Kenney, James (1780–1849), playwright, was born in Co. Limerick, son of James Kenney, later proprietor and manager of Boodle's Club in London, and his wife. Around 1800 the family moved to London, where the young James was apprenticed to the banking house of Herries, Farquhar, & Co. Increasingly preoccupied with writing and the theatre, in 1803 he published a small volume of poetry entitled Society, a poem in two parts, and other poems. The same year he produced his first theatrical farce, Raising the wind, in which he himself took the role of Jeremy Diddler. This was an unexpected success, and later ran at Covent Garden; the play is significant for giving the English language the verb ‘to diddle’ meaning ‘to swindle’.
A number of new works followed, including a short opera, ‘Matrimony’, in November 1804, and another, ‘False alarms’, in 1807. Equally adept at melodrama and comedy, he achieved a notable success in 1807 with ‘Ella Rosenberg’, a melodrama in two acts. ‘The World’, a popular comedy first produced in 1808 met with some critical disapproval, however; Lord Byron reviewed it in his English bards and Scottish reviewers and asked: ‘Kenney's World, ah, where is Kenney's wit? / Tires the sad gallery, lulls the listless pit.’ Over the following decades Kenney continued to be a prolific playwright, achieving much popular acclaim. He moved to Paris about 1821, but continued to write; his Sweethearts and wives was produced at the Haymarket Theatre in 1823, becoming an immediate and long-lasting success. However, though Kenney produced a large quantity of work, the quality was mediocre, and he never achieved an enduring reputation. His final play was ‘Infatuation’ (1845), a grand drama about the French empire.
Kenney could be a sharp critic of his own work. He was so disgusted by the quality of his musical drama Hush (1836) that he led the booing himself from the dress circle. In his later years he suffered from a severe nervous disorder, which affected his appearance and behaviour: he was sometimes mistaken for an escapee from an asylum. Despite his eccentricities he cut a popular figure, and was renowned for his wit. On one occasion, when dining, he began to choke on a fish-bone, and when asked if it had gone the wrong way retorted: ‘it was just going the way to kill Kenney’ (Kemmy, 40).
He married Louisa Sebastian Holcroft, daughter of Louis Sebastian Mercier, the French critic, and the third wife and widow of dramatist Thomas Holcroft. They had two sons and two daughters. Their second son, Charles Lamb Kenney (1821–81), achieved fame as a journalist and writer. James Kenney died 26 July 1849 at 22 South Terrace, Alexander Square, Brompton, London, of heart disease. He had lived his final days in poverty, and died the day after a benefit had been held to raise money for him.