The Blind Playwright

Gavin Clarke Family, history, Poetry, Theatre

By LYNDA O’KEEFFE

My research on the life and works of John O’Keeffe began over eight years ago, it began after I delved into the never-ending realms of genealogy. My own children have continued a tradition of generations of my family treading the boards, I wanted to know just how far back tradition stretched. Finding John O’Keeffe was a thrill which soon became an obsession – with a strong emotional attachment.  The more I found out about the man the more I admired and liked him. I am now curator of a large collection of his works, and have garnered information about his life and works which otherwise would have remained hidden. His struggles, beliefs resonate within me like a ships bell, I hope to bring his story to reach a wide audience that he might serve as an inspiration to others. 

JOHN O’KEEFFE (1747–1833)

The Blind Playwright

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

Recollections of the Life of John O’Keeffe (1826)

Introducing John O’Keeffe, a man who in his own time in fact needed no introduction – one of the most prolific and significant playwrights of the 18th century. A playwright of cosmopolitan London and Dublin who was a crucial conduit for representing the positive qualities of Ireland and its culture to London’s theatrical audiences.

Despite writing mainly comedies, O’Keeffe foregrounded subjects of the greatest social and political importance, including such issues as the plight of the poor and the marginalised, equality and the abolition of the slave trade. He was a socially engaged writer who knew how to make people think as well as laugh. His achievements are all the more remarkable due to his loss of sight at around the age of thirty, my work in part is to achieve recognition of O’Keeffe’s place in the lineage of Irish writers of disability (Charles Joseph Kickham, James Joyce, Christy Brown, Lynn Buckle, Rosaleen McDonagh…).

O’Keeffe was born in Abbey Street, Dublin, on 24th June 1747. His early schooling was under the learned Jesuit Father Austin, through which he became proficient in the Greek, French and Latin languages and acquired a considerable knowledge of mathematics. Upon his parents’ desire for their sons to become artists, John and his only brother Daniel were sent to study under Mr West at the Royal Dublin Society. O’Keeffe’s skill with a paintbrush led to numerous commissions in both portraiture and landscape. The keen observational skills he learnt there served him well in his later art-form, in the rich descriptions on what he envisaged in a production, from the physicality and subtle nuances of his characters to set design and costumes. 

In 1761, O’Keeffe visited London and attended a performance by David Garrick. In the first part of his memoir he recalls the transformative effect of the experience:

My fancy soon strayed to Shakespeare, Old Ben, Congreve, Cibber and Farquhar. The first edition of Farquhar’s comedies, set me studying and acting private plays among my schoolfellows; and this transition from drawing to poetizing was ultimately (as my sight began to fail at seven and twenty) very fortunate for me – a man can compose with his pen in the hand of his amanuensis; but the pencil he must hold in his own hand.

Recollections of the Life of John O’Keeffe (1826)

Soon the stage would take all his attention, an acting career touring the theatres of Ireland to considerable success followed and his memoir recounts the pleasure he took in the parts of Jaffier, Warwick, Jessamy, Young Meadows, Linco and others. But sadly, this happiness was not to last. After a night out with friends in Dublin, the twenty-two-year-old thespian fell into the River Liffey.

The first cause of this injury to my sight was from a cold I got by a fall off the south wall of the river Liffey, Dublin, on a dark December night, by going out to sup with my party for some hours in my wet clothes, and in about a fortnight the effects appeared in a violent inflammation of my eyelids. I then tried many remedies, each crossing the other, which increased the malady, and my persisting to use the pen myself impaired my sight beyond all hope. Although, from the opinion of the first medical people, my complete recovery of sight was quite hopeless, yet I never had an ambition to be pitied; and, indeed, effort to be envied, rather than pitied, often proves a successful stimulus to the greatest actions of human life.

Recollections of the Life of John O’Keeffe (1826)

By 1781 O’Keeffe was finding success as a playwright in Dublin with his works The She Gallant and Tony Lumpkin in Town (a sequel to Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer). In this same year the now blind O’Keeffe, bolstered by his theatrical triumphs, decamped to London to find fame and fortune.

His genius was recognised in his youthful productions of The Son in Law and The Agreeable Surprise, both performed at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Following on the immense success and popularity of these pieces, he began to write exclusively for the Theatres Royal of the Haymarket and Covent Garden. His works were filled with laughter, high spirits, fun, frolic and farce. His friend and contemporary, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, commented, ‘O’Keeffe is the first to have turned the public taste from the dullness of sentiment… towards the sprightly channel of comic humour.’  O’Keeffe used his celebrity and his pen to voice his opinions on many controversial matters, an example of this can be found in his play, The Basket Maker (1789).  In the same year, there was a debate in the House of Commons on the Petitions for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. O’Keeffe included in his character, Reuben Sadboy’s dialogue:

…on my return to America, every slave of mine shall be as free as the air he breathes”. With the finale firmly declaring, “Hail Fellows! Black , yellow.  Souls are all of one colour.

Reuben Sadboy in The Basket Maker

O’Keeffe’s theatrical portfolio totalled above seventy-nine pieces, and between 1778 and 1798 fifty-seven of these, amounting to over two thousand performances, were performed on the London stages. In 1793, John Barnard the New York critic stated: ‘Shakespeare and O’Keeffe guarantee audiences.’  In 1788 he was the first to dramatise, as a harlequinade, Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp, with its first performance on the stage of the Theatre Royal Covent Garden. O’Keefe’s librettos attracted celebrated composers such as Dr Samuel Arnold and William Shield. Essayist and drama critic, William Hazlitt, defines O’Keeffe’s talents thus:

‘O’Keeffe, the English Moliere. In light careless laughter, and pleasant exaggeration of the humorous, we have no equal to him.’

William Hazlitt

The finest actors, actresses and musicians of the 18th century performed in O’Keeffe’s works, regulars included John Edwin, Dorothea Jordan, William Lewis, Ann Catley, Michael Leoni and Mrs Powell. He was at this time at the zenith of his fame, admired, courted and praised. He was respectfully accosted or singled out in the streets, visited more than he wished in his own home and received with acclamations and enthusiasm whenever he appeared in the boxes of the theatres. O’Keeffe also enjoyed royal patronage from King George III, and was lauded and praised by illustrious friends and peers, including Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Sarah Siddons, Charles Macklin, Elizabeth Inchbald, Kane O’Hara and Oliver Goldsmith.

But while O’Keeffe was building his career, attention must be drawn to the struggles he underwent due to his disability and his attempts to conceal it. To avoid exciting compassion, he would feign better vision than he really possessed, often attended by the most ridiculous and whimsical effects, about which on reflection he says, ‘No one laughed more heartily than myself.’ O’Keeffe devised a series of strategies: first was that his daughter, Adelaide, became his lifelong amanuensis from the age of twelve. She described her job thus:

As my father’s amanuensis (not secretary), I am only a machine worked by the power of mind, the mere preserver of the overflowings of a memory and imagination which habit and necessity had rendered so retentive, that he can dictate above ten or twelve verses, mentally corrected, which seem to flow like inspiration from his lips.

John O’Keeffe, O’Keeffe’s Legacy to his Daughter, (1834)

With a keen mind for mathematics and a brilliant memory, O’Keeffe also formulated a grid system that enabled him to manoeuvre around obstacles safely in his home. He adapted this for the stage too, making sure he knew the exact position of cast and props – a forerunner of the grid system used in modern film-making. The financial success of his work allowed that O’Keeffe could employ a guide for his walks about town, a sure-footed nimble fellow with quick reactions, able to swiftly avoid the baskets on vendors’ heads and easily sidestep any obstructions. O’Keeffe would stand behind his guide, placing his right hand with his arm outstretched on the guide’s left shoulder and by this means they would safely traverse London’s busy streets. At home, he employed domestic staff including a valet who attended to O’Keeffe’s wardrobe and toilette requirements – although he always shaved himself.

O’Keeffe’s blindness was a major contributing factor to the changes that developed in his character during his lifetime. From being a confident and cheerful young man, he became introverted and often reclusive, but then in the blink of an eye, he would almost instantly become exuberant and flamboyant. In the company of strangers he was invariably silent and uncomfortable. He suffered with bouts of depression, anxiety and vulnerability, yet demonstrated confidence and enthusiasm writing and creating his theatrical masterpieces. 

As if the challenge of blindness wasn’t enough to surmount while O’Keeffe’s career was rising to such exalted heights, his personal life began to crash down around him. Familial tragedy and loss marked his life, two incidents wrought a mental change: the death of his second son in infancy and the end of his marriage to Mary (née Heaphy). In 1787, O’Keeffe was dealt another devastating blow by the unexpected death of his brother Daniel, whom he had adored. The impact of Daniel’s death resulted in  O’Keeffe becoming reclusive and withdrawn, his work stalled.

In 1791, there is one mention of Henry, an illegitimate son approximately ten years old and after extensive research it can only be assumed that he too died.  From this year forward, O’Keeffe’s writing is in serious decline, although he received plaudits for his new work, his heart was not in it, and he began to sink further into a hermetic life. He spends his days at home with his daughter, Adelaide who would read psalms and poetry to him, whilst he secluded himself from friends, acquaintances and kind strangers who may wish to visit.

Still living in London, albeit quietly, O’Keeffe struggled as the brio and go of his work starts wanes. In 1803, his only surviving son, Reverend John Tottenham O’Keeffe was offered the position of Chaplain for the Duke of Clarence in Jamaica. Although O’Keeffe is unhappy about the post and its far-flung destination, he says goodbye to his son. Three weeks after his arrival in Jamaica, John Tottenham dies from a fever, aged twenty-eight. It is at this point that O’Keeffe decides to leave London and retire to Chichester.

In his writing and person O’Keeffe would show support for gender equality, female authorship and the abolition of slavery; his conscience found a ready outlet in his work for the stage. Curiously, there is no reference to his disability in his works, nor are there any characters portraying disability. In this respect, he accepts rather than represents disability, in that proud acceptance he rails against its defining of him. His example in and commitment to socio-political issues remain just as relevant in our modern times and resonate loudly with current equality movements and issues of modern slavery and human trafficking, immigration and world poverty:

Good health is everything, to enjoy physical and mental health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being regardless of race, religion, economic or social conditions.

Although the name of John O’Keeffe is not familiar to most people today, even those who flock to Aladdin at Christmas, his plays are still performed and appreciated. Wild Oats, for example, first staged 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.  A review of the RSC production by Bernard Levin states:

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.

Bernard Levin

For many years O’Keeffe’s fondest wish was to return to his beloved native land, there to pass the remainder of his days with the promise to show his daughter the grand cities of Dublin, Cork and Limerick. With animation and marked gesture he would proclaim to Adelaide, ‘If ever I again set foot in Ireland, let who will see me, be they hundreds or thousands, I’ll kneel down and kiss the ground, the blessed ground!’ But he was never to return to his cherished home. Aged eighty five, John O’Keeffe died in Southampton on 4th February 1833 in poverty. Only four people attended his funeral, a man set aside all too soon at the end of his own life after so many years of being feted in the spotlight.

Lynda A. O’Keeffe is a researcher/writer who lives between England and Ireland. She has contributed to numerous publications including History Ireland and various online publications. She has recently completed a historical novel about the life and works of John O’Keeffe, with the guidance and encouragement of Niall Williams (This is HappinessFour Letters of Love, etc). She is currently writing a stage play about John’s extraordinary life reflecting the effect of blindness in shaping his work.