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THOMAS OTWAY (1651-1685)

THOMAS OTWAY, the rival of Dryden, was the son of the Rev. Humphrey Otway, rector of Woolbeding; and was born at Trotten in West Sussex, in 1651. He was educated at Winchester College and at Christ Church, Oxford, which he quitted without a degree at the age of eighteen. We may adopt the words of Samuel Johnson, in his Lives of the Poets: "Of Thomas Otway, one of the first names in the English drama, little is known; nor is there any part of that little which his biographer can take pleasure in relating." After trying the stage as an actor, he produced his play of Alcibiades at the age of 24, and devoted himself to the drama, becoming a favourite companion of dissolute wits, at the time when, as Johnson says, "men of wit received no favours from the great but to share their riots." He received some assistance from the Earl of Plymouth, a natural son of Charles II, from whom he obtained a cornetcy in a regiment of cavalry. His short life was passed amidst squalid poverty and cruel disappointments. He died at the age of 34, in an obscure house in Tower-Hill, where he was said to be hiding from his creditors--according to tradition, choked with the bread which charity had given to satisfy his hunger.

His principal dramas are Venice Preserved (1682), and an earlier work, the Orphan (1680). Otway has now lost all credit, and would hardly be remembered at all but for the extreme sterility and affectation of English drama between the age of Shakespeare and that of Goldsmith. However--Dryden, so greatly superior to Otway in poetic resource, and Congreve so superior in wit, have neither of them pictures of such exquisite tenderness as a few of Otway's best, such as in the characters of Monimia and Belvidera. It has been said that "the love-scenes between Jaffier and Belvidera are unparalleled by anything in our later drama." Taine thinks that he belongs by force of imagination to the dramatists of the 16the century, and he reminds us of Ford and Webster. Venice Preserved, however tedious and overstrained to us now, kept the stage for 100 years. "It was more frequently represented," says Hallam, "than any tragedy after those of Shakespeare." "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" (Johnson). In this he shows some of the quality of Metastasio and of Richardson, enough to redeem from oblivion his pitiful life and much else of coarse and stupid work.

This article was originally published in The New Calendar of Great Men. Ed. Frederic Harrison. London: MacMillan & Co., 1920.


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