Thomas Southerne Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Thomas Southerne 1660-1746

Irish playwright.

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.