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LIFE OF OTWAY, ,
BY DR. 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. Humphrey 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'.
This kind of inability he shared with Shakspeare and Jonson, as he shared likewise some of their excellencies. It seems reasonable to expect, that a great dramatic poet should without difficulty become a great actor ; that he who can feel, could 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 have 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 dramatic author ; and, in 1675, his twenty-fifth year, produced Alcibiades, a tragedy; whether from the Alcibiade of Palaprat, I have not means to inquire. Langhaine, the great detector of plagiarism, is silent.
' 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 perfon, and failed in. This event appears to have happened in the year 1672. R.
In 1677 he published Titus and Berenice, translated from Rapin, with the Cheats of Scapin, from Moliere ; and in 1678, Friendship in Fashion, a comedy, which, whatever might be its first reception, was, upon its revival at Drury-lane in 1749, liissed 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 bad 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.
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,
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, 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 of nearly 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 dramatic fashion. Of this play nothing new can easily be said. It is a domestic 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 Shakspeare.
In 1683' was published the first, and next year’ the second, parts of The Soldier's Fortune, two comedies now forgotten; and in 16854 his last and greatest dramatic work, Venice Preserved, a tragedy, which still continues to be one of the favourites of the public, notwithstanding the want of morality in the original design, and the despicable scenes of vile comedy with which he has diversified his tragic action. By comparing this with his Orphan, it will appear that his images were by time become stronger, and bis language more energetic. The striking passages are in every mouth; and the public 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 public-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' in his latter years left an illustrious testimony. He appears by some of his verses to have been a zealous loyalist, and had what was in those times the common reward of loyalty-he lived and died neglected.
s In his preface to Fresnoy's Art of Painting. Dr. J.
IN A MONUMENT TO OUR LATE SOVEREIGN KING CHARLES
THE SECOND OF EVER BLESSED MEMORY.
But, having spoild the edge of ill-forg'd law,
By rods and axes had been kept in awe ;
Griev'd at our follies with a father's love,
Knew the vile ways we did t' aflict him take, Semper Honos, Noménque tuum, Laudésque ma
Yet when upon its brink we seem'd to stand,
Lent to our succour a forgiving hand.
Though now (alas !) in the sad grave he lies,
arise. To the immortal fame of our late dread sovereign For gods have power to keep the balance even,
Mercy's indeed the attribute of Heaven, king Charles II. of ever blessed memory; and which if kings loose, how can they govern well? to the sacred majesty of the most august and Mercy should pardon, but the sword compel: mighty prince James II. now by the grace of Compassion 's else a kingdom's greatest harm, God king of England, Scotland, France, and Its warmth engenders rebels till they swarm;
And round the throne themselves in tumults spread, Ireland, defender of the faith, &c. this follow- To heave the crown from a long-sufferer's head. ing poem is in all humility dedicated by his By example this that godlike king once knew, ever devoted and obedient subject and servant, And after, by experience, found too true.
Under Philistian lords we long had mourn'd,
And when this land in blood he might have laid, THOUGH poets immortality may give, Brought balsam for the wounds ourselves had made.
And Troy does still in Homer's numbers live: Though now (alas !) in the sad grave he lies, How dare I touch thy praise, thoa glorious frame, | Yet shall his praise for ever live, and laurels from Which must be deathless as thy raiser's name:
it rise. But that I wanting fame am sure of thine
Then matrons bless'd him as he pass'd along, To eternize this humble song of mine?
And triumph echo'd through th'enfranchis'd throng: At least the memory of that more than man, On his each hand his royal brothers shone, From whose vast mind thy glories first began, Like two supporters of Great Britaiu's throne: Shall evin my mean and worthless verse commend, The first, for deeds of arms, renown'd as far For wonders always did his name attend.
As Fame e'er flew to tell great tales of war; Though now (alas!) in the sad grave he lies, (rise. Of nature generous, and of stedfast mind, Yet shall his praise for ever live, and laurels from it to flattery deaf, but ne'er to merit blind,
Great were the toils attending the command Reserv'd in pleasures, but in dangers bold,
Youthful in actions, and in conduct old, Which, grown too wanton, 'cause 'twas over-blest, True to his friends, as watchful o'er his foes, Would never give its nursing father rest ;
And a just value upon each bestows;