Thomas Otway 1652-1685
English playwright and poet.
Thomas Otway is widely considered one of the greatest English playwrights of the Restoration era. During his short life he wrote ten plays: four comedies and six tragedies. His tragedies The Orphan (1680) and Venice Preserv'd (1682) have earned Otway acclaim as England's greatest tragedian next to William Shakespeare. Despite the high regard these two plays command, critics continue to debate what contemporary events they make allusions to and are divided on what exactly are their major themes. However, nearly all agree that they express the nihilistic disillusionment and pessimism that are hallmarks of Otway's dramas. Even Otway's comedies are dark works, depicting deeply flawed, weak, and deceitful characters who never learn to rise above their worst instincts. Few, if any, of Otway's dramas offer audiences any final catharsis; typically they end in chaos and death, the universe portrayed as absurd and offering no hope for redemption. This unswerving cynicism is the focus of most critical analyses of Otway's work, most often by scholars who seek to understand it in relation to Otway's unhappy life and the politically tumultuous times in which he lived.
Otway was born in Milland, Sussex, on March 3, 1652. His father was an Anglican priest and rector. Most of the rest of Otway's early biography remains a matter of conjecture, much of it pieced together from clues in Otway's letters and the autobiographical poem, The Poet's Complaint of his Muse (1680). His father probably remarried soon after Otway's mother's death. Otway attended schools at Winchester and at Christ Church, Oxford, although he was forced to leave Oxford before he received his degree because of financial difficulties resulting from his father's death in 1671. For reasons that remain unclear, Otway's father left his entire inheritance to Otway's stepmother and half-sister; biographers usually point to this as one of the key reasons Otway's plays so often depict pathetic orphans and tyrannical, treacherous fathers. Despite the popular success of many of Otway's dramatic productions, the death of his father precipitated what for Otway would be a lifetime of poverty.
After leaving Oxford, Otway moved to London and began his stage life. He first worked as an actor before starting to write his own plays for the Dorset Garden Theatre. For a brief period Otway was patronized by John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, but this relationship soon fell apart when Otway fell in love with Rochester's mistress, Elizabeth Barry, to whom Otway had given the heroine's role in his first play, Alcibiades (1675). Barry spurned Otway's advances, and the resulting personal and artistic frustrations would later become material for The Poet's Complaint of his Muse. Moreover, the loss of Rochester's financial assistance led Otway to dedicate the rest of his plays to a number of British royalty and illustrious figures in hopes of finding a new patron. None of these efforts proved successful, so in 1678 Otway joined the military, where, despite his rank of lieutenant, he received little of the salary he had been promised. He returned to theater life in London, where despite the popular success of several of his comedies and tragedies, he was unable to gain financial stability or independence. His most reliable source of income during this period came from tutoring Charles Beauclark, the illegitimate son of Charles II. In 1680 Otway received an honorary master's degree from Cambridge, although the circumstances leading to this honor remain unknown. In 1685 Otway died in a Tower Hill tavern. He was almost certainly debt-ridden, and some early biographies claim that he starved to death or choked on a piece of bread he had begged on the street.
Major Dramatic Works
Otway's first play, Alcibiades, is styled as a Greek tragedy. The title character is a virtual orphan: dispossessed of his power in Athens by an uprising, he finds tenuous refuge in his adopted country, Sparta, the enemy of his homeland. Revenge, honor, insanity, and murder—both intended and accidental—are the main themes in the play, and Alcibiades, buffeted by violence and treachery, finally commits suicide. Otway's next play, Don Carlos (1676) is also a tragedy featuring an orphan-like figure as the protagonist. Don Carlos, a prince, is betrothed to a princess, yet for political reasons she is instead married to Don Carlos's father, the king of Spain. The conflict of the play revolves around the love between the prince and the new queen and the struggle between the patriarchal power of the king and the discontent and jealousy of his son. The play is fraught with intrigue and violence, and ends with Don Carlos and the queen dying in each other's arms. Don Carlos was immediately successful upon its in initial staging and was continually performed throughout the eighteenth century. Otway's first comedy was the darkly humourous Friendship in Fashion (1678), a scathing reproach of false friends. The play focuses on illicit affairs, cuckolding, and sexual conquest as social power; yet in the midst of these dishonest activities, tender and true love does emerge. Caius Marius (1679), a tragedy that borrows scenes from several Shakespeare plays, including Romeo and Juliet and King Lear, is viewed as one of Otway's most political plays. Written at the time of the so-called Popish Plot (a supposed plot to return Protestant England to Catholicism), Caius Marius presents both Tory and Whig political factions in a negative light.
It is for Venice Preserv'd and, to a lesser degree, The Orphan, two tragedies written toward the end of his career, that Otway is principally remembered. As with many of Otway's other tragedies, The Orphan tells a tale of deceit that ends in unrelenting tragedy. The twin brothers Polydore and Castalio both fall in love with Monimia, an orphan who has been raised in their household. Eventually Castalio convinces Monimia to marry him, a secret he keeps from his brother. On the night of the clandestine marriage, Polydore goes to Monimia's room, pretending to be Castalio, and ravishes her. Only after the liaison does Polydore learn of the marriage, and, ashamed of his actions, challenges his brother to a duel he intends to lose. Polydore dies, and Monimia ends her own life by drinking poison. Venice Preserv'd, as the title suggests, takes place in Venice, where rebels are hatching a plan to overthrow the senate. Jaffier, the play's most likable character, has married Belvidera, the disinherited daughter of an Italian senator. His resentment toward his father-in-law causes Jaffier to support the conspirators, but his wife's pleas to save her father from death leads Jaffier to expose the impending rebellion in exchange for the senate's promise to spare the lives of the captured plotters. The senators go back on their promise and execute Jaffier's comrades. The play concludes when Jaffier stabs to death his best friend, Pierre, commits suicide, and the grieving Belvidera goes mad.
The critical assessment of Otway's work varies greatly. His comedies are usually regarded as inferior, although there has been a handful of scholars who argue that individual works, especially Friendship in Fashion and The Souldiers Fortune (1681), deserve greater respect and attention. In the last fifty years, scholarship has focused almost exclusively on The Orphan and Venice Preserv'd, the latter widely hailed as Otway's masterpiece. The popularity of these two works made them mainstays of the English stage until the early nineteenth century, and each was revived in the 1990s. Although few have doubted their enduring qualities, they have received some scathing assessments. Samuel Johnson declared that The Orphan's design was incomprehensible and that the speech was too often inelegant, complaints that have resurfaced in modern analyses by scholars who, for example, are confused about the reasons why Castalio would keep his engagement to Monimia a secret. Similarly, the plot and characters of Venice Preserv'd are occasionally condemned as inept or incoherent, although most modern scholars have rejected these claims, arguing that Otway's bleak vision of the world is well crafted and executed. Most would agree, however, that Otway offers his audiences no easy answers or clear messages and, furthermore, that there are many elements in both plays that can lead to multiple interpretations.
Most critical commentary on Otway's The Orphan and Venice Preserv'd is less about their intrinsic merits than about their major themes. One line of inquiry commonly associates both works with Otway's political beliefs, and many scholars have tried to link scenes and characters from each to contemporary events. A contrary view tends to minimize the significance of politics in Otway's plays. In the case of The Orphan, it is not uncommon to find scholars who argue that political concerns are much less important to the play's development than Otway's depiction of human relationships, which like so much of Otway's work, is characterized by betrayal and deceit. Critical divisions are even more pronounced in the case of Venice Preserv'd. Many critics argue that the play should be read as Otway's disgust, during the Exclusion Crisis, with the Whig party's attempts to enact legislation that would prohibit the Catholic James from succeeding his brother, Charles II, as King of England. Others have countered this position, arguing that although Otway was decidedly against the Whigs, his characters suggest that he was not entirely enamored of the Tories either. A handful of scholars have suggested that the play is essentially apolitical and that domestic breakdown defines Otway's thematic objectives. Still others find in it a masterful exposition of Otway's conviction that the world is not rational, that humanity is unable to control its worst impulses, and that life is a meaningless chaos. Throughout these many competing interpretations, critics agree that Venice Preserv'd represents the deepest level of dramatic tragedy, since Otway leaves his audience with no hope of resolving or even mitigating this dark vision of humanity and the universe.