Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/O'Keeffe, John

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O'KEEFFE, JOHN (1747–1833), dramatist, descended from an old catholic stock which had gradually sunk under the burden of the penal laws, was born in Abbey Street, Dublin, on 24 June 1747. His father was a native of King's County, his mother an O'Connor of co. Wexford. He was educated by Father Austin, a jesuit, who kept a school in Saul's Court. He afterwards studied art in the Dublin school of design, together with a brother Daniel. The latter exhibited fourteen miniatures at the Royal Academy, London, between 1771 and 1786 (Graves, Catalogue). But John had meanwhile been attracted to the stage by a perusal of Farquhar's plays. At fifteen he attempted a comedy—‘The Gallant,’ in five acts—and he afterwards obtained an engagement as an actor with Henry Mossop [q. v.], the Dublin lessee, after reciting to him some passages from Jaffier's part. He remained a member of Mossop's stock company for twelve years. In the season of 1770–1 he played Gratiano at the Capel Street Theatre to Macklin's Shylock. But when he had reached his twenty-third year his eyesight began to fail, an affliction against which he long struggled, but, as in the case of his dramatic contemporary, Kane O'Hara [q. v.], it ended in complete blindness about 1797.

While still an actor, O'Keeffe tried his hand at playwriting, and in 1773 his farce ‘Tony Lumpkin in Town,’ founded on Goldsmith's ‘She Stoops to Conquer,’ was produced in Dublin. The author sent it anonymously to Colman, the manager of the Haymarket Theatre in London, and on 2 July 1778 it was put on the stage there with considerable success. It was published in the same year. From that date O'Keeffe proved an exceptionally prolific playwright, but mainly confined his efforts to farces and comic operas. His phraseology was quaint, and sometimes barely intelligible, but gave opportunities for ‘gag’ to comedians, of which they took full advantage. The songs in his operas had an attractive sparkle, and some, like ‘I am a Friar of Orders Grey’ and ‘Amo Amas I love a Lass,’ are still popular. He was always a facile if not a very finished rhymester.

About 1780 O'Keeffe removed from Dublin to London, with a view to obtaining an engagement as an actor. But in this endeavour he was not successful, and he consequently devoted himself to writing comic pieces, chiefly for the Haymarket and Covent Garden Theatres. He also sent verses for many years to the ‘Morning Herald.’ His failing sight compelled him to depend largely on an amanuensis, but his gaiety was not diminished. He dictated many of his plays in his garden at Acton, whither he went to reside about 1798.

At the Haymarket were produced his †‘Son-in-Law,’ comic opera (14 Aug. 1779; London, 1779, 8vo); †‘The Dead Alive,’ comic opera (16 June 1781; 1783, 8vo); †‘The Agreable Surprise,’ comic opera, with music by Dr. Arnold (3 Sept. 1781; London, 1786, 8vo; Dublin, 1784 and 1787; printed in Cumberland's ‘British Theatre,’ No. 232); †‘The Young Quaker’ (26 July 1783); ‘The Birthday, or Prince of Aragon,’ comic opera (12 Aug. 1783; 1783, 8vo); †‘Peeping Tom of Coventry,’ comic opera (6 Sept. 1784; 1787, 8vo); *‘A Beggar on Horseback,’ comic opera (16 June 1785; 1785, 8vo); ‘The Siege of Curzola,’ comic opera (12 Aug. 1786; not published); ‘Prisoner at Large,’ a comedy (2 July 1788); *‘The Basket-Maker,’ musical piece (4 Sept. 1790); ‘London Hermit,’ a comedy (29 June 1793); *‘The Magic Banner,’ opera (22 June 1796; not published separately, but apparently identical with ‘Alfred,’ a drama, in the collected edition of 1798; on it James Pocock [q.v.] based his ‘Alfred the Great, or the Enchanted Standard,’ produced at Covent Garden on 3 Nov. 1827.

At Covent Garden were represented O'Keeffe's *‘The Positive Man’ (16 March 1782); *‘Castle of Andalusia,’ comic opera (2 Nov. 1782); *‘Poor Soldier,’ comic opera (4 Nov. 1783); *‘Fontainebleau’ (16 Nov. 1784); *‘The Blacksmith of Antwerp’ (7 Feb. 1785); ‘Omai,’ a pantomime (20 Dec. 1785); *‘Love in a Camp, or Patrick in Prussia,’ musical piece (17 Feb. 1786); *‘The Man Milliner’ (27 Jan. 1787); *‘The Farmer,’ musical piece (31 Oct. 1787); *‘Tantararara Roguesall’ (1 March 1788); *‘The Highland Reel’ (6 Nov. 1788); ‘The Toy,’ a comedy (3 Feb. 1789); *‘Little Hunchback,’ farce (14 April 1789); *‘The Czar Peter,’ comic opera (8 March 1790); ‘The Fugitive,’ musical piece (4 Nov. 1790); *‘Modern Antiques,’ a farce (14 March 1791); ‘Wild Oats,’ a comedy (16 April 1791); ‘Tony Lumpkin's Rambles,’ musical piece (10 April 1792); *‘The Sprigs of Laurel,’ comic opera (11 May 1793); ‘World in a Village,’ a comedy (23 Nov. 1793); ‘Life's Vagaries,’ a comedy (19 March 1795); ‘The Irish Mimic’ (23 April 1795); ‘The Lie of the Day’ (19 March 1796); *‘The Lad of the Hills,’ comic opera, 9 April 1796 (reproduced with alterations as ‘The Wicklow Mountains,’ 10 Oct. 1796; *‘Doldrum,’ a farce (23 April 1796); ‘Olympus in an Uproar,’ 5 Nov. 1796 (altered from ‘The Golden Pippin,’ a burletta, by Kane O'Hara); ‘Aladdin, or the Wonderful Lamp,’ a melodramatic romance (19 April 1813).

At Drury Lane appeared in 1798 O'Keeffe's ‘She's Eloped,’ a comedy (19 May); ‘The Eleventh of June, or the Dagger-Woods at Dunstable’ (5 June); ‘A Nose Gay of Weeds,’ interlude (6 June).

O'Keeffe is also credited with producing many pieces which, unlike those already enumerated, are not mentioned by Genest. The additional pieces include ‘The Banditti’ (1781); ‘Lord Mayor's Day’ (1782); ‘Maid the Mistress,’ ‘Shamrock,’ and ‘Friar Bacon’ (1783); ‘Harlequin Teague;’ ‘The Definitive Treaty;’ ‘The Loyal Bandeau’ (opera); ‘Female Club;’ ‘Jenny's Whim;’ ‘All to St. Paul's;’ ‘The She-Gallant.’ In 1798, when O'Keeffe claimed to have composed fifty pieces, and he was totally blind, he published a selection from them by subscription in four volumes. He had disposed of the copyright of those marked † in the list already given, and was unable to include them. The volumes only contained those marked * above, all of which were now printed for the first time, together with ‘Le Granadier,’ intended for production at Covent Garden in 1789, but not performed.

On 12 June 1800, owing to O'Keeffe's financial embarrassments, he was accorded a benefit at Covent Garden, under the patronage of the Prince of Wales. His ‘Lie of the Day’ was performed, and, at the end of the second act, he was led on the stage to deliver a poetical address of his own composition. The benefit produced 360l., and the Prince of Wales sent him 50l. besides. In December 1803 he obtained an annuity of twenty guineas from Covent Garden Theatre, and sent to Harris, the manager, six new plays, of which no use appears to have been made. In January 1820 a royal pension from the privy purse of one hundred guineas a year was conferred on him. In 1826 O'Keeffe issued his rambling ‘Recollections,’ replete with social and dramatic gossip, but not remarkable for accuracy. Lady Morgan described the book as ‘feeble, but amiable.’ It was dedicated to George IV. In it O'Keeffe enumerates sixty-eight pieces of his own composition. The ‘Recollections’ were condensed by Richard Henry Stoddard for his volume, ‘Personal Reminiscences by O'Keeffe, Kelly, and Taylor,’ in the Bric-à-Brac series (New York, 1875).

In his later years he was affectionately tended by his only daughter, Adelaide (see an interesting manuscript letter by Adelaide O'Keeffe, bound in one of the copies of the ‘Recollections’ in the British Museum. In the same copy are a few lines scrawled in O'Keeffe's own hand). About 1815 he retired from London to Chichester (Notes and Queries, 7th ser. ii. 9). From Chichester he removed in 1830 to Southampton. As late as that year he could dictate verse epistles with all his youthful alacrity (ib. 3rd ser. x. 307). Before his death his daughter read to him most of Sir Walter Scott's novels, and he was gratified by the ‘two mentions’ of Cowslip, the leading character of his ‘Agreable Surprise,’ in Scott's ‘Tales of my Landlord;’ but when he found that Scott used the phrase ‘From Shakespeare to O'Keeffe’ in ‘St. Ronan's Well,’ he remarked sardonically, ‘Ah! the top and the bottom of the ladder; he might have shoved me a few sticks higher.’ He died at Bedford Cottage, Southampton, on 4 Feb. 1833, aged 85, after receiving the last rites of the Roman catholic church. A half-length portrait of O'Keeffe was painted in 1786 by Thomas Lawrenson [q. v.], and is now in the National Portrait Gallery, London. It was engraved in line by Bragg as a frontispiece to the ‘Recollections.’

O'Keeffe's ‘Wild Oats’ is played to this day, and one of the most successful of Buckstone's revivals was ‘The Castle of Andalusia,’ in which that actor took a leading part. But O'Keeffe's popularity has not proved permanent, and his unpublished and unacted pieces, which his daughter offered for sale at his death, did not find a purchaser. Miss O'Keeffe published his poetical works as ‘A Father's Legacy to his Daughter’ in 1834. He had already issued in 1795 a volume of verse, entitled ‘Oatlands, or the Transfer of the Laurel.’

His son, John Tottenham O'Keeffe (1775–1803), who was brought up as a protestant, matriculated at Exeter College, Oxford, 22 Nov. 1798 (B.A. 1801), became chaplain to H.R.H. the Duke of Clarence, went out in 1803 to Jamaica to take possession of a lucrative living, but died three weeks after his arrival, aged 28.

His only daughter and third child, Adelaide O'Keeffe (1776–1855?), born 5 Nov. 1776 in Eustace Street, Dublin, contributed thirty-four poems to Taylor's ‘Original Poems for Infant Minds by Several Young Persons,’ London, 1804, 2 vols. (cf. Notes and Queries, 7th ser. iii. 361–2), and was author of ‘National Characters,’ 1808; ‘Patriarchal Times,’ London, 1811, 2 vols. (6th edit. 1842); ‘A Trip to the Coast’ (poems), 1819, 12mo; ‘Dudley,’ a novel, 3 vols. 1819, 12mo; ‘Poems for Young Children,’ 1849, 12mo; and ‘The Broken Sword, a Tale,’ 1854, 8vo. She also wrote ‘Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra. A Narrative founded on History,’ 2 vols. 12mo, 1814; but this must be distinguished from the better known ‘Zenobia, or the Fall of Palmyra. An Historical Romance’ (New York, 1837; London, 1838), by William Ware, author of ‘Julian.’ Miss O'Keeffe died about 1855.

[Recollections of John O'Keeffe, London; Lady Morgan's Memoirs, p. 381; Gilbert's Dublin, 3 vols. 1859; Biogr. Dict. of Living Authors, 1816; Clark Russell's Representative Actors, London, 1875; Annual Biography, 1833; Dublin University Magazine, 1833; Webb's Compend. Irish Biography; Epitaph on O'Keeffe's tomb in Southampton churchyard; Gent. Mag. 1833, i. 375 seq.; Baker's Biogr. Dramatica; Genest's Account of the Stage, passim; Notes and Queries, 7th ser. iii. 361; O'Donoghue's Dictionary of Irish Poets.]

W. J. F.