Early Musical Drama: English Ballads and Plays, 1500–1649

Matthew D Lillo, Fordham University


Challenging long-running assumptions about the supposed gap between “serious” drama and musical drama, this dissertation shows how ballads have not only always been part of England’s dramatic tradition, but in fact, have been at its core. So closely is dramatic balladry interwoven with early modern theatrical performance that historical playwrights have competitively–and successfully–suppressed its significance. Even as recent years have seen a surge of new interest in early modern ballads and their appearances within dramatic literature, the assumption that ballads are a sub-literary, even roguish, category of folksong and thus far beneath the artistry of serious playwrights remains resilient. As this study argues, ballads emerge in the early Tudor years as much out of aristocratic as they do folk traditions, and, precisely because they make broad contact with audiences throughout English society in the early modern period, playwrights typically use them to create sophisticated moments of musical drama within their plays. Some of the best-known ballad composers of their day are actors and playwrights themselves, and, put together, ballads and plays made up the largest portion of early printers’ stocks. But both genres become increasingly politicized during this developmental period in their histories, creating problems for the English government until authorities ban them from public performance during the tumultuous mid-seventeenth century. Presenting original archival evidence of the relationship between these two genres, this study uncovers a highly experimental period in dramatic balladry, placing early innovations with what we could today call musical drama and ballad-opera nearly a century prior to where music historians currently identify them. Attending to such issues, it works toward three goals: to correct the record on the early history of English dramatic balladry; to examine the innovative ways in which early modern playwrights use and discuss ballads to capitalize upon trends in English culture and society; and to trace the developmental, poetic, and musical influences shared between drama and balladry during these years. Early modern English playwrights make far more sophisticated dramatic use of ballads than scholars have previously admitted–and ballads and drama each play pivotal roles in the other’s development.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature|Theater History

Recommended Citation

Lillo, Matthew D, "Early Musical Drama: English Ballads and Plays, 1500–1649" (2019). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI22623226.