Thomas Otway Biography


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Thomas Otway was born March 3, 1652, in Trotton, Sussex, the son of Humphrey Otway, an Anglican clergyman of distinguished family and of Royalist sympathies, and Elizabeth Otway, of whom little is known. Otway briefly attended Winchester College before entering Oxford University in May, 1669; he left the university in 1671 without taking a degree, perhaps because of the death of his father. Sometime after leaving Oxford, Otway made his way to London, where, at the Duke’s Theatre, he was given a role in Aphra Behn’s play The Forced Marriage: Or, The Jealous Bridegroom (pr. 1670). His performance was a failure; nevertheless, he may for a time have found some marginal employment as an actor. In any event, by 1675, the year in which his first play, Alcibiades, was presented at Dorset Garden, he was devoting himself to the financially insecure profession of playwriting. Despite some early theatrical success (notably the extremely popular Don Carlos, Prince of Spain), the uncertainty of his fortunes and of patronage by members of the royal court probably led to his decision to join the English forces in Flanders in 1678. Even though Otway received a commission, his military career was brief: The army was recalled from Flanders early in 1679 and disbanded in June. This expedition having improved his fortunes not at all, Otway returned to writing, and thereupon followed his most concentrated period of literary production. The plays The History and Fall of Caius Marius, The Orphan, and The Soldier’s Fortune, and the poem The Poet’s Complaint of His Muse, were either first produced or first published within the year. He was granted a master of arts degree by St. John’s College, Cambridge University, in 1680, and, at about this time, he may have been tutor to one of Charles II’s illegitimate children by Nell Gwyn. Nevertheless, Otway seems to have slipped into a state of poverty that the production of his later plays, Venice Preserved and The Atheist, did little to relieve. Although the circumstances of Otway’s death in London on April 14, 1685, became the stuff of legend, they remain uncertain.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Although he was the son of a poor Anglican curate, Thomas Otway (AHT-way) was educated at Winchester School and Oxford University. He left the university in 1671, however, before receiving a degree, perhaps because of the death of his father. What he did between leaving the university and the production in 1675 of his first play, the bombastic Alcibiades, is unknown. The following year a second play, a tragedy in heroic couplets titled Don Carlos, was produced, an adaptation of César Vichard St. Réal’s French tragedy of the same title. Don Carlos, Prince of Spain proved successful on the stage and made Otway’s reputation as a leading playwright of the time. He wrote a number of other tragedies and comedies adapted from the French drama of Molière and Jean Racine. His success brought him acquaintance and friendship with the leading figures of the stage and court.

After he was rejected by an actress, Mrs. Barry, for whom he bore a lifelong love, Otway in 1678 joined the English army and received a commission as ensign within a short time. He returned to London the following year and resumed his writing. He was granted a master of arts degree by St. John’s College, Cambridge University, in 1680. In The Soldier’s Fortune, a successful original comedy in which he drew on his military experience, he turned to blank verse. Venice Preserved: Or, A Plot Discovered, which is generally considered his greatest play, followed in 1682. One more play, The Atheist, was produced in 1684. Although successful on the stage and in print, Otway’s works were insufficient to produce an income for him, and his life was beset by financial difficulties. He was an impetuous man and reputedly fought several duels successfully. He died in questionable circumstances. Several accounts, none verified, have been offered as to the manner of his death in his thirty-fourth year, but the most common is that he died in a shop near the sponging house in which he was then living. In his plays Otway illustrated the tendency of the drama of the Restoration period to move away from heroic bombast to sentimentality and pathos.