Although considered one of the greatest English Restoration playwrights, Otway never received the rewards of success.

Thomas Otway (1652 – 85)

Otway was born in the Sussex village of Trotton. His father was a curate and Thomas was expected to follow him into the priesthood. However, he never completed his degree in Oxford, possibly due to financial difficulties after his father's death.

Failed actor

Otway moved to London when he left Oxford. There, he met the playwright Aphra Behn, who cast him as the old king in Forc'd Marriage, or The Jealous Bridegroom. Unfortunately, his stage fright was so severe that he performed badly and decided to never return to the stage.

A painting showing Thomas Otway resting his cheek on his hand.
A painting of Thomas Otway by the artist William Blake.
© Via Wikimedia Commons Browse and license our images

Inspired writer

Otway realised that writing might be a better fit than acting, and he found a muse in the actress Elizabeth Barry. His first play, Alcibiades, was said to have only been saved by her performance, but his writing became more successful with each passing year.

While his work was starting to gain praise, Otway's infatuation with Barry was becoming increasingly one-sided. She flirted with him but was already in a relationship with the Earl of Rochester. This, combined with his poor finances, encouraged Otway to join the army, where he served in the Netherlands. He continued writing adaptations and original plays during this time, including his popular comedy Friendship in Fashion.

Popular playwright

When his regiment was disbanded, Otway had to make his own way back to London, arriving almost penniless in 1679. He continued writing, and produced some of his most famous works in the last few years of his life.

His great tragedies, The Orphan and Venice Preserv'd, were particularly loved by audiences and critics alike. Both were written in the early 1680s and were frequently played on the stage until the 1800s. The Orphan was believed to be inspired by his unrequited love for Elizabeth Barry, while Venice Preserv'd was the more political play, with a storyline similar to the Gunpowder Plot. Although the plays cemented Otway's reputation as a great dramatist, the dire financial situation of the theatre meant that he didn't benefit much from his success.

Beggar

In the end, Otway's critical acclaim and popularity weren't enough to raise him out of poverty. Alongside his writing, he tried to earn money as a tutor, notably to the illegitimate child of Charles II and Nell Gwyn, but his situation never improved.

The possibly apocryphal story of his death, as told in Lives of the Poets, is that Otway choked on a piece of bread after begging a guinea from a passer-by who recognised him. He was just 33 at the time of his death, and was buried at St. Clement Danes in Westminster.