- (1) English burlesque In the English theater of the late 17thand 18th century, a burlesque was a comic imitation of a popular playor type of play. The parody was generally fairly crude, often involvinga reversal of expected roles, with heroes acting as buffoons, etc.
The first English burlesque was the comedy The Rehearsal(1671) by George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, which mocked Dryden,Otway, and heroic Restoration drama. In the 18th century burlesqueworks became crueller and more defamatory. Examples include John Gay'sThe Beggar's Opera (1728), which ridiculed the conventionsof opera, Henry Fielding's Tom Thumb (1730), Henry Carey's"most tragical tragedy" Chrononhotonthologos(1734), and Sheridan's The Critic (1779), which satirizedboth the amateur actor and heroic bombast:Go call a coach, and let a coach be calledAnd let the man who calls it be the callerAnd in his calling, let him nothing call,But coach! coach! coach! Oh! for a coach, ye gods!
In the 19th century burlesque became kinder and more frivolous,with works such as H. J. Byron's The Corsican 'Bothers'; or, theTroublesome Twins (1869), a gentle satire of Boucicault's TheCorsican Brothers.
The Gaiety Theatre long thrived on the talents ofits famous burlesque quartet Nellie Farren, Edward Terry, Kate Vaughan,and E. W. Royce, who first appeared together in Byron's LittleDon Caesar de Bazan (1876). In 1889 another Gaiety foursome - Fred Leslie, C. Danby, Ben Nathan, and Fred Storey - appeareddressed as ballerinas for a pas de quatre in Ruy Blas; or,the Blas Roué. Henry Irving protested when he realizedthat one of the 'girls' was made-up to resemble himself; the make-upwas subsequently changed.
Other exponents of Victorian burlesque included James RobinsonPlanche and W. S. Gilbert, before his partnership with Sullivan helpedto replace burlesque with light opera and musical comedy. It was deprivedof many of its favourite targets when the new naturalistic style ofdrama was introduced by the playwright Tom Robertson. However, tracesof the genre remain in the short scenes of 20th-century revueand to a lesser degree in pantomime.
Closely related to the burlesque was the extravaganzawhich had no particular target for its satire but made fun of mythsand folk tales.
(2) American burlesque US burlesque has no relation to theEnglish variety. The genre originated in 1868, when the English actress LydiaThompson presented a show featuring a chorus line of 'British Blondes'. Thechorus line was used by Michael Bennett Leavitt (1843 - 1935) as the basisfor burlesque shows that set the pattern for the genre in America.
The shows had a standard three-part format, opening with songsand comic sketches called 'bits', following this with an oilo(meaning 'potpourri') segment of variety acts such as acrobats, magicians,ventriloquists, and dog acts, and ending with more music as well asburlesque sketches on politics and current plays (the only similaritywith English burlesque). The final number was always entitled the'Extra Added Attraction'.
Burlesque was the training ground for many later stars, includingthe singer Al Jolson, the comedian W. C. Fields, and the comedienneFanny Brice. Burlesque performers appeared in New York 'burleycue'houses and on two national circuits that arose after the turn of thecentury.
The genre's staple was always beautiful girls, whether asdancers or in comic skits, but with the advent of stripteasein the 1920s sex gradually took over the programme. It was introducedto lure back audiences captured by the fledgling cinema, and thisit initially did with such sophisticated performers as gypsy RoseLee. Most stripping, however, was of the sleazy variety,and burlesque's low reputation became even lower, leading to bansin many cities. Prohibition had already severely damaged the genreand it effectively came to an end when New York banned burlesque housesin 1942. Some lingered into the 1960s, however, with anaemic programmesof striptease, second-rate comics, and low-budget films.