Character sketches, 1594-2013

I don’t react well to the names some people have called Philip Henslowe. I don’t know Phil, obviously, and I suspect that I wouldn’t have even if we’d been neighbours. (Rumour has it my English ancestors were more of the horse-thieving than armigerous variety.) So why do I bristle when people brush him off as an ‘illiterate moneyed man’ (a la Greg), or a mere impresario? Or, as S. P. Cerasano memorably describes the critical habit, as ‘a Scrooge-like playhouse manager who sat in the theatre and watched every penny cross his desk’ (p. 53). [She was, of course, about to smash that image to smithereens in that perfectly Cerasano way.] I bristle because those people refer to Shakespeare’s troupe as artists… often in the same breath.

Henslowe wasn’t a playwright or an actor. He was a manager. He didn’t pretend to poetry, he presented it. Producers and artists are different monsters and they shouldn’t be confused. (Not to mention the bit where Shakespeare was out to, and did, make some money at his profession. Where’s the shame in that?) So why does Shakespeare get a theatre when Henslowe’s stuck with a playhouse?

Reg Foakes puts it nicely:

The Rose, after all, was the theatre at which almost all the leading dramatists (including Shakespeare) learned their trade, yet we are seduced by the stature of Shakespeare into understanding the theatre practices from his Globe plays rather than from the business deals, contracts and records to be found in Henslowe’s Diary. (p. 28)

So I wonder:  is competition the same as rivalry? We can’t speak to the emotional investment of Renaissance audiences. Sure, Ben Jonson called Dekker a hack, but they both sold plays to the same guy. (And Benny said far worse about far greater people.)

Maybe it’s from some deeply-rooted psychological preference, like rooting for the Yankees vs. the Mets. Maybe it’s a matter of taste (or hometown pride), like Whataburger vs. In-N-Out. Maybe it was aesthetics, like to-may-to/po-tay-to vs. to-mah-to/po-tah-to. Or maybe it was just like MadTV vs. Saturday Night Live.*

It’s not a precise analogy, and to even begin the comparison we’ll need to take a major decision. But we must. And so we do:

Admiral’s Men : MadTV :: Chamberlain’s Men : SNL

MadTV ran 1995-2009 and SNL has been on-air since 1975; the Admiral’s (/Prince Henry’s/Elector Palatine’s) Men and the Chamberlain’s (/King’s) Men had more equitable tenures.

Both TV programmes identify as ‘sketch comedy’ shows, though SNL will add ‘variety’ to the list, owing to their own entr’acte musical numbers. (Can anyone say Blackfriars?)

Both had/have rotating casts, with some steady ensemble members working alongside jobbed-in folks; both are known to have actors with careers involved with other companies. (If you’ll take appearing on Law and Order to count for another company. And I think you will.)

I grew up an SNL girl, but even so, I had my cast preferences (e.g. Kevin Nealon > Norm Macdonald; The Not Ready for Prime-Time Players > 1980-95.) I think some of the best moments in comedy history happened in 30 Rockefeller Plaza. I mean, have you seen ‘Land Shark’? It’s classic. But it doesn’t make me laugh as hard as Dot:

And that’s how comedy goes. That’s how theatre goes. Some days you like what’s on, some days you’d rather to listen to babies cry. Sometimes you forget that the impressions in the 1992 presidential election were just as good as the genius in 2008.

*Or films vs. movies. Sonnets vs. limericks. Ice cream vs. sorbet. UPS vs. FedEx. Texas Hold’em vs. five-card draw. Alien vs. Predator. The Simpsons vs. Family Guy. Sinatra vs. Crosby. Glasses vs. contacts. Skim vs. Semi-skimmed. Percolator vs. cold press.

Bonus #1: The world’s best opening monologue, courtesy Candice Bergen and a bee. It breaks my heart I can’t find a video clip to share with you. American friends may find some online, but NBC has the lockdown on all international streaming on YouTube and elsewhere. But you can read a transcript here.

Chevy Chase, John Belushi, and Candice Bergen. SNL opening monologue, Season 1, Episode 4.
Chevy Chase, John Belushi, and Candice Bergen. SNL opening monologue, Season 1, Episode 4.

Bonus #2: The Anjelah Johnson masterpiece Bon Qui Qui.

[Further reading:
Cerasano, S. P. ‘Philip Henslowe and the Elizabethan Court’. Shakespeare Survey 60 (2007): 49-57.

Foakes, R. A. ‘Henslowe’s Rose/Shakespeare’s Globe’. From Script to Stage in Early Modern England. Eds. Holland, Peter and Stephen Orgel. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. ]


  1. I am totally unqualified to comment on your analogy, but I’m sure you’re right. I mostly wanted to say that you would have really REALLY loved this week’s SNL. It was fantastic. I sure hope you get to see it! (Candice makes an appearance!)

    • I saw the 5 Timers Club opening sketch and was SO. HAPPY. I wish Hulu/NBC allowed video streaming in England. Always so much TV to catch up on when I get to DC!

      (Oh, and I saw Veganville, written by the fantastic Paula Pell.)

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