Thomas Otway is a famous playwright in the Restoration age. He was the only son of a Sussex clergyman. He was educated at Christ Church College, Oxford among the boys of the privileged class. At the age of twenty, he came to London and made a very unsuccessful appearance for a single night on the boards of the Duke’s Theatre in one of Mrs. Behn’s pieces. Disappointed, he went to college but could not forget the stage.
He wrote Alcibiades and it was staged with Elizabeth Barry making her debut in theatrical performance in 1675. Otway fell in love with her, but it was not reciprocated. He still wrote for her many of his finest dialogues. Then came a rhymed tragedy, Don Carlos (1676), adaptations of a comedy of Molière as The Cheats of Scapin (1676) and Racine’s tragedy as Titus and Berenice (1677). He also wrote a comedy Friendship in Fashion (1678). Most of his comedies written in the first phase of his life were below the average.
After his return from the Battle of Flanders, he composed dramas worthy of mention:
1. The Soldier’s Fortune (1681), 2. The Atheist (1684).
The Soldier’s Fortune is a comedy. Beaugard and Lady Dunse have been in love for seven years, but during his absence in France, she has been prevailed by her family to marry Sir Durce. Aided by the unpleasant Pander (Jumble), the former lovers conspire to cuckold Durce, duping him into carrying their messages and even felicitating their adulterous liaison unwittingly. This intrigue is offset against the courtship of Sir Jolly’s adopted daughter Sylvia and she literally snares him in a noose, in order to win him over. The play is full of speed but structurally episodic, but not without social sidelights. The Atheist, the sequel to it, appeared in 1684, is a comedy with many intrigue elements. What is striking in the play is that the action is dominated by female characters like Porcia, Lucretia, Sylvia, etc. rather than by their masculine counterparts like Beaugard, Courtive, et. al.
Otway has remarkable tragedies to his credit:
1. The Orphan or the Unhappy Marriage (1680).
2. Venice Preserved, or a Plot Discovered (1682).
These are his best-known and most admired plays, both in blank verse. In 1680, the decline and sudden demise of his rival, the Earl of Rochester, gave a fresh zeal to his life and he started writing with redoubled verve and vigour. His The Orphan marks his return to blank verse, it is the first domestic tragedy, the first in which the royal personages are not given the key role, unlike those in the painful story of the result of love of the same beautiful and chaste girl by two brothers and it is so mortifying that it is not presentable to a public audience. Edmund Gosse has observed, “In this play, we find what had seemed a lost quality in English drama since the Commonwealth tenderness.” Over the character of Monimia, the orphan, probably more tears have been shed than over any other stage heroine.
The Venice Preserved is regarded as the best tragedy of the Restoration Age. Here Otway has employed genuine human passion and achieves unprecedented success. The tragedy is woven around the sullen wrath of Jaffeir and the reasonable sweetness of Belvidera ranks just below, if not equal to, the tragic masterpieces of Shakespeare. It is his sixth and last tragedy. It is set in Venice and is based on an original work by Richard Vischard Jaffeir, wedded to Belvidera, pleads with her father Priuli, a rich Venetian senator, to make peace with him. Priuli raucously refuses; he is outraged because Jaffeir, having saved his daughter’s life, stole her from him and married her secretly. Jaffeir’s friend Pierre and Jaffeir fume over the tyranny of the senate. Antonio, a rich senator, had kidnapped his beloved Aquilia and his property is being confiscated by Priuli. So they make a common cause and decide to take revenge. But the plan fails because of the betrayal of Jaffeir. Pierre is condemned to death. Jaffeir repents, stabs Pierre to ward off a shameful death, and then commits suicide. Belvidera goes off her head and dies. The tragedy is more towards domestic tragedy. It has a topical interest. Antonio is a satire on the Earl of Shaftesbury.
Otway also composed some prologues and epilogues, and a few poems. He died in great destitution-almost a pauper. For the last two tragedies, he will be ranked with the greatest tragic masters of England.
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