Southern, Thomas

, an English dramatic writer, who has been very improperly admitted by Wood into the “Athenae Oxonienses,” and grossly misrepresented in every particular, was born at Dublin in 1659, and was | admitted a student of Trinity college, March 30, 1676, where Dr. Whitenhall was his tutor. In his eighteenth year, he quitted Ireland, and removed to the Middle-Temple, London, where he devoted himself to play-writing and poetry, instead of law. His “Persian Prince, or Loyal Brother,” in 1682, was introduced at a time when the Tory interest was triumphant in England; and the character of the Loyal Brother was no doubt intended to compliment James duke of York, who afterwards rewarded him. After his accession to the throne, Southern went into the army, and served as ensign, upon the duke of Monmouth’s landing, in earl Ferrers’s regiment, before the duke of Berwick had it. This affair being over, he retired to his studies; and wrote several plays, from which he is supposed to have drawn a very handsome subsistence. In the preface to his tragedy called “The Spartan Dame,” he acknowledges, that he received from the booksellers as a price for this play 150l. which was thought in 1721, the time of its being published, very extraordinary. He was the first who raised the advantage of play-writing to a second and third night; which Pope mentions in these lines:

———Tom whom heav’n sent down to raise

The price of prologues and of plays.

Verses to Southern, 1742.

The reputation which Dryden gained by the many prologues he wrote, made the players always solicitous to have one of his, as being sure to be well received by the public. Dryden’s price for a prologue had usually been four guineas, with which sum Southern once presentee; him when Dryden, returning the money, said, “Young man, this is too little, I must have six guineas.” Southern answered, that four had been his usual price: “Yes,” says Dryden, “it has been so, but the players have hitherto had my labours too cheap; for the future I must have six guineas.” Southern also was industrious to draw all imaginable profits from his poetical labours. Dryden once took occasion to ask him, how much he got by one of his plays? Southern said, after owning himself ashamed to tell him, 7OO/.; which astonished Dryden, as it was more by 6OO/, than he himself had ever got by his most successful plays. But it appears that Southern was not beneath the arts of solicitation, and often sold his tickets at a very high price, by making applications to persons of quality and distinction; a degree of servility, | which Dryden might justly think below the dignity of a poet, and more in the character of an under-player. Dryden entertained a high opinion of Southern’s abilities; and prefixed a copy of verses to a comedy of his, called “The Wife’s Excuse,” acted in 1692. The night that Southern’s “Innocent Adultery” was first acted, which has been esteemed by some the most adocting play in any language, a gentlemnu took occasion to ask Dryden, “what was his opinion of Southern’s genius?” who replied, “that he thought him such another poet as Otway.” Such indeed was Dry den’s opinion of his talents, that being unable to finish his “Cieomenes,” he consigned it to the care of Southern, who wrote one half of the fifth act of that tragedy, and was with reason highly flattered by this mark of the author’s confidence and esteem. Of all Southern’s plays, ten in number, the most finished is “Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave:” which is built upon a real fact, related by Mrs. Beha in a novel. Besides the tender and delicate strokes of passion in this play, there are many shining and manly sentiments; and some have gone so far beyond the truth as to say, that the most celebrated even of Shakspeare’s plays cannot furnish so many striking thoughts, and such a glow of animated poetry. Southern died May 26, 1746, aged eighty-five. He lived the last ten years of his life in Tothill street, Westminster, and attended the abbey service very constantly; being particularly fond of church music. He is said to have died the oldest and the richest of his dramatic brethren. Oldys, in his ms additions to Gildon’s continuation of Langbaine, says, that he remembered Mr. Southern “a grave and venerable old gentleman. He lived near Covent-garden, and used often to frequent the evening prayers there, always neat and decently dressed, commonly in black, with his silver sword and silver locks; but latterly it seems he resided at Westminster.” The late poet Gray, in a letter to Mr. Walpole, dated from Burnham in Buckinghamshire, in Sept. 1737, has also the following observation concerning this author: “We have old Mr. Southern at a gentleman’s house a little way off, who often comes to see us; he is now seventy-seven years old, and has almost wholly lost his memory; but is as agreeable an old man as can be; at least I persuade myself so when I look at him, and think of Isabella and Oroonoko.” Mr. Mason adds in a note on this passage, that “Mr. Gray always thought highly of his pathetic powers, at the same | time that he blamed his ill taste for mixing them so injudiciously with farce, in order to produce that monstrous species of composition called Tragi-comedy.” Mr. Southern, however, in the latter part of his life, was sensible of the impropriety of blending tragedy and comedy, and used to declare to lord Corke his regret at complying with the licentious taste of the time. His dramatic writings were for the first time completely published by T. Evans, in 3 vols. 12mo. 1

1

Cibber’s Lives. Malone’s Life of Dryden, vol. I. p. 175. Harries Ware. Biog. Dram.