John O'Keeffe (Irish writer)

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John O'Keeffe
John O'Keeffe by Thomas or William Lawranson.jpg
Portrait of John O'Keefe by either Thomas or William Lawranson, 1782
Born (1747-06-24)24 June 1747
Died 4 February 1833(1833-02-04) (aged 85)
Spouse(s) Mary Heaphy

John O'Keeffe (24 June 1747 – 4 February 1833) was an Irish actor and dramatist. He wrote a number of farces and amusing dramatic pieces, many of which had great success. Among these are Tony Lumpkin in Town (1778), Wild Oats (1791), Love in a Camp, and Omai (1785), an account of the voyages of the Tahitian explorer Omai.

Early life[edit]

O'Keeffe was born in Dublin in 1747 to Roman Catholic parents and was educated by the Jesuits. After showing a talent for drawing he studied art at an Academy in Dublin, but grew increasingly more interested in the theatre. After a two-year trip to London, where he became an admirer of David Garrick, he settled on a career as an actor and playwright.[1] O'Keeffe wrote his first play The She Gallant when he was twenty, and it was performed in Dublin at the Smock Alley Theatre. In 1774, O'Keeffe was married to Mary Heaphy.[2]


In 1777, O'Keeffe moved to London. The following year he wrote Tony Lumpkin in Town, a sequel to Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer, and sent it to the manager of the Haymarket Theatre. The play was successfully produced, and O'Keeffe regularly wrote for the Haymarket thereafter.[3]

Between 1782 and 1796, O'Keeffe wrote around 28 plays and comic operas. The Poor Soldier (1783), a comic opera with words and lyrics by O'Keeffe and music by William Shield, was a musical farce about the lives of British soldiers returning home after the American War of Independence. O'Keeffe also wrote The Son-in-Law, Agreeable Surprise which includes the lyrical poem Amo, Amas, and The Castle of Andalusia. [4]

O'Keeffe had problems with his eyes ever since he had fallen into the River Liffey in his youth. From the mid-1770s, O'Keeffe increasingly lost his sight, and from 1781 his plays had to be dictated by him. In spite of this he was a prolific writer and was the most produced playwright in London in the last quarter of the 18th century. Some of his songs set to music by Arnold and Shield such as I am a Friar of Orders Grey and The Thorn are still popular.

In 1800, a benefit performance was staged for him at Covent Garden. In 1826, O'Keeffe wrote his memoirs, which covered his life experiences and various interactions with the leading artistic figures of his day. The memoirs were dictated to his daughter Adelaide O'Keeffe (1776-1865) who oversaw their publication. The same year he was awarded a pension by George IV. He died in 1833 in Southampton and was buried there.[5]


In the 19th century the essayist William Hazlitt described O'Keeffe as the "English Molière", observing "in light, careless laughter and pleasant exaggeration of the humorous, we have no equal to him".[6] His Wild Oats has been revived in 1976, 1995 and 2012 by the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal National Theatre and the Bristol Old Vic respectively.

Selected works[edit]


  1. ^ Hager p. 181-182.
  2. ^ Hager p. 182.
  3. ^ Hager p. 182.
  4. ^ O'Keefe, John (1808). The Poor Soldier: A Comic Opera, in Two Acts: with all the original songs. New-York: Printed and published by D. Longworth at the Dramatic repository, Shakespeare-Gallery. pp. cover. 
  5. ^ Baines p.256
  6. ^ Hager p. 182.


  • Baines, Paul & Ferraro, Julian & Rogers, Pat: The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Eighteenth Century Writers and Writing: 1660-1789 (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011)
  • Hager, Alan: Encyclopedia of British Writers: 16th, 17th & 18th Centuries (Boston: Book Builders, 2005)

External links[edit]

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainCousin, John William (1910). A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London: J. M. Dent & Sons. Wikisource