What Is Burlesque?
“Burlesque” is a genre of entertainment that encompasses many varying styles within. It spans the worlds of literature, poetry, dance, comedy and drama – and is both risque and satirical in nature reflecting the taboos and social norms of the time. It is as ancient as it is contemporary. It is evolving every day.
The word burlesque literally means ‘to send up’, to spoof through parody. In its traditional theatrical form, it is best described as “Spectacular Satire” and was eventually mass-popularised in the Victorian era. Here is a very brief outline of the three dominant ‘eras’ of burlesque.
Classical Burlesque: Right from it’s early beginnings in ancient Greece, burlesque was a specialised form of musical-comedy – a very rude one. A burlesque was typically comprised of ironic iconography, playful punning, gender and political satire with adult jokes featuring cross dressing, with men and women often at war with each other. The performers of this time were satirising Dionysus, Odysseus, the Senate and all the material we now refer to as ‘the Classics’; they were making comment on current affairs, gossip and life in their time. Writers such as Aristophanes who gave us Lysistrata, Clouds and so many other treasures, were considered very influential, influencing government and society thinking – Aristophanes famously quipped “Women – can’t live with them, can’t live without them”. His plays are still performed across the world today.
British Burlesque: The late 18th and 19th century burlesque was an updating of Classical burlesque with influence from the comedic, literary and poetic works of the Restoration. It was both splendid and thought provoking with increasingly high production values, ironic parodies of popular music and typically starred female performers breaking taboo and taking the lead roles – as men – dressed often in ankle-worthy, leg-showing britches. In Britain, burlesque’s history is steeped in potent social change and reflects the development of female empowerment and how women perceived themselves; it saw the rise of the first female manageress in theatre, feminist icons and trans-Atlantic celebrity. Arguably, as a theatrical genre, burlesque saw it’s apogee in the 19th century where the players would send up known literary, historical and artistic works while making ribald social comment for the enjoyment of the middle classes and later, the working classes too. In essence, it is very much like bawdy pantomime where stereotypical gender roles and sexualities were explored.
American Burlesque: Generally speaking, it is considered that the 1930s – 1950s saw the ‘Golden Era’ of American burlesque, where entrepreneurs such as a the infamous Minsky Brothers in New York set up bawdy revues which mimicked (or ‘burlesqued’) the expensive and oft inaccessbile Broadway shows, such as the Ziegfeld Follies. These burlesque shows had, just like their subject of lampoon, a chorus line of scantily dressed women, comedians and novelty acts and gave theatrical birth to stars such as comedienne Gypsy Rose Lee (pictured). It is believed that as a consequence of ‘tit for tat’ (excuse the pun) attempts to heighten the allure of the rivaling shows, that eventually the striptease was ‘accidentally’ born in Minsky’s Theatre in the 1920s. The resultant taboo paved the way for future burlesque dancers to experiment with ingenuity in losing their costumes on stage for comedic and titillating effect. It was in the American burlesque show that the humble pastie and nipple tassel would be born – to flout nudity laws.
A Genre: The various forms are still alive and thriving today, with countless new styles and personal quirks setting new trends for a new era. Famous American style acts include Gypsy Rose Lee, Lili St. Cyr, Sally Rand Bettie Page, Tempest Storm with funny men such as Abbott and Costello making their names in burlesque too. Among the famous burlesquers of the traditional British form, we can count Eliza Vestris, J. R. Planché, Nellie Farren, Gilbert & Sullivan, Lydia Thompson, Vesta Tilley, The Western Brothers, Carry On (pictured) and also Monty Python. Of course even further back in time and in the ancient Greek lands where it all began, there is a cornucopia of unexpected heroes and heroines, including the drinking buddies of Socrates and even a Byzantine Saint… Click here for more info.