Southerne Comfort – Frank McNally on a forgotten Dublin writer who was ahead of his time

Despite his surname, Thomas Southerne was a northside Dubliner

The son of a brewer, he studied at Trinity College and then at the Middle Temple in London

You’ve probably never heard of the Irish writer Thomas Southerne, who died on this date (May 26th) in 1746. It’s even less likely that you’ve ever seen any of his plays, long gathering dust.

But he and they were enormously popular once, rivalling Shakespeare on the London stage. And although John Dryden is said to have been “confounded” by the amounts Southerne’s work could command, their success benefitted other writers too, including him.

Hence Alexander Pope, in a poem to celebrate Southerne’s 81st birthday, writing affectionately of “Tom, whom Heaven sent down to raise/The price of prologues and of praise.”

Southerne is historically interesting for another reason. His sister Elizabeth was (it seems) the mother of philosopher George Berkeley, recently demoted by the students of Trinity College over his ownership of slaves.


This adds piquancy to a point for which Southerne remains interesting to scholars, at least.

Although a generation older than Berkeley, he had more enlightened views on slavery, as dramatised in one of his biggest stage hits, Oroonoco, premiered in 1695 and popular for a century afterwards.

According to one latter-day commentator, the play raised the question of how “noble savages” should be treated: “Since they shared a universal human nature, was not civilization their entitlement?”

A 19th-century critic, while unenthusiastic about the play’s quality, was impressed by its morals suggesting that “Southern (sic) deserves the praise of having first of any English (sic) writer, denounced the traffic in slaves and the cruelty of their West Indian bondage”.

Despite his surname, Southerne was a northside Dubliner, born in 1660 in the village of Oxmantown, near modern-day Stoneybatter. The son of a brewer, he studied at Trinity College and then at the Middle Temple in London, seemingly bound for a career in law until distracted by drama and war.

For his first play in 1682, he bought a prologue and epilogue from Dryden, who had a lucrative sideline turning out such pieces, which were expected by theatre audiences of the time.

Dryden normally charged £4 but demanded £6 from Southerne, protesting that he had been selling himself cheaply until then and that it was nothing personal (this was part of the joke in Pope’s poetic reference to Southerne’s price-raising role).

Soon after his second play (1684), however, the Dubliner embarked on a short-lived military career. That was a turbulent decade, as the reign of Charles II neared an end and that of his brother, the Catholic James, loomed.

Politically aware and ambitious, Southerne romanticised James in his 1684 drama, and was duly rewarded, quickly rising in the new man’s army ranks to captain.

Alas for his political career, he had backed the wrong horse and, when William III triumphed in the wars of religion, he did not attempt to change sides. Instead, he henceforth concentrated on writing, with far greater success.

It is telling that two of Southerne’s most successful plays, The Fatal Marriage (aka the Innocent Adultery) and Oroonoco were based on novels by Aphra Behn.

An historic figure in her own right, she was one of the first English women to earn a living from literature. Ironically, she had switched from playwriting to prose because of a perceived lack of stage opportunities after a consolidation of the London theatres.

Among other strategies for success, Southerne deliberately cultivated a female audience and by turning Oroonoco into a hit play, made the Behn’s novel more popular too. It was in his rewriting, though, that it came to be seen as an argument against slavery.

A skilled self-publicist, Southerne also promoted his plays to the aristocracy, male and female: visiting their houses and, with doffed cap, offering tickets, the price of which he would leave “to your honour”.

By these and other stratagems, added to the general appeal of his work, he changed the face of drama. The concept of a run in the West End started with him.

Before then, plays were performed for one night only and revived, if successful, for other one-offs. Southerne’s work ran and ran, making him supposedly the richest playwright in England, where he spent all his adult life and died aged 86.

Famous throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, he had been largely forgotten by the 20th, as witnessed by a 1901 feature in the Evening Herald. Lamenting the lack of an Irish national theatre, a critic signing himself “M.A.M.” harked back to the days when Irish playwrights dominated the English stage.

“But who now hears of [Southerne’s plays]?” he asked rhetorically. In a casual aside, the same writer (or his sub-editor) seemed to claim Aphra Behn for Ireland too, noting that Oroonoko had been “cribbed openly from a novel by Mrs Behan.”