Samuel Johnson


Essay by Samuel Johnson

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.

He was born at Trottin, in Sussex, March 3, 1651, the son of Mr. Humphry 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.

It seems likely that he was in hope of being busy and conspicuous; for he went to London, and commenced player; but found himself unable to gain any reputation on the stage[75].

This kind of inability he shared with Shakespeare and Jonson, as he shared likewise some of their excellencies. It seems reasonable to expect that a great dramatick poet should, without difficulty, become a great actor; that he who can feel, should 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 has been differently employed; the one has been considering thought, and the other action; one has watched the heart, and the other contemplated the face.

Though he could not gain much notice as a player, he felt in himself such powers as might qualify for a dramatick author; and, in 1675, his twenty-fifth year, produced Alcibiades, a tragedy; whether from the Alcibiade of Palaprat, I have not means to inquire. Langbaine, the great detecter of plagiarism, is silent.

In 1677, he published Titus and Berenice, translated from Rapin, with the Cheats of Scapin, from Molière; and, in 1678, Friendship in Fashion, a comedy, which, whatever might be its first reception, was, upon its revival at Drury lane, in 1749, hissed off the stage for immorality and obscenity.

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; from which they were dismissed again to their own narrow 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 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 in extreme indigence, which Rochester mentions with merciless insolence, in the Session of the Poets:

  Tom Otway came next, Tom Shadwell's dear zany,
  And swears for heroicks 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:
  But Apollo had seen his face on the stage,
  And prudently did not think fit to engage
  The scum of a playhouse, for the prop of an age.

Don Carlos, from which he is represented as having received so much benefit, was played in 1675. It appears, by the lampoon, to have had great success, and is said to have been played thirty nights together. This, however, it is reasonable to doubt[76], 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.

The Orphan was exhibited in 1680. This is one of the few plays that keep possession of the stage, and has pleased for almost a century, through all the vicissitudes of dramatick fashion. Of this play nothing new can easily be said. It is a domestick 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. But if the heart is interested, many other beauties may be wanting, yet not be missed.

The same year produced the History and Fall of Caius Marius; much of which is borrowed from the Romeo and Juliet of Shakespeare.

In 1683[77] was published the first, and next year[78] the second, parts of the Soldier's Fortune, two comedies now forgotten; and, in 1685[79] his last and greatest dramatick work, Venice Preserved, a tragedy, which still continues to be one of the favourites of the publick, notwithstanding the want of morality in the original design, and the despicable scenes of vile comedy with which he has diversified his tragick action[80]. By comparing this with his Orphan, it will appear that his images were by time become stronger, and his language more energetick. The striking passages are in every mouth; and the publick seems to judge rightly of the faults and excellencies 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 are in the present collection, and 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 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 publick house 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 choked 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.

Of the poems which the present collection admits, the longest is the Poet's Complaint of his Muse, part of which I do not understand; and in that which is less obscure, I find little to commend. The language is often gross, and the numbers are harsh. Otway had not much cultivated versification, nor much replenished his mind with general knowledge. His principal power was in moving the passions, to which Dryden[81], in his latter years, left an illustrious testimony. He appears, by some of his verses, to have been a zealous royalist, and had what was in those times the common reward of loyalty; he lived and died neglected.

[Footnote 75: In Roscius Anglicanus, by Downes, the prompter, p. 34, we learn, that it was the character of the king in Mrs. Behn's Forced Marriage, or the Jealous Bridegroom, which Mr. Otway attempted to perform, and failed in. This event appears to have happened in the year 1672. R.]

[Footnote 76: This doubt is, indeed, very reasonable. I know not where it is said that Don Carlos was acted thirty nights together. Wherever it is said, it is untrue. Downes, who is perfectly good authority on this point, informs us, that it was performed ten days successively. M.]

[Footnote 77: 1681.]

[Footnote 78: 1684.]

[Footnote 79: 1682.]

[Footnote 80: The "despicable scenes of vile comedy" can be no bar to its being a favourite of the publick, as they are always omitted in the representation. J.B.]

[Footnote 81: In his preface to Fresnoy's Art of Painting. Dr.J.]