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Thomas Otway (3 March 165214 April 1685) was an Englishmarker dramatist of the Restoration period.

He was born at Trotton, near Midhurstmarker, the parish of which his father, Humphrey Otway, was at that time curate. Humphrey later became rector of Woolbeding, a neighbouring parish, where Thomas Otway was brought up. He was educated at Winchester Collegemarker, and in 1669 entered Christ Church, Oxfordmarker, as a commoner, but left the university without a degree in the autumn of 1672. At Oxford he made the acquaintance of Anthony Cary, 5th Viscount Falkland, through whom, he says in the dedication to Caius Marius, he first learned to love books. In Londonmarker he made acquaintance with Aphra Behn, who in 1672 cast him as the old king in her play, Forc'd Marriage, or The Jealous Bridegroom, at the Dorset Garden Theatremarker. However, he had a bad attack of stage fright, and never made a second appearance.

In 1675 Thomas Betterton produced, at the same 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, though its standards of decency were those of the day.

Meanwhile he had fallen in love with Mrs Barry, who played many of the leading parts in his plays. Six letters to her survive, the last of them referring to a broken appointment in the Mall. Mrs Barry seems to have flirted with Otway, but had no intention of permanently offending Rochester. In 1678, driven to desperation by her, Otway obtained a commission through Charles, Earl of Plymouth, a natural son of Charles II, in a regiment serving in the Netherlandsmarker. The English troops were disbanded in 1679, but were left to find their way home as best they could. They were paid with depreciated paper, and Otway arrived in Londonmarker late in the year, ragged and dirty, a circumstance utilized by Rochester in his Sessions of the Poets, which contains a scurrilous attack on his former protégé.

Early in the next year (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 Jaffier. 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. He apparently ceased to struggle against his poverty and misfortunes. The generally accepted story regarding the manner of his death was first given in Theophilus Cibber's Lives of the Poets. He is said to have emerged from his retreat at the Bull on Tower Hillmarker to beg for bread. A passer-by, learning who he was, gave him a guinea, with which Otway hastened to a baker's shop. He ate too hastily, and choked on the first mouthful. Whether this account of his death be true or not, it is certain that he died in the utmost poverty, and was buried on 16 April, 1685 in the churchyard of St. Clement Danesmarker. 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).

Thomas Otway is a possible ancestor of the Americanmarker actor, Devin Neil Oatway .


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