From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Artists such as Lili St. Cyr
were one of the leading artists of burlesque
Advertisement for a burlesque troupe, 1898
Burlesque is a humorous theatrical entertainment involving parody and sometimes grotesque exaggeration.
 Etymology and early history
The term burlesque may be traced to folk poetry and theater and apparently derived from the late Latin burra ('trifle').
The origin of the term 'burlesque' is contentious with most citing the French burlesque, which was, in turn, borrowed from the Italian burlesco, derived from the Spanish burla ('joke') as its root. Its literal meaning is to 'send up'. In Britain 'burlesque' in verse and prose was first popularised in the 14th century by Geoffrey Chaucer's satirical The Canterbury Tales. Later many Irish and British satirical writers came to prominence with political and social burlesques in the 18th and 19th centuries such as William Makepeace Thackeray.
In 16th century Spain, playwright and poet Miguel de Cervantes ridiculed medieval romance in his many satirical works. Among Cervantes' works are Exemplary Novels and the Eight Comedies and Eight New Interludes published in 1615.
The first widespread use of the word was as a literary term in 17th century Italy and France, was where it referred to a grotesque imitation of the dignified or pathetic.
Beginning in the early 18th century, the term burlesque was used throughout Europe to describe musical works in which serious and comic elements were juxtaposed or combined to achieve a grotesque effect. Early theatrical burlesque was a form of musical and theatrical parody in which a serious or romantic opera or piece of classical theatre was adapted in a broad, often risqué style that ridiculed stage conventions. In late 19th century, the United Kingdom, in particular, such dramatic productions became very popular, especially at particular theatres such as the Olympic and the Gaiety in London. In Britain, burlesque was largely a middle class pursuit, where the jokes relied on the audiences' familiarity with known operas and artistic works. Its predilection for double entendre and casting female stars in the lead male roles ("trouser role[s] or "breeches parts") gave burlesque its risqué popular appeal. Gradually burlesque performers started appearing in music halls too, performing musical sketches for the working classes with political and social satire. This form remained popular well into the 20th century and can still be found today on television sketch shows. To save confusion, the traditional British burlesque style is now known as 'musical burlesque' or 'classical burlesque' (in the case of sendups of the classics) and is still active today with a handful of specialist writer/performers and producers.
In 20th century America the word became associated with a variety show in which striptease is the chief attraction. Although the striptease originated at the Moulin Rouge in 1890s Paris and subsequently became a part of some burlesque across Europe, only in American culture is the term burlesque closely associated with the striptease. These shows were not considered 'theatre' and were regarded as 'low' by the vaudevillians, actors and showgirls of neighbouring theatreland.
 Development of American burlesque
While the American form of burlesque has its origins in 19th century music hall entertainments and vaudeville, in the early 20th century American burlesque re-emerged as a populist blend of satire, performance art, and adult entertainment featuring striptease and broad comedy acts that derived their name from the low comedy aspects of the literary genre known as burlesque. Here the term "burlesque" was used loosely to describe these adult revue shows in which striptease acts would perform—often with themes, characters or gimmicks—but classic striptease and "hootchy kootchy" dance were already forms in themselves and not automatically "burlesque" by default.
In burlesque, performers, usually female, often create elaborate sets with lush, colorful costumes, mood-appropriate music, and dramatic lighting, and may even include novelty acts, such as fire breathing or contortionists, to enhance the impact of their performance.
Put simply, burlesque means "in an upside down style". Like its cousin, commedia dell'arte, burlesque turns social norms head over heels. Burlesque is a style of live entertainment that encompasses pastiche, parody, and wit. The genre traditionally encompasses a variety of acts such as dancing girls, chanson singers, comedians, mime artists, and striptease artistes, all satirical and with a saucy edge. The striptease element of burlesque became subject to extensive local legislation, leading to a theatrical form that titillated without falling foul of censors.
The American form also was highly influenced by 19th century English variety and music hall shows as developed in the 1840s, early in the Victorian era, a time of culture clashes between the social rules of established aristocracy and a working class society. Originally, burlesque featured shows that included comic sketches, often lampooning the social attitudes of the upper classes and their music (particularly parodies of opera songs), alternating with dance routines. It developed alongside vaudeville and ran on competing circuits. In Britain, burlesque continued its established position in theatreland and enjoyed its own theatres (such as the Olympic Theatre in London) and was largely a middle class pursuit, where the jokes relied on the audiences' familiarity with known operas and artistic works.
In its heyday, American burlesque bore little resemblance to the earlier literary and musical burlesques of the UK (now known as "classical" or "traditional British" burlesque) which parodied widely known works of literature, theater, or music and did not feature striptease. Possibly due to historical social tensions between the upper classes and lower classes of society, much of the humor and entertainment of later American burlesque focused on lowbrow and ribald subjects.
The popular burlesque show of the 1870s through the 1920s referred to a raucous, somewhat bawdy style of variety theater inspired by Lydia Thompson and her troupe, the British Blondes, who first appeared in the United States in the 1860s, and also by early "leg" shows such as The Black Crook (1866). Its form, humor, and aesthetic traditions were largely derived from the minstrel show. One of the first burlesque troupes was the Rentz-Santley Novelty and Burlesque Company, created in 1870 by Michael B. Leavitt, who had earlier feminized the minstrel show with his group Madame Rentz's Female Minstrels.
Burlesque rapidly adapted the minstrel show's tripartite structure: part one was composed of songs and dances rendered by a female company, interspersed with low comedy from male comedians. Part two was an "olio" of short specialties in which the women did not appear. The show's finish was a grand finale.
The genre often mocked established entertainment forms such as opera, Shakespearean drama, musicals, and ballet. The costuming (or lack thereof) increasingly focused on forms of dress considered inappropriate for polite society. The British form, however, carried on much in the same musical-satirical style of the 19th century and is still so today.
By the 1880s, the genre had created some rules for defining itself:
- Minimal costuming, often focusing on the female form.
- Sexually suggestive dialogue, dance, plotlines and staging.
- Quick-witted humor laced with puns, but lacking complexity.
- Short routines or sketches with minimal plot cohesion across a show.
Charlie Chaplin in his autobiography gives this account of burlesque in Chicago in 1910:
Chicago ... had a fierce pioneer gaiety that enlivened the senses, yet underlying it throbbed masculine loneliness. Counteracting this somatic ailment was a national distraction known as the burlesque show, consisting of a coterie of rough-and-tumble comedians supported by twenty or more chorus girls. Some were pretty, others shopworn. Some of the comedians were funny, most of the shows were smutty harem comedies—coarse and cynical affairs.
—Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography: 125–6
The popular burlesque show of this period eventually evolved into the striptease which became the dominant ingredient of burlesque by the 1930s. In the 1930s, a social crackdown on burlesque shows led to their gradual downfall. The shows had slowly changed from ensemble ribald variety performances, to simple performances focusing mostly on the striptease. The end of burlesque and the birth of striptease was later dramatized in the film The Night They Raided Minsky's.
 Notable burlesque writers, stars and agents
 Burlesque show on film
The 1943 film Lady of Burlesque, although a murder-mystery, spends much of its running time depicting the back-stage life of burlesque performers.
The first motion-picture adaptation of an actual burlesque show was Hollywood Revels (1946), a theatrical feature film starring exotic dancer Allene Dupree. Much of the action was filmed in medium or long shots, because the production was staged in an actual theater and the camera photographed the stage from a distance.
In 1947, enterprising film producer W. Merle Connell reinvented the filmed burlesque show by restaging the action especially for movies, in a studio. The camerawork and lighting were better, the sound was better, and the new setup allowed for close-ups and a variety of photographic and editorial techniques. His 1951 production French Follies is a faithful depiction of a burlesque presentation, with stage curtains, singing emcee, dances by showgirls and strippers, frequent sketches with straightmen and comedians, and a finale featuring the star performer. The highlight is the famous burlesque routine "Crazy House", popularized earlier by Abbott and Costello. Another familiar chestnut, Joey Faye's "Slowly I Turned" (famous today as a Three Stooges routine), was filmed for Connell's 1953 feature A Night in Hollywood.
Other producers entered the field, using color photography and even location work. Naughty New Orleans (1954) is an excellent example of burlesque entertainment on film, equally showcasing girls and gags, although it shifts the venue from a burlesque-house stage to a popular nightclub. Photographer Irving Klaw filmed a very profitable series of burlesque features, usually featuring star cheesecake model Bettie Page and various lowbrow comedians (including future TV star Joe E. Ross). Page's most famous features are Striporama (1953), Varietease (1954), and Teaserama (1955).
These movies, as their titles imply, were only teasing the viewer: the girls wore revealing costumes but there was never any nudity. In the late 1950s, however, other producers made more provocative films, sometimes using a "nudist colony" format, and the relatively tame burlesque-show movie died out. As early as 1954 burlesque was already considered a bygone form of entertainment; burlesque veteran Phil Silvers laments the passing of burlesque in the musical Top Banana.
 New Burlesque
A new generation nostalgic for the spectacle and perceived glamour of the old times determined to bring burlesque back. This revival was pioneered independently in the early 1990s by Billie Madley's "Cinema" and later with Ami Goodheart in "Dutch Weismann's Follies" revues in New York, Michelle Carr's "The Velvet Hammer" troupe in Los Angeles, and The Shim-Shamettes in New Orleans. In addition, and throughout the country, many individual performers were incorporating aspects of burlesque in their acts. These productions, inspired by the likes of Sally Rand, Tempest Storm, Gypsy Rose Lee and Lili St. Cyr, have themselves gone on to inspire a new generation of performers such as Dita Von Teese. In the case of such performers as Julie Atlas Muz and Agitprop groups like Cabaret Red Light, the revival of burlesque has also provided a new vehicle for political satire and performance art. The revival of roller derby also features elements of burlesque.
Today New Burlesque has taken many forms, but all have the common trait of honoring one or more of burlesque's previous incarnations, with acts including striptease, expensive costumes, bawdy humor, cabaret and more. There are modern burlesque performers and shows all over the world, and annual conventions such as the Vancouver International Burlesque Festival and the Miss Exotic World Pageant are held. In 2008, The New York Times noted that burlesque had made a comeback in the city's art performance scene.
 See also
- Allan, Kirsty L. 'A Guide to Classical Burlesque – Funny Ha Ha or Funny Peculiar?'
- Allan, Kirsty L. and Charms, G. 'Diamonds From the Rough – The Darker Side of American Burlesque striptease' 
- Allan, Kirsty L. 'FAQ: A Guide for Modern Burlesquers' 
- Allen, Robert C. Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture
- Baldwin, Michelle. Burlesque and the New Bump-n-Grind
- DiNardo, Kelly. "Gilded Lili: Lili St. Cyr and the Striptease Mystique"; Archive of articles, video, pictures and interviews about neo-burlesque.
- Kenrick, John. A History of The Musical Burlesque
- Malach, James. What Is Burlesque
- Ministry of Burlesque. FAQ 'Burlesque, What precisely is it? Its history?' 
- Warrack, John and West, Ewan (1992), The Oxford Dictionary of Opera, Oxford ISBN 0-19-869164-5
- Weldon, Jo. Archive of articles about and original photos of neo-burlesque.
 Further reading
 External links
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