Otway, Thomas

, one of the first names in the English drama, was born at Trottin in Sussex, March 3, 1651— 2, the son of the rev. Humphrey Otway, rector of Woolbeding. From Winchester-school, where he was educated, he was entered, in 1669, a commoner of Christ-church, but left the university without a degree, whether for want of money, or from impatience of academical restraint, or mere eagerness to mingle with the world, is not known. The anonymous writer of his life in one of the editions of | His works, reports that he removed from Oxford to St. John’s-college, Cambridge, the probability of which rests only on a copy of verses sent to him by Duke the poet, who was his intimate friend. At Cambridge, however, he could not have remained long, if ever he paid more than a visit to it, for he appeared in London in 1672 in the character of the king in Mrs. Behn’s “Forced Marriage,” and found himself unable to gain any reputation on the stage. If he ever went to Cambridge, it must have been after this period, for Duke himself was not entered of Trinity-college until 1675.

Dr. Johnson has endeavoured to account for his failure on the stage with more precision than perhaps was necessary, as the circumstance is far from being uncommon. This kind of inability, says that eminent critic, he shared with Shakspeare and Jonson, as he shared likewise some of their excellences. It seems reasonable to expect that a great dramatic poet should without difficulty become a great actor that he who can feel, could express that he who can excite passion, should exhibit with great readiness its external modes but since experience has fully proved, that of those powers, whatever be their affinity, one may be possessed in a great degree by him who has very little of the other; it must be allowed that they depend upon different faculties, or on different use of the same faculty that the actor must have a pliancy of mien, a flexibility of countenance, and a variety of tones, which the poet may be easily supposed to want; or that the attention of the poet and the player have been differently employed; the one has been considering thought, and the other action; one has watched the heart, and the other contemplated the face.

But, though Otway could not gain much notice as a player, he felt in himself such powers as might qualify him for a dramatic author; and his first attempt was on the higher species of the art. His tragedy of “Alcibiades” was acted at the Theatre-royal in 1675. The story is taken from Cornelius Nepos and Plutarch, but he departs from genuine history to accommodate the character of his hero to the effect he wished to produce. With Otway, Alcibiades chooses rather to lose his life than injure his defender king Agis, or abuse his bed. His “Don Carlos,” another tragedy in heroic verse, was performed in 1676. | It is taken from a novel of the same name by S. Real, and from the Spanish chronicles in the life of Philip II.

It appears from a letter of Mr. Booth’s to Aaron Hill, that “Don Carlos” succeeded much better than either “Venice Preserved,” or “The Orphan,” and was infinitely more applauded and followed for many years. It is even asserted that it was played for thirty nights together; but this report, as Dr. Johnson observes, may be reasonably doubted, as so long a continuance of one play upon the stage is a very wide deviation from the practice of that time when the ardour for theatrical entertainments was not yet diffused through the whole people, and the audience, consisting nearly of the same persons, could be drawn together only by variety. This seems plausible, and Downes in his “Roscius Anglicanus,” informs us that it was acted only ten successive days, but adds that “it got more money than any preceding tragedy,” a circumstance alluded to by Rochester in the “Session of the Poets.

"Tom Otway came next, Tom Shadwell’s dear Zany,

And swears, for heroics, he writes best of any:

Don Carlos his pockets so amply had fill’d,

That his mange was quite cur‘d, and his lice were all kill’d."

These lines, Dr. Johnson thinks, somewhat improbably, were written on Otway after he returned from Flanders, and lived in great indigence; and therefore he censures Rochester for his “merciless insolence.

In 1677 he produced “Titus and Berenice,” a translation, with some alterations from Racine, in three acts, and written in rhyme, and “The Cheats of Scapin,” a farce partly from Moliere, which were acted together with considerable success. The custom of annexing farces to plays was about this time introduced. These were followed in ]678, by his comedy of “Friendship in Fashion,‘ 7 which bad some success, but we know not whether the author was at this time in London. It is certain that in 1677, he went abroad; a circumstance which is thus introduced by Dr. Johnson:” Want of morals, or of decency, did not in those days exclude any man from the company of the wealthy and the gay, if he brought with him any powers of entertainment; and Otway is said to have been at this time a favourite companion of the dissolute wits. But as he who desires no virtue in his companion has no virtue in himself, those whom Otway frequented had no purpose of doing more for him than to pay his reckoning. They | desired only to drink and laugh: their fondness was without benevolence, and their familiarity without friendship. Men of wit, says one of Otway’s biographers, received at that time no favour from the great but to share their riots “irom which they were dismissed again to their own narrovy circumstances. Thus they languished in poverty without the support of eminence.

Some exception, however, must be made. The earl of Plymouth, one of king Charles’s natural sons, procured for him a cornet’s commission in some troops then (in 1677) sent into Flanders. But Otway did not prosper in his military character: for he soon left his commission behind him, whatever was the reason, and came back to London, where he resumed his dramatic labours. His next tragedy, “Caius Marius,” was acted in 1680, and had some success, probably from the author’s availing himself of the clamour about the popish plot, and artfully applying the dissentions of Marius and Scylla to the factious in the reign of Charles II. But a higher degree of fame awaited him from his admirable tragedy, “The Orphan,” which appeared the same year, “one of the few pieces,” says Dr. Johnson, “that keep possession of the stage, and has pleased for almost (more than) a century, through all the vicissitudes of dramatic fashion. Of this play nothing new can easily be said. It is a domestic tragedy drawn from middle life. Its whole power is upon the affections; for it is not written with much comprehension of thought, or elegance of expression.” On a tragedy that has produced such effects for so great a length of time, minute criticism would be but idly employed. In this, too, some political allusions have been conjectured, but to us they appear too obscure for application, and were they otherwise, cannot now be felt.

The Soldier’s Fortune,“and its second part” The Atheist,“produced in 1681 and 1684, were both successful, but better suited to the manners of that age than to those of the present. The incidents and characters in both may be traced to other plays, and neither is worthy of the talents which, in 1682, gave to the theatreVenice Preserved,’ 1 a tragedy, whose permanent fame, like that of the Orphan, renders it only necessary to say that his powers of poetry and of language were now exerted with greater energy. The striking passages are in every mouth; and the public seems to judge rightly of the faults and excellences of this play, that it is the work of a man not | attentive to decency, nor zealous for virtue; but of one who conceived forcibly, and drew originally, by consulting nature in his own breast.

Together with those plays he wrote the poems which were admitted in Dr. Johnson’s series of the Poets; and he translated from the French the “History of the Triumvirate.

All this was performed before he was thirty-four years old; for he died April 14, 1685, “in a manner,” says Dr. Johnson, “which I am unwilling to mention. Having been compelled by his necessities to contract debts, and hunted, as is supposed, by the terriers of the law, he retired to a public-house (the Bull, according to Anthony Wooo 1 ), on Tower-hill, where he is said to have died of want; or, as it is related by one of his biographers^ by swallowing, after a long fast, a piece of bread which charity had supplied. He went out, as is reported, almost naked in the rage of hunger, and, finding a gentleman in a neighbouring coffee-house, asked him for a shilling. The gentleman gave him a guinea; and Otway going away bought a roll, and was choaked with the first mouthfuL All this, I hope, is not true; and there is this ground of better hope, that Pope, who lived near enough to be well informed, relates in Spence’s Memorials, that he died of a fever caught by violent pursuit of a thief that had robbed one of his friends. But that indigence, and its concomitants, sorrow and despondency, pressed hard upon him, has never been denied, whatever immediate cause might bring him to the grave.

Pope’s account of Otway’s death was first related by Dr. Warton in the notes to his “Essay on Pope,” and in the. following words: “Otway had an intimate friend who was murdered (not robbed) in the street. One may guess at his sorrow, who has so feelingly described true affection in his * Venice Preserved.' He pursued the murderer on foot, who fled to France, as far as Dover, where he was seized with a fever, occasioned by the fatigue, which afterwards carried him to his grave in London.” The robber, we find, is by this account a murderer, and as Dr. Warton was alt ways more correct as to minor facts than Dr. Johnson, it is probable that he relates the story as he heard it, but it is to be traced to Spence, who was informed by Dennis, the critic, that “Otway had a friend, one Blakiston, who was shot; the murderer fled towards Dover, and Otway | pursued him. In his return he drank water, when violently heated, and so got the fever which was the death of him.” And Dennis in the Preface to his “Observations on Pope’s translation of Homer,1717, 8vo, says, “Otway died in an alehouse,” which is not inconsistent with the preceding account, as he generally lived in one; but whether the story of the guinea and the loaf can be introduced with any probability to heighten the poet’s distress, we do not pretend to determine. It would not perhaps be very wrong to conjecture that both accounts might be true, but his contemporaries have left us no precise documents. Dr. Johnson has remarked that Otway appears by some of his verses to have been a zealous loyalist, and had what was in those times the common reward of loyalty, he lived and died neglected.

In one of the papers of Dr. Goldsmith’s “Bee,” we have an additional particular respecting Otway’s death, not wholly uninteresting. It is said that when he died he had about him the copy of a tragedy, which he had sold for a trifle to Bentley the bookseller; and this fact is confirmed by the following advertisement, which appeared in L’Estrange’s Observator for November 27, 1686, and for December 4. “Whereas Mr. Thomas Otway some time before his death, made four Acts of a Play, whoever can give notice in whose hands the copy lies, either to Mr. Thomas Betterton, or to Mr. William Smith, at the Theatre Royal, shall be well rewarded for his pains.” It does not appear that this play was ever discovered, but in 1719 a tragedy was printed, entitled “Heroic Friendship,” and attributed to him without any foundation. It never, however, was acted, or deserved to be acted.

When Otway first began to rise into reputation, Dryden spoke slightingly of his performances, but afterwards acknowledged their merit, though perhaps somewhat coldly. In his preface to Du Fresnoy, he says, “To express the passions which are seated in the heart by outward signs, is one great precept of the painter’s, and very difficult to perform. In poetry the very same passions and motions of the mind are to be expressed; and in this consists the principal difficulty, as well as the excellency of that art. This (says Du Fresnpy) is the gift of Jupiter; and to speak in the -ame heathen language, we call it the gift of our Apollo, not to be obtained by pains or study, if we are not born to it. For the motions which are studied, are never | so natural as those which break out in the height of a real passion. Mr. Otway possessed this part as thoroughly as any of the ancients and moderns. I will not defend every thing in his * Venice Preserved;‘ but I must bear this testimony’to his memory, that the passions are truly touched in it, though perhaps there is somewhat to be desired both in the grounds of them, and in the height and elegance of expression. But nature is there, which is the greatest beauty.” This is high praise from Dryden, who could not but be conscious that Otway excelled him in the pathetic. 1


Life by Dr. Johnson. —Cibber's Lives. Malone’s Dryden. Spence’i Anecdotes, ms. Life prefixed to th last edition of his Works, 2 vols. 8vo.