Thomas Southerne 1660-1746
Southerne is best remembered for his plays The Fatal Marriage (1694) and Oroonoko (1695). Modern critics have been interested in these works for their contribution to the development of the sentimental drama and their sympathetic portrayal of women trapped in marriages to unworthy men. In addition, Southerne's plays are esteemed for their social and psychological realism.
The son of a brewer and his wife, Southerne was born in Dublin, Ireland, where he attended Trinity College. In 1680 he relocated to London to study law at the Middle Temple. Southerne had an interest in the theater, and in 1682 his first play, The Loyal Brother, was produced with the aid of John Dryden, who wrote the play's prologue and epilogue. In 1685 Southerne joined the English army, and over the course of a long military career eventually rose to the rank of captain. Despite the failure of The Loyal Brother, Southerne continued to write plays, gaining his first theatrical success in 1690 with Sir Anthony Love, a comedy which, like many of Southerne's subsequent works, contains multiple plots. In 1696, following his greatest successes with The Fatal Marriage and Oroonoko, Southerne was awarded a master's degree from Trinity College. His later years, though marred by the dismal reception of his final stage production, Money the Mistress (1726), were happy ones, as Southerne enjoyed friendships with prominent literary figures such as William Congreve, Jonathan Swift, and Alexander Pope. During this time, he also published two editions of his collected works. Southerne died in 1746.
The works with which Southerne is most often associated, The Fatal Marriage and Oroonoko, are regarded as tragedies in the “pathetic” tradition: sentimental dramas that depict the sorrowful lives of their main characters. The Fatal Marriage deals with the victimization and suffering of a woman who believes her husband is dead, and Oroonoko is about a slave rebellion in Surinam that ends with the principal figures committing suicide. Both plays were based on novels by Aphra Behn, and both contain split plots. The minor plot in The Fatal Marriage adds comic relief, whereas in Oroonoko subordination of women in marriage is thematically tied to the enslavement of black Africans. Two other plays by Southerne, both comedies, The Wives' Excuse (1691) and The Maid's Last Prayer (1693), have been the subject of increasing critical commentary since the twentieth century for their characterization of women trapped in marriages to rakish men. While these plays were not successful with audiences of the time, each has come to be regarded as a major dramatic piece concentrating on the problems of marriage and the unequal relationship between husbands and wives.
Southerne's first three dramatic works, the comedies The Loyal Brother, The Disappointment (1684), and Sir Anthony Love, as well as his final three, The Fate of Capua (1700), The Spartan Dame (1719), and Money the Mistress, have been almost totally neglected by literary critics. With the exception of Sir Anthony Love, all were box-office disappointments and had brief stage runs; Money the Mistress suffered the ignominy of being roundly booed during its stage premier. The overwhelming body of critical attention has focused on The Fatal Marriage and Oroonoko, two tragedies for which Southerne gained his greatest contemporary esteem. The Fatal Marriage is praised mostly for its psychological complexity and dramatic tension. Oroonoko, Southerne's most enduring work, enjoyed a stage life of over 150 years. It was produced throughout Europe and America well into the nineteenth century to promote abolitionist ideals. Whether or not Southerne himself intended the play to advance anti-slavery sentiments has been the subject of intense debate, although it does seem clear that he recognized some of the evils and cruelties inherent in the institution. The Wives' Excuse and The Maid's Last Prayer, neither of which were popular in their own time, have in the last half century garnered praise from critics who argue that they deserve to be included among Southerne's best plays for their suspenseful plots, realistic dialogue, sympathetic portrayals of women, psychological insight, and scathing commentaries on the moral bankruptcy of the society they portray.
Opinion on the stature of Southerne as a dramatist has varied considerably over the centuries. In his own day, Southerne was considered a worthy playwright, overshadowed by Shakespeare but the equal of Thomas Otway. John Dryden and Alexander Pope lavished praise on Southerne for his facility with language and his ability to stir the emotions of his audience. In the nineteenth century Southerne was routinely derided as an inferior verse dramatist whose plots were unrealistic, and whose major and minor storylines failed to complement each other thematically. Twentieth-century literary critics were kinder, most concluding that Southerne's minor plots are well fashioned and help to accentuate the major plot's thematic concerns. A number of modern critics have concentrated on Southerne's depictions of women, most concluding that he was one of the first English playwrights to portray female characters sympathetically, although this view has been challenged in recent decades by critics who view Southerne's work as hostile to women. In the final analysis, however, there is widespread agreement that Southerne's plays have been undeservedly neglected and should be included among the best examples of late seventeenth-century drama.
The Loyal Brother; or, The Persian Prince (play) 1682
The Disappointment; or, The Mother in Fashion (play) 1684
Sir Anthony Love; or, The Rambling Lady (play) 1690
The Wives' Excuse; or, Cuckolds Make Themselves (play) 1691
Cleomenes, The Spartan Hero, by Dryden, completed by Southerne [with John Dryden] (play) 1692
The Maid's Last Prayer; or, Any, Rather Than Fail (play) 1693
The Fatal Marriage; or, The Innocent Adultery [adaptor; from the novel The History of the Nun, or, The Fair Vow-Breaker by Aphra Behn] (play) 1694
Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave [adaptor; from the novel Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave by Aphra Behn] (play) 1695
The Fate of Capua (play) 1700
The Spartan Dame (play) 1719
Money the Mistress (play) 1726
The Works of Thomas Southerne. 2 vols. [edited by Robert Jordan and Harold Love] (plays and letters) 1988
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SOURCE: Dodds, John Wendell. “Conclusion.” In Thomas Southerne Dramatist, pp. 204-19. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1933.
[In the following essay, Dodds examines Southerne's place in the history of English drama.]
In him the poets' Nestor ye defend! Great Otway's peer, and greater Dryden's friend.
—Prologue to Money the Mistress
Thomas Southerne emerges from a candid appraisal of his life and work with a greater importance in the history of the English theatre than he has hitherto been granted by the critics who have touched him only in passing. … [The] esteem in which the poet's work was held by his contemporaries, as well as the unexpectedly long and continuous stage history of his two best plays, would alone support such an estimate. Moreover, his most effective work bears the test of a close critical scrutiny. This is not to say that such an examination reveals in Southerne unsuspected depths of genius, yet it is significant and not a little surprising to find how closely the quality of his most enduring drama approaches the best of its kind. But lest his advocate be accused of a critical myopia not unknown to special pleaders, it is advisable to draw together here the threads of Southerne's activity, and to place them in perspective against the background of the Restoration and eighteenth-century theatre. Thus it will be possible to...
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SOURCE: Kaufman, Anthony. “This Hard Condition of a Woman's Fate: Southerne's The Wives' Excuse.” Modern Language Quarterly 34, no. 1 (March 1973): 36-47.
[In the following essay, Kaufman explores psychological elements in The Wives' Excuse.]
Few would disagree that a real change of sensibility occurred in Restoration comedy after the Revolution of 1688. The reasons for the collapse into sense have been well explored, as has its rather distasteful by-product: sentimental comedy. But critics have not yet fully defined the achievement of the 1690s. Congreve is a master, of course, and Vanbrugh and Farquhar receive their due. Even Cibber has his defenders. But were there others? Thomas Southerne remains a largely unexplored dramatist, although we know he was highly valued in his time. Dryden's rather odd triplet in his generous tribute “To Mr. Congreve” comes to mind:
In Him all Beauties of this Age we see; Etherege his Courtship, Southern's Purity; The Satire, Wit, and Strength of Manly Witcherly.
Southerne's “purity” is troublesome. Kenneth Muir suggests that purity is explained by the playwright's evident ability as a satirist; he has a definite moral stance.1 Southerne is indeed an accomplished satirist, but one may doubt whether that is what Dryden meant. Dryden means to contrast three separate qualities, all of which are seen in Congreve....
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SOURCE: Waith, Eugene M. “Admiration in the Comedies of Thomas Southerne.” In Evidence in Literary Scholarship: Essays in Memory of James Marshall Osborn, edited by René Welleck and Alvaro Ribeiro, pp. 89-103. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979.
[In the following essay, Waith examines each of Southerne's plays, seeing in them many of the developments that were taking place in English comedy at the close of the seventeenth century.]
One of the best-publicized developments in the history of English drama is the sad change of heart (and I use all these words advisedly) that came over the writers of comedy as the eighteenth century neared and then arrived. The publicity is, of course, due in large measure to the efforts of one of those who helped to bring the change about—the divine whose view of the English stage was so very dim. Naturally, then, the virtuous and weepy comedy that began to appear at this time has often been seen as the consequence of Jeremy Collier's attack on immorality and profaneness. Libertines must no longer prosper nor the clergy be mocked. It has also been explained that the success of Collier and the contemporary societies for the reformation of manners was related to the increasing influence of the ladies in the audience and to the rise of the middle classes, that historical phenomenon to which our attention is always being called, whether we are reading about Elizabethan or...
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SOURCE: Root, Robert L., Jr. “Conclusion.” In Thomas Southerne, pp. 118-28. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981.
[In the following excerpt, Root argues that Southerne is an important dramatist deserving of greater scholarly attention.]
References to Thomas Southerne in his lifetime are plentiful but usually brief. The picture that emerges from what amount to little more than footnotes to other men's lives is that of a well-fed, jovial companion and guest. Except for some back-biting by such a figure as William Broome, the references are always affectionate, cheerful, good-natured. He is teased about his deafness, asked after by corresponding friends, and applauded for his graciousness and generosity. In all this welter of reference, there is surprisingly little mention of his work, either positively or negatively. It is as if the man's personality and social grace had completely effaced the accomplishment of his literary career. And, indeed, the references to him in the close of his life as “the poet's Nestor” or ‘’great Otway's peer and greater Dryden's friend” seem to suggest that it was as much longevity as talent, as much nostalgia for the era in which he wrote as the plays he created, that elicits respect and regard.
We can judge from such evidence that Southerne was one of those men whose character is so evenhanded and unassuming that he seldom inspires either great...
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SOURCE: Rich, Julia A. “Heroic Tragedy in Southerne's Oroonoko (1695): An Approach to a Split-plot Tragicomedy.” Philological Quarterly 2 (spring 1983): 187-200.
[In the following essay, Rich compares the major and minor plots in The Fatal Marriage and Oroonoko.]
The Restoration split-plot tragicomedy, combining as it frequently does wildly disparate tones in its “upper” and “lower” plots, can present difficulties to the modern reader searching for coherence. Should these works, many of them enormously popular in their own age, be dismissed as artistically unsatisfactory efforts to entertain an undiscriminating audience? Or do at least some of them possess a unity accessible by analysis? Modern critics have begun to discover organizing principles in these “hip-hop” plays, especially those of Dryden, by looking for parallels and correspondences between the two plots in character, situation, action, theme, or any combination of these elements. Eric Rothstein, for example, uses all four in demonstrating the unity of Don Sebastian; Bruce King examines theme and action in assessing The Spanish Fryar; Laura Brown deals with “formal equivalents” in the two plots of Marriage A-la-Mode.1
The search for parallels between the two parts of a split-plot tragicomedy does not, however, always produce satisfactory results. A case in point...
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SOURCE: Weber, Harold. “The Female Libertine in Southerne's Sir Anthony Love and The Wives Excuse.” Essays in Theatre 2, no. 2 (May 1984): 126-39.
[In the following essay, Weber claims that Sir Anthony Love and The Wives' Excuse illustrate Southerne's fascination with and fear of female libertines.]
Men have rarely accepted with equanimity women's attempts to participate in the freedoms and pleasures of the male world. The prospect of women usurping the roles of men has usually produced the most emphatic accents of male rage. Juvenal has few kind words for women at any point in his sixth satire, but some of his most severe censure falls on those women who as athletes, intellectuals, or politicians attempt to deny their sexual stereotypes and adopt masculine poses and activities. Yet men have been excited by that which ostensibly repels them: the legends of the Amazons, those female warriors who must remove one breast in order to employ their bows with all the accuracy of a man, have never ceased to fascinate the male imagination.
In this essay I intend to explore the tension between this male fear and fascination on the Restoration stage by focusing on the figure of the female libertine in two plays by Thomas Southerne, Sir Anthony Love; or, The Rambling Lady and The Wives Excuse; or, Cuckolds Make Themselves. The female libertine addresses...
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SOURCE: Hume, Robert D. “The Importance of Thomas Southerne.” Modern Philology 87, no. 3 (February 1990): 270-90.
[In the following essay, Hume reviews a 1988 edition of Southerne's collected works and argues that Southerne deserves greater acclaim as one of the finest dramatists of his time.]
The appearance of a thousand-page “standard” edition of the Works1 of Thomas Southerne is cause for rejoicing among a few specialists, but probably leaves most others wondering, “And who the deuce may he be?” Thomas Southerne (1660-1746) was a friend and protegé of Dryden's; an early sponsor and longtime friend of Congreve's; and author of ten plays, two of which remained repertory staples for decades. But this capsule description begs the real question: why does Southerne deserve such an edition? For some two hundred years after his death he was almost totally neglected, and for this neglect there is no very obvious reason. He was a person of some celebrity in his lifetime; he was not marginalized for being female; he was not scandalous in any way—unless one counts fairly discreet Jacobite sympathies. Why then, if he was a brilliant and important playwright (and I believe that he was both), has he remained so little read, studied, and produced in the twentieth century? And if his work is “important,” what makes it so?
Southerne has been the subject of...
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SOURCE: Jordan, Robert. “Inversion and Ambiguity in The Maid's Last Prayer.” Restoration 15, no. 2 (fall 1991): 99-110.
[In the following essay, Jordan proposes that The Maid's Last Prayer's “structural inconclusiveness may work as a deliberate image of its society's own inconsistencies and confusions.”]
Since John Harrington Smith's vigorous advocacy in 1948, the reputation of Thomas Southerne's dark comedies, The Wives' Excuse and The Maid's Last Prayer, has risen spectacularly. These plays, which could be dismissed as worthless fifty years ago, are now frequently listed among the major comedies of their half century.1 It is notable, however, that detailed study has been concentrated on The Wives' Excuse. This is unfortunate, since The Maid's Last Prayer is a work of considerable complexity, and if efforts to revalue it are to be justified, further detailed analysis is called for. The present article is offered as a contribution to that process of revaluation and analysis.
The critical preoccupation with The Wives' Excuse is easy to understand. The play's sympathetic study of vulnerable women in a society of predatory males makes it a key example of the late Restoration interest in the plight of women and the subject of marriage, and these are topics of obvious appeal in our own age. In addition, the play has an...
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SOURCE: Vermillion, Mary. “Buried Heroism: Critiques of Female Authorship in Southerne's Adaptation of Oroonoko.” Restoration 16, no. 1 (fall 1992): 28-37.
[In the following essay, Vermillion argues that Southerne's stage adaptation of Aphra Behn's novel Oroonoko betrays his antagonism toward female writers.]
While critics have long compared Thomas Southerne's 1695 play, Oroonoko, to its source, Aphra Behn's 1688 novel of the same name, no one has examined the problematics of a male playwright borrowing from England's first professional woman writer.1. This borrowing occurred during the period when women as a group first began openly writing for money, most of them, including Behn, entering the literary market as dramatists.2 Southerne's attitude toward this emerging female authorship can be discerned by examining his most substantial revision of Behn's novel, an addition of a comic subplot in which two desperate English women hunt for husbands in Surinam. Recent commentators have suggested that this subplot allows Southerne to parallel the commodification of women and slaves,3 but Julia A. Rich maintains that Southerne's unsympathetic portrayal of his comic women precludes such a parallel. She argues that Southerne contrasts the heroic tone of his main plot with the “base” tone of his comic plot in order to demonstrate “the results of the...
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SOURCE: Drougge, Helga. “Love, Death, and Mrs. Barry in Thomas Southerne's Plays.” Comparative Drama 27, no. 4 (winter 1993-94): 408-25.
[In the following essay, Drougge discusses the complex depiction of comic heroines in six of Southerne's plays.]
Thomas Southerne's tragedies were once held in great esteem. Sophocles might have profited if he could have heard the “moving Moan” of Isabella in The Fatal Marriage, wrote Elijah Fenton in 1711:
If Envy cou'd permit, he'd sure agree To write by Nature were to Copy Thee: So full, so fair thy Images are shown, He by Thy Pencil might improve his own.(1)
A modified version of this view lasted a long time: Southerne's The Fatal Marriage: Or, The Innocent Adultery (1694) and Oroonoko: Or, The Royal Slave (1695) remained repertory plays into the nineteenth century.2 On the other hand, Fenton's panegyric epistle makes no mention of Southerne's comedies Sir Anthony Love: Or, The Rambling Lady (1690), The Wives' Excuse: Or, Cuckolds Make Themselves (1691 or 1692), and The Maid's Last Prayer: Or, Any Rather than Fail (1693). These comedies at present enjoy respectful critical attention, especially The Wives' Excuse,3 but in 1711 it was no more than tactful to ignore them. They had never been revived after their initial runs, and, although Southerne included...
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SOURCE: Thompson, Peggy J. “Facing the Void in The Wives' Excuse; or, Characters Make Themselves.” Papers on Language and Literature 31, no. 1 (winter 1995): 78-98.
[In the following essay, Thompson argues that The Wives' Excuse has gone unappreciated, both in its own day and by modern critics, because the play delivers something completely different than what is expected of it.]
Despite expectations raised by the subtitle of The Wives' Excuse; or, Cuckolds Make Themselves, no cuckolding takes place in this 1691 play by Thomas Southerne.1 Mrs. Friendall ultimately rejects an affair with the seductive Lovemore and remains faithful to her foolish, philandering husband, thus disappointing her would-be lover and his rakish friends, as well, apparently, as the original theater audience. In the voice of a spark who “struts, and cocks” and claims Mrs. Friendall “should not ha' got clear of me so soon” (ll. 32-33), Southerne's epilogue anticipates and parodies the audience's disappointment. The playwright's attempt to defuse his critics was not successful, however, and neither was the play on stage. The Wives' Excuse survived just one performance. Two months later, when the author had the play published, he affixed to it a motto by Cicero: Nihil est his, qui placere volunt, tam adversarium, quam expectatio. (Nothing is to them, who wish to please, so...
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Jordan, Robert and Love, Harold, eds. The Works of Thomas Southerne, 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.
Collection of Southerne's works that includes a biography of the dramatist as well as introductory notes to his plays.
Drougge, Helga. “‘We'll learn that of the Men’: Female Sexuality in Southerne's Comedies.” Studies in English Literature 33 (summer 1993): 545-63.
Expores themes of female sexuality in three of Southerne's plays: Sir Anthony Love, The Wives' Excuse, and The Maid's Last Prayer.
Kaul, Suvir. “Reading Literary Symptoms: Colonial Pathologies and the Oroonoko Fictions of Behn, Southerne, and Hawkesworth.” Eighteenth-Century Life 18 (November 1994): 80-96.
Compares thematic variations in Aphra Behn's, John Hawkesworth's, and Southerne's versions of the story of Oroonoko.
Jordan, Robert. “Thomas Southerne, Agent.” Notes and Queries 26, no. 1 (February 1979): 14-21.
Details Southerne's little-known career as a regimental agent, a position Southerne probably used illegally to enhance his own personal fortune.
MacDonald, Joyce Green. “Race, Woman, and the Sentimental in Thomas Southerne's Oroonoko.” Criticism XL, no. 4 (fall...
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