John O’Keeffe (1747-1833), the blind playwright

I love introducing new guests to All Things Georgian and I’m excited to welcome Lynda O’Keeffe, researcher, writer and storyteller, today to tell us about John O’Keeffe (1747-1833), the blind playwright.

As her name denotes, she is a descendant of John O’Keeffe. Lynda has spent over eight years researching the life and works of this extraordinary man and with that she can safely say that she knows this man, everything from his favourite meal to the ribbons in his hair. The object of her research is that his story must be told, his life and experiences are as relevant today as in the 18th century. 

Lynda has worked as a literary and creative arts agent – representing actors, musicians and writers. With a passion for theatre, obviously in the blood, the writing of The Blind Playwright is her first major foray into writing – an experience she says could be likened to an assault course! Finding herself on the other side of the fence, she sought out a writer that she both respects and admires, attended his workshops and now states firmly and unabashedly that without the encouragement and expertise of Niall Williams (author of This is HappinessFour Letters of Love, etc.), she would not have had the confidence to embark on The Blind Playwright.  Her writing has enabled her to escape the uncertainties of the Covid-19 pandemic to dash through the streets of 18th-century London, privy to O’Keeffe’s many amusing anecdotes and cavorting with some of his famous friends including R.B. Sheridan, Charles Macklin, Elizabeth Inchbald and Dorothea Jordan. 

With her confidence bolstered, Lynda’s labours have now come to fruition with the completion of a historical novel based on his life, a play script of O’Keeffe’s life, the reworking of one of his previously unperformed plays and the transformation of several of his comedic poems into a story and play script. Her research has also earned her the support of academic institutions around the world including Trinity College Dublin and London Metropolitan University and national institutions include National Portrait Gallery, National Gallery Dublin and the Fitzwilliam Museum. 

You can join Lynda on her Instagram page and find out more about her ancestor there: the_blind_playwright

National Portrait Gallery

18th century London was never going to be an easy place for a blind Irish playwright to prosper and thrive …

Introducing John O’Keeffe, a man who in his own time needed no introduction at all – the most prolific and significant playwright of the 18th century. With works including operas, comedic farces and poetry, he could be called the Andrew Lloyd Webber of Georgian theatre.  John O’Keeffe’s story is one of survival and success in the face of adversity. He was born in Abbey Street, Dublin on 24th June 1747 into an affluent Catholic family; his father held an office of Prerogative and was a descendant of the Kings of Ireland.  Being born into a life of privilege ensured a fine education, so John attended school in Dublin and soon became a Classics scholar proficient in four languages. Upon his parents’ own desire for their sons to become artists, John and his brother Daniel were sent to the Royal Academy of Art in the city. John’s skill with a paintbrush led to numerous commissions in both portraiture and landscape, but little did he foresee that the observational skills he learnt at the RAA would in the future be his treasured and most invaluable tools. 

National Gallery Ireland, Dublin. Item Number 1810

In 1761, John visited London and upon seeing David Garrick perform was mightily impressed. Unbeknown to the fourteen-year-old John, this was to be the catalyst behind his life choices. He went on to study at Trinity College Dublin, a bright young man with a character described as forever merry and good hearted. He was the life and soul of the party with a fine singing voice, a quick humour and a kindly disposition, and he was considered a man of principles. By this time he was already a published writer, flooding the newspaper editors’ desks with his poetry and amusing stories, forever using the pseudonyms of his classical heroes – Democritus was a favourite.  

After completing his education, John decided upon a career change and became an actor, a strolling player travelling the length and breadth of Ireland. However, after a raucous night out with friends in Dublin, the twenty-two-year old thespian fell into the River Liffey, a watery accident that resulted in a rapid deterioration of his sight, with complete blindness setting in some eight years later. 

THE SHE GALLANT by John O’Keeffe published 1767 for Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin. Credit: Collection of L.A. O’KEEFFE  Photo Credit: L.A. O’KEEFFE

With his acting career now thwarted, the indefatigable John turned his skills to playwrighting. His first play, The She Gallant, became a roaring success in Dublin, and he and his young family decamped to London to find fame and fortune. 

London soon recognised John’s brilliance and he became one of the most prolific and significant playwrights of the 18th century, writing for the Theatre Royals of Covent Garden and the Haymarket. His portfolio totalled above seventy-nine pieces, and between 1778 and 1798 fifty-seven of his plays, amounting to over two thousand performances, were performed on the London stages. 

He was the epitome of celebrity, enjoying royal patronage from King George III and the royal family, and lauded and praised by his illustrious friends and peers, including Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Sarah Siddons, Charles Macklin, Elizabeth Inchbald, Kane O’Hara, William Shield and Oliver Goldsmith. The finest actors, actresses and musicians of the 18th century performed in his works, with Dorothea Jordan, William Lewis, Ann Catley, Michael Leoni and Mrs Powell to be found on the cast lists. He was adored and courted by both society and the public. 

Theatre Royal Covent Garden. Photo by L.A. O’KEEFFE. Print exhibited at The Queens Gallery, George IV Art and Spectacle 2019

But while John’s career was rising to exalted heights, his personal life was crashing down around him. His professional and private lives were on a collision course, and despite reaching the pinnacle of success as a writer, he was ravaged by tragedy and loss. If losing his sight at age thirty was not enough, his first child Gerald died in infancy, his marriage to Mary (née Heaphy) failed, he lost another son Henry at age ten years, and his brother Daniel died in 1787. The final nail in this ‘mental crucifixion’ was the death of his eldest son, the Reverend John Tottenham, at the age of 28 years.  

Throughout all these tragedies, with his daughter Adelaide as scribe, John continued in his work, turning out operas, farces and poetry to enchant and amuse his audiences – even whilst his own heart had been blown wide open. A quote from his memoirs, Recollections of the Life of John O’Keeffe, displays his actions behind his broken human heart: 

The effort to be envied, rather than pitied, often proves a successful stimulus to the greatest actions of human life.’

Portrait of Mrs John O’ Keefe, Wife of the Artist. National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

John’s blindness was a major contributing factor to many of his personality traits, influencing how he reacted to the events that befell him. His character could change in the blink of an eye; from being introverted and often reclusive, he would almost instantly become exuberant and flamboyant. He suffered with bouts of depression, anxiety and vulnerability, yet demonstrated confidence and enthusiasm when putting pen to paper and creating his theatrical masterpieces. The theatre was his Utopia. And even while beset with his own tragedies, this man of principles maintained a strong social conscience. He was a champion and advocate for gender equality, female authorship and the abolition of slavery – and he never missed an opportunity to express his own thoughts through his work. His example in and commitment to socio-political issues remain as relevant to modern times and resonate loudly with current equality movements and issues of modern slavery and human trafficking, immigration and world poverty. From the many pieces John wrote, the most famous over time has been Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp. In 1788 (pre-dating Disney by over 230 years) John dramatised the story of Aladdin as a harlequinade, with its first performance on the stage of the Theatre Royal Covent Garden – it having had resounding worldwide success since. 

Zoe Wanamaker in the RSC’s production of ‘Wild Oats’
Photo credit:www.zoewanamaker.com photo by Reg Wilson

John’s play Wild Oats, first performed in 1791, remains a popular choice with modern theatre companies: hugely successful productions were staged in 1976 by the Royal Shakespeare Company, with a cast including Zoë Wanamaker, in 1997 by the National Theatre, and in 2012 by the Bristol Old Vic. 

Credit: Collection of L.A. O’KEEFFE. Photo Credit: L.A. O’KEEFFE

On this note, I will end John’s story with a review of the RSC production by Bernard Levin: 

‘With ”Wild Oats” the RSC have struck gold and oil at once, and rubies and diamonds to the utmost profusion, mingled with vintage champagne, lightly chilled, caviar is there…A farce by an altogether forgotten Irish born man of the theatre.’ 

John O’Keeffe died in Southampton on 4th February 1833 in poverty, with only four people attending his funeral, somewhat forgotten too at the end of his own life after so many years feted in the spotlight. Remember him next time you see the posters going up for a Christmas production of Aladdin.