffier and Belvidera cannot be surpassed; and no plot more skilfully calculated to move the emotions than that of Venice Pre-served was ever contrived by dramatist. It is to be regretted that modern fastidiousness has banished from the stage The Orphan, in which Johnson saw no harm. In everything but pathos Otway is mediocre: he has no deep insight into the human heart; his ideas are circum-scribed and commonplace; and his attempted eloquence is frequently mere rant. Even the affecting madness of Belvidera verges dangerously on burlesque, and is no doubt parodied in Sheridan's Critic. His boyish Alcibiades is positively absurd, and even Don Carlos produces much the same effect in the closet, though its rattling vigour carried it off well in the theatre at a time when nature was little regarded. It was probably not unknown to Schiller. The comedies and melodramas are simply tire-some, although a certain interest attaches to the military scenes in the Soldier's Fortune. There has hardly been another instance of a poet whose best and whose worst are at such an immeasurable distance from each other as Otway's; but his supreme excellence in one of the most difficult branches of the dramatic art must always be held to entitle him to an exalted place as a tragic poet. It has been remarked that Dryden, with all his splendour, has but one truly pathetic passage in the whole range of his dramas. Otway, writing simply from the heart, reached at a bound an eminence inaccessible to the laborious efforts of the greater poet. His miscellaneous poems are only interesting in so far as they illustrate his life and character. Of the latter little is known. He was a man about town in a dissipated age; but his references to his parents and friends, and his letters to the object of his unfortunate passion, show that he possessed deep and refined feeling.

See Baker, Biographia Dramatica ; Johnson, Lives of the Poets ; Gosse, Seventeenth Century Studies; and Ward, History of English Dramatic Literature, vol. ii. (R. G.)

The above article was written by: Richard Garnett, LL.D.

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