- Paulina Kewes
Langbaine, Gerard (1656–1692), dramatic cataloguer and writer, was born on 15 July 1656 in the parish of St Peter-in-the-East, Oxford, the second of two sons of Gerard Langbaine (1608/9–1658), provost of Queen's College, Oxford, and his wife, Elizabeth (1613–1692), daughter of Charles Sunnybanke, canon of Windsor. From about 1666 to about 1670 he attended a school in Denton, in the parish of Cuddesdon, Oxfordshire, where he was taught by William Wildgoose. When in 1670 his mother's plan to secure his admission to Magdalen College, Oxford, failed, Langbaine was sent to London and apprenticed to Neville Simmons, a bookseller in St Paul's Churchyard. He was bound to Simmons for eight years, starting from 1 February 1672, but he never took up his freedom, for within months of his arrival in London he was recalled to Oxford on the death of his elder brother, William, on 3 June 1672. He matriculated from University College, Oxford, on 25 October 1672, but he never took his degree. His studies were interrupted when, not yet nineteen, he married Mary Greenwood (d. 1724), on 18 May 1675 at Headington, and promptly left for London. After a spell in the capital he seems to have settled in Holywell parish, Oxford. The young couple's conjugal felicity did not last long. Their daughter Elizabeth died shortly after being baptized at St Cross, Holywell, in August 1681, and was buried at St Peter's-in-the-East on 23 August. Wood tells us that Langbaine 'left his wife and hous in Holywell in the beginning of June 1683 and went away with a whoreish woman named … daughter of Warnford who lived in Halywell' (Wood, Ath. Oxon., 4.364).
The young heir's hasty marriage, his frequent visits to London in the late 1670s, which involved extravagant playgoing and book-buying sprees, his adulterous escapade, and his costly passion for horses—Wood refers to him as a 'great jockey' (Wood, Ath. Oxon., 4.364)—meant that he soon ran out of the estate he had inherited. Apparently reconciled to his wife, Langbaine was by 1685 back in Oxfordshire, where he lived a retired life at Wick in Headington. His sons Gerard and William were born in 1688 and 1692 respectively.
The retirement afforded Langbaine the leisure to pursue his 'inclination to [Dramatick] Poetry', which, he recalls, 'has led me not only to the view of most of our Modern Representations on the Stage, but also to the purchase of all the Plays I could meet with, in the English Tongue' (G. Langbaine, Momus triumphans, 1688, sig. A2r). Langbaine's interest in the drama goes back to his brief period of apprenticeship in London where he had the opportunity to see plays, and where he is likely to have become acquainted with Francis Kirkman, a bookseller with a strong line in playbooks which he advertised in successive catalogues of 1661 and 1671. Having begun to build his own collection of plays while in college, by 1688 Langbaine owned no fewer than 980 titles (part of his collection survives in the library of Worcester College, Oxford). His 'natural and gay geny … to dramatic poetry' (Wood, Ath. Oxon., 4.364) led him to produce a series of increasingly sophisticated catalogues of plays, the earliest of which was An exact catalogue of all the comedies, tragedies, tragi-comedies, opera's, masks, pastorals and interludes (1680). Published anonymously, this catalogue was merely a continuation of Kirkman's latest playlist. By contrast, Langbaine's later compilations proved a landmark in the history of dramatic authorship, bibliography, source study, and criticism. A New Catalogue of English Plays (1688), better known under its spurious title Momus triumphans, or, The Plagiaries of the English Stage, was the first ever to arrange entries alphabetically by authors' surnames, thus indicating the growing status of playwriting towards the end of the seventeenth century, the first to identify the sources of individual plays, Shakespeare's prominent among them, and the first to list the most readily available editions. Langbaine was scrupulous in distinguishing between plays which could confidently be attributed and those which could not. His catalogue moves from the category of incontrovertible ascription ('Declared Authors'), through that of conjecture ('Supposed Authors'), to that of 'Anonemous Plays'. The alphabetical index of plays makes each item easy to locate in one of the three classes. The preface to Momus, moreover, contains the first theoretical discussion of plagiarism in the English language. Langbaine sharply distinguishes between classical imitation and modern literary theft. Imitation, he argues, involves acknowledged adoption of ancient masterpieces as models; modern playwrights, however, recycle worthless French materials or debase native dramas. He makes a further distinction between overt borrowing from canonical authors (especially Shakespeare and Fletcher) and covert adaptation of plays by less prominent writers. The latter form of appropriation is particularly rife, he claims, because there is less likelihood of its discovery.
Langbaine expanded his views of the proprieties of appropriation in his magnum opus, An Account of the English Dramatick Poets (1691). Arranged alphabetically by author and—in contrast to its predecessor—written in continuous prose, the Account supplied basic biographical information about English playwrights, listed their works, and assessed, in however rudimentary a manner, their literary merit and authorial probity in the use of sources. In contrast to Momus, which did not determine conclusively what the dramatist is at liberty to take from a romance, a novel, or a play, the Account locates the author's property in the linguistic form of a literary work. Stories, plots, and ideas can legitimately be borrowed, but the actual words of the original are barred from appropriation.
Langbaine tapped into a rich vein of public interest. Though the book was scathingly reviewed in one of the short-lived literary periodicals, The Moderator, on 23 June 1692, the Account had a lasting impact upon later dramatic bibliographers, biographers, and critics from Charles Gildon (who within eight years wrote a sequel entitled Lives and Characters of the English Dramatick Poets, 1699), Giles Jacob, and Theophilus Cibber to Samuel Johnson and beyond. Not only was Langbaine's work continued, but annotated copies of his playlists, Momus and Account, circulated among critics, literary scholars, and editors well into the eighteenth century. In his condemnation of literary theft and his concern about literary property, authors' rights, and the integrity of the dramatic text Langbaine anticipates eighteenth-century legal and conceptual developments, notably the official recognition of authors as owners initiated by the Copyright Act of 1710, and the emergence of ideals of originality and individual genius which are central to the Romantic conception of literary creation.
Langbaine's other works include The Hunter: a Discourse of Horsemanship (1685) and The Gallant Hermaphrodite (1688), a translation of François de Chavigny de la Bretonnière's La galante hermaphrodite nouvelle amoureuse (1683). He was elected inferior bedel of arts at Oxford on 14 August 1690, and on 19 January of the following year superior bedel of law. Langbaine died in Oxford on 23 June 1692 and was buried on 27 June in St Peter's-in-the-East.
- H. S. Harvey, ‘Gerard Langbaine the younger’, BLitt diss., U. Oxf., 1937
- Wood, Ath. Oxon., new edn, vol. 4
- P. Kewes, Authorship and appropriation: writing for the stage in England, 1660–1710 (1998)
- A. Watkin-Jones, ‘Langbaine's Account of the English dramatick poets (1691)’, Essays and Studies by Members of the English Association, 21 (1936), 75–85
- D. F. McKenzie, ed., Stationers' Company apprentices, : 1641–1700 (1974)
- C. H. Wilkinson, A handlist of English plays and masques printed before 1750 in the library of Worcester College (1929)