Burlesque in Briefs: A History of Burlesque
This essay is an attempt to provide a brief overview of the main names and events in the history of this misunderstood craft, as it changed from Ancient Athens to modern day… I will be updating it as I uncover more information. There are so many heroes, stars and writers of the burlesque genre I shall have to list them all in another document (as this is already rather lengthy), but significant people are named here.
Where to start? What is Burlesque?
The term ‘Burlesque’ literally means “to imitate, parody or send up”. This meaning hasn’t changed – it’s also a verb, an adjective and a noun 🙂
In essence, burlesque is best described as ‘provocative performance art’. As an entertainment form it has existed as poetry, verse, theatrical comedy – and more recently as ‘adult’ entertainment and also as an ‘underground’ scene for amateur enthusiasts too. It has been subject to much cultural reinterpretation across centuries and continents and has reached various zeniths of zeal across thousands of years featuring a galaxy of stars in it’s unceasing expansion. It’s even evolving a new system of cross-cultural styles today. The history of burlesque itself, reads like a series of biographies of unlikely heroes and heroines, littered with triumphs over adversity, pioneering pursuits, derring-do(n’t) – and tragic tales.
Burlesque today has developed in to a wide genre with many styles (or forms) within it – just as Dance is a wide genre with many comparative and conflicting styles on offer, catering for different tastes and disciplines from classical to contemporary… so to is burlesque. Many of the burlesque forms are distinctly different from one another – and woe betide the booker who doesn’t realise.
Some acts involve song, some dance, some speech, some strip off, some don’t, some involve fire, props, giant props, circus tricks, multi media, illusions and some involve a combination – or more. Some are solo, others duo, trio or troupe. Some are a few minutes in length others are a 90 minute production complete with flying space tigers in grass skirts (well, there might be…). From ancient lewd poems about incontinent Greek gods and mighty Spartan armies to faux-aristocratic ditties about Eton in 1930s, from elaborate debt riddled theatre productions and the catchy tunes of Gilbert & Sullivan to ‘leg shows’ in men only bars – burlesque has had many faces (and not all of them pretty, G&S aside). However… as a theatrical form, burlesque arguably reached it’s apogee here in the UK in the 19th century. As a striptease/adult entertainment form (outwith theatreland), it climaxed in American gentleman’s clubs during the ‘golden era’ of burlesque – considered loosely to be the 1920s – 1950s.
G-Strings and G Strings – don’t get tangled…
In Victorian Britain, burlesque was celebrated theatre where no expense was spared on spectacle, the content was deeply satirical, it deliberately played on pop culture trends and music, it was massively popular in the mainstream, it toured internationally, it appealed to all demographics – and it embraced gender-bending roles as an underpinning attribute of it’s success. Ultimately, in this (it’s theatrical form), ‘burlesques’ were/still are extravagant character based musical-comedies which are both splendid and thought provoking. A specialised form of comedy, this form is largely adult in nature and by it’s definition it involves a performer (or cast of performers) ‘burlesquing’ (sending up) a subject for bawdy laughs. The aim of a burlesque is to elicit illicit guffaws, burst a social bubble or two – and provide a gander at an eyeful of fancy-pantaloons.
Although consistently a form of tongue in cheek censure for over 2000 years and although it is still alive and performed by a handful of die-hards in this era today – ‘burlesque theatre’ is having to redefine itself. This is to avoid confusion with a new kid on the block (one with trendier underpants)…
Burlesque theatre as I have described, is not quite the obscure old anachromism as the youth might be led to think. It hasn’t been replaced nor even is it ‘updated by nipple tassels’. Just as ‘Air on the G String’ may well mean appreciating a cello-based parody, I assure you that the double entendre is not lost on a traditionalist. I like to think of our tradition of burlesque as an eccentric old auntie with a weird wardrobe full of cats, hats and y-fronts. The situation is not that Auntie has died and been buried beneath a collapsed stack of newspaper clippings of her heyday – it’s that Auntie ‘s door bell has been rung and she has found herself facing a trendy little cousin gyrating on her doorstep – having just taken the family name on a modern lexical adventure through the press.
Let me make this fact totally perspicacious – as it is rather important: Burlesque is not the same as Striptease. Burlesque and Striptease are two distinct forms – celebrated in their own rights and on their own merits – just like Opera and Ballet are. Similarly, Opera and Ballet do not contain one another, nor are they synonymous, nor did they evolve from the same roots. They have however been successfully blended by some producers to great effect – just like burlesque theatre and striptease were blended in 20th century, giving rise to a new ‘hybrid form’. The modern and highly marketable idea of elegantly stripping off under the name burlesque is actually a little bit of a semantic mishap because it ignores the definition of burlesquing (to send up) and it also undermines the sophistication of the name and legacy of striptease itself.
Burlesque theatre was always risque and even down right lewd at times, but actively stripping off during one is a relatively new thing to find in a burlesque. To be precise, it has actually only been with recent, (early) 20th century American usage of the term, that the modern genre has come to be associated with striptease at all. It has been a massively successful pairing.
Technically, we should identify that this is a new form – distinct from it’s constituent parent parts – it’s a hybrid form that we could reasonably dub ‘burlesque-striptease’. It is important not to confuse burlesque with striptease nor even to confuse burlesque-striptease with burlesque. Striptease isn’t necessarily funny or even satirical (whereas burlesque is, by definition). The stars of burlesque prior to the 20th century did not strip in their routines. Why? It wasn’t relevant to their acts. The biggest star of the new American burlesque, Gypsy Rose-Lee was a comedienne who stripped. The strippers ‘had to have a gimmick’ – hence burlesquing. Gradually the term burlesque, came to refer loosely to all the acts you might find an adult comedy revue of this nature.
As a result of this blending of burlesque theatre, adult humour, stripping and variety, today burlesquing takes many forms, delivered in varying idiosyncratic styles.
[Pedantic Suggestion: Perhaps using the phrases ‘classical’ burlesque (referring to the ancient, toga wearing form from the days of Aristophanes) or ‘traditional British’ burlesque (to denote the Georgian/Victorian obsession with dramatised splendour and scandal) and burlesque-striptease (to denote the American hybrid form or funny narrative-led stripping) will help us define which member of the burlesque family we are referring to. My own style is a mix of all three of these at times…]
The latter day reinterpretations of the theatrical form in different parts of the world (i.e. adult entertainment and modern cabaret) show a fascinating diversity of culture reflecting both social history and national tastes. In Great Britain, the art of classical burlesquing has remained relatively unchanged in 200 years and it’s history is steeped in powerful social change. Among it’s most famous we count H. J Byron, Eliza Vestris, J. R Planché, Gilbert & Sullivan, Lydia Thompson, The Western Brothers and also Monty Python (the satirical musical-comedies).
In fact, technically speaking, burlesquing has been going on for as long as the first person sought to entertain another – we even find burlesques in the medieval works of Chaucer and it is even antiquated in the mythical passion plays of many cultures and found in early Greek theatre too.
Classical Burlesque – A Very Old Joke…
The earliest known surviving burlesque works belong to Aristophanes (446 – 386 BC), a poet-philosopher, a comic dramatist, political nuisance who was a contemporary of giants like Socrates, Euripides and even a young adoring Plato. He was an extremely influential personality who riled the authorities with his ribald burlesques aimed at sending up and challenging everything and everyone in ancient Athens – even the gods themselves. Not even the almighty Dionysus was free from the jibes and public spectacle that Aristophanes would make of Him as he was mercilessly burlesqued as a ‘clown who shat himself’, no less. Here in ancient Athens, their famous people were mocked and spoof versions of their classic mythology were played out riddled with contemporary insight and comment, much to the delight of the Athenian public who saw respect in censure and truth in humour. It is even thought that Aristophanes’ influence and power could be fatal; his caricaturing of his philosphical cohorts unfortunately may have played a part in the trial and execution of Socrates. Moving on from this sombre note of genuine tragedy however, we shall take a look at burlesque’s in these ancient times.
Dubbed the ‘Father of Comedy’, Aristophanes’ burlesques were comic plays written in an expert poetic style using iambic dialogue, tetrameter verses and lyrics covering topics such as democracy, sex and obscenity, gender roles, social politics, slavery, war and religion. The dialogue was full of metaphorical language, puns and wordplay much of which is lost in translation today of course. Most of the burlesques were performed in a theatrical setting but others were intended simply to be read.
In these early ‘Old Comedy’ works, when translated to stage, the characters were based on real people and real issues with masks and costumes worn by the all-male cast so as to identify the subjects of intended mockery. There were no legal routes to take against slander so everything was fair game to the writers – even to the point of personal danger. The costumes worn lent themselves to slapstick humour often with an exaggerated crudely fashioned penis sticking out of the clothing for male characters or exaggerated female garments and attributes worn to portray female characters. Blue jokes and toilet humour about flying poo were common with farce, buffoonery and musical extravaganza underpinning the whole affair with a hint of self-deprecating humour from the writer too. Scenes were loosely strung together with the emphasis on the ‘good-bad debate’ between protagonist and antagonist representing opposing sides of a political, moral or philosophical argument taking place early on in the work. The rest of the show was dedicated to light entertainment and humour with all the trimmings of adult humour and ‘panto’ style fun. At this time comedy was actually quite a new fangled thing in theatre and it wasn’t taken ‘seriously’ (note the irony) by the dramatists and tragedians.
Later on in Aristophanes’ life and career, Greece fell to the Spartans (despite his attempts to influence the senate against going to war) he made the shift with the change in culture from Old Comedy to New Comedy. Here, burlesquing real people was put aside for more structured plot lines involving stock characters which allowed the writers to be more creative with scenarios and explore the comedy itself further. Here the burlesques continued with their identifying effects of satire, absurdity, bawdy jokes and musical spectacle but now it was more likely to be based on fictional characters and scenarios representing stereotypes or perhaps allowing a sense of ‘artistic license’ in portraying exaggerations of known figures.
Eleven of forty plays survive today and they give as an understanding of the man himself, his times and the lives of his fellow people. Using the typical ‘old comedy’ mechanism of having the chorus speak in unison with the thoughts of the author/narrator, the agendas and personality of Aristophanes is gleaned a little. Interestingly there are heavy tones of conservative views expressed through his works and they seem to hold nostalgia for past glory and Empire in the face of war and dissolution of Greece. A respected thinker and voice of the people, he offered an entertaining, if often vulgar, way to debate and deliver new insights on life in classical Athens.
Someone else who deserves a mention here in the ancient history of burlesque is Theodora (500 – 548 CE), a truly inspiring heroine from the classical world. Supposedly a child prostitute turned temple dancer and then burlesque comedienne; she went on to be the courtesan to, then wife of Justinian I thus becoming the Empress of the Byzantine Empire. Her legacy is astonishing. Not only was she the one responsible for the shocking reputation that Byzantine women had – they were considered by neighbouring nations to be ‘too free’ – for she decreed that woman should be free to walk the streets and even have political say. Upon her death she was then canonised a saint by the Orthodox Church.
Credited as the ‘first feminist’ Theodora toppled all the odds and with a sense of humour and drive paved the way for a radical change in thinking about gender roles and sexual equality. Burlesquer – Empress – Saint. Now that’s ‘girl power’.
So think ‘classical burlesque’ and think literally, of the classics – but not as you know them. Think actors in short togas with fake knobs poking out, think masks, talking chorus lines and ancient Greek tragedy with political shtick – and poo jokes.
Verse and Vernacular
The enduring influence of these early works is evident in the shaping of European theatre. In the 6th Century, Hipponax of Ephesus wrote poetic works and is credited as having invented or refine the concept of ‘parody’ by developing a specific metre for the burlesque characters. Latin translations of Aristophanes’ plays in the 16th century were spread through Renaissance Europe and were again translated, adapted and used as the basis and inspiration for as diverse a group of writers as Goethe in Weimar and Gilbert and Sullivan in Victorian London. So the enduring influence of classical burlesque was felt across European theatre right up until 20th century (and a by a handful of specialists today).
In the middle ages in Britain we has our very own master burlesque writer – Geoffrey Chaucer. His Canterbury Tales are literary burlesques and excellent examples of the same combination of farce, word play and creative verse that were the backbone of classical burlesque.
Written in the 14th Century, Chaucer was sending up notions of religious and social conventions and discusses the conflicts between philosophical outlooks of different characters. Like his earlier comparative predecessors, Chaucer was considered a philosopher and a political hand taking on diplomatic and bureaucratic roles with his writing defining his outlook and appeal, earning him the title of the ‘Father of English Literature’.
But in looking at where the form of burlesque began to crystallise and refine in to an accessible popular culture entertainment spectacle found in nationwide theatres as we know them, we need to return to it’s theatrical history in Britain where it was championed as an ancient but newly adapted independent form.
Britain’s Bawdy Backdrop
In Britain, in the late 18th Century/early 19th Century burlesques were akin to parodies of the great operas and ballets aimed to poke fun at the arts, make social commentary and create humorous alternatives which provided a light hearted evening of entertainment. These burlesques were full-length theatrical spectacles which were purpose written with topical jokes, puns and parodied songs; they were elaborately costumed and with high production values, loose plot lines and they were performed by both men and women who often lampooned notions of gender-roles and performed in early ‘drag’. Instead of men playing the female roles as in the theatres of old, women were sending up the men.
Here, burlesque’s history saw unique female entrepreneurialism with opera star Eliza Vestris becoming the first known ‘burlesque star’ in 1817 having achieved fame and celebrity for her gender-bending roles. Later in 1830, she would also go on to become the first woman to control her own theatre.
Those responsible for writing these early burlesques (such as H. J Byron and J.R Planché) were in fact the very same journalists responsible for the satirical writings in publications such as the infamous Punch and Fun magazines. The writing style is again a clear indication of why classical burlesque has always been satirical, designed to make meaningful comment. These early works are thought to have been the inspiration behind some of work of Gilbert and Sullivan (famous for their comic operettas which are regarded by some, as the roots of Musical Theatre itself). In Iolanthe, Queen Victoria herself is burlesqued and is portrayed as the rather randy ‘Queen of the Fairies’ who is chasing her magical lover, thought to represent John Brown. Like Gilbert and Sullivan, like pantomimes and like musicals today, burlesque theatre has always enjoyed a wide appeal and in the 19th century it even enjoyed it’s own dedicated theatres – such as the Olympic in Wych Street, London which was at one point run by Madame Vestris.
The unique theatrical comedy and lavish styling of the early burlesques were attracting a consistent middle class following by the mid 19th century. To appreciate these send ups of the known operas and literary works, the audience had to be already au fait with the originals and so, the assertion that Victorian classical (or what I term ‘traditional British’) burlesque was aimed at ‘low brow’ audiences is unsupported. This assertion is one of many myths surrounding burlesque.
By the mid nineteenth century, theatre was also becoming more accessible to people of the poorer social classes in the form of the ‘free and easy’ or the ‘music rooms’. These were adjoining rooms where pub patrons could each take a ‘turn’ and entertain one another after a few drinks – a bit like an early Karaoke or open mic night. Although the music rooms encouraged patrons to stay longer and drink more, the landlords were not able to charge money for admission to these rooms nor serve alcohol within the rooms themselves due to licensing laws and so, savvy landlords sought a way to capitalise on the popularity of this new social escapism – and circumnavigate the restrictive laws. Proprietors designed and commissioned purpose built theatres for their drinking masses and these were the Music Halls. These halls were complete with adjoining bars where money could be made through hall admissions as well as through the liquor sales. Quite simply, you bought your ticket to the music hall, went in through the bar, bought your drinks and then took them upstairs to the show. As for the performers, they now had more opportunity to earn. In these new theatres, the burlesquers as well as actors, singers, dancers, circus and comics all found a new resource for work and their craft evolved to fit these variety style bills. Instead of full length stage shows, some acts became akin to short, characterised sketches and ‘turns’ which meant that performers could appear in several theatres in one night. To specifically appeal to their new found audiences, each routine was typically designed to give a delicately gloved finger to the establishment and send up the toffs – much to the applause of the more repressed working classes.
Of course, criticism and anxiety over this new excitable form (and the effect it had on the working classes) was brewing a bitter fear in others. The more excitement the acts provoked, the more panic and outrage there was from the offended parties. And so naturally, the more outrage there was the more provocative the acts became. In fact, many acts incited aggressive moral policing from groups such as ‘The Vigilance Society’ who, in fear of public moral health, sought to shut down the halls based on the more risqué and bawdy antics of certain acts which were thought to be exemplar of ‘the very suburbs of hell itself’. The acts which scandalised those with fragile sensibilities tended to be those which contained any kind of sexual referencing (such as Marie Lloyd’s bawdy songs) or, in the case of the burlesquers specifically, it was often their gender-bending roles which caused ‘moral distress’. For example, the idea of ‘ladies in tights’ (all be them black and fully opaque) was a scandalous and women performers dressing as men – showing their shapely legs – was just as lewd. Here is where in 1822, Eliza Vestris shot to fame for her portrayal of Don Giovanni in Moncrieff’s burlesque of the famous opera, titled ‘Giovanni in London’. Vestris is also credited as ‘popularising’ the breeches parts themselves and at the time of her celebrity, her legs were the subject of much poetry and adoration.
Despite the scandals and controversies, burlesque was still adored by a variety and majority of audiences and even in the latter part of the great Music Hall days (1900 – 1940s). In fact, scandal and gossip only ever served to heighten celebrity status as it does today. The public were still embracing the genre and the acts were continually celebrated, criticised, imitated, gossiped about in the newspapers and some even performed by Royal Command – such as Vesta Tilley. Again, the ‘incidentally sexy’ boy impersonators such as Vesta Tilley would have kept tongues wagging and people guessing about roles and persuasions in the Edwardian era too. Tilley was a male impersonator who lampooned male stereotypes through song and costume but instead of displaying her feminine shape through the male attire like her predecessors, she strived to achieve male proportions with padding and tailoring.
Later famous British burlesque acts included the more socio-political sketches about Etonians and Hitler which were played out in the 1930s by The Western Brothers. The Western Brothers were in fact the first burlesque act to have a prime time broadcast on BBC Radio and, so popular were they that their faces were chosen to ‘usher in the era of television’. Ironically, it was TV that killed their career.
So we can conclude that in Britain, burlesque had been a well established theatrical genre (with both men and women performing in equal capacities) which reached all classes of people, for well over a century before it made it’s first big leap to the USA where it would be reinvented and adapted for a different audience, twice.
The Big ReVamp
As you will appreciate, the American story of burlesque begins with a British comedy export. The history begins in the 1860s when a well known (but perhaps waning) British burlesque star, Lydia Thompson set sail for the states having conquered and tired of Europe. Thompson was greeted as a star upon her arrival and she and her troupe, ‘The British Blondes’, were a novel sensation. Like the many stars before her, Lydia’s performances were satirical musical comedies in which she and her troupe portrayed characters in scanty attire, namely as boys. This new wave of British humour typically featured an eyeful of exiguously attired actresses portraying male characters amidst obscure narratives of sailors or Greeks. As with most British entertainment exports, the jokes, music and social references were adapted to appeal to the new American audience. With no social class system to ‘burlesque’ the American understanding of the burlesque genre was fine tuned for a very different market resulting in the emphasis being placed on more bawdy referencing and the satire being lost. But make no mistake, the burlesque show was very much a theatrical enterprise until it’s second American reinterpretation.
By the time of the Depression and prohibition, venue owners were seeking a new way to make money and, like the British landlords of almost a century earlier, the American proprietors were quick to identify the value in hosting bawdy shows. They too began building special theatres – but these were purpose built for adult entertainment. These shows were generally not considered part of theatreland and were often run not by theatre producers, but by crime syndicates who were intrinsically involved in drugs and vice.
It is here, in the early part of 20th century that burlesque took on a new meaning for Americans and as it did so, it was in many ways disconnected from the rest of theatre. Here, the term ‘burlesque’ was applied to the adult shows which were essentially revues of striptease and blue comedy. Borrowing from the style of the classical burlesquers of before, many of the female performers combined their striptease performance with character, send up and musical comedy (forming the hybrid of burlesque and striptease that we know today). Many performers were of course straight stripteasers and not burlesquers and so we must remember that striptease is an ancient art-form in it’s own right too.
So, here is where the American Burlesque was born and it was typified by the likes of Minsky’s Theatres in New York. With the earlier classical burlesque form over-shadowed by the new terminology, the American burlesque show was now of course subject to it’s own controversies. With it’s emphasis on stripping and it’s background in crime, it was regarded as a ‘low’ form of entertainment and was looked down upon by the showgirls of Broadway and also the Vaudevillians (who rather ironically, were the US equivalent to Britain’s Music Hall performers). So the American burlesque show has a chequered past and a dichotomous image. American burlesque was sexy, taboo and had predominantly female stars, based largely on their beauty, dancing and sexual attributes. It became nicknamed, the ‘leg show’, ‘bump ‘n’ grind’ and ultimately became synonymous with striptease itself. This form was made iconic with stars such as Tempest Storm, Sally Rand and Gypsy Rose Lee who in their respective days, represented an image of feminine prowess and liberated sexual identity amidst the controversy of the more explicit forms of stripping and the infamous ‘hootchy cootchy’ dance associated with side-shows which were fronts for prostitution.
However, the enduring image of the ‘golden era’ of American Burlesque is one perhaps seen through rose-tinted retro-spectacles, where the emphasis is placed on the few stars who did enjoy celebrity status. As an entertainer and showgirl, Gypsy Rose Lee famously joked that because she was such a highly paid star, she was not so much a stripper but a high brow ‘ecdysiast’.
Ever since, the idea of burlesque having sophistication and elevation ‘above stripping’ (rightly or wrongly), has been applied to many shows giving them a perceived sense of artistic integrity and again, sparking new controversies and debates over it’s history and it’s place in modern entertainment.
Furthermore, it must be considered that regardless of some feminist interpretations of ‘female empowerment’ etc, the reality was that this was an industry run by the mob, riddled with exploitation and the women who performed ‘in burlesque’ were rarely respected entertainers with many having lives of hardship.
The Death of Burlesque? A Macabre Myth
As World War I dawned, many of the halls and theatres across the world either closed or were used for home font purposes – as in the unusual case of the Britannia Panopticon in Glasgow which was used to keep hens and incubate eggs!
However, the idea that British burlesque died, is mere myth and by this time American burlesque was only just finding it’s feet. By this time, the two forms shared little but a name and a moment in history through Lydia Thompson.
In Britain, burlesque continued as a popular entertainment until the 1930s, much in the format it had enjoyed for centuries. What did change was the medium – not the form. The invention of, and rise in popularity of early cinema saw less expensive and more comfortably seated nights out for the public which were increasingly preferred over the cramped halls and bills of the Music Halls. Gradually, the halls closed in favour of the new comfortable and inexpensive movie theatres. If we look at British comedy, we can see how burlesquing was adapted and gradually morphed to accommodate the changing times of film and television. Making the transition from stage to screen in the mid twentieth century, classical burlesquing simply found a new home. British comedy in film and TV has a strong burlesque genealogy. Think Carry On Cleo, think Morecambe and Wise, think Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, think Pamela Stevenson and her pop star send ups… All bawdy, musical-comedy focused on lampooning some known subject, packed full of cross dressing, costume antics and word play.
Being consistently rather more prudish (at least outwardly) than other nations are, we are notorious for our bizarre sense of humour – an obsession with puns, double-entendres, incessant innuendo and mocking ourselves just as in Classical burlesque and again with the Canterbury Tales. As a nation we seem to prefer suggestion rather than reveal and so we are coy and teasing. As such, our burlesques have always capitalised on this ‘holding back’ and gone from strength to strength.
In contrast, in America the burlesque shows generally declined in popularity almost fading out entirely in the dawn of the swinging Sixties. The era of free love and nudity had left the art of the strip tease rather redundant and outdated. The new strip shows which became the new enterprise endorsed more explicit content and left the glamorous heyday of American pin up and the art of the tease behind.. We can still see the lingering burlesque trail in musicals today where stereotypical images tend to involve scantily clad women in top hats, leotards and fishnet tights, fan dancers, Can-Can girls and a multitude of high leg kicks. In a similar vein, Las Vegas showgirls appear to continue the evolution of American burlesque style with their ‘exotic’ style showgirls who typically appear topless but lavishly adorned with sequins, fishnets and feathers.
The Enduring European Influence
From Ancient Greek chorus to Parisian showgirls of the Moulin Rouge and Weimar Berlin cabaret, in Europe the iconic styles of popular culture burlesque are massively varied and have much in common. They were reactions to social politics, arts and people’s needs of their times. The outbreak of war always results in cutural shifts and changes in ideals. Aristophanes saw a move from Old Comedy to New Comedy when Greece fell to the Spartans, the various Victorian campaigns saw classes of men find common needs, the First World War saw the closure of many establishments from bombing and so opportunity for new ventures in the aftermath. In any case, they each highlighted the need for both light entertainment and deep social satire.
With unstable political changes across much of Europe throughout the early 20th Century, many of the prolific cabarets, writers and satirists just like those centuries before them, left their home countries in search of safer, more liberal grounds for their art forms.
As archetypal bohemian dens of iniquity and creativity, they still hold a romantic fixation in the performance art industries today, including the burlesque scene.
The cabarets and burlesque of the continent, such as the Moulin Rouge are as popular as ever, and as timeless variety theatres without specific social or political focus, they have changed very little. If anything, all that has changed is that they are more ‘tourist friendly’ and cleaner than they once were. A little know fact that many Can-Can performers today are not aware of, is that originally, the Can-Can was performed to allow audiences a glimpse of what was beneath the split in the bloomers – the high kicks and leg extensions were designed to give an eyeful of what was for sale beneath. The Can-Can is still performed and is considered a classic routine but it’s enduring hold on audiences is again, one of romanticised glamour and kitsch nostalgia over it’s seedier roots and links to the sex industry of yester-year.
Threading the Sequins Together – Don’t Get Tangled! There is, as a result of this lineage, some confusion and debate over where the divides between striptease and burlesque lie. The answer is very simple – ‘burlesque’ means to ‘send up, parody, or make mockery of’ and ‘striptease’ means to strip tease with some performers combining the two. There are classical burlesquers today as much as there are striptease artistes today.
But all too often, this simplicity goes unnoticed due to lazy journalism, bandwagon teachers, producers and performers indulging in a little ‘revisionist’ history – and straight PR falsehoods.
The debate often goes even further in deciding between striptease and stripping and by extension, burlesque. Many performers, promoters and patrons argue this topic out on a daily basis but the information is there if you seek it. What is generally agreed upon is that the audiences and tailored marketing for modern American style burlesque shows and modern strip clubs are expressly different from one another – in both design and intention. Although both are forms of entertainment, one is considered cabaret (or theatre) and the other is generally not.
Classical(or Traditional British) burlesquing today is much as it was in the 19th and early 20th century and has no reason to be confused with adult entertainment. I have taken to referring to it as ‘traditional British’ burlesque to further disentangle it from the true classical form where classical Greek tales are spoofed.
The problem is that with a diverse history, misconstrued terminology, forgotten acts and a distinct lack of genuine reportage easily available, it may be hard to define where any dividing line is for any individual performer unless you happen to have already seen their show. Both the roots and differences of the strip tease and the burlesque are as common as they are diverse – both historically and theatrically. They are not interchangeable terms and are subject to contextual interpretation.
For example, in the traditional American interpretation, the strip tease is pivotal in a burlesque show but for it to also be a burlesque and not simply a striptease, there must be some context or narrative in which the strip occurs. Striptease is heavily stylised with the emphasis on the tease rather than the strip. Typically performed by pin up models and great beauties of stage and silent screens, the burlesque theatre was largely focused on the aesthetics and sexual context provided by beautiful ‘unattainable’ ladies.
By contrast, in the traditional (or classical) form the emphasis of any burlesque was always on characterisation or narrative and actually has nothing to do with striptease. Instead the bawdiness of the burlesque lay in it’s innuendo and suggestion. Hence, for modern performers of the classical (or traditional British) tradition, strip tease is often irrelevant.
Either way, in either tradition, any shedding of costume must serve a narrative purpose in order for it to be a burlesque of any kind. There must by definition of burlesquing, be some form of context or story which demands the removal of garments to make a point – that is if anything comes off at all.
With the many forms and varying theatrical values attracting a variety of different performers with individual styles and personal tastes, the genre is now yet again, subject to reinterpretation by a new era of Burlesque artistry. The new burlesque circuit which has developed over the past decade is beginning to mirror the 20-something year saga of the stand up comedy circuit. There are many parallels, but burlesque seems to have captured the public’s imagination with tighter grip, perhaps due to it’s aesthetic theatrical values and sexy image. The burgeoning new scene is in many ways repeating the humble roots of Music Hall in the free and easies – the new wave of burlesque has clearly emerged as a form of ‘public access theatre’. Although a creative boon to society, there is of course a dilemma which has emerged with it.
The trouble lies in defining the line between the hobbyist circuit and the professional entertainers. This can be tricky for those unfamiliar with the whole scene and with the rushing popularity there has also come an exploitative bandwagon. The result has been that the burlesque genre as a legitimate passion, ancient pursuit and as a longstanding profession has been systematically misrepresented, it’s history selectively misreported, the professional opportunities hijacked and the craft itself often misunderstood by those actually purporting to represent it. Burlesque is often regarded today as an empowering form for women ‘reclaiming their sexual identities’ but the real history of the form throws out many more contrary issues than is often acknowledged. All forms of entertainment are empowering to those undertaking them – male of female. Confidence cannot be bestowed or taught, it comes from within the individual. A good teacher will guide a person to discover and harness their own confidence, identity and power. Today, people are enjoying going out for live entertainment and demanding more than the predictable and over priced bars and discos typical of the last 30 years. Experimenting with personal style and nurturing the latent theatrical desires within are in fact a new lifestyle for many. The desire to perform and indulge in theatrical fashions and social experiments has much to do with the modern burlesque trailblazers and die hard enthusiasts both on and off stage. The provision of accessible stages and platforms for a new wave of performers (both amateur and professional) is the hall mark of 21st century burlesque.
There is s definite career path for those who seek it and the opportunities are there for the taking – but also the making. Dealing with the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly is part of reality in all areas of show business and burlesque is no different. Many newcomers have struggled to spot the difference between hobby and career, politics and personal feeling, duty and entitlement, entertainment and emotional need, classical and American, traditional and ‘neo’ styles – but with excellent guidance, these are but natural learning curves. There is perhaps a need for the scene to realise they need to ‘earn’ their individual place rather than seize it.
In the UK and USA in particular, tiny sets of professional entertainers have once again emerged with great strength and the scene itself is generating its own celebrity culture which is also beginning to cross over in to other more mainstream forms of show business.
Organisations such as the Ministry of Burlesque are there to support and encourage the curious enthusiast, the light-hearted hobbyist just as much as the emerging talent and the established stars. The strength lies not in rivalry or hype but in quality teaching, genuine opportunities and knowledgeable community support – and Together, We Can-Can.
If using, citing or referencing please credit ‘K. L. Allan, Ministry of Burlesque’ and cite www.kittie.me.uk