Redressing the Tragedy: The Place of Otho the Great in Keats’s Letters

Editors’ Note: Adam Cady–an undergraduate student at Illinois Wesleyan University working with KLP editor Michael Theune–here introduces his research project on Keats’s Otho the Great. Over the next few weeks the KLP will publish several posts by Adam which respond to some of the letters in which Keats mentions Otho.

Adam Cady
Illinois Wesleyan University

Despite his uncontested status as one of the greatest English poets, at least one aspect of John Keats’s stunning life, literature, and legacy remains insufficiently studied: his only full-length play, Otho the Great. Two centuries after its completion, “the Tragedy” (as Keats refers to Otho in his letters) has received only a smattering of scholarly attention, and has been staged—so far as I’m aware—only twice. In defiance of tired biographical narratives which suggest Keats’s linear progression from novice to literary deity, Otho represents a human failure—a momentary lapse—in the midst of Keats’s greatest work. The play’s imperfections—its overstuffed scenes and convoluted plot—are undeniable, as are the “impure” circumstances of its economically motivated making. Yet while there are numerous reasons why Otho has been overlooked, the Tragedy remained at the forefront of Keats’s inspired mind from the summer of 1819, through the winter of 1820. Most notably, Otho is mentioned in numerous letters from this period, indicating there is likely cross-pollination of language, themes, and deeper meanings between these letters and the play. Thus, despite its status as an understudied oddity among scholars, it is imperative that we know Otho as well as possible, if we hope to better know these letters.

Loosely inspired by Otto I, a Medieval German king and Holy Roman Emperor, Keats’s Tragedy follows the demise of Otho’s rebellious son Ludolph, a pardoned traitor and gullible lover ultimately driven mad by his erratic emotions. After a failed insurgency aided by Hungarian troops, the traitorous prince Ludolph is granted clemency by his merciful father. In addition to this compassionate (and politically savvy) act, the kindly Emperor Otho determines that Ludolph should marry Auranthe, beautiful sister of Conrad, Duke of Franconia. Shortly thereafter, in the Hungarian camp, Ludolph’s disgraced former lover, Erminia, discovers a misplaced, incriminating letter, which reveals Auranthe’s past indiscretions—her affair with the knight Albert, and the dastardly means through which Auranthe and her brother framed Erminia as an unfaithful fiancée. With help from the abbot Ethelbert, Erminia attempts to warn the deceived royals of Auranthe’s true nature. Arrogant and incredulous, Ludolph is nonetheless married with haste to his beloved Auranthe, and, following a series of blunders and machinations—including Albert’s naïve attempts to escape with life and love intact, as well as Conrad’s desperate efforts to salvage the crumbling money-making scheme—death ensues. With mutually fatal ferocity, Albert and Conrad kill each other in offstage battle, while Auranthe commits suicide (also offstage). Already burdened with the realization of his newlywed’s deception, Ludolph is overcome with grief at the news of Auranthe’s sudden, self-inflicted demise, and collapses—dead—before his father, friends, and former betrothed.

Certainly, Keats’s singular Tragedy resembles the more lauded royal/familial dramas of canonical Elizabethan playwrights, yet there are numerous reasons—some textual, some contextual—for Otho to have been so thoroughly disregarded. While its use of a historical referent in order to form a tragedy may be the stuff of Shakespearean dramaturgy, Otho’s derivative over-reliance on the Bard and “feebly sub-Shakespearean” nature necessarily cause the Tragedy to suffer in comparison to the likes of King Lear and Macbeth (Motion 420). With “over forty borrowings from seventeen of Shakespeare’s plays,” Otho the Great presents its titular Emperor as a lackluster reflection of the delightfully crazed Lear, Auranthe as a pale imitation of the scheming Lady Macbeth, and Ludolph as a dull echo of Hamlet’s tortured prince (Motion 422). Moreover, from its opening in the aftermath of a thwarted rebellion, Otho carelessly stifles any chance at grander, engaging conflict. Whereas a more experienced dramatist may have, for example, effectively exacerbated the tantalizing conflict between father and son, Keats’s play is satisfied with Ludolph’s near-immediate exoneration—the betrayed emperor’s improbably speedy pardon, succeeded by Otho and Ludolph’s bizarre joking about Auranthe as both jailer and bride-to-be. Indeed, the play routinely eschews those larger political battles which may be expected in the wake of Ludolph’s insurgency, and “overcrowded scene follows overcrowded scene” as, with sporadic pacing, Otho’s troubled structure and underdeveloped characters press the slogging Tragedy onward, toward Auranthe’s suicide and Ludolph’s improbable death by sadness: the painfully forced conclusion to an otherwise uneventful narrative (Motion 420).

Although Keats anticipated his play to be profitably staged in London’s West End—and posited, perhaps ironically, in his 14 August letter to Benjamin Bailey that Otho would bring “a revolution in modern dramatic writing”—the Tragedy was a near-immediate failure. Famed Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean was intended for the starring role of Ludolph, but, shortly after Keats learned of the thespian’s departure for a tour in America, Drury Lane reneged on its offer to stage the Tragedy. Keats and Brown subsequently forwarded their play to Covent Garden, which promptly rejected Otho and returned the manuscript unopened. By this time, Keats had excitedly penned the first four scenes of a second drama, King Stephen, but the demoralizing experience of Otho’s rejection led Keats to quit this second foray into playwriting. Having found no fortune, audience, or acclaim in drama, Keats turned from the art form, and Ludolph’s lovelorn Tragedy faded into obscurity.

Some 130 years later, however—in 1950—Otho the Great was at last brought to life, staged in the West End at St. Martin’s Theatre. Despite its scholarly and historical significance, the production was dismissed by the Preview Theatre Club as a mere “dramatic curio”—an immature failure on the part of Keats, unsalvageable even by the most talented of actors. While the quality and critical reception of Edmund Kean’s unrealized performance as Ludolph remain forever unknowable, the same review of the 1950 staging in The Times’ Preview Theatre Club claims that, “if the tragedy were worth acting well a new school of acting would have to be set up.” 

Decades after this “pious exhumation,” in 2016, a second staging of the Tragedy brought modest attention to Keats’s play. Similar to earlier assessments of the 1950 production, the Chicago Reader’s Dan Jakes described this more contemporary iteration as an “academic curiosity,” though Frank Farrell’s Chicago production of The Dark Ages: Otho the Great did manage to revive and revitalize the original script with additional, onstage action—namely, an “artful fencing scene” between Ludolph and Gersa, the Prince of Hungary. Set amid the fittingly Gothic designs of Unity Lutheran Church, New City Stage called this U.S. premier of Otho an “exquisite adaption,” complemented by “consistent and passionate performances,” while writer David Novak felt “singularly blessed to see” such a dramatic rarity, the realization of which was “better than [he] could have guessed from reading.”

Still, excepting these two performances and an exceedingly small handful of mostly surface-level scholarship, Otho the Great has suffered two whole centuries of neglect—unfamiliar or swiftly dismissed, even among the most devout Keatsians. Beyond its litany of perceived literary inadequacies, Keats scholars very likely have avoided Otho for the additional reason that the play was co-created with Charles Brown, and for very terrestrial purposes: to make money. With little knowledge of the scenes to come, Keats sat across from his collaborator, Brown, who outlined Otho’s narrative for the poet. Although Keats did take more creative control in the play’s fifth and final act, his position in the patterned process was largely that of a translator, transforming Brown’s outlines into verse and churning out poetic feet in what was meant to be a profitable venture. The money-making scheme did not work, of course, and the play’s financially motivated creation—its cynical position amid the more ethereal odes and romances of 1819—has left the Tragedy a desperately understudied curiosity in Keats’s greater poetic canon. In The Cambridge Companion to Keats, it is mentioned only once (and then in a mere footnote), while in Jonathan Mulrooney’s more recent work on Romanticism and Theatrical Experience: Kean, Hazlitt and Keats in the Age of Theatrical News—a book which deals explicitly with Keats and his play’s preferred lead, Edmund Kean—the Tragedy receives only three mentions.

In spite of any textual defects and its “impure” creation, although Otho may not be all that interesting or exceptional as an independent text, the Tragedy did occupy a central place in Keats’s life and thought throughout much of the latter half of 1819 (a particularly tumultuous, lovelorn and impoverished period in the artist’s life). Moreover, scholarship and projects in the past few decades—including the Keats Letters Project itself—have affirmed the importance and literary quality of Keats’s correspondence. As the play is repeatedly referenced in the letters from mid-1819 onward, there is new reason to examine Otho closely. Does Otho inspire the ideas, phrasing, analogies, or broad subject matter that populate his letters? Do the themes and terminology of particular letters work their way into Otho? As of now, we don’t know, but Keats refers directly to the Tragedy in no fewer than eleven of his letters, including:

11 July 1819, to John Hamilton Reynolds
31 July, to Charles Wentworth Dilke
5-6 August, to Fanny Brawne
14 August, to Benjamin Bailey
23 August, to John Taylor
28 August, to Fanny Keats
5 September, to John Taylor
22 September, to Charles Brown
22 September, to Charles Wentworth Dilke
17-27 September, to George and Georgiana Keats
? December, to James Rice
20 December, to Fanny Keats
13-28 January 1820, to Georgiana Wylie Keats

And many of these references to Otho are clearly significant. In his 5, 6 August 1819 letter to Fanny Brawne, Keats explicitly admits to seeing his beloved refracted through Otho, “through the mist of Plots speeches, counterplots and counter speeches.” That is, Keats acknowledges that his relationship with Brawne is informed by the Tragedy, while her imagined promiscuity—likely an invention of Keats’s jealous paranoia—in turn colors the ill-fated marriage of Ludolph to Auranthe; as Keats biographer Nicholas Roe briefly remarks of Otho, “There are echoes here of Keats’s correspondence with Fanny Brawne” (335). For months, mentions of the Tragedy and its doomed “Lover” litter Keats’s letters to Brawne and others. In his 17-27 September 1819 journal letter to George and Georgiana, alone, Keats mentions Otho the Great three times, even quoting, in closing, “half a dozen lines” from the play.

Given such regular intersections of script and correspondence, then, it seems inevitable that Otho would deeply influence the artistry and deeper essence of Keats’s letters, and perhaps vice versa. Whatever the reason for academics’ longstanding neglect of Otho, this scholarly gap must be resolved, as greater understanding of the play almost certainly will offer a key—so far, virtually untouched—to better understanding John Keats and his remarkable letters. And so, my project will seek to uncover the relationship between Keats’s letters and Otho the Great, two hundred years after they were penned.

Works Cited
Motion, Andrew. Keats. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.

“Preview Theatre Club.” Times, 27 Nov. 1950, p. 2. The Times Digital Archive. Accessed 10 June 2019.

Roe, Nicholas. John Keats. Yale University Press, 2012.