Farquhar, George (1677?–1707), playwright, was born in Derry, son of an anglican clergyman (his parents’ names are unknown), and educated in Derry at the Free Grammar School under Ellis Walker. The details of Farquhar's life remain scanty, in spite of his fame, and modern scholars have been unable to discover much beyond what his earliest biographers outlined. His father was burned out during the siege of Derry in 1689, after which young George joined the Williamite army and is said to have fought at the battle of the Boyne (at a very early age, it would appear). Having matriculated at TCD on 17 July 1694 he entered the college as a sizar and stayed for two years, leaving without a degree to take up acting at the Theatre Royal, Smock Alley. He made his debut as Othello, a role for which he was physically unsuited, and thereafter seems to have been condemned to minor parts. In one of these, Guyomar in Dryden's ‘The Indian emperor’, having forgotten to exchange his sword for a foil he inadvertently ran a fellow actor through in a stage duel. He then left the stage and left for London in 1698, where he made his career as a writer.
Befriended by the actor Robert Wilks (qv), a Dubliner who had acted at Smock Alley, Farquhar was persuaded to write ‘Love and a bottle’, in which the protagonist, Roebuck, is an Irish gentleman ‘of a wild roving temper’, newly arrived in London. First staged at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, this restoration comedy is usually seen as in some measure autobiographical. It may be taken as the first modern Irish play, although not a very successful one (modern playwrights Declan Hughes and Frank McGuinness have defended it). ‘The constant couple’ (1699) was far more successful, playing fifty-three times in London and twenty-three times in Dublin during its first season. The rake hero, Sir Harry Wildair, Farquhar's ideal of himself, was played by Wilks, whose friendship was to prove immensely important to Farquhar's brief (and it, seems, always financially precarious) career. In those days a writer without a patron had little security, and in the theatre, in particular, he was at the mercy of fickle public taste and managerial dishonesty. Just as Farquhar entered on his career as a successful playwright the tide was turning against the risqué restoration comedy; indeed, he is now regarded as the last of those writers who, in a theatre patronised by Charles II (d. 1685), had created a sophisticated, bawdy comedy using women on stage for the first time in English theatrical history. Farquhar now found himself battling to uphold the comedy of wit and sexual pursuit in the aftermath of Jeremy Collier's influential attack, A short view of the immorality and profaneness of the English stage (1698), which coincided with the moral outlook of the rising middle class. After a brief stay in Holland (August–October 1700) Farquhar tried to answer Collier's objections to contemporary drama by writing a moral comedy, ‘The twin rivals’ (1702), which included an Irish servant named Teague, one of the earliest stage-Irishmen. The audience rejected this attempt. In 1703, to mend his fortunes, Farquhar married a woman he apparently thought an heiress, but rather like an incident in Defoe's fiction Margaret Pemell turned out not only to be no heiress but to have three children by a former marriage. She and Farquhar had two more children, both girls, but the marriage seems to have been unhappy. (In his last play, ‘The beaux’ stratagem’, Farquhar was to make a plea for the introduction of divorce in England.)
Farquhar now left London for some years, travelling first to Dublin in 1704, where his farce, ‘The stage coach’, written in collaboration with Peter Anthony Motteux, was staged and where he won patronage of the duke of Ormond (qv). He then joined the army as a lieutenant in an infantry regiment and was sent on a recruiting campaign to the English midlands (June–October 1704). After this he continued his military service in Ireland till July 1705, during which time he earned a benefit performance of ‘The constant couple’ at Smock Alley, in which he himself played Sir Harry Wildair. Between June and July 1705 his regiment was based at the Curragh, Co. Kildare, and on 27 July Farquhar sat in judgement at a court martial in Dublin castle. Some time later, certainly before November 1705, he left Dublin and perhaps recruited again in Lichfield. Here he wrote or finished a new comedy, one of his two best works, ‘The recruiting officer’ (1706), which contained several innovations, chief among which was the change of setting from the usual, fashionable London to the English countryside. It is sometimes claimed that the lively hero, Captain Plume, is Farquhar himself and that several other characters were based on real people from around Shrewsbury and Lichfield, indicating that Farquhar was returning comedy to nature and away from the artificiality of restoration comedy. The play was a major success at the Queen's Theatre in the Haymarket, London, from 8 April 1706, and being published shortly after went through three editions in this year alone.
By this time, indeed before 1 March 1706, Farquhar had left his regiment, having sold his commission on the advice of the duke of Ormond, in whom Farquhar then placed his future hopes for support. None came, and Farquhar fell on hard times and into ill health. He was saved by Robert Wilks, who, finding him down and out in London lodgings, lent him twenty guineas (£21) and urged him to write a new play. Though fatally ill, Farquhar completed his masterpiece, the joyous comedy ‘The beaux’ stratagem’, which opened at the Queen's Theatre, Haymarket, on 8 March 1707 to great acclaim. It is commonly regarded as the last great comedy of the restoration age.
Farquhar did not live long to enjoy his latest success. He died of unknown causes in May 1707 and was buried at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, on 23 May. No manuscripts have survived, and the only contemporary picture is the frontispiece to his Comedies (1708).