The word "burlesque" comes from the Italian word burla which means to mock. In the 19th century burlesques were plays that mocked the more serious operas and plays of the time, as well as critiquing the upper class and their ways.
Early burlesque performances consisted of short comedy skits, but by the 1830s full length plays became more common. They would often take a popular play of the day and poke fun of it by using the same songs but changing the words to something more baudy, or mixing classical and modern elements for comedic effect.For example, in 1831 a burlesque called "Olympic Revels" featured Olympic gods dressed in Classical Greek costume, but playing the popular card game whist.
Burlesque was popular in the 19th century not only for the comedy but also for the scantly clad actresses. "Breeches roles" were male roles played by women. This allowed them to wear form fitting pants and tights and be less covered up then what was expected of a proper Victorian lady. Sometimes the actresses would be put in the role of the romantic aggressor to titilate the audience. Gender roles were sometimes reversed in the other direction too, with men playing the role of older women.
It's interesting to note that women were often the writers and directors of these cheeky plays, during the first part and the mid 19th century. Actresses were looked down on in the Victorian era. Acting for women was seen as a form of prostitution, and many were assumed to be actual hookers on the side.
In the 1860s burlesque was brought to America by English producer Lydia Thompson. Her burlesque troupe was a big hit in New York. Their first play "Ixion", was a series of mythological spoofs, featuring scantly clad women in men's roles. It was so popular it moved to the most prestigious theatre in the city. Other troupes soon popped up making fun of the more serious theatre productions. One troupe spoofed "Ben Hur" into "Bend Her" and featured scantly clad female charioteers.
At first the American press loved burlesque, but soon began to bow to pressure to criticize it, and declared it indecent. This had the opposite effect on the public, and just made it even more popular!
In the 1880s the burlesque art form began to be dominated in the production area by men, and they often pushed the local limits on how little dress the actresses would wear. This is also when burlesque variety shows or extravaganzas became the more common format, rather than a full length play.
In the Edwardian era burlesque theatre owners formed circuits where troupes would travel from town to town performing. The burlesque circuit was looked down upon by vaudeville performers, but it is where many got their start. It was considered a step down to go back to burlesque, but for many the odd burly performance helped them out when in a financial tight spot.
These days burlesque has evolved away from comedy and more towards titilation, though some do include cheeky comedy in their acts. What are your thoughts on the burlesque revival?
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