The Orphan Essay - Further Critical Evaluation of the Work

Thomas Otway

Further Critical Evaluation of the Work

“Tender Otway” he was called, and with good reason, for Thomas Otway’s plays abound in a direct appeal to feeling. He has also been called the “Byron of the Restoration,” and the comparison is particularly illuminating when we consider their sudden popularity to his audience. Just as Byron awoke to find himself famous after the publication of the early cantos of CHILDE HAROLD’S PILGRIMAGE, Otway, after the first performances of THE ORPHAN, was credited with having done something entirely new in drama. Byron’s poem revealed the hidden feelings of an isolated and brooding spirit; Otway’s drama dared to explore the hidden anxieties and desires of ordinary people. Just as Byron’s intensely subjective poetry offered an alternative to eighteenth century decorum, Otway’s domestic tragedy relinquished the strict standards of Restoration heroic drama and poetry in both form and characterization. His appeal is not to aristocratic concepts of defiant and absolute heroism, nor is he a champion of Aristotelian unities. Otway’s appeal is to pity.

He has been accused of contriving the plot in THE ORPHAN so as to subject his characters to more suffering than should be their fate. Edmund Gosse, in his book on Otway, called the “foolish pretense of Castalio, the want of perception by Monimia, and the ruffianly crime of Polydore . . . all radical faults which go near to destroy the probability of the story.” Otway does stretch credibility in his attempt to burden his characters with not only unavoidable suffering, but suffering without any moral cause. Even the Hobbesian villain of the piece, Polydore, who reminds us of Shakespeare’s Edmund in KING LEAR by the way he stresses “Nature over law,” is not entirely culpable. After all, he did not know that Monimia had married his brother. No one, Otway makes sure, is exempt from at least some pity.

Otway, like Dryden in ALL FOR LOVE, relied heavily on Shakespeare to inject his plays with the power of feeling and bold characterization that could free drama from the stylization of Restoration conventions. Certainly THE ORPHAN in plot, character, and tone recalls aspects of both ROMEO AND JULIET and OTHELLO. But if Otway learned from Shakespeare how to put strong feelings of compassion and pity into a play, he learned little from his master about true terror and sublimity.