John O'Keeffe (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
Died4 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, amusing dramatic pieces and librettos for pasticcio operas, many of which had great success. Among these are Tony Lumpkin in Town (1778), Love in a Camp (1786), and Omai (1785), an account of the voyages of the Tahitian explorer Omai, and Wild Oats (1791).

Early life[edit]

O'Keeffe was born in Dublin in 1747 to Roman Catholic parents and was educated by the Jesuits. His father was from King's County and his mother (née O'Connor) from County Wexford.[1] 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.[2] 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 Cork, in late September 1774, O'Keeffe was married to Mary Heaphy, daughter of Tottenham Heaphy, the manager of the Theatre Royal there.[3] The marriage ended badly and Mary was denied access to their two children. John Tottenham O'Keeffe and Adelaide O'Keeffe.[4]


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.[5] In 1782 O'Keeffe had his two children sent abroad to France to deny their mother access to them. His son did well but his daughter suffered in convent schools.[4]

Between 1782 and 1796, O'Keeffe wrote around 28 plays and librettos for comic operas. The Poor Soldier (1783), a comic opera with libretto by O'Keeffe and music by William Shield, was a 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.[6]

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. O'Keeffe contributed many Irish folksongs to the musical scores by Samuel Arnold and Shield such as I am a Friar of Orders Grey and The Thorn are still popular.[7] For many of these songs, the comic operas are the earliest source.[8] From 1788 his adolescent daughter Adelaide wrote for him. She was his amanuensis and eventual carer until he died. She also took work and became a writer in her own right.[4]

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 who oversaw their publication. However, much of the information in his memoir is not accurate.[9] In time Adelaide would write her memories of him.[4] The same year he was awarded a pension by George IV. He died in 1833 in Southampton and was buried there.[10]


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".[5] 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. ^ Cave, Edward (1833). "Obituary: John O'Keefe Esq". Gentleman's Magazine, and Historical Chronicle. Edward Cave: 375–376.
  2. ^ Hager (2005), p. 181–182.
  3. ^ Hager (2005) p. 182.
  4. ^ a b c d Clare L. Taylor, ‘O'Keeffe, Adelaide (1776–1865)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2009 accessed 20 Jan 2017
  5. ^ a b Hager (2005), p. 182.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ Klein (2005), p. 31–34.
  8. ^ Fleischmann (1998).
  9. ^ Boydell (2006).
  10. ^ Baines p.256


  • Baines, Paul & Ferraro, Julian & Rogers, Pat: The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Eighteenth Century Writers and Writing: 1660-1789 (Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011)
  • Boydell, Brian: "O'Keeffe, John", in: Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart (MGG), biographical part, vol. 15 (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2006), cc. 702–3
  • Fleischmann, Aloys (ed.): Sources of Irish Traditional Music c.1600–1855 (New York: Garland, 1998)
  • Hager, Alan: Encyclopedia of British Writers: 16th, 17th & 18th Centuries (New York: Book Builders, 2005)
  • Klein, Axel: "Stage-Irish, or The National in Irish Opera, 1780–1925", in: Opera Quarterly vol. 21 (2005) no. 1, p. 27–67.

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 – via Wikisource.