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The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says of Thomas Otway:
In the Poet's Complaint Otway states that his parents gave him a ‘generous Education, high’. Whatever other schools or tutors this may refer to, Otway spent a year at Winchester College in 1668 which coincided with the longer residence there of Anthony Cary, fifth Viscount Falkland (1656–1694). Whether or not Otway developed a close friendship with the aristocrat four years his junior during his brief passage though Winchester, he certainly did his best to cultivate the acquaintance later. His play Caius Marius (1679) is dedicated to Falkland and alludes to ‘having had the honour to be near You, and bred under the same Discipline with You’ (Works, 1.435). Falkland provided the prologue to Otway's play The Souldiers Fortune (1681), but there are no other signs of Falkland's patronage or friendship.
On leaving Winchester Otway was admitted as a commoner of Christ Church, Oxford, on 12 May 1669 (Works, 1.8). In The Poet's Complaint Otway states that he was a happy and talented student but that the idyllic period was terminated by the news of his ‘good Senander's’ death. The term Senander is a Latin–Greek coinage for old man, and the lines must refer to the death of his father who was buried at Woolbeding on 9 February 1671. Without his father's financial support, Otway was unable to remain at Oxford and he left without a degree in 1671.
London and the Theatre:
According to John Downes, bookkeeper for the Duke's Playhouse, Aphra Behn gave Otway the part of the king in her play The Forc'd Marriage, or, The Jealous Bridegroom. However, ‘the full House put him to such a Sweat and Tremendous Agony’ that he was ‘dash't and spoiled as an actor’. Since the first performance of The Forc'd Marriage was in December 1670, when presumably Otway was still at Oxford, he must have appeared in a revival. Downes's anecdote notwithstanding, there are references to Otway appearing on stage by Anthony Wood and Charles Gildon, as well as in the satire A Session of the Poets, about 1677. Probably Otway maintained himself as an actor during the early 1670s, learning in a very practical way the craft of writing plays. In 1675 his first play, Alcibiades, was performed by the Duke's Company at the Dorset Garden playhouse, probably in late September (and published that year).
Alcibiades, dedicated to Charles Sackville, earl of Middlesex, is a very competent work, following the fashion for rhymed plays and providing opportunities for the spectacular stage effects for which the Dorset Garden playhouse was particularly well equipped. The plot is loosely based on Plutarch's life of Alcibiades, and charts Alcibiades's banishment from Athens and alliance with Sparta, where he becomes the object of the lustful infatuation of the Spartan queen, Deidamia. Otway points out in the preface to his next play that Alcibiades ‘was none of that squeamish Gentleman I make him’ and would not have ‘boggl'd’ at an affair. His Alcibiades, however, is a model if weak hero. The play contains such standard Restoration tragic materials as attempted rape, regicide, murder, and suicide, and concludes in a general bloodbath. It was brilliantly cast with Thomas Betterton as Alcibiades; Mary Lee, who had played the fierce and lustful Empress of Morocco in Elkanah Settle's 1673 play of that name, took the role of Queen of Sparta. Elizabeth Barry, who was to create many of Otway's subsequent heroines, played the minor role of Draxilla. Alcibiades is a strong first play, and introduces many of the themes, character types, and plot structures that dominate Otway's writing: loss of place and coherence; male friendship; tyrannical and unnatural fathers; orphans; vacillating heroes; and open-ended conclusions. All Otway's plays were written for and first performed by the Duke's Company, and organized around the strengths of that company.
Otway's next play, Don Carlos, Prince of Spain, opened the following year on 9 June (and was published the same year). The play was dedicated to the duke of York, and the preface acknowledges the poet's ‘unspeakable Obligations’ to John Wilmot, earl of Rochester, who made it ‘his business to establish it in the good opinion of the King, and his Royal Highness’. Briefly, at least, Otway was enjoying noble patronage and royal favour. The play contains echoes of John Dryden's Tyrannick Love (1669) and Aureng-Zebe (1675) as well as of Shakespeare's Othello and Hamlet. The main source, however, was the historical novella Don Carlos by César Vischard, l'abbé de St Réal, which had been published in France in 1672 and ‘englished’ by ‘H. I.’ in 1674. Otway condensed the action from many months to about twenty-four hours to create an intense tragedy of sexual rivalry between father and son, both of whom love the king's new wife, who was formerly engaged to the son. In the king's illegitimate brother, Don John of Austria, Otway created a cheerful libertine whose carefree sexuality provides a counterpoint to the frustrated sexual and political desires experienced by the triangle of father, son, and wife. Fashionably libertine and sexually charged, Don Carlos was a great success. John Downes noted that ‘all Parts being admirably Acted, it lasted successively ten days; it got more Money than any preceding Modern Tragedy’. The roles of King Philip, Don Carlos, and Elizabeth, were taken by Betterton, William Smith, and Mary Lee respectively. Elizabeth Barry did not appear in Don Carlos, but took leading roles in Otway's next productions, Titus and Berenice and The Cheats of Scapin, a short tragedy and comic companion piece performed together probably in December 1676.
This two-play form of entertainment was an innovation, and one that anticipated the eighteenth-century custom of accompanying a tragic work with a comic ‘afterpiece’. Both plays had contemporary French sources: Titus and Berenice is a pared down version of Racine's Bérénice and Cheats is based on Molière's Les fourberies de Scapin. When printed in 1677 the plays were dedicated to Rochester. Clearly working very rapidly to build on the success of Don Carlos, Otway also trumped two playwrights from the rival King's Company. John Crowne was working on a ten-act version of Bérénice, and Edward Ravenscroft was writing a commedia dell'arte form of Les fourberies, works which were performed in 1677.
As with Don Carlos, Titus and Berenice dramatizes the parting of true lovers. Titus had just become emperor of Rome and by law and custom is debarred from marrying a foreign monarch—Berenice, queen of Palestine. Titus must decide between his conflicting desires for rule and glory and love and happiness:
“Should I to follow Love, from Glory fly,
Forsake my Throne, in every Vassel's eye,
How mean and despicable must I prove.”
Unlike Racine's more resolved hero, Titus's eventual decision to repudiate Berenice is not treated as the triumph of duty over desire but rather as a sacrifice that distorts Titus's character. Alone and unhappy, he decides to ‘make the world's as wretched as I am’. Betterton and Barry took the leading roles and Barry appeared again in Cheats as Lucia, one of a quartet of lovers who have married without their fathers' permission. Above all, Cheats provided a vehicle for the Duke's Company's great comedian Anthony Leigh in the role of the contriving servant and scamp Scapin who undertakes a variety of disguises and plays a range of tricks in order to aid the lovers and cheat their greedy fathers. Titus and Berenice was Otway's last verse tragedy, and Cheats his last good-natured comedy. Serious drama was moving away from the courtly heroic verse toward blank verse and prose dramas that were bloodthirsty and less than chivalric. In comedy the trend of the 1670s was for harsh and witty sex dramas, with each dramatist vying to produce more shocking on-stage effects. These trends suited Otway's themes and preoccupations and he was to produce his finest dramas in the next eight years. There may also have been personal reasons for the increasingly savage and cynical nature of his dramatic output.
Affronts, Duels, Love, and War:
With a good début in 1675 and three plays staged successfully in 1676, Otway was at the start of an outstanding career. Nevertheless, he had no plays performed in 1677 although he was probably working that year on his savage comedy Friendship in Fashion, performed in April 1678. His disillusionment with the theatre is shown in the prologue as he advises parents to ‘breed’ their sons to ‘wholesome Law, or give `em Trades’ since poets
by Critiques are worse treated here,
Than on the Bank-side Butchers do a Bear.
The prologue also alludes to efforts that have been made to ‘wrong him with his Friends’, perhaps the earl of Middlesex and Dorset to whom the printed work is dedicated in an epistle which expresses concern lest something in the play has offended him. Otway, a staunch tory, was satirized in the anonymous A Session of the Poets (1680), which he believed to have been by Elkanah Settle (a whig). Pamphlets published in 1682 and 1683 describe Otway as challenging Settle to a duel and Thomas Shadwell's satire The Tory-Poets (1682) mocks allegations that ‘S—le's a Coward, 'cause fool Ot—y fought him’. That Otway deeply resented the attack on him in A Session is clear, since he refers angrily to the satire in The Poet's Complaint (stanza 8). Personal satire was commonplace among Restoration writers, and unfortunately Otway seems to have been both thin-skinned and bellicose. These traits may have encouraged his attempt to change his career and join the army.
There is also a tradition that Otway was in love with Elizabeth Barry, who gave birth to a daughter by Rochester in December 1677, and that he enlisted because of a broken heart. The evidence for a relationship between Otway and Barry is based on a series of love letters, alternately amorous, plangent, and angry, attributed to him in Familiar letters: written by the … earl of Rochester, and several other persons of honour and quality, first published in 1697. The validity of the letters is dubious: like many of the ‘histories’ of the time, familiar letters were a semi-fictional form of literature, and their editors, in this case the unscrupulous Thomas Brown, did not always correctly attribute or transcribe such materials. The letters, first published twelve years after Otway's early death in 1685, bear no superscription and are not given out as addressed to Barry until 1713, a year after her demise. William Oldys's manuscript notes in 1727 to Gerard Langbaine's An Account of the English Dramatic Poets (1691) refer to Elizabeth Barry's scorn for Otway's love. But there were no references to an amorous relationship during the lifetime of either the poet or the actress, which, given the frankness with which Elizabeth Barry's life and the lives of other actresses were treated, suggests there is little foundation for this particular romantic accretion—though a strong and productive professional relationship did clearly exist.
Whatever the reason, in February 1678 Otway obtained a commission as ensign in a foot regiment raised by the duke of Monmouth as part of Charles II's brief attempt to intervene in the hostilities between France and the Netherlands. The regiment was sent to Flanders in July, and in November 1678 Otway had obtained a lieutenancy. By early 1679 the forces were withdrawn and the troops disbanded. Otway refers wryly to his soldiering in the epilogue to Caius Marius: ‘needs the Fool would be a Man at Arms’ (l. 10). Although never more than a lieutenant, Otway seems subsequently to have promoted himself, and continued martial pursuits. A duel is described in a letter of June 1679 from John Verney to Sir Ralph Verney, this time with a more considerable opponent, John Churchill, later duke of Marlborough. Verney reports that ‘Churchill, for beating an orange wench in the Duke's playhouse, was challenged by Capt. Otway (the poet), and both were wounded, but Churchill most’.
Back to the Stage:
Otway's next play, The History and Fall of Caius Marius, performed in the autumn of 1679 (published 1680), is a political tragedy responding to a period of tense political and religious crisis brought about by Titus Oates's allegations of a popish plot to murder the king and impose Roman Catholicism on England. Otway freely adapted Plutarch's description of the life of Caius Marius and combined it with elements of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet to dramatize the contest for the war consulship of Rome between Metellus and Caius Marius. Caius Marius jun., son of Caius Marius, and Lavinia, daughter of Metellus, enact the Romeo and Juliet roles with variations that include Lavinia awakening before her husband's death, allowing the two lovers to commiserate briefly. Meanwhile, much of the play displays the corrupt electioneering efforts carried out by the two factions, and their confrontations, which lead to exile and violence. Caius Marius, ambitious and unscrupulous, who courts the ‘plebs’ may well be a portrait of the earl of Shaftesbury, leader of the whig faction. However, Metellus, leader of the patricians, is little better. Anti-whig though the play may be, neither faction displays any signs of political morality or responsibility. In Metellus and Caius Marius, Otway created two violent and cruel fathers who destroy their biological and political families. Caius Marius held the stage into the eighteenth century and performances of Romeo and Juliet often incorporated the revival of Juliet in the family vault.
Otway's Annus Mirabilis:
1680 was a productive year for Otway and represents a high point in his career. The Poet's Complaint of his Muse was published and two new plays were performed, The Orphan in the spring, and The Souldiers Fortune in the summer. Otway seems to have gained the patronage of Nell Gwyn. The anonymous satire An Essay of Scandall (date not known) describes him as tutor to her son Charles Beauclerk and hopes, unkindly, that Otway will make him
(if that's possible to be)
A viler Poet, and more dull then he.
(Harley MSS 6913, 6914, 7319)
Other evidence of a connection between Otway and Gwyn is his signature as witness to a power of attorney granted by Nell Gwyn to one James Frazier to receive her pension, dated 1 June 1680 (Works, 1.33). In the autumn of that year Otway received an MA degree from Cambridge. The reasons for this conferral are unclear. J. C. Ghosh speculates that he may have falsified his status at Oxford (ibid., 1.26). It is also possible that the degree represented an honour granted to a writer whose works satirized whigs and who was increasingly associated with the court and tory politics. Otway's loyalty to the Yorks is indicated by the final stanzas of The Poet's Complaint, which describe their exile, and by his dedication of The Orphan to the duchess of York.
The Orphan is a domestic tragedy set in a country estate in Bohemia. The play's main source is ‘The History of Brandon’ in The English Adventures, published in 1675 by a ‘Person of Honour’, probably Roger Boyle, earl of Orrery, and there are also ‘borrowings’ from Dryden and Nathaniel Lee. Twin brothers and close friends, Castalio and Polydore have fallen in love with the beautiful orphan Monimia who is their father's ward. Their father, Acasto, yet another of Otway's powerful and quixotic patriarchs, has set his face against their marrying. Castalio secretly weds Monimia, but on their wedding night, Polydore, who does not realize they are married, manages to substitute himself for his brother. The truth gradually emerges the following day: Polydore and Monimia are horrified, and kill themselves. Elizabeth Barry achieved lasting fame in the role of Monimia, in which, according to John Downes, ‘she forc'd Tears from the Eyes of her Auditory’ and gained the ‘Name of Famous Mrs. Barry’. Despite its idyllic setting, The Orphan is an anti-pastoral drama in which all the elements of the traditional pastoral, freedom from care, innocence, trust, closeness to nature, and simplicity of lifestyle are evoked, only to be cancelled.
The Souldiers Fortune is a fast-paced cuckolding comedy based on the efforts of two disbanded and poverty-stricken soldiers to find themselves sex and money. Barry played Beaugard's lost love Clarinda, Betterton took the role of the hero Beaugard, and in the pimp Sir Jolly Jumble and the elderly merchant Sir Davy Dunce the company's comic actors Anthony Leigh and James Noakes were given roles brilliantly suited to their abilities to portray lechery and perversity. The play concludes with Beaugard able to blackmail Sir Davy Dunce, who tried to have him murdered, into acquiescing to his liaison with his wife. Otway's position in the world of Restoration theatre without consistent and powerful patronage surely encouraged his cynical outsider's view of society and his characteristic refusal to provide a conventional conclusion.
The Souldiers Fortune, for example, was dedicated not to any great courtier but to his bookseller, Richard Bentley. Bentley, Otway perhaps unwisely remarks, pays ‘honestly for the Copy’ while ‘a Person of higher Rank and Order’ knowing he does not deserve the obsequious praise lavished in a dedication ‘is very unwilling to part with ready Money for’ it. Otway seems never to have secured consistent patronage. Otway's next play, Venice Preserv'd (1682), was dedicated to the duchess of Portsmouth, Charles II's powerful French mistress. However, whether she was pleased with a play featuring a foreign courtesan is open to question—Otway did not dedicate any further works to her. His last play, The Atheist (1683), was dedicated to Lord Elande, who died shortly thereafter. A mixture of tactlessness and bad luck marks Otway's relations with the nobility whose support was so essential for those seeking to make their career as writers.
Venice Preserv'd, Otway's most famous play, was first staged in February 1682. It is a play about plots, a topical subject, and captures brilliantly a mood of civil discontent, suspicion, and betrayal. The main source is Saint-Réal's pseudo-history A Conspiracy of the Spaniards Against the State of Venice published in France in 1674 and translated in 1675. The hero, Jaffeir, has eloped with Belvidera, daughter of the senator Priuli, and as the play opens Priuli refuses to help the poverty-stricken family and curses the couple and their son. Jaffeir is induced to join a conspiracy against the state of Venice by his friend Pierre, an ideologue, a soldier, and a man who has lost his mistress, Aquilina, to the senator Antonio. Jaffeir offers his wife, Belvidera, to the conspirators as a pledge for his fidelity. However, after the conspirator Renault has tried to rape Belvidera, Jaffeir acquiesces to her insistence that they inform the Venetian senate of the conspiracy. In return for the information, the senate agrees to spare the lives of the conspirators but immediately breaks its word, only sparing Jaffeir and condemning the rest to death by torture. As Pierre awaits public execution, at his request Jaffeir stabs him and then stabs himself. Comic and outrageously perverse scenes between Aquilina and Antonio provided a major element in the play's immediate popularity and subsequent notoriety. The characters of Antonio and Renault may have been intended as a composite satiric portrait of the earl of Shaftesbury. Contemporaries certainly regarded the play as a triumphant tory work. There were performances on 21 April and 31 May 1682, each provided with new prologues and epilogues by Dryden and Otway, to celebrate the return of the duke and duchess of York from exile in Scotland. Modern scholars, however, have pointed out that neither the conspirators, nor the senators are admirable, and that neither group obviously represents either whigs or tories.
Despite the success of Venice Preserv'd, Otway's own success waned. After 1682, when the two London theatre companies, the King's and Duke's, united, there was less demand for new plays and he was lucky to get another play staged. Otway revived the leading characters of The Souldiers Fortune in his last play, The Atheist, or, The Second Part of the Souldiers Fortune (probably first acted no later than July 1683, and published 1684). The atheist of the title, Daredevil, is a satiric portrait of a freethinker, who in reality is both religious and deeply superstitious and ‘never feels so much as an Ague-fit, but he's afraid of being damn'd’. The libertinism that was admired in Don Carlos is now depicted as foolish. Irreverent, farcical, and outrageous, The Atheist is nevertheless the most socially mature of Otway's comedies.
Final Year and Death:
In the thin years that followed the performance of The Atheist, Otway contributed verses to friends' works and composed the elegy Windsor Castle, in a Monument to our Late Sovereign K. Charles II of Ever Blessed Memory (1685). According to Wood, shortly before his death he was engaged in composing a congratulatory poem on the accession of James II. He was also credited with translating from French The History of the Triumvirates, published in 1686, though J. C. Ghosh does not include it in his definitive edition of the collected works. Otway appears to have been working on another play, since an advertisement in The Observator on 27 November and 4 December 1686 offers a reward from Betterton and Smith for ‘Four Acts of a Play’ written by Otway before his death.
Most accounts agree that Otway died in Tower Hill on 14 April 1685, probably in extreme poverty. Theophilus Cibber paints a pathetic picture of Otway choking to death on a roll bought with money he had begged (T. Cibber, Lives of the Poets of Great Britain, 2 vols., 1753, 2.334). Other accounts have Otway dying after pursuing the murderer of a friend. John Dennis simply states that Otway died in an ‘Alehouse … in Adversity unpitied, and dy'd unlamented’. Otway was buried at St Clement Danes on 16 April 1685—aged thirty-three.
Interest in Otway revived in the twentieth century with editions of his works by Montague Summer and J. C. Ghosh and productions of Venice Preserv'd and The Orphan at the Old Vic. These editions were reprinted in the 1960s and helped to stimulate new approaches to Otway. By this time the savagery, cynicism, and obscenity of Otway's works no longer disqualified them from serious attention and admiration; indeed, his harsh satires on political motives and frank treatment of sexual relations suited modern tastes. Late twentieth-century productions of Venice Preserv'd, The Orphan, and The Atheist have all demonstrated their strength and dramatic viability. Otway is currently regarded as a major Restoration dramatist, with Venice Preserv'd generally assessed as the best political tragedy of that period.