British Burlesque: Funny Ha-Ha or Funny Peculiar?
Amidst the renaissance of the showgirl-striptease, the art of traditional (known as ‘classical’) burlesquing is in danger of becoming totally removed from it’s own genre. This article is an attempt to draw attention away (just for a moment) from the fleeting frenzy of all things frilly, unravel the misconceptions and cast a spotlight upon the magnificence of what classical burlesquing really was – and still is.
Firstly, it must be understood that there is a problem with the ‘b word’ itself. It is an adjective, a verb and a noun – a name for many faces. The meaning is diverse and it morphs according to where you are in the world, the context in which you happen across it and the angle from which you glimpse it.
As an entertainment genre today, the ‘b word’ is applied and often misapplied to many different performance styles. This is because the word is undergoing change and adaption according to current popular trends – but as with any trend, there is bandwagon which must be let to pass. For too many, the word ‘burlesque’ is merely a media buzz word or in some instances, a desperate marketing gimmick employed to boost reputation or appeal. Either scenario, does no justice to the rich history, the diversity of styles across eras and oceans, the importance of it’s stars nor the significance of it’s content, then or now – in any of burlesque’s lavishly provocative forms.
Whichever style of ‘burlesque’ you follow you will know it not by it’s name – but by it’s effect. It will absolutely seduce you. But for this essay, I am taking a more peculiar glance at the world of the original theatrical form – the ‘classical burlesque’.
What is Classical Burlesque? What is it not?
‘To burlesque’, literally means ‘to send-up, satirise or make mockery of’. This literal meaning has not changed and the expression of ‘burlesquing’ can be found in many lexicons – “The trial was a burlesque of justice” and so on. The ‘classical’ aspect highlights the roots in the classics. The earliest known written burlesque plays are by Aristophanes dates round 400 BC and this philosopher-comic was a celebrity satarist of his day, sending up the gods, the myths and the people of his lifetime. His comedies and those inspired by his work endured and were still played out in mainstream popular theatres as recently as the 19th century.
Over the years, the form migrated across the globe and advanced according to different social demands but this form of classical burlesque itself, arguably reached it’s apogee during the 19th century where it enjoyed high production values, the influence of modern trends and contemporary jokes – it took on the role of sending up then modern Britain and all her whims and fancies. Again the resulting endurance and influence in popular culture (both here and abroad) have been as rich and puissant as Victoria’s Empire itself.
So, in theatrical terms, ‘burlesque’ is a form of satirical musical-comedy which largely developed out of literary satire drawing influence from popular entertainments of it’s day – and it completely revolutionised the very notions and protocols of theatre.
So how to sum it up… it is perhaps best described as ‘Spectacular Satire’ – a burlesque is a send up of a known literary, historical or artistic work. It a kind of ‘high brow pantomime’ – and it’s social history is thoroughly fascinating. Burlesques are devised, planned and written to affect change in opinion or provoke a reaction. They are performed to tease – to make fun of some idea or notion whilst the costuming and casting of the performers are also notoriously subversive and often risqué.
The form was always known simply as ‘burlesque’ (or occasionally ‘burletta’ when performed in shorter sketches) but given the current popular use of the term in reference to 20th century American burlesque, striptease, exotic dance and pinups, it makes sense to keep with ‘classical burlesque’ – to save confusion with this more recent stylistic attribution.
It is subject to many modern myths, often of marketing. Although bawdy, it does not by it’s nature, involve stripping. The lexical crossover and confusion between this form and the modern striptease style, has come through an early 20th century marketing strategy where the term was used by the American adult industry and then, increasingly glamorised over time. As a result, a new style of ‘burlesque’ has now certainly emerged in it’s own right, one which takes the form of elaborately costumed, choreographed showgirls who perform magnificent striptease acts – and many often do so without the defining satirical attributes of the classical burlesque itself. In this instance, these acts are in fact striptease, a form on it’s own right. but found under the general genre of burlesque. The American burlesque acts which do exemplify burlesque theatre tend to be those who portray exaggerated stereotypes of gender ideals (often exaggerated sexualised women) and often with a humorous context or narrative in which they lose their attire.
Largely unchanged in 250 years, the British theatre tradition of burlesquing exemplifies the very essence of what makes British humour so peculiar to Brits. We laugh best when we are ‘not supposed to’. So what is it about the British sense of humour that makes burlesque such a peculiarity? We rib, jest, pun and make fun given any opportunity. We are a nation of self-effacers and eye pokers with a repressed penchant for guilty pleasures. It therefore comes as no surprise that we just love to dress up, act out and get naughty – and the bigger the taboo, the bigger the laugh. British humour has always been bawdy and burlesque was certainly no different – in fact it seized the bawdy bull by the hornies.
To fully appreciate the importance and significance of classical burlesquing in British entertainment, and why it is now so misunderstood (and overlooked) we must thoroughly examine it’s roots, it’s history and it’s misadventures in language and time. So putting on our retrospectacles (not the rose tinted variety) and looking back, the story of classical burlesque in Britain is actually one of social commentary, taboo breaking and enterprising female empowerment.
Myths and Misadventure
British burlesquing has a rich and impressive history spanning 500 years of poetry, literature, theatre (the focus of this essay) and now cabaret too but it is often subject to selective or even ‘revised’ histories. We can count Chaucer, J.R. Planché, Eliza Vestris, H.J Byron, Gilbert & Sullivan, Lydia Thompson and even Monty Python in it’s lineage. Many of the misconceptions about burlesque in general, come from a combination of retrospective prejudice, selective memoirs, PR releases over journalism and sadly, blatant false advertising.
Low Brow: Many assertions state that burlesque was ‘low brow’ or aimed at ‘low-brow’ audiences. But this is an odd conclusion given that burlesques were ‘spoofs’ of known operas and literary works, meaning that to get the jokes, the burlesque audiences would have had to be au fait with the originals. Furthermore, the evidence shows that burlesques of 18th and early 19th centuries were written by and performed for Middle Class audiences. Later, with the advancement of working class Music Halls, burlesques were performed there too. It is often assumed that the working class audiences would not have understood anything beyond the low brow – and therefore the form itself must have aimed ‘low’.
Classical burlesque theatre was actually born of middle class writers, satirists, journalists and entrepreneurs. Having always been a popular culture entertainment (it never was ‘underground’ or ‘alternative’), the form did not necessarily contain anything of an ‘adult-only’ nature, although it was certainly frisky and full of double-entendre.
It was also performed by men and women alike and was considered witty, intellectual and ‘edgy’ enjoying support from top Oxford scholars and critics. It was a subversive, creative and boundary breaking performance style – and it still is.
Sex/Adult Industry: The links between the concept of ‘burlesque’ and the sex/adult industry, is fairly recent – i.e. in the past 100 years – and is a contentious issue for some. It also only applies to the American reinterpretation – and has never been linked to classical burlesque. The general burlesque term became associated with sex, through it’s application to American strip shows in the early 20th century which bloomed during the Depression and lasted until the 1960s. This short time span is often (perhaps ironically) claimed as the ‘Golden Era’ but this assignation also only applies to the new American burlesque style that was created in this time.
Sadly, it appears that much of the glamorous image of this era is actually only visible through rose-tinted retro-spectacles. Evidence suggests that many of the women performing in these shows had no alternatives, were illterate, in poverty with some further involved in drugs and vice with the clubs themselves being run by crime syndicates. Few had the ultra glamorous lifestyle we have come to think of in association with these iconic dancers such as Gypsy Rose Lee. This new style of ‘adult only’ burlesque, is a distinct style of it’s own and is probably best described as hybrid form of stripping and burlesque – i.e. ‘burlesque-striptease’ with striptease remaining a craft in it’s own right too.
Female Empowerment: According to cultural reinterpretation and continental drifts, current trends would have you believe that burlesque is about ‘female empowerment through sexual confidence’ – quite specifically. This assertion may indeed be one of celebration and a wonderful thing in itself, but it certainly detracts from the actual point of classical burlesque. When burlesquing, a person is empowered – to express an idea. Ironically, classical burlesque with some historical peculiarity, seems to have been an industry run by comediennes – where the women, quite literally wore the trousers – as will be shortly discussed.
British Burlesque – A Classical Tradition
As has been discussed, in terms of what we mean by the British tradition of ‘classical burlesque theatre’, we are talking about a form which evolved out of a soupy cocktail of social politics, entrepreneurialism and a national obsession with puns where British burlesquing enjoyed it’s ‘golden era’ in the 19th century where no expense was spared on spectacle.
Traditionally, a burlesque show was a cheeky satire of a known opera, play or historical event. It had a plot, a cast, a witty musical score, detailed historically accurate costumes, elaborate sets, clever dialogue – and a sharp point to it all. In a country where Italian operas and theatre plays were often a privilege for the few, it’s not hard to see why the Italian word for ‘mockery’ would at this time become an English turn of phrase in theatre and a verb meaning to ‘to mock (Italian opera)’.
Bored of the sober-serious nature of operas, writers developed laugh-out-loud spoofs packed full of political puns and social shtick. So here, the ‘burlesque theatre’ was christened – in name and personality, subverting the need for respect and making a mockery of it’s deeply established roots. The audible yawns became roars of laughter. Burlesque was thus, a wayward offspring cut from the same cloth as it’s classical parents; but instead of following suit (pun intended), it turned on it’s heel and presented a well bred, delicately gloved middle finger to it’s critics and audiences alike.
It’s power to make bold political, religious and social commentary was also not overlooked. Considering that laughter is a reaction – not an emotion as many assume – we can appreciate that humour has always allowed us to explore even the most taboo of subjects. Therefore, the power to burlesque something is the power to have it frankly discussed – in public and as a spectacle. Wrapped in costume and characterised by theatre, a taboo is thus sugar-coated. It is a seductively provoking idea – often disregarding of political correctness and coupled with musical ingenuity. All this, sprinkled with the incessant use of the immortal ‘pun’ makes up the backbone of the traditional British (or classical) burlesque.
The act of burlesquing is an act entirely based on caricature-style-characterisation, lampooning society trends and issues. Through it’s own history on stage, burlesque theatre has already transcended demographics and poked fun at everything and everyone with equal fervour.
But where did it all begin? And where did it’s lexical misadventure begin? No doubt, for arguments sake, burlesquing originally began when the first man (probably a woman really) decided to take the pee-pee out of his cave-neighbour’s haircut by fashioning a dead stoat on his head and mincing around for the amusement of others, but flippant speculation aside, the British form has an exceptionally vast history which has transcended continents and centuries of cultural difference. See here for a more comprehensive History of Burlesque.
The form was first notably set to lewd tones on the comedy stages of Athens in 400 BC by Aristophanes and later refined through the poetry of Hipponax of Ephesus in 6th Century – and no doubt through many unsung others peculiar to their own loci and eras of influence. In fact Empress Theodora, a 6th Century Byzantine burlesque comedienne turned Empress of the Empire and later canonised as a Saint, is another who could be said to have left her mark on burlesque history. She is credited as the ‘first feminist’ for her trouble. One could even argue that some religious doctrines are in fact burlesques of others. Besides, who ever said that God didn’t have a sense of dry irony – perhaps one day a cult of Ironic Fundamentalism will sweep the globe?
Similarly as the Greeks but only after we took the time to start quipping, in Britain our fixation with poetic burlesquing can be seen in the 14th century verse and prose ‘The Canterbury Tales’ by Geoffrey Chaucer. In further understanding Britain’s bawdy burlesque backdrop, we need to examine where it began to take shape as a new theatrical genre in it’s own right. The form took shape in the 18th century through caricaturists, satirists and the ‘burletta’ playwrights O’Hara and O’Keefe. The form gained popularity and distinct style in the 19th century through elaborate stage craft and high production values and as a result, it’s punchy attitude has endured in our arts, media and tabloid headlines ever since.
It was easily the late 18th and early 19th century burlesques of the great operas (i.e. Moncreiff’s ‘Giovanni in London’ – a burlesque of ‘Don Giovanni’) that started a cultural revolution of all singing and dancing, slapstick, gender-bending, toe-tapping Travesties. It may surprise many female empowerment protagonists to learn that in burlesque, the real unsung heroes and heroines were undoubtedly found backstage as well as on stage. The pioneers of the old satirical form are truly inspirational. For example, in 1817, opera singer Eliza Vestris became arguably, the first burlesque star when she played Don Giovanni in Moncreiff’s famous burlesque. In 1831 Eliza also became the first woman to control her own theatre – one which she dedicated to burlesque (The Olympic Theatre, Wych Street). In her employ, Eliza commissioned the best. She commissioned Mr. James Robinson Planché (a satirical writer for Punch magazine) to write burlesques for her theatre. Planché also pioneered the art of historical accuracy in costuming in British theatre and his wife too, went on to write shows for Eliza’s theatre.
Subverting the gender-roles and norms even further Madame Vestris continued to tread the boards herself, dressed as a ‘principal boy’ clad in figure-hugging ankle worthy breeches. Her legs are reputed to have inspired many poems and plaster replicas that gentleman could keep at home, although the casts stopped (for decency’s sake) ‘just above the knee’. So here we have Eliza – a star, a male impersonator, an entrepreneur, a producer, a manager and a woman. Now that’s ‘girl power’. Her legacy as a celebrity and cult beauty figure is even noted in the essays and memoirs of the notorious mid nineteenth century ‘faux Spanish dancer’ seductress-turned-Countess Lola Montez, who advises women of Vestris’ personal secrets to a beautiful complexion.
The early 19th century works (i.e. Vestris and Planché’s ‘Olympic Revels’ and his ‘Baron Factotum – The Great Grand Lord Everything’) were also the inspiration behind much of the subsequent work of Gilbert and Sullivan and their operettas. Burlesque therefore, is often regarded as an ancestor of musical theatre itself. Gilbert and Sullivan were practical jokers and damnable proud of their own burlesquing. For example, in ‘Iolanthe’, Queen Victoria is cheekily portrayed as the Queen of Fairies chasing after her magical lover (John Brown).
In the 1860s, British burlesque star, Lydia Thompson took burlesque to the USA and landed in favour with the wealthy New York set – those equivalent to the British middle class. Having exhausted her stardom in Britain (and having tired of the European continent), she had set sail for the USA with an all girl troupe known as the ‘British Blondes’. Legend has it, however, that none of these women were actually blond and so became the first peroxide blondes. Lydia and co adapted the jokes for American trends and enjoyed rave success with their shows including their Greek style burlesque of ‘Ixion’ in which, like their contemporaries back home, they ‘quite incidentally’ displayed their shapely curves by cross dressing in scanty boyish attire.
As the first to successfully introduce burlesque to America (many including Vestris had tried with disastrous effect), Lydia and co were intrepid adventurers, but their form was short lived. As is the case with most British comedy exports, the satire was largely lost in translation and here the genre developed a rather wayward and more provocative sister genre.
Looking back at the British history, it’s also important to point out that although a showbiz star and a trailblazer in many respects, Lydia eventually came back to the UK penniless and died a pauper in 1908. She now lies, 100 years on in a forgotten, unmarked grave in Kensal Green, London. Her ruinous end also has remarkable parallels with those before her including Vestris and Montez.
During the mid 19th Century, entertainment in Britain was becoming more accessible to people of the poorer social classes and it appeared in the form of the ‘free and easy’ – or ‘music rooms’. These rooms were where pub patrons could each take a ‘turn’ and entertain one another after a few drinks. In order to capitalise on the popularity of this new social escapism and to circumnavigate the licensing laws, proprietors designed and commissioned purpose built buildings for the drinking masses of the working classes – The Music Halls. These halls provided everything – affordable booze, orchestra and a variety show (with one notorious Hall in Glasgow stretching the limits of science by also cramming in a wax-works, a freak-show and an exotic zoo, no less! This is the Britannia Panopticon).
In these new establishments, the burlesque acts found a new source of work and their craft evolved to fit the variety bills of the Music Halls as well as the theatre shows. Instead of full length stage shows, the acts became akin to short characterised sketches and ‘turns’ with each designed to subvert the establishment, cause breeches of the peace (pun intended) and to send up the toffs. Much to the applause of their new socially repressed audiences.
Of course, where there is a party there must be a pooper. The more hilarity the acts provoked, the more upset the moral authorities became. Anything so arousing or titillating was deemed improper – especially when coupled with a cross-dressing cast of women in tights. Declaring acts as “the very suburbs of hell itself” the self appointed ‘Vigilance Society’ who, in fear of public moral health, sought to shut down the Music Halls. But, despite their efforts, the entertainer’s power to influence ensured the place of burlesque and bawdy variety in the next century where another trailblazer took a leap forward in social history.
Here is where Edwardian favourite, Vesta Tilley (another ‘boy’ impersonator), made another first – she went on to perform by Royal Command in 1912. Famous for her songs, her attitude and her artistic credibility where she actually padded her curves to appear more manly in order to achieve believable male characters, Vesta has remained a symbol of female independence ever since.
Moving beyond the musical halls and theatre, British burlesque was still going from strength to strength in the early 20th century. From the 1920s to 1950s, the Western Brothers entertained as mock ‘cads’ and aristocratic ‘silly asses’ to huge appeal. They were a lyrically sophisticated burlesque duo who specifically lampooned the upper classes. They were so successful that by 1937 they were BBC Radio stars and in 1953, they were in fact the faces used to ‘usher in the era of television’. Ironically, it was TV that killed their career.
The decline of burlesque in Britian is a curious story. The physical theatrical form played victim to the same events as all other kinds of live entertainment. At the dawn of WWI and then WWII, many of the halls and theatres closed with many being requisitioned for home-front purposes and were never re-opened. At the same time, the invention of and rise in popularity of early cinema, saw preference for the new comfortable and inexpensive movie theatres over the cramped halls and bills of the Music Halls. Gradually, the remaining halls closed.
However, the actual death of burlesque’ is merely a macabre myth. It didn’t depart, but it did channel a new medium (pun intended). It lived on and still lives today. Looking at British entertainment, we can see that burlesque has always been at the forefront of cutting edge comedy and how it easily adapted to accommodate the changing times and new mediums of show-business – i.e. film and television.
For over fifty years now, the TV sketch show has often been host to burlesques. When the variety theatres closed, we started tuning in to comedy shows like ‘Morecambe and Wise’ (who rather fittingly, perform a burlesque of ‘stripping’ in their breakfast sketch, performed to David Rose’s ‘The Stripper’!).
Archetypal British comedy films are based on burlesque principals. Think ‘Carry On’. Think ‘Monty Python’. They are caricature based send ups full of puns, silly songs, innuendo and exiguous costumes which ‘right on cue’ would burst off setting us up for well timed bawdy gags, knob jokes and bosoms a plenty.
In fact, according to numerous independent polls, Monty Python’s ‘The Life of Brian’ has been voted the funniest film ever made. This is quite a finding because it proves the endurance of the burlesque form. This film is arguably the pinnacle of Western culture burlesque – it is a bawdy satire of the life of Jesus Christ. Thanks to Eric Idle, it even comes complete with it’s own iconic, ironic theme song – and no doubt holy ring tone now too.
The acts are too numerous to mention but 1980s comedienne, Pamela Stephenson surely deserves a mention for her celebrity pop spoofs. All be it with less of a musical focus than the classical tradition, our televisions are bursting with this humour. Most recently we can see the craft of burlesquing in the award winning antics of master character actor, Sasha Baron-Cohen as ‘Ali G’ and ‘Borat’. Think too of comedy duo Mitchell and Webb’s inimitable spoof characters and the impressionist and lyrical comedian, Peter Serafinowicz. Every sketch in Little Britain is an elaborate caricature, satire-based send up of some aspect of Modern Britain.
In each case the performers are, like their forerunners, invoking satire, parody and humour and using the devices of costume, caricature, wordplay and music according to their styles of delivery.
Beyond the Breeches of Time
Since it’s not-so humble beginnings in British theatre, the form has been subject to much cultural reinterpretation in different countries, across centuries and continents but yet, it still permeates our culture today as it always has done.
In addition to those few classical burlesque performers today who perform across the live cabaret, burlesque-striptease and comedy circuits, we have more and more west-end theatre also taking stock of both the classic and reinterpreted burlesque forms. True to it’s roots, the new musical ‘Spamalot’ (based on Monty Python’s ‘Holy Grail’) rightly declares itself ‘a buoyant burlesque of musical cliché’. And so the theatrical tradition clearly lives on in the modern era of television.
The form is alive and well but it is also now perhaps experiencing a ‘circle of life’ moment. The exportation of burlesquing to America in the 1860s meant that it was to be re-interpreted and eventually brought back over as new form – and it has. We must be careful to celebrate but not confuse the two.
In stating that one is a Traditional British or Classical Burlesque performer, one is implying that she or he is torch bearer for the ‘Power of Bygone Breeches’ – a specific craft with an important past. As with every generation, the form is undergoing yet further advances in both medium and influence – from multi-cultural material to internet networking and ideas sharing – and so 21st century burlesque has more power than ever.
So, is Burlesque Funny Ha Ha or Funny Peculiar? I’d wager it’s both. It’s funny by it’s very action, it has peculiar cultural variances but most importantly, it is also peculiar to each and every one of us – in our own funny ways.
If using, citing or referencing please credit ‘K. L. Allan, Ministry of Burlesque’ and cite www.kittie.me.uk