John O’Keeffe was born in 1747, and trained as an artist (being enrolled, he tells us, at the Dublin Royal Academy when he was six), but at the age of twenty-seven his sight began to deteriorate seriously (he traced the source of the problem to falling into the River Liffey and catching a chill), and he turned instead to acting, and writing plays and operas – and songs and doggerel rhymes – for the Dublin and London stages. As he said, ‘a man can compose with his pen in the hand of an amanuensis; but the pencil he must hold in his own hand’. By 1781, he had to give up acting, and was completely dependent on an amanuensis, his servant John. His two volumes of memoirs were dictated to his daughter Adelaide in 1826, six years before his death in his eighty-eighth year.
The work is dedicated (fulsomely) to ‘His Most Gracious Majesty King George The Fourth’, who gave O’Keeffe a pension (as he did to that other Irish ornament of the stage, the tenor Michael Kelly, the dedication of whose own memoirs is equally devoted in its language).
You might guess that O’Keeffe trained as an artist. He talks a great deal, especially in the first volume, about the way people look – their clothes, their wigs and head-dresses – and about spectacular sights, whether natural or man-made, such as the Franchises (the triennial pageant of all the craft guilds of Dublin), or the gorgeous funeral of the Italian composer Castruccio, which literally struck the boy O’Keeffe dumb for several hours. He was also deeply, deeply snobbish: his own family was from land-owning gentry stock, and related (at third-cousin sort of remove) to Irish aristocracy, but had lost both wealth and land. (His parents were Roman Catholics – though his own religious status is never mentioned, except by inference when his daughter is sent to be educated in a French convent – and the family were Jacobites.) The books are peppered with references to the lords and earls he had seen, and the sons of lords and earls he caroused with: the déclassé gentleman, even more déclassé because of his profession, letting us know that the highly born were more than willing to be seen in his company.
O’Keeffe’s output was mostly comedy, pantomime and farce. He wrote at least twenty plays, many of them ‘afterpieces’, the short, often musical, light relief which came after the main event of the theatrical evening, which was the three- or five-act full-length play. It is interesting that on several occasions he was paid several hundred guineas by an impresario for the play, out of which he himself then paid a composer to add the music. His collaborators included William Shield (the Englishman(!) who composed the tune of ‘Auld Lang Syne’), Samuel Arnold (a serious musician, editor of Handel and Boyce, who sadly comes under the heading of Bizarre Deaths – from injuries sustained after falling from his library steps), and Michael Arne, son of the famous Dr Thomas Arne, though intriguingly not the son of Arne’s wife. Michael was raised in the theatre, as it were, by his father’s sister Susanna, the famous singer and actress who married Theophilus Cibber, son of Colley Cibber, actor, ‘improver’ of Shakespeare, antagonist of Pope, and eventually Poet Laureate. (O’Keeffe pitched for the Laureateship at one point, but was told that it had already been given to a Dr Warton.)
Much of O’Keeffe’s work seems to have been derivative – having played Tony Lumpkin in She Stoops to Conquer, for example, he wrote two ‘sequels’, Tony Lumpkin’s Ramble thro’ Cork and Tony Lumpkin in Town; and a pantomime, using children for Lilliputians, was called Harlequin Gulliver. Not much has survived in the repertoire, but in 1976 the Royal Shakespeare Company revived his Wild Oats, a five-act comedy, and there is a rave review by Bernard Levin available online which refers to the playwright as ‘an altogether forgotten Irish-born eighteenth-century man of the theatre’ and asks ‘what other treasures are there in O’Keeffe’s work, and how many of his contemporaries might also now be looked over with advantage?’
Another play which sounds interesting is Omai, a pantomime of 1785, which takes the real Tahitian brought back to England by Captain Cook, and famously depicted both by Reynolds and by William Parry in a triple portrait with Sir Joseph Banks (huzzah!) and Daniel Solander, and puts him into a surreal plot whereby he is engaged to marry Londina, the daughter of Britannia, but the lovers have first to thwart the foul plots of their enemies, and this involves travel to Kamchatka, the Antarctic, New Zealand, Tonga and Hawaii. The play ends with the apotheosis of Captain Cook. (It is comforting to be told that the set designer consulted both Cook’s writings and John Webber, the artist on Cook’s last voyage, in a search for authenticity. Omai had died in 1780, and Solander in 1782, but I wonder if Sir Joseph caught a performance?)
Chapter X of Volume 1 begins: ‘October 1st, 1774, I was married to Mary Heaphy, the elder daughter of Tottenham Heaphy, Esq.’ of Limerick, the owner of two theatres. His children, John Tottenham O’Keeffe, Adelaide and Gerald (who died young) are mentioned frequently and with devotion, but Mrs O’Keeffe, an actress and a Protestant, apparently left him for another actor in 1781 – the same year he lost his sight. He is alleged to have ‘demolished his wife’s nose in a fit of jealousy’, and went back to England, at which point Volume 2 begins. He never returned to Ireland again, and according to his daughter, never mentioned his wife’s name again either: in the book, he simply says ‘Affairs entirely private, and strictly domestic’ compelled him to send the children to France for their education – apparently an effort to prevent his wife having contact with them.
The recollections are a bit of a ramble – and read exactly like unedited dictation, or like the wonderful stage adaptation of Aubrey’s Brief Lives, where the elderly and garrulous author buttonholes you with a hotch-potch of his own memories, things he was told as a boy, and things that he read in books. Reminiscences of actors like Garrick and Macklin and the managers Colman and Harris; anecdotes about what happens when a lady with an enormous head-dress brushes against a chandelier; how to prevent a duel (talk relentlessly to both protagonists until they forgot what they came for); the economics and politics of the theatre; showing a band of Cherokee Indians the trap door in the stage; the patronage of the great; how Sir Joshua Reynolds called one day by accident; how to buy a cauliflower in Ireland – a good-humoured and engaging review of an unusual, difficult and remarkably productive life.
Adelaide looked after her father until his death in 1833. She published novels, but is best (if at all) remembered for her contributions to Miss Jane and Miss Anne Taylor’s Original Poems for Infant Minds. She died, unmarried, in 1865.
Finally, and on a personal note, when, some decades ago, I first met Him Indoors, he introduced me to a repertoire of English song from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. One ditty was called ‘Amo, amas, I love a lass’, and I never quite believed in it: imagine my surprise therefore when I discovered today that (a) it really exists, and (b) it was written by John O’Keeffe.