Thomas was educated at Winchester College. His name appears in the 'Long Roll' for 1668 as a commoner, and one of five boarding in college. About 1739-40 a 'marble,' with his name, the date '1670,' and the initials 'W. C.' and 'J. W.' carved upon it, was placed in sixth chamber in college. The initials apparently represent the names of those who erected the memorial — William Collins, the poet, and Joseph Warton, who were scholars and prefects in 1739-40. In his vacations, spent at Woolbeding, Otway seems to have beguiled a part of his leisure by scribbling scraps of Latin over the parish register, in which his signature may still be seen attached to many irrelevant Latin quotations. On 27 May 1669, at the age of seventeen, he entered Christ Church, Oxford, as a commoner. Among his chief friends there was Anthony Cary, fifth viscount Falkland, some five years his junior, who matriculated at Christ Church on 21 May 1672. Otway was from an early age devoted to the theatre, and Falkland, who shared his sympathies, seems to have encouraged his dramatic predilections (cf. Caius Marius, Ded.) Leaving the university in the autumn of 1672, without a degree, he made his way to London. Introducing himself to Mrs. Aphra Behn, he eagerly accepted her proposal that he should play the small part of the king in her ' Forc'd Marriage, or the Jealous Bridegroom,' which was on the point of production at the theatre in Dorset Gardens. The experiment proved a complete failure. 'The full house put him to such a sweat and tremendous agony [that], being dash't, [it] spoilt him for an actor' (Downes, Roscius Anylicanus, 1708, p. 34). Otway did not appear on the stage again, but thenceforward occupied himself in writing plays.
Some success attended his earliest effort. In 1675 there was produced, at Dorset Garden Theatre, a tragedy by him, in five acts of heroic verse, entitled 'Alcibiades.' The story was drawn, with many modifications, from Nepos and Plutarch. There is much bombast and no indisputable sign of talent in Otway's treatment of his theme. At a later date he apologised for making his hero a 'squeamish gentleman' (Don Carlos, Pref.) ; but the title-role in the hands of Betterton proved attractive, while Mrs. Betterton and Mrs. Barry, who on this occasion 'gave the first indication of her rising merit,' were acceptable to the audience in the parts respectively of Timandra and Draxilla (Genest, i. 177 ; Davies, Dramatic Miscellanies, iii. 179). The Earl of Rochester commended the piece, and brought Otway to the notice of the Duke of York. 'Alcibiades ' was at once published, with a dedication to Charles, earl of Middlesex (2nd edit. 1687).
A year later Otway achieved a wider reputation (Langraine). On 15 June 1676 a license was granted for the performance at Dorset Gardens of his 'Don Carlos,' another rhyming play. The plot was adapted from a French historical romance of the same name by the Abbé St. Réal, which had been published in London in an English translation in 1674. Schiller's 'Don Carlos' is drawn from the same French original, and the many close resemblances between the English and German plays have offered a suggestive field for criticism in Germany (Ueber Otway's und Schiller's Don Carlos, von Jacob Lowenberg, Lippstadt, 1886 ; Otway's, Schiller's und St. Real's Don Carlos, von Ernst Müller, Markgroningen, 1888). Betterton played Philip II, and 'all the parts were admirably acted' (Downes). The piece, despite the sanguinary extravagances of its concluding scene, was repeated ten consecutive nights, and 'got more money than any preceding tragedy' (ib.) The statement in Cibber's 'Lives' that it was played thirty nights together is an obvious exaggeration. In his 'bession of the Poets' Rochester writes that the piece filled Otway's pockets. Betterton told Booth that 'Don Carlos' 'was infinitely more applauded and better followed for many years than' any other of Otway's productions (Letters of Aaron Hill; Genest, i. 191). Only one revival after Otway's death is noted by Genest—that at Drury Lane on 27 July 1708, when Barton Booth played Philip II ; but, according to Davies (iii. 179), it was acted again about 1730 at Lincoln's Inn Fields, with Boheme as Philip and Mrs. Seymour as the queen, and its reception restored the falling fortunes of that playhouse. The first edition was published in 1676, with a dedication to the Duke of York, and a preface in defence of 'Alcibiades,' its predecessor. According to the preface, Dryden, who is referred to as 'an envious poet,' asserted that 'Don Carlos' 'contained not one line that he would be author of.' A coolness between Otway and Dryden followed, but proved of short duration. A fourth edition of 'Don Carlos' was dated in 1695, and a fifth 'corrected' in 1704.
Betterton's faith in Otway was now established, and early in 1677 he brought out two dramas by him, both adaptations from the French. The first, 'Titus and Berenice,' a tragedy in three acts of rhyming verse, was adapted from Racine ; the second, 'The Cheats of Scapin,' a farce, was adapted from Moliere. Both tragedy and farce were acted on the same night in February 1676-7, and were published shortly afterwards in a single