Book Review

Kewes, Paulina. Authorship and Appropriation: Writing for the Stage in England, 1660-1710. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Reviewed by William Warner | July 12, 2000

Paulina Kewes’s book offers another way to refine our understanding of the rise of print culture. Kewes revises the notion that the modern concept of the author as original creator and proprietor followed upon the Queen Anne law of 1710. Authorship and Appropriation convincingly narrates the cultural prehistory of the first copyright law in the struggle around the ground-rules for authorship of the printed plays during the Restoration. The widespread practice of adapting earlier English plays and materials from plays, romances, novels, histories and many other sources incited accusations of plagiarism, a charge which sometimes also implied commercial infringement upon the literary property of an other. Debates about plagiarism, which swirled around the most prominent playwrights of the day (Dryden, Behn, D’Urfey), helped to forge the literary and critical practices we associate with modern authorship: careful acknowledgement of sources (90), the defense of the practice of improving “imitation” (60), a new skepticism about the value of collaboration, a double-standard on plagiarism which made unacknowledged borrowing from English sources “plagiarism” but the importation of foreign or Classical sources “as a means of benefiting the public at home” (111). Professor Kewes book gives new importance to the critical and bibliographical labor of Gerard Langbaine (1656-92), which catalogued all plays published in English so “the organizing principle shifts from play to author” (96). Kewes contextualizes Langbaine’s oft quoted accusations of Dryden for plagiarism as part of a larger mapping of drama such that the relationship between author, audience and literature changes: “Gerard Langbaine’s Momus Triumphans and An Account of the English Dramatick Poets adumbrates such corollaries of modern copyright law as the concept of literary property, fair use, copyright infringement, and even international copyright. His writings constitute the earliest speculative effort to reconcile the propriety interests of authors and of the public” (129). Most suggestively, Kewes shows how Langbaine’s extensive annotated bibliographies, with discussion of the sources of plays, when coupled with the new publishing practices of the 1650s and 1660s (like octavo collected editions of plays by living playwrights), lay the groundwork for the development of a genuine canon of English playwrights. This book offers a valuable compilation of “Collected Editions of Plays, 1604-1720” as its Appendix B.

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