Definitions

burlesque

burlesque

[ber-lesk]
burlesque [Ital.,=mockery], form of entertainment differing from comedy or farce in that it achieves its effects through caricature, ridicule, and distortion. It differs from satire in that it is devoid of any ethical element. The word first came into use in the 16th cent. in an opera of the Italian Francesco Berni, who called his works burleschi. Early English burlesque often ridiculed celebrated literary works, especially sentimental drama. Beaumont and Fletcher's Knight of the Burning Pestle (1613), Buckingham's The Rehearsal (1671), Gay's Beggar's Opera (1728), Fielding's Tom Thumb (1730), and Sheridan's Critic (1779) may be classed as dramatic burlesque. In the 19th cent. English burlesque depended less on parody of literary styles and models. H. J. Bryon was a major writer of the new, pun-filled burlesque. The extravaganza and burletta were forms of amusement similar to burlesque, the latter being primarily a musical production. They were performed in small theaters in an effort to evade the strict licensing laws that forbade major dramatic productions to these theaters. American stage burlesque (from 1865), often referred to as "burleycue" or "leg show," began as a variety show, characterized by vulgar dialogue and broad comedy, and uninhibited behavior by performers and audience. Such stars as Al Jolson, W. C. Fields, Mae West, Fannie Brice, Sophie Tucker, Bert Lahr, and Joe Weber and Lew Fields began their careers in burlesque. About 1920 the term began to refer to the "strip-tease" show, which created its own stars, such as Gypsy Rose Lee; in c.1937 burlesque performances in New York City were banned. With the increase in popularity of nightclubs and movies, the burlesque entertainment died.

See studies by C. V. Clinton-Baddeley (1952, repr. 1974); R. P. Bond (1932, repr. 1964), and J. D. Jump (1972).

Stage entertainment composed of slapstick sketches, bawdy humour, chorus numbers, and solo dances. Introduced in the U.S. in 1868 by a company of English chorus girls, it developed as a version of the minstrel show, divided into three parts: (1) a series of coarse humorous songs, slapstick sketches, and comic monologues; (2) the olio, or mixture of variety acts (e.g., acrobats, magicians, singers); and (3) chorus numbers and occasionally a takeoff, or burlesque, on politics or a current play. The show ended with an exotic dancer or a boxing match. In the early 20th century, many performers, including Fanny Brice, Al Jolson, and W.C. Fields, began their careers in burlesque. The addition of the striptease in the 1920s made a star of Gypsy Rose Lee, but censorship and competition from motion pictures soon led to burlesque's decline.

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In literature, comic imitation of a serious literary or artistic form that relies on an extravagant incongruity between a subject and its treatment. It is closely related to parody, though burlesque is generally broader and coarser. Early examples include the comedies of Aristophanes. English burlesque is chiefly drama. John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1728), Henry Fielding's Tom Thumb (1730), and Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Critic (1779) are parodies of popular dramatic forms of the period. Victorian burlesque, usually light entertainment with music, was eclipsed by other popular forms by the late 19th century, and burlesque eventually came to incorporate and be identified with striptease acts (see burlesque show).

Learn more about burlesque with a free trial on Britannica.com.

Burlesque is theatrical entertainment of broad and parodic humor, which usually consists of comic skits (and sometimes a strip tease). Some authors assert burlesque is a direct descendant of the Commedia dell'arte; the term "burlesque" for a parody or comedy of manners appears about the same time as the first appearance of commedia dell'arte. The word "burlesque" comes from the italian burla, which means a joke, although it may came frome the french word burlesque itself, which qualifies a piece of art ridiculous and slightly outrageous, most of the time in a funny way.

With its origins in nineteenth century music hall entertainments and vaudeville, in the early twentieth century burlesque emerged as a populist blend of satire, performance art, and adult entertainment, that featured strip tease and broad comedy acts that derived their name from the low comedy aspects of the literary genre known as burlesque.

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 demonstrations of unusual flexibility, 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 strip tease artistes, all satirical and with a saucy edge. The strip tease element of burlesque became subject to extensive local legislation, leading to a theatrical form that titillated without falling foul of censors.

Development

The genre originated 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 its heyday, burlesque bore little resemblance to earlier literary and musical burlesques which parodied widely known works of literature, theater, or music. Possibly due to historical social tensions between the upper classes and lower classes of society, much of the humor and entertainment of burlesque focused on lowbrow and ribald subjects—e.g., in the early years, ducks were revered amongst these folk as gags.

The popular burlesque show of the 1870s through the 1920s referred to a raucous, somewhat bawdy style of variety theater. It was 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 M.B. Leavitt, who had earlier feminized the minstrel show with her 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. 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 an interesting account of burlesque in Chicago in 1910:

The popular burlesque show of this period eventually evolved into the strip tease 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 strip tease. The end of burlesque and the birth of striptease was later dramatized in the entertaining film The Night They Raided Minsky's.

Notable burlesque stars

The burlesque show on film

The first motion-picture adaptation of an actual burlesque show was Hollywood Revels (1946), a theatrical feature film starring exotic dancer Allene. 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 Turn" (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 movie 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 mid 1990s by Billie Madley's "Cinema" and Ami Goodheart's “Dutch Weismann's Follies” revues in New York and Michelle Carr's “The Velvet Hammer Burlesque” troupe in Los Angeles. 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.

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.

The UK scene is definitely growing with the introduction of the London Burlesque Festival in 2007 and the Ministry Of Burlesque gaining a seven-figure investment from a major mainstream media company in mid-2008 to create an IP/TV channel and TV studios which are entirely dedicated to the artform.

Burlesque is now spreading across the world reaching countries such as Russia. Though Russia does know of burlesque as a type parody used in theatre and literature alongside with grotesque, farce, etc., it has no history of burlesque as a bawdy and glamorous erotic spectacle performed live on a regular basis. Therefore, with reference to Russia one can speak of the birth of burlesque rather than of its revival. Russia’s first queen of burlesque is Lyalya Bezhetskaya. She also runs Russia’s first burlesque theatre called Shkatulka (The Treasure Box). Apart from Lyalya Bezhetskaya who stars in all skits, Shkatulka currently consists of six more artists including two male stand-up comedians.

See also

References

  • Baldwin, Michelle. Burlesque and the New Bump-n-Grind
  • Malach, James. What Is Burlesque
  • Allen, Robert C. Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture
  • Weldon, Jo. Archive of articles about and original photos of neo-burlesque.
  • DiNardo, Kelly. "Gilded Lili: Lili St. Cyr and the Striptease Mystique"; Archive of articles, video, pictures and interviews about neo-burlesque.
  • Warrack, John and West, Ewan (1992), The Oxford Dictionary of Opera, Oxford ISBN 0-19-869164-5

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