Written in the fall of 2012 for a free reading of the play, directed by Alan Paul. -DL
Like his famous colleagues Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, John O’Keeffe (1747-1833) was an “English” playwright who was, in fact, Irish. Born in 1747 in Dublin, O’Keeffe spent 13 years acting in Dublin, touring the Irish provinces with itinerant companies and writing as many as 17 plays. In 1777, Tony Lumpkin in Town, his Irish adaptation of Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, was produced at London’s Haymarket Theatre. O’Keeffe moved to London three years later, never to return to Dublin.
O’Keeffe’s success in London was staggering, especially considering his low reputation nowadays. He was the most produced playwright in the final quarter of the 18th century, with his 57 plays being performed a total of 2,006 times. By means of comparison, Shakespeare was second, with 1,510 performances, and Sheridan’s plays were third, with 1,090. William Hazlitt, the preeminent drama critic of the era, praised O’Keeffe as “our English Molière,” but to a modern reader he is more reminiscent of his contemporary, Pierre Beaumarchais. O’Keeffe’s plays, comedies of intrigue built on an imbroglio of complicated events, mistaken identities and miraculous revelations, embody what critic Charles Lamb called “idle gallantry in a fiction, a dream, the passing pageant of an evening.”
Of these plays, Wild Oats (1791) is his best, perhaps the finest combination of humor and sentiment in Georgian comedy. The plot revolves around Jack Rover, a wandering actor who assumes the role of his friend, Harry Thunder, so as to court Harry’s cousin, the beautiful Lady Amaranth. Rover peppers his impersonations with Shakespearean allusions, making the play fun for trainspotting audience members with a love of Shakespeariana. But as the plot becomes more complicated, the play itself begins to take on unmistakably Shakespearean hues: a hypocritical Quaker recalls Malvolio, Lady Amaranth assumes the guise of a Georgian Rosalind and her country estate the Forest of Arden. The end result of all of O’Keeffe’s bardic quotation is to give the play a surprising depth of sentiment, if not profundity. The play’s miraculous ending, a series of reconciliations and discoveries, calls to mind the endings of Shakespearean romances, from Pericles to The Winter’s Tale to The Tempest.
The play is also Shakespearean in is its fondness for its characters. Jack Rover, the whirligig center of the play, is an agent of chaos, but one with a golden heart who spreads a love of life’s theatre wherever he goes. Like an itinerant Irish actor wandering into Liverpool, Jack Rover is a wandering spirit of the theatre. And every time this magical play is performed, he lives again.