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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

VII. The Restoration Drama

§ 19. The Fatal Marriage and Oroonoko

In 1696 appeared Southerne’s other great success, Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave, like its predecessor a mixture of blank verse and prose. Mrs. Behn again supplied the plot in her novel of the same name, and the piece, as adapted by Hawkesworth, had an even longer life than The Fatal Marriage. It is not, however, intrinsically so effective; though the novelty of its story and setting (a slave plantation in the West Indies), and the acting of Verbruggen, as the noble-minded, if somewhat tedious, negro, the hero of the piece, gave it a high place in public favour.

In none of his last three plays did Southerne reach so high a level. The Fate of Capua (1700) was a failure; nor can The Spartan Dame (1719), founded on Plutarch’s Life of Agis, in spite of its stage success, be pronounced a good play. Money the Mistress (1726), Southerne’s last production, was quite unsuccessful; its plot is taken from the countess D’Aulnoy’s Travels into Spain. When at his best, Southerne reminds us of Otway in his power of pathos and his perception of stage effect. The character of Isabella is well conceived and worked out with great sympathy. Her gradual yielding to the importunate advances of Villeroy, her second husband, and her grief and horror at the discovery that Biron, her first husband, is alive, and has returned to her, are depicted with considerable power, and are not unworthy to be compared with passages of Fletcher. The introduction of Isabella’s and Biron’s child is a stroke of dramatic genius, and must have materially strengthened the play, as the same device has strengthened many a popular drama since. Indeed, The Fatal Marriage and Oroonoko may be regarded as the prototypes of a host of popular melodramas. Yet, though, on occasion, a master of stage effect, Southerne never rises, and did not aspire to rise, above supplying the dramatic needs of his day. In another age, he might, perhaps, have done better things; for, though he pandered to the vicious tastes of his audiences, he seems fully to have realised how far it was necessary to sink in order to gratify those tastes; and he half apologised—not without reason—for the “comic” scenes in his best two plays.