Thomas Otway Essay - Critical Essays


In his Lives of the English Poets, Samuel Johnson says of Thomas Otway’s The Orphan that “its whole power is upon the affections; for it is not written with much comprehension of thought or elegance of expression. But, if the heart is interested, many other beauties may be wanting, yet not be missed.” For one accustomed to Johnson’s judicial manner of literary evaluation, his praise of the play rises above the qualifications with which it is voiced. Although Johnson is here addressing himself to only one of Otway’s plays, the quality on which he fastens—the ability to elicit an affective response through the representation of the passions—is one that was fitfully apparent even in Alcibiades and at least as forcefully realized in Venice Preserved. Indeed, in Venice Preserved, Johnson discovered a greater virility, if not an elegance, of expression, but this new strength of Otway’s imagery and language could not overcome his qualms regarding “the want of morality in the original design, and the despicable scenes of vile comedy with which he has diversified his tragic action.” Pathos is the play’s sole saving grace; that Otway’s “original design” was in fact altered in eighteenth century theatrical productions so that the offensive comic scenes were deleted suggests that Johnson stood very much with his age in his refusal to accept the “thought” that was expressed in Venice Preserved. While the pathetic character of Otway’s plays remains a matter of critical interest, respect must also be given to those elements of Otway’s work that were considered anomalous in the period of Johnson—his seeming immorality, his comic cynicism, and his tragic despair—in order to understand fully the attitudes that informed not only his heroic plays and tragedies but also the comedies (and the comic episodes of Venice Preserved), which Johnson dismissed.

The characteristic strengths of Otway’s plays seem to depend more on the force of their original conception than on the art with which they are executed. Too often, Otway seems simply unwilling to improve on his first designs. Certainly such a nearly complete lapse of dramatic sense as is seen in the opening exposition of The Orphan could have been prevented by even the most cursory reading of François Hédelin, Abbé d’Aubignac’s La Pratique du théâtre (1657), a contemporary French dramatic treatise. At other times, Otway’s original conception, however deficient, seems incapable of being altered without sacrificing its intended effect. To use the example of The Orphan again, there appears to be a lack of motivation in Castalio’s concealing of his marriage to Monimia from the rest of his family, particularly from his brother, Polydore. That the brothers are rivals in love seems less important than the violation of Castalio’s vows of absolute friendship for his brother by his withholding of the truth. Without Polydore’s misunderstanding of the situation, however, there could be no tragedy, at least not the kind that Otway intended. Motivation for Castalio’s behavior would perhaps be necessary in a tragedy of character, but the focus of the tragedy of The Orphan, as in other Otway plays, is not on individual character so much as on the inveterate frailty of human intentions and the circumstances by which human ideals are defeated.

Jessica Munns stresses the analogy between the king/subjects relationship and that between the father and his family, noting the rebellion of fractious sons against cruel fathers in the plays. Munns reads Otway’s dramas as subtle subversions of “traditional, monarchical, and non-consent-based power,” products of a historical period undergoing profound changes to which the playwright was alert. To explain away the “intense misogyny” of Otway’s language, Munns resorts to New Historicist and Marxist arguments that focus on theories of how repressive states manipulate contradictions to achieve containment. She can thus admit that Otway’s politics support royal power but nevertheless “go beyond party politics to constitute a critique of the very systems of power and representation the ideology purports and the dramas probably mean to sustain.”

Earlier in the Restoration period, the ideals of honor, love, and friendship were given heroic affirmation in the plays of John Dryden and Roger Boyle, earl of Orrery. Even in his later tragedies, so formally different from these heroic plays, Otway typically does not take the position of denying that these ideals are worthy of desire—indeed, the pathos of his plays would be lost if he did—but instead casts doubt on their power to determine actions. The influence of the heroic tradition on Otway persists to the last of his serious plays in the tendency to conceive of dramatic character as representing the radical expression of human possibility, but, instead of being employed to glorify human potential, this mode of characterization is used to indicate human beings’ pathetic inability to realize their aspirations. Further, Otway was able to rely on the continued urgency of the heroic play’s thematic concerns to direct attention, in a dramatically concise and forceful manner, to his own iconoclasm. The writing of comedy in no way lightened Otway’s vision of the human situation, but, because the world represented is closer to the mean of everyday experience, the substance of his comedies may seem trivial in comparison with his heroic plays and tragedies. A comparison of The Orphan with Friendship in Fashion, however, would also serve to indicate the presence in the comedy of the two thematic motifs, friendship and love, which are the dominant concerns of the later tragedy, and the power of Friendship in Fashion to disturb the most commonly held notions of Restoration comedy suggests that Otway approached the conventions of the comedy of manners not with delight but with something close to moral repugnance. Otway, then, looks to a common area of experience in both dramatic modes, exploiting alike the forms and conventions of comic and serious plays.

The high road of the Restoration heroic play is that represented in John Dryden’s proselytizing of a dramatic practice based on an epic analogy. His two-part drama produced between 1670 and 1671, The Conquest of Granada by the Spaniards, has been considered the apotheosis of his theory of the heroic play, but his earlier play, Tyrannic Love: Or, The Royal Martyr (pr. 1669), was more remarkable for its extravagance of language, character, and situation and its accompanying use of theatrical spectacle than for any truly epic qualities. Elkanah Settle’s extraordinarily successful 1671 production, The Empress of Morocco, and Nathaniel Lee’s The Tragedy of Nero, Emperor of Rome (pr. 1674, pb. 1675) resemble both of Dryden’s plays in the use of rhymed couplets as their basic verse form and in the portrayal of “heroic” love, but they exploit the theatrical values of Tyrannic Love rather than the epic tendencies of The Conquest of Granada by the Spaniards. The Tragedy of Nero, Emperor of Rome is of particular interest in regard to Alcibiades, and not merely because it was Lee’s own initial dramatic effort: The choice of classical subject, the fictional elaboration on the facts of history, and the indiscriminate letting of the blood of both protagonists and villains in a manner reminiscent of the Jacobean theater are common to the two plays. Both the plays make use of dramatic sensationalism; The Empress of Morocco had previously shown that theatric capital could be made of a blatantly melodramatic approach to the heroic play in which action was forwarded by villainy and lust.


Viewed against the perspective supplied by the repertory of Restoration playhouses, the plot of Alcibiades contains no surprises. The plot is built on a single incident drawn from Plutarch—Alcibiades’ expulsion from Athens following a night of drunken sacrilege—but the action of the play begins not with the event itself but with its report to the woman to whom he is betrothed, Timandra. This brief scene of exposition concludes with Timandra’s rejection of the love of Theramnes, the man who supplanted Alcibiades as Athenian general. The remaining action of the play takes place about the camp of the king of Sparta, where Alcibiades had taken himself on his expulsion from Athens. There, the Spartan king’s granting of the title of general to Alcibiades; the secret resentment and desire for revenge of Tissaphernes, the Spartan he replaces; the Spartan queen’s sudden, violent passion for Alcibiades; the appearance of Timandra; the victory over the Athenians; and the capture of Theramnes supply more than the necessary means of spasmodically forwarding the action of the play toward its bloody conclusion, in which the only major character left alive is Patroclus, who is the son of Tissaphernes but nevertheless a loyal friend of Alcibiades. Jessica Munns emphasized the depiction of Tissaphernes as “a perverse and vampiric creation who seeks to regain youth through shedding blood . . . ,” thereby making him the first exhibit in her gallery of Otway’s “dreadful fathers.”

Little can be said for the artistic merit of Alcibiades. In part, the weakness of its dramatic organization might be simply explained by Otway’s failure to amalgamate those materials he had freely and rather too copiously borrowed; nevertheless, Alcibiades yet has something of the characteristic tenor of the later plays, and it is possible to find in it an anticipation of the sorts of problems of form and characterization with which Otway, by the very nature of the kind of drama that he was attempting to write, was later forced to confront.

The titular character of Alcibiades is a major dramatic liability. The historical character from Plutarch is almost completely lost from sight, and Otway never quite squares his presentation of Alcibiades the martial figure with Alcibiades the sensitive lover. Further, the character of Alcibiades is weakened not merely by the disjunction of his characterization but also by his situation within the plot. Although he is at the center of all the various actions of the play, he is a character more acted on than acting. His military triumph over Athens and Theramnes and the killing of his rival in the act of ravishing Timandra were obviously intended to establish his heroic credibility, but the latter action serves only to precipitate the catastrophe of the play—the murder of the king and of Timandra and the suicide of Alcibiades. It is by the forces of lust, deceit, and revenge that the two lovers, Alcibiades and Timandra, are made vulnerable (although it is not as a necessary consequence that they are doomed). That Timandra’s vulnerability seems more emphatic and compelling has much to do with contemporary dramatic and social stereotypes of feminine behavior; from the first scene, however, her articulation of the vulnerability of love places her closer to the realities of the play than is Alcibiades.

The burden of these fears is realized not only in Alcibiades but also in later plays by Otway: Loyalty and love cannot survive the way of the world. She and her lover serve as exemplars of this fact. There is, however, a definite irony, one that Otway may not have fully intended, in the situation that forces Alcibiades to suicide: The “heroic” self-absorption that prevents his admitting any real danger to himself, even when Tissaphernes’ designs are revealed by Patroclus, also renders him incapable of recognizing the peril to Timandra represented by the queen. The force of his love seems rather too summarily expressed by his suicide. Timandra, on the other hand, has only one role, that of the loved one, and from this role the expression of her fears seems naturally to follow. Moreover, her anticipation of the sad worldly fate of her love for Alcibiades is joined in a corrupt Neoplatonic manner to the belief that their love will find its true reward in an afterlife together. The unusual prominence given to this notion in Alcibiades, even as it diminishes its tragic effect, constitutes the most powerful formal demand for the sacrifice of the lovers.

Don Carlos, Prince of Spain

The villainy of Tissaphernes and of Deidama, the queen of Sparta, although in the end self-defeating, is nevertheless efficient in its decimation of the dramatis personae of Alcibiades, and the characterization of Deidama is a gesture in the direction of the heroic fashion of sensually motivated villainesses. Some traces of this dramatic type remain in the duchess of Eboli in Don Carlos, Prince of Spain. Yet even though she aids in the machinations against the prince, it is her husband, Rui-Gomez, who is clearly the central figure in the plot. Reflection on the role of Rui-Gomez suggests some of the changes in dramatic conception that, in the streamlining of the heroic apparatus, made Don Carlos, Prince of Spain a markedly better play than Alcibiades. The action of Don Carlos, Prince of Spain, like that of Alcibiades, entails the pursuit of revenge; in the earlier play, however, there exists another major motivating force, the queen’s desire for Alcibiades. Although Tissaphernes and the queen are brought together in the murder of the king, the need for some coordination or subordination of their purposes is realized too late in the play. In Don Carlos, Prince of Spain, the malevolence of Rui-Gomez, even as it exploits and infects the other characters, is used to concentrate and direct the play’s action. Because Rui-Gomez does not attempt anything so crude as assassination, there is no need for him to follow Tissaphernes’ almost ludicrous course of failed attempts at murder in order that his revenge might be protracted to the length of the play. Rather, because the revenge of Rui-Gomez is to be effected through the jealousy of King Philip, each stay in his scheme seems only to increase its potential yield, until only the death of his son and wife can satisfy the king’s maddened sense of injury.

This concurrent dilation and intensification of the act of revenge resembles the action of William Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor of Venice (pr. 1604), as Rui-Gomez resembles Iago. Iago may have also had a part in the conception of Tissaphernes, but the earlier character is so much an epitome of villainy that any particular touches drawn from Shakespeare are lost in generality. The influence of Iago on the characterization of Rui-Gomez is sharply rendered; the effect is to draw the character into a more particular and probable dramatic world than that inhabited by Tissaphernes. J. C. Ghosh overstated the case for Don Carlos, Prince of Spain when, in the introduction to his edition of the works of Otway, he said that “the characters are not the bloated abstractions of the heroic play, but real flesh and blood”; yet within the dramatic limits of the heroic form, Otway managed to give his characters touches of life that were absent from Alcibiades. The action of Don Carlos, Prince of Spain, however, does not approach the dramatic and moral concentration of Othello. The focus of the play is not so much on the victim of jealousy, the king, as on those characters who suffer on account of his jealousy—his son, Don Carlos, and his recently married queen. The result would be analogous to an Othello more concerned with the fate of Desdemona than with the victimizing of the Moor. As a consequence of the play’s design, none of the characters is allowed the intense moral and psychological regard that is given to Othello.

The love of Carlos and the queen, moreover, is represented not as wrong but as unfortunate, and moral evaluation in the play does not depend so much on the nature of particular actions as on...

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