The Best of Early Modern Drama

Nothing but league, and love, and banqueting

Over the past couple of weeks, @eoin_price has kept the early modern twitterverse atwitter as he’s run a March Madness style bracket tournament to find out the “best” early modern play (NOT BY SHAKESPEARE). Ultimately pre-tournament favorite The Duchess of Malfi took home the win, and though I completely disagree with that (as the best play is clearly The Spanish Tragedy), I found taking part in this tournament was much more enriching than similar ones of the Shakespearean canon (because how many years in a row do people need to vote for Hamlet to win?).

Eoin started by asking us all the list our top five plays. He then tallied the votes and created a seed based on those rankings (I’m not a sports person so I can’t promise that terminology is correct).* I was quite proud of my familiarity with the plays that ranked in the top twenty, especially how many of them I had theatrical experience. I was equally delighted by the second set of twenty plays — how odd and unknown they are, and how much they added to my reading list!

Here is the original top league from Eoin:

20. Volpone by Ben Jonson: I have read this play and seen it performed (I think?).

18. The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe: I have read this play and seen a staged reading of it.

18. The Witch of Edmonton by Ford/Dekker/Rowley?: Hmm. I am vaguely familiar with this play. I may have seen a scene or two from it while in grad school.

15. Bartholomew Fair by Ben Jonson

15. Galatea by John Lyly: I have seen a staged reading of this play.

15. The Shoemaker’s Holiday by Thomas Dekker: I’ve seen a scene or two of it while in grad school

14. Arden of Faversham: I’ve read and produced this play at Brave Spirits Theatre; I’ve also played Alice in a staged reading of it.

13. Women Beware Women by Thomas Middleton: I’ve read this play, seen it performed, and played Lavinia in a Shakespeare in the Pub reading of it.

12. Tamburlaine by Christopher Marlowe: I have read both parts of this play and seen — count them — THREE productions of it.

11. The White Devil by John Webster: I have read this play.

10. ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore by John Ford: I’ve read this play, seen it performed, and directed it for Brave Spirits Theatre.

9. The Revenger’s Tragedy by Thomas Middleton: I’ve read this play and seen it performed.

6. The Alchemist by Ben Jonson: I’ve read this play and seen it performed.

6. The Changeling by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley: I’ve read this play, seen it performed, and directed it for Brave Spirits Theatre.

6. The Roaring Girl by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker: I’ve read this play and seen a staged reading of it.

5. The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd: I’ve read this play and — fun fact — it was the first full length play I ever directed.

4. Edward II by Christopher Marlowe: I’ve read it, seen a production and an adaptation, and directed a staged reading of it. It will also be part of Brave Spirits Theatre’s Histories Online Reading Festival.

3. Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe: I’ve read it, seen it multiple times, and been in — count them — THREE productions of it.

2. The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont: I’ve seen a scene of it or so while I was in grad school.

1. The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster: I’ve read the play and produced it for Brave Spirits Theatre.

And here, in some ways a much more interesting list, is the next set of twenty plays that got votes in that original question. It contains more plays that I must now add to me reading list, but also a few of my personal favorites. I’ve long been determined to stage The Atheist’s Tragedy at some point, if only to make my long time collaborator and fight director Casey Kaleba figure out how someone brains himself with an axe.

21. The Roman Actor by Philip Massinger

22. Sejanus by Ben Jonson

22. Dido by Christopher Marlowe: I’ve read this play and seen it performed.

24. A Chaste Maid in Cheapside by Thomas Middleton: I’ve read this play and seen it performed.

24. The Tamer Tamed by John Fletcher: I’ve seen this play performed.

24. The Maid’s Tragedy by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher: I’ve read this play and performed Evadne at Brave Spirits Theatre.

24. The Rover by Aphra Behn: I’ve read this play and performed Angelica Bianca in a staged reading.

28. The Malcontent by Thomas Middleton: I’ve seen this play performed.

28. The Woman in the Moon by John Lyly

28. Epicene by Ben Jonson

31. The Broken Heart by John Ford

31. The Fair Maid of the West by Thomas Heywood

33. The Honest Whore Part 1 by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker

33. The Devil is An Ass by Ben Jonson

33. The Sea Voyage by John Fletcher and Philip Massinger: I’ve seen this play performed.

33. The Tragedy of Mariam by Elizabeth Cary

33. The Atheist’s Tragedy by Cyril Tourneur: I’ve read this play.

33. The Witch by Thomas Middleton

33. The Birth of Merlin by William Rowley: I’m about to read this play!

40. Endymion by John Lyly

40. The Convent of Pleasure by Margaret Cavendish

40. Perkin Warbeck by John Ford: I’m about to produce an online reading of this play for Brave Spirits Theatre.

40. A Mad World My Masters by Thomas Middleton: I’ve seen this play performed.

40. Michaelmas Term by Thomas Middleton

40. Philaster by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher: I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this play performed.


*If you’re curious, my list on that particular day happened to be The Spanish Tragedy, The Maid’s Tragedy, No Wit / No Help Like a Woman, The Custom of the Country, and The Bloody Banquet. The first and last I have directed, the second produced and acted in, and the middle two are still at the top of my to be produced list.