Thomas Otway

(1652-1685 / England)

Biography of Thomas Otway

Thomas Otway (3 March 1652 – 14 April 1685) was an English dramatist of the Restoration period, best known for Venice Preserv'd, or A Plot Discover'd (1682).

In 1675 Thomas Betterton produced, at the Dorset Garden Theatre, Otway's first play, Alcibiades, which was printed in the same year. It is a tragedy, written in heroic verse, saved from absolute failure only by the actors. Elizabeth Barry took the part of Draxilla, and her lover, John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, recommended Otway to the Duke of York (later King James II). He made a great improvement in Don Carlos, Prince of Spain (licensed 15 June 1676). The material for this rhymed tragedy came from the novel of the same name, written in 1672 by the Abbé de Saint-Real, the source from which Friedrich Schiller also drew his tragedy of Don Carlos. In it the two characters familiar throughout his plays make their appearance. Don Carlos is the impetuous, unstable youth, who seems to be drawn from Otway himself, while the queen's part is the gentle pathetic character repeated in his more celebrated heroines, Monimia and Belvidera. It got more money, says John Downes (Roscius Anglicanus, 1708) of this play, than any preceding modern tragedy.

In 1677 Betterton produced two adaptations from the French by Otway, Titus and Berenice (from Racine's Bérénice), and the Cheats of Scapin (from Molière's Fourberies de Scapin). These were printed together, with a dedication to Rochester. In 1678 he produced an original comedy, Friendship in Fashion, which was very successful.

In February 1680, the first of Otway's two tragic masterpieces, The Orphan, or The Unhappy Marriage, was produced at the Dorset Garden, Mrs Barry playing the part of Monimia. Written in blank verse, modelled on that of Shakespeare, its success was due to the tragic pathos, of which Otway was a master, in the characters of Castalio and Monimia. The History and Fall of Caius Marius, produced in the same year, and printed in 1692, is a curious grafting of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet on the story of Marius as related in Plutarch's Lives.

In 1680 Otway also published The Poets Complaint of his Muse, or A Satyr against Libells, in which he retaliated on his literary enemies. An indifferent comedy, The Soldier's Fortune (1681), was followed in February 1682 by Venice Preserv'd, or A Plot Discover'd. The story is founded on the Histoire de la conjuration des Espagnols contre la Venise en 1618, also by the Abbé de Saint-Real, but Otway modified the story considerably. The character of Belvidera is his own, and the leading part in the conspiracy, taken by Bedamor, the Spanish ambassador, is given in the play to the historically insignificant Pierre and Jaffeir. The piece has a political meaning, enforced in the prologue. The Popish Plot was in Otway's mind, and Anthony, 1st earl of Shaftesbury, is caricatured in Antonio. There is an allusion to Shaftesbury in the play's "Prologue", in the following lines:

"Poland, Poland! Had it been thy Lot,

T'have heard in time of this Venetian Plot;

Thou surely chosen hadst one King from thence,

And honour'd them as thou hast England since."

The allusion is to rumours current at the time that Shaftesbury had planned to make himself King of Poland. Because of this, and the silver pipe John Locke had inserted into him to drain an abscess, he was popularly referred to as "Count Tapski".

Venice Preserv'd also contains an allusion to Rochester's famous deathbed conversion, as reported in Gilbert Burnet's Some Passages of the Life and Death of.. Rochester (1680). The conversion was doubted by many, and Otway is obviously sceptical, for when Pierre is on the scaffold, attended by a priest, he is made to say the following to his executioner (Act V, scene ii): "Captain, I'd have hereafter / This fellow write no Lies of my Conversion."

The play won instant success. It was translated into almost every modern European language, and even Dryden said of it: "Nature is there, which is the greatest beauty."

The Orphan and Venice Preserved remained stock pieces on the stage until the 19th century, and the leading actresses of the period played Monimia and Belvidera. One or two prefaces, another weak comedy, The Atheist (1684), and two posthumous pieces, a poem, Windsor Castle (1685), a panegyric of Charles II, and a History of the Triumvirates (1686), translated from the French, complete the list of Otway's works. A tragedy entitled Heroick Friendship was printed in 1686 as Otway's work, but the ascription is unlikely.

The Works of Mr Thomas Otway with some account of his life and writings, published in 1712, was followed by other editions (1757, 1768, 1812). The standard edition is that by T Thornton (1813).

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The Enchantment

I DID but look and love awhile,
   'Twas but for one half-hour;
Then to resist I had no will,
   And now I have no power.

To sigh and wish is all my ease;
   Sighs which do heat impart
Enough to melt the coldest ice,
   Yet cannot warm your heart.

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