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CHAPTER V.

DRAMATIC POETS AND PLAYWRIGHTS.

AFTER Dryden, the metrical dramatists of the Restoration, as of other epochs, may be accurately divided into two classes, the poets and the playwrights. As was to be expected in an age when even genuine poetry drooped earthward, and prose seldom kindled into poetry, the latter class was largely in the majority. Only three dramatists can justly challenge the title of poet—Dryden, Otway, and Lee. In Dryden a mighty fire, half choked with its own fuel, struggles gallantly against extinction, and eventually evolves nearly as much flame as smoke. In Otway a pure and delicate flame hovers fitfully over a morass; in Lee the smothered fire breaks out, as Pope said of Lucan and Statius, 'in sudden, brief, and interrupted flashes.' Dryden was incomparably the most vigorous of the three, but Otway was the only born dramatist, and the little of genuine dramatic excellence that he has wrought claims a higher place than the more dazzling productions of his contemporary. Thomas Otway, son of the vicar of Woolbeding, was

born at Trotton, near Midhurst, in Sussex, Otway

March 3rd, 1651. He was educated at Win(1651-1685).

chester and Christchurch, but (perhaps driven by necessity, for he says in the dedication to Venice Preserved, · A steady faith, and loyalty to my prince was all

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the inheritance my father left me') forsook the latter ere his academical course was half completed to try his fortune as a performer on the stage, where he entirely failed. His first play, Alcibiades (1675), a poor piece, served to introduce him to Rochesterand other patrons; and in the following year Don Carlos, founded upon the novel by Saint Réal, obtained, partly by the support of Rochester, with whom Otway soon quarrelled, a striking success, and is said to have produced more than any previous play. Two translations from the French followed; next (1678) came the unsuccessful comedy of Friendship in Fashion, and in 1680 Caius Marius, an audacious plagiarism from Romeo and Juliet. In the interim Otway had made trial of a military career, but the regiment in which he had obtained a commission was speedily disbanded, his pay was with held, and he had to support himself by plundering Shakespeare. In the same year in which he had stooped so low he proved his superiority to all contemporary dramatists by his tragedy of The Orphan, in which he first displayed the pathos by which he has merited the character of the English Euripides. Johnson remarks that Otway .conceived forcibly, and drew originally, by consulting nature in his own breast;' and it is known that he experienced the pangs of a seven years' unrequited passion for the beautiful actress, Mrs. Barry. In 1681 he produced The Soldier's Fortune, a comedy chiefly interesting for its allusions to his own military experiences. According to Downes, its success was extraordinary, and brought both profit and reputation to the theatre. If it brought any of the former to the author, this must have been soon exhausted, since in the dedication to Venice Preserved (1682) he speaks of himself as only rescued from the direst want by the generosity of the Duchess of Portsmouth. For this great play, as well as for The Orphan, he is said to have received a hundred pounds. The Atheist, a second part of

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The Soldier's Fortune (1684), was probably unproductive; and in April, 1685, Otway died on Tower Hill, undoubtedly in distress, although, of the two accounts of his death, that which ascribes it to a fever caught in pursuing an assassin, is better authenticated than the more usual one which represents him as choked by a loaf which he was devouring in a state of ravenous hunger. Such a story, nevertheless, could not have obtained credit if his circumstances had not been known to have been desperate. It is not likely that he had much conduct or economy in his affairs, or was endowed in any degree with the severer virtues. The tone of his letters to Mrs. Barry, however, and the constancy of his seven years' affection for her, seem to indicate a natural refinement of feeling, and if there is truth in the dictum,

He best can paint them, who can feel them most,' the creator of Monimia and Belvidera must have been endowed with a heart tender in no common degree. He was,' we are told, of middle size, inclinable to corpulency, had thoughtful, yet lively, and as it were speaking eyes.'

Otway's reputation rests entirely on his two great performances, The Orphan and Venice Preserved. His other plays deserve no special notice, although Don Carlos, which is said to have for many years attracted larger audiences than either of his masterpieces, might have been a good play if it had not been written in rhyme. The action is highly dramatic, and the characters, though artless, are not ineffective; but the pathos in which the poet excelled is continually disturbed by the bombastic couplets, ever trembling on the brink of the ridiculous. The remorse of Philip after the murder of his wife and son is as grotesque an instance of the forcible feeble as could easily be found, and is a melancholy instance indeed of the declension of the English drama, when contrasted with the demeanour

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of Othello in similar circumstances. Otway, however, was yet to show that his faults were rather his age's than his own. The fashion of rhyme must have had much to do with the bombast of Don Carlos, for in The Orphan, his next effort in serious tragedy, there is hardly any rant, even when the situation might have seemed to have excused the exaggerated expression of emotion. The central incident of this admirable tragedy—the deception of a maiden beloved by two brothers, through the personation of the favoured one by his rival—seems now to be held to exclude it from the stage. The objection would probably prove to be imaginary, for the play was performed as late as 1819, when no less an actress than Miss O'Neill represented Monimia, and the diction is in general of quite exemplary propriety for a play of the period. Its principal defect as a work of art is that the pathos springs almost solely from the situation, and that the personages have hardly any hold upon our sympathies except as sufferers from an unhappy fatality. So powerful is the situation, nevertheless, that the sorrows of Castalio and Monimia can never fail to move; the poet's language, too, is at its best, simpler and more remote from extravagance than even in Venice Preserved. The description of the old hag is justly celebrated :

'I spied a wrinkled hag, with age grown double,
Picking dry sticks, and mumbling to herself ;
Her eyes with scalding rheum were galled and red ;
Cold palsy shook her head, her hands seemed withered,
And on her crooked shoulders had she wrapt
The tattered remnant of an old striped hanging,
Which served to keep her carcase from the cold ;
So there was nothing of a piece about her ;
Her lower weeds were all o'er coarsely patched
With different coloured rags, black, red, white, yellow,
And seemed to speak variety of wretchedness.'

There are also delightful touches of poetry:

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Oh, thou art tender all :
Gentle and kind as sympathizing nature !
When a sad story has been told, I've seen
Thy little breasts, with soft compassion swelled,
Shove

up

and down and heave like dying birds.'

The opening speech of act iv., sc. 2, also reveals a feeling for nature unusual in Restoration poetry, and

may

be taken to symbolize Otway's regrets for the country. The items of the description are in no way conventional, and would not have occurred to one without experience of rural

life:

• Wished morning's come! And now upon the plains
And distant mountains, where they feed their flocks,
The happy shepherds leave their homely huts,
And with their pipes proclaim the new-born day.
The lusty swain comes with his well-filled scrip
Of healthful viands, which, when hunger calls,
With much content and appetite he eats,
To follow in the fields his daily toil,
And dress the grateful glebe that yields him fruits.
The beasts that under the warm hedges slept,
And weathered out the cold bleak night, are up,
And looking towards the neighbouring pastures, raise
Their voice, and bid their fellow-brutes good-morrow.
The cheerful birds, too, on the tops of trees
Assemble all in quires, and with their notes
Salute and welcome up the rising sun.
There's no condition here so cursed as mine.'

Venice Preserved, Otway's most memorable work, though inferior in mere poetry and unstudied simplicity to The Orphan, surpasses it in tragic grandeur, in variety of action, and in intensity of interest. It has the further great advantage that the interest does not entirely arise from the situation, but that at least one of the characters

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