Ogilby, John (1600–76), founder of the first theatre in Ireland, was born 17 November 1600 near Dundee, Scotland, son of a Scottish gentleman; no further details of his parents are known. During his youth his family moved to London, where his father was jailed for bankruptcy c.1612–13. Ogilby and his mother raised money by trading goods; his father used the profits to invest in and win a lottery and thereby buy his freedom. About 1619 he was apprenticed to a London dance master and was good enough to dance in one of the spectacular royal masques staged by the duke of Buckingham. Unfortunately, his career as a dancer was brought to a premature end by an injury sustained while attempting a particularly ambitious leap that left him with a permanent limp. Thereafter, he became a dance instructor and also worked as a trader, being admitted a freeman of the Merchant Taylor's Company in London on 6 July 1629. Among those he instructed were the sisters of the soldier Sir Ralph Hopton, who trained Ogilby in the use of military arms. By 1631 he was residing at Gray's Inn Lane in London, and by 1632 he was running a dancing school nearby at Black Spread Eagle Inn.
In July 1633 he went to Ireland as part of the household of the newly appointed lord deputy of Ireland, Sir Thomas Wentworth (qv). As such, he was a member of Wentworth's troop of guard and dance instructor to the lord deputy's wife and daughters. There, he first displayed literary talent in paraphrasing some of Aesop's fables and by writing a witty poem entitled ‘The description of a trooper’. At the encouragement of other members of Wentworth's entourage, he learned Latin as a precursor to further literary exploits. In Ireland he also became heavily involved in Wentworth's efforts to encourage dramatic productions in Dublin. By January 1634 plays were being performed in a chamber in Dublin castle for the enjoyment of the lord deputy and his court. The performers were probably members of Wentworth's circle, and, if so, Ogilby was undoubtedly among them.
By early summer 1636 (possibly as early as spring 1635) Ogilby was acting as manager of a public theatre at Werburgh St., which, with Wentworth's blessing, he had designed and built at considerable personal expense. Probably modelled on the Cockpit theatre in London, it could seat about 300 people in the pit and hold another 100 on the balcony. Virtually nothing is known about the plays that were performed there in 1635–6. These would have been relatively modest affairs, with the actors most likely being amateurs. This preliminary phase for the Werburgh St. theatre came to an abrupt end when the archbishop of Armagh, James Ussher (qv), believing that plays were immoral, had the theatre closed down during Wentworth's absence in England from June to November 1636.
In late 1636 Ogilby, probably having accompanied Wentworth to England, secured for the new theatre the services of James Shirley (qv), who was regarded as one of the best contemporary English playwrights. Ogilby was aided in this by his contacts within London theatre and by the fact that the outbreak of the plague had led to the closure of the London theatres for much of 1636–7. That spring, and with Shirley's help, he arranged for some of London's finest professional actors and musicians to settle in Dublin to perform for his theatre as a royal company. Bolstered by these impressive recruits and by Wentworth's increasingly overt patronage, the new theatre was relaunched in 1637 with Shirley acting as playwright in residence. He wrote a number of plays specifically for his Dublin audience, the first being ‘The royal master’, which was first performed in late 1637 and was a success. The Werburgh St. venue also hosted productions of Shirley's earlier plays as well as those of the leading London playwrights including Middleton, Fletcher, and Jonson. Wentworth and his entourage regularly attended these performances and the lord deputy was sufficiently appreciative to appoint Ogilby master of the revels for Ireland on 28 February 1638. This appointment gave him a monopoly over the staging of public performances in Ireland.
The presence of Wentworth guaranteed the attendance of the leading government officials, while the rest of the audience appears to have been composed of lawyers and soldiers. In other words, the theatre's main patrons were Ireland's political elite. Although this may have conferred prestige, it did not guarantee full houses, particularly because Wentworth was a very unpopular figure within the country at large. The theatre struggled to draw an audience, as Dubliners preferred the competing attractions of watching military drills, bear-baiting, and local pageants. Efforts were made to cater to local tastes: Shirley's ‘St Patrick for Ireland’, which had much in common with a popular miracle play, was performed in late 1639, and on St Patrick's day 1640 the theatre staged a play called ‘Landgartha’, written by an Irish catholic, Henry Burnell (qv). Considerable alterations may have been made to the stage for the performance of ‘St Patrick for Ireland’, as its script clearly requires the use of sophisticated stage props and mechanisms including an upper acting area, a small discovery space, and a trapdoor.
The theatre received a boost when the Irish parliament assembled in March 1640 and continued to sit intermittently into autumn 1641: the presence of large numbers of gentlemen and peers from all over the country guaranteed better business. However, by spring 1640 Ogilby had lost most of his best actors due to his inability to pay them properly. Then Shirley left Dublin for good in mid April, before Wentworth's fall from power in late 1640 deprived Ogilby and his theatre of its most important patron; Wentworth's enemies, now in control of the Irish government, closed the Werburgh St. theatre in May 1641.
Ogilby remained in Ireland, being present for the outbreak of the catholic rebellion in October. On 17 November he narrowly avoided death after a freak explosion in Rathmines Castle. He is said to have remained in Ireland for a period after this, undergoing many hazardous experiences, possibly while serving in the royal army against the rebels. He returned to England c.1644 but was shipwrecked en route and eventually arrived in London penniless, having lost his large financial investment (which he later put at £2,000) in the Werburgh St. theatre. After periods in Bristol and Cambridge he had settled in London by 1648, probably in Blackfriars parish.
Although a royalist, he kept out of the turbulent politics of late 1640s England and devoted himself to the translation and publication of classical works. His marriage (March 1650) to Katherine Hunsdon (née Fox), a wealthy widow, provided him with the financial means to complement his knowledge of Latin (he subsequently learned Greek). The previous year he had published a translation of Virgil intended for private circulation. Encouraged by its success, he went on to publish more commercially ambitious translations, including further works on Virgil (1654, 1658, 1666), Aesop's fables (1651, 1665), the Iliad (1660), and the Odyssey (1665). He also contributed to and published a two-volume edition of the Bible (1660). His translations were both critically and popularly acclaimed during his lifetime, but subsequently became the subject of widespread derision among classical and religious scholars. Most famously, John Dryden mocked Ogilby's translations of Virgil in his poem ‘MacFlecknoe’.
Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, he was commissioned to design the triumphal arches and to write masques to be performed on the streets of London for the coronation of Charles II on 23 April 1661. Later that year he published an account of the coronation, The entertainment of his most excellent Majestie Charles II, which became his greatest commercial success to date. Royal patronage enabled him to expand his publishing ventures and to resume his involvement in dramatic productions in Dublin. After being confirmed as master of the revels for Ireland by royal patent (8 May 1661) – his previous appointment in 1638 had only been by royal warrant – he befriended Thomas Stanley, a wealthy English heir, who agreed to support financially Ogilby's plans for reestablishing a theatre in Dublin. Ogilby returned to Dublin in late 1661 and with the assistance of the lord lieutenant of Ireland James Butler (qv), 1st duke of Ormond, erected a theatre at Smock Alley; the Werburgh St. venue having fallen into ruin during the intervening period.
On 18 October 1662 the new theatre staged its opening play, Fletcher's ‘Wit without money’. At the time, the stage was bare and not yet completed. The first purpose-built restoration theatre and one whose design was imitated in England, the completed Smock Alley incorporated an impressive proscenium arch that divided the stage between an acting area and a rear stage for background scenery. The pit contained benches for the nobility; above that were three levels of galleries, with commoners placed in the highest level. As before, Ogilby aggressively recruited actors from England and was forced to apologise to the duke of York (qv) in August 1662 for enticing actors in his company to Ireland. The new theatre's first original play was a translation of Corneille's ‘Le mort de Pompée’ by Katherine Philips (qv), which was performed on 10 February 1663; Ogilby wrote three masques for this adaptation. Two weeks later the first staging took place of a play written by the powerful but controversial nobleman Roger Boyle (qv), 1st earl of Orrery, entitled ‘The general’. Aided by such prestigious and politically charged productions, the new theatre was both popular and profitable. The Smock Alley theatre also benefited from the manner in which attending and patronising plays had come to be seen as a form of homage to the restored monarchy. In 1663 it staged a play by Ogilby, ‘The merchant of Dublin’, which has not survived. During the 1660s he divided his time between London and Dublin, where he lived at Blind Quay and then at Wood Quay.
Ormond's dismissal from office in 1669 soon revealed that, like its predecessor, Smock Alley was dependent on viceregal patronage: the new lord lieutenant, John Robartes (qv), had the theatre closed for much of 1669–70. Perhaps foreseeing this, Ogilby had left Dublin by early 1669, deputising his stepdaughter's son William Morgan to run Smock Alley, which struggled for much of the 1670s due to the indifference of various governors. In any case, Ogilby had been spending more time in England trying to rebuild his publishing business after much of his stock had been destroyed by the great fire of London (September 1666). In the aftermath of that disaster, he was commissioned to carry out surveys of areas of the city devastated by the fire.
This project stimulated the ever-versatile Ogilby's interest in cartography, and he published a translation of a Dutch geographical work on China in 1667. Thereafter he secured the title of royal cosmographer in early 1671 and published atlases of Africa (1670), Japan (1670), America (1671), China (1671), and Asia (1673). In 1672 he began his most ambitious project: a six-volume atlas of Britain of such detail and comprehensiveness that he estimated it would cost £20,000 to produce. Although all six volumes were eventually published, all but one volume was incomplete due to his inability to raise enough money. The exception was the fifth volume, a road map of England and Wales entitled Britannia (1675) – a landmark in map-making, being the first national road atlas of any European country. Around 7,500 miles of road were depicted at a uniform scale of one inch to a mile. A commercial sensation, Britannia went through four editions in two years and was much copied and pirated.
Ogilby died 4 September 1676 in London and was buried in St Bride's church, Fleet St. He does not appear to have had any children. Three portraits of him can be found, prefixed to his various publications.