The Maiden’s Holiday is a lost comedy, entered in the Stationers’ Register in the early 1650s as “written by Christopher Marlowe and John Day“. Since Day doesn’t appear to have been active as a playwright before 1599 – six years after Marlowe’s death – a later reworking seems far more likely than an actual collaboration, but we cannot tell for sure. The only known manuscript copy belonged to 18th Century antiquarian John Warburton’s collection, that went… er, lost.
Warburton, the proud owner of some fifty priceless Elizabethan and Jacobean manuscript plays, saw it fit to store them in the kitchen – and it never occurred to him to alert his servants to the fact. Mrs. Baker, Warburton’s cook, found in one of her cupboards a bundle of musty old papers, and did what any thrifty housekeeper would have done: she used them, in part to light the stove, the rest as baking parchment.
And so it was that what might or might not have been Marlowe’s only comedy (together with quite a few other plays, including three by Shakespeare), was very likely used to cook a venison pie…
Or so Warburton said.
Honestly, it’s hard to tell – but, if it is true, I can’t help finding the story quite tragicomic – poor Mrs. Baker, how was she to know? One wishes, though, she had been a little less inclined to pie-baking. If she had, we could stop wondering at the utter unlikelihood of Kit Marlowe writing comedy – much less something called The Maiden’s Holiday… Frankly, it just doesn’t sound like him, does it?
In 1850 Alexander Dyce thought he had found a fragment of the comedy in a scrap of verse dialogue attributed to “Kitt Marlowe” in the Alleyn Papers… Trouble is, John Payne Collier had discovered and edited it – and we have learned to be wary of any find of Collier’s…
Besides, the scrap is hardly a work of genius… And yes, it is conceivable that Marlowe was just not very good at comedy – but the bottom line is, we know very little about the Maiden’s Holiday. We can’t be sure the Stationer’s Register is accurate, we cannot know whether Warburton attributed his manuscript to Marlowe on the sole strength of the Register (and in fact, we can’t be terribly sure about Warburton’s collection at all), no one can vouch for the authenticity of anything that John Payne Collier touched and, even if the find were, for once, legitimate, we can’t be sure the dialogue is really from the lost comedy – or, for that matter, really Marlowe’s. Which means that, unless or until someone finds a surviving copy of the Missing Maiden, all we have is a nice riddle: Could or Would Kit Marlowe Really Write Comedy?