Thomas Otway - Encyclopedia

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OTWAY, THOMAS (1652-1685), English dramatist, was born at Trotton, near Midhurst, Sussex, on the 3rd of March 1652. His father, Humphrey Otway, was at that time curate of Trotton, but Otway's childhood was spent at Woolbeding, a parish 3 m. distant, of which his father had become rector. He was educated at Winchester College, and in 1669 entered Christ Church, Oxford, as a commoner, but left the university without a degree in the autumn of 1672. At Oxford he made the acquaintance of Anthony Cary, 5th viscount Falkland, through whom, he says in the dedication to Caius Marius, he first learned to love books. In London he made acquaintance with Mrs Aphra Behn, who in 167 2 cast him for the part of the old king in her Forc'd Marriage, or The Jealous Bridegroom, at the Dorset Garden Theatre, but he had a bad attack of stage fright, and never made a second appearance. In 1675 Thomas Betterton produced at the same theatre Otway's first dramatic attempt, Alcibiades, which was printed in the same year. It is a poor tragedy, written in heroic verse, but was saved from absolute failure by the actors. Mrs Barry took the part of Draxilla, and her lover, the earl of Rochester, recommended the author of the piece to the notice of the duke of York. He made a great advance on this first work in Don Carlos, Prince of Spain (licensed June 15, 1676; an undated edition probably belongs to the same year). The material for this rhymed tragedy Otway took from the novel of the same name, written in 1672 by the Abbe de Saint-Real, the source from which Schiller also drew his tragedy of Don Carlos. In it the two characters familiar throughout his plays make their appearance. Don Carlos is the impetuous, unstable youth, who seems to be drawn from Otway himself, while the queen's part is the gentle pathetic character repeated in his more celebrated heroines, Monimia and Belvidera. "It got more money," says John Downes (Roscius Anglicanus, 1708) of this play, "than any preceding modern tragedy." In 1677 Betterton produced two adaptations from the French by Otway, Titus and Berenice (from Racine's Berenice), and the Cheats of Scapin (from Moliere's Fourberies de Scapin). These were printed together, with a dedication to Lord Rochester. In 1678 he produced an original comedy, Friendship in Fashion, popular at the moment, though it was hissed off the stage for its gross indecency when it was revived at Drury Lane in 1749. Meanwhile he had conceived an overwhelming passion for Mrs Barry, who filled many of the leading parts in his plays. Six of his letters to her survive, the last of them referring to a broken appointment in the Mall. Mrs Barry seems to have coquetted with Otway, but she had no intention of permanently offending Rochester. In 1678, driven to desperation by Mrs Barry, Otway obtained a commission through Charles, earl of Plymouth, a natural son of Charles II., in a regiment serving in the Netherlands. The English troops were disbanded in 1679, but were left to find their way home as best they could. They were also paid with depreciated paper, and Otway arrived in London late in the year, ragged and dirty, a circumstance utilized by Rochester in his "Sessions of the Poets," which contains a scurrilous attack on his former protege. Early in the next year (February 1680) was produced at Dorset Garden the first of Otway's two tragic masterpieces, The Orphan, or The Unhappy Marriage, Mrs Barry playing the part of Monimia. Written in blank verse, which shows a study of Shakespeare, its success was due to the tragic pathos, of which Otway was a master, in the characters of Castalio and Monimia. The History and Fall of Caius Marius, produced in the same year, and printed in 1692, is a curious grafting of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet on the story of Marius as related in Plutarch's Lives. In 1680 Otway also published The Poet's Complaint of his Muse, or A Satyr against Libells, in which he retaliated on his literary enemies. An indifferent comedy, The Soldier's Fortune (1681), was followed in February 1682 by Venice Preserved, or A Plot Discover'd. The story is founded on the Histoire de la conjuration des Espagnols contre la Venise en 1618, by tie Abbe de Saint-Real, but Otway modified the story considerably. The character of Belvidera is his own, and the leading part in the conspiracy, taken by Bedamor, the Spanish ambassador, is given in the play to the historically insignificant Pierre and Jaffier. The piece has a political meaning, enforced in the prologue. The Popish Plot was in Otway's mind, and Anthony, 1st earl of Shaftesbury, is caricatured in Antonio. The play won instant success. It was translated into almost every modern European language, and even Dryden said of it: "Nature is there, which is the greatest beauty." The Orphan and Venice Preserved remained stock pieces on the stage until the 19th century, and the leading actresses of the period played Monimia and Belvidera. One or two prefaces, another weak comedy, The Atheist (1684), and two posthumous pieces, a poem, Windsor Castle (1685), a panegyric of Charles II., and a History of the Triumvirates (1686), translated from the French, complete the list of Otway's works. He apparently ceased to struggle against his poverty and misfortunes. The generally accepted story regarding the manner of his death was first given in Theophilus Cibber's Lives of the Poets. He is said to have emerged from his retreat at the Bull on Tower Hill to beg for bread. A passer-by, learning who he was, gave him a guinea, with which Otway hastened to a baker's shop. He began too hastily to satisfy his ravenous hunger, and choked with the first. mouthful. Whether this account of his death be true or not, it is certain that he died in the utmost poverty, and was buried on the 16th of April 1685 in the churchyard of St Clement Danes. A tragedy entitled Heroick Friendship was printed in 1686 as Otway's work, but the ascription is unlikely.

The Works of Mr Thomas Otway with some account of his life and writings, published in 1712, was followed by other editions (1757, 1768, 1812). The standard edition is that by T. Thornton (1813). A selection of his plays was edited for the Mermaid series (1891 and 1903) by Roden Noel. See also E. Gosse, Seventeenth Century Studies (1883); and Genest, History of the Stage.

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