Thomas Otway Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The writings of Thomas Otway, apart from his plays, are of minor significance. His two most substantial poetic efforts were his first published poem, The Poet’s Complaint of His Muse (1680), and the posthumously published Windsor Castle (1685). The former poem, despite claims made for its autobiographical and political interest, is a disjointed effort that shifts from a seemingly personal apologia to an allegorized presentation of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis. Windsor Castle consists of a mélange of devices, drawn from elegy, topographical poetry, and Restoration advice-to-the-painter poetry, occasioned by the death of Charles II. The rest of Otway’s poetry is in typical Restoration modes: dramatic prologues and epilogues, translations (of Ovid and Horace), a commendatory poem (addressed to Thomas Creech on his translation of Lucretius), and a verse epistle (to Richard Duke). Published posthumously were his prose translations from the French, The History of the Triumvirates, in 1686, and a group of love letters, supposedly written by Otway to the actress Elizabeth Barry, in 1697.

Thomas Otway Achievements

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

A proper measure of Thomas Otway’s achievement as a dramatist can be taken neither from the current critical reputation of his heroic plays, tragedies, and comedies nor from the success of these works in his own time but, rather, must take into account a popularity and influence that continued through the early nineteenth century. Don Carlos, Prince of Spain, The Orphan, and Venice Preserved were among the most popular of Restoration plays; only by comparison with these plays could Otway’s comedies be considered unsuccessful. It is true that his comedies were dropped from the repertory of the London theaters early in the eighteenth century, but this fact reflects a change in taste for which Otway himself might have been partly responsible: It is possible to detect a gradual translation of the affective techniques that characterize Otway’s tragedies into the comedies of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The frequent revivals of The Orphan and Venice Preserved suggest these plays’ persistent influence and confirm Otway’s high standing in English drama. Joseph Addison in The Spectator (1711-1712, 1714) anticipated many later comments when he wrote that “Otway has followed Nature in the Language of his Tragedy, and therefore shines in the Passionate Parts, more than any of our English poets.” A renewed appreciation of Otway’s plays followed from the general revival of critical and scholarly interest in Restoration drama in the 1920’s. Most subsequent study has concentrated on The Orphan and Venice Preserved but, unfortunately, critical interest has rarely led to theatrical production. Harold Pinter, however, has spoken for the dramatic accessibility of Venice Preserved to modern audiences, and critics have supplied groundwork for a more extensive treatment of Otway’s dramatic production.

Thomas Otway Bibliography

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Derrick, Samuel. The Dramatic Censor: Remarks upon the Tragedy of “Venice Preserved.” 1752. Reprint. Los Angeles: William Andrews Clark Memorial Library of University of California, 1985. Derrick was a well-known figure in London literary circles, and this reading is perceptive even if heavily moralistic.

Ham, Roswell Gray. Otway and Lee: Biography from a Baroque Age. 1931. Reprint. New York: Greenwood Press, 1969. An excellent study of two Restoration dramatists whose careers ran parallel on the turbulent London stage.

Johnson, Samuel. Lives of the English Poets. Edited by George Birkbeck Hill. 1905. Reprint. New York: Dutton, 1975. Johnson comments on some of the works and moralizes typically on the life: “Want of morals or of decency did not in those days exclude any man from the company of the wealthy and the gay if he brought with him any powers of entertainment.”

Munns, Jessica. Restoration Politics and Drama: The Plays of Thomas Otway, 1675-1683. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1995. A major study, drawing on insights from new historicism, feminist criticism, Lacanian psychology, and other postmodernist approaches. Includes valuable notes and a bibliography.

Pollard, Hazel M. Batzer. From Heroics to Sentimentalism: A Study of Thomas Otway’s Tragedies. Salzburg, Austria: Institut für Englische Sprache und Literatur, Universität Salzburg, 1974. Pollard traces the development in Otway’s tragedies away from the heroic tragedies of his time toward the mounting psychology of sentimentalism.

Summers, Montague. Introduction to The Complete Works of Thomas Otway. 3 vols. London: Nonesuch Press, 1926. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, 1967. Summers’s long introduction is informative and readable in its gossipy, anecdotal approach. With source notes.

Warner, Kerstin P. Thomas Otway. Boston: Twayne, 1982. A fine overview. A chronology is followed by a biographical sketch and chapters on Otway’s political views, first plays, and the playwright’s “peak season.” Includes a bibliography.