Southerne, Thomas (1660–1746), dramatist and soldier, was born 12 February 1660 at Oxmantown, Dublin, youngest child among four sons and two daughters of Francis Southerne, founder-member of the brewers' corporation of Dublin, and his wife Margaret. Educated at the free school in Dublin, he entered TCD (1676) but may have left without taking a degree; there is no record of his graduating and this may have been because of an incident in 1678, when he was found guilty of contumacy towards the junior dean. In July 1680 he entered Middle Temple but was not committed to a legal career, and in 1685 he enlisted in the regiment of the duke of Berwick (qv); the glorious revolution of 1688 ended his chances of advancement and he retired with the rank of captain.
As Southerne later recounted, he was now ‘tumbled down from a high expectation’ (quoted in Jordan & Love, p. xviii), and turned to the theatre to ease his financial hardships. He had written some plays in the 1680s but there was now an urgent necessity to be successful. ‘Sir Anthony Love’, a lively comedy, was first performed in December 1690 to massive acclaim, but his next efforts were unable to capture the popular imagination. ‘The wives' excuse’ (1691) and ‘The maid's last prayer’ (1693), both failed, though since regarded as two of his finest plays. Turning to the works of Aphra Behn, Southerne achieved some spectacular success with his adaptations of two of her novels, The fatal marriage (1694) and Oroonoko (1696); these established him as the leading tragic dramatist of the day. Oroonoko had an anti-slavery message and portrayed a new type of black hero; it became the prototype for many ‘noble slave’ works in the eighteenth century. Returning briefly to Ireland in 1695 when his mother died, Southerne graduated MA from TCD. At the height of his popularity and powers in 1696 he suddenly decided to retire from the stage. No reason was given, but he later changed his mind and wrote ‘The fate of Capua’, which was performed in 1700. Distancing himself from the Jacobite cause, Southerne was appointed a regimental agent, and he was probably in Ireland performing this duty in 1704–6. In 1719 his dramatic work ‘The Spartan dame’ was finally completed; he had been working on it for thirty years. Despite his best efforts, however, it did not make an impact and failed to enter the repertory. Residing in London, he gradually lost his hearing, although this may have been to his advantage when his final play, ‘Money the mistress’, was rejected by Drury Lane and then hissed at Lincoln's Inn Fields (1726). Retiring from the theatre, he continued to socialise with his large circle of friends and writers, occasionally proffering wise counsel. He was rarely critical of contemporaries, although he did attack William Congreve (qv) for having denied his Irish birth; he was mistaken in this, as Congreve had been born in England.
By 1741 he had begun to drift into senility, and he died 26 May 1746, in London. His death made surprisingly little impression, despite his distinguished career, although the London Evening-Post published a fitting elegy: ‘Prais'd by the grandsires of the present age/ Shall Southern pass unnoticed off the stage?/ Who, more than half a century ago/ Caus'd from each eye the tender tear to flow;/ Does not his death one grateful drop demand/ In works of wit, the Nestor of our land?’ (Jordan & Love, p. xli). He married (c.1696) Agnes Atkyns (née Atkins), a widow; they had one daughter, Agnes.