Burlesque History Lessons: As It Was In The Beginning

We all start somewhere. When I started collecting vintage books on burlesque it was first as a gift from a friend. He was a ragpicker of vintage clothes and furniture, and had a keen eye for strange artifacts. Knowing that I’ve a keen interest in both burlesque as a performer and history in general begun bringing me old girlie books he came across. Some of these were gems that surrounded the history of burlesque and held a wealth of information with the latest being published in 1969. Since I’m loathe to let them leave my possession like a Smaug the dragon curled around it’s treasure, I found the digital medium is the best place to both share and archive these tomes. This entry is the first chapter from a book published in 1956.

As It Was In The Beginning

The history of American burlesque begins with a Greek classic and ends with a leg show. For all practical purposes, however, it began in the 1860′s when Lydia Thompson and her British Blondes, all of whom wore tights, delightfully shocked New York audiences.

When it reached it’s peak in the early years of this century, burlesque was a composite entertainment that took it’s components from the minstrel show, variety, extravaganza, comedy “bits” and extra added attractions such as boxing bouts and the hootchy-kootchy. It owed it’s demise to Prohibition, the cinema, and the advent of short skirts when the sights of women’s legs ceased to be a rarity.

But while it lasted, burlesque fulfilled several useful functions. It served as the poor man’s clubhouse where, for an amount within the means of almost anyone, men could escape from nagging wives and business worries; it was also the ideal school for a vicarious sowing of wild oats and for learning the facts of life by way of glamour and merriment. It was also the proving ground for many of today’s greatest stars of stage, screen, TV and night clubs.

Whatever vulgarity or indecency burlesque exploited, it represented “what comes naturally,” a wondrous experience in sex, an experience to anticipate, realize, remember and enjoy again.

By contrast, this era, plagued by Freudian analysis and derivative gutter concentration on homosexuality, bisexuality, interchangeable hermaphrodites and other clinical complications, seems to lost its joie de vivre. 

The burlesquer of yesterday symbolized the typical actor who has only one object in life: to put on a perfect performance that will satisfy his audience. He was oblivious to conventions. He ignored social, racial and religious restrictions, sexual aberrations, class distinctions. He was a true democrat.

That old-fashioned term “diamond in the rough” fit snugly the personalities of the early stars of Broadway, both male and female. They had their conceptions of gallantry, they held the affections of their public. They were picturesque, what the French call “originals”. They suffered, worked, enjoyed themselves, and had their eyes always on a possible chance to get into a Broadway show. They were keenly aware of the American feeling for laughter.

The accredited father of burlesque was Aristophanes, fifth century B.C., playwright, poet, innovator and reformer, who chose parody as the racy instrument of his reforms. He spoofed current affairs; devised gags, puns, wisecracks. he brought the seduction theme into the theatre. he played up fleshy descriptions. Twenty-five centuries later, American burlesque was employing the same devices in speech and action that were reduced to the lowest common denominatior of popular taste.

The transition, however, was not as direct or simple as it seems. During the Middle Ages and on down into the eighteenth century, Italy made three contributions to the final form of American burlesque: the burletta, the Gesta Romanorum, and the commedia dell’ arte.

Written in rhyme and entirely musical, the burletta, “a poor relation to the opera,” may well have supplied the name of burlesque.

The Gesta Romanorum were anecdotes and pseudo-moral tales which served as source material for Boccaccio and, centuries later, with addition of spicy anecdotes and topical off-colour stories, furnished the pattern for the “bits” or brief comedy sketches which were the great laugh-getters of burlesque.

The commedia dell’ arte played it’s part in the development of burlesque humour, for improvisation – ad libbing – was the test of the American comedian’s ability and popularity. Certainly the influence of the Italian improvised comedy made itself widely felt, for the players appeared throughout Europe and penetrated to the British Isles, leaving their imprint on the English pantomime, the universal Punch and Judy show, and the immortal Harlequin and Pierrot.

But it was the English development of burlesque which affected the American stage most directly.

England saw it’s first burlesque, The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus, a take-off in A Midsummer Night’ Dream, in 1600. In 1671, George Villiere set the pattern for future writers of “legitimate burlesque” in The Rehearsal, a spoof about Dryden and the heroic drama. Sheridan developed this pattern in The Critic (1779) which made sport of the sentimental drama and contemporary literary foibles; and Henry Fielding perfected it in Tom Thumb The Great (1730) and Tumble Down Dick.

Meanwhile the entertainment had acquired two important fresh features: musical numbers and themes based on French parodies and revues.

Gay’s Beggar’s Opera (1728) by Henry Carey, was the first burlesque to have songs. It was followed two years later by J.P. Planche’s English adaptation of French feerie follies (fairy-tale travesties) and revues (take-offs on current theatre hits). “Fantastic affairs” intended solely for amusement, they stressed sex and were called extravaganzas.

The probable beginning of American burlesque was the importation in 1828 of the English production of Hamlet by John Poole. First produced in London in 1811, this travesty originated what was to be called legitimate burlesque. The success of this work created a vogue for travesties on the classical drama and historical themes – Much Ado About A Merchant Of Venice, Pocahontas, Columbus. Soon managers began to import works of this type and native authors to write them. There followed a craze for take-offs on grand opera. The Bohemian Girl became Bohea Man’s Girl; Normer; Frieschutz, Fried Shots; and Hermani, Her Nanny.

With travesties there grew up a race of comedians and playwrights – William Mitchel, William E. Burton, Mark Smith, Charles Fisher, and John Broughham, the “American Aristophanes” – all famous, among other points, for their comic female impersonations. Their most popular successors were Carrie Sara and Alfred Nelson, and the Worrell Sisters – Sophie, Jennie and Irene – who produced the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1868. This year marked the decline of legitimate burlesque. Interest had already began to lag, thanks to the popularity of tights. It was to decline more sharply with the advent  in 1869, of Lydia Thompson and her British Blondes.

The scandal of tights, which from the very first was the chief enticement of American burlesque, started on February 7, 1827, with the obscure Mlle. Hutin, at Thalia Theatre, New York. It reached new heights on June 7, 1861, with Adah Isaacs Menken. This lady, well conscious of the beauty of her own figure, displayed herself in tights while strapped to a living horse in a play founded on Byron’s poem, “Mazeppa”.

The stunt fired the town with excitement, brought Miss Menken immediate fame, started her on a theatrical career which included triumphs in Paris, London and Vienna, and precipitated a flood of other Mazeppas whose one object was the exploitation of the female figure.

The reformers were horrified, but their perturbation increased when The Black Crook opened with an Amazon parade of legs. Oddly enough, this theatrical impropriety was quite accidental, due to the chance inclusion of a stranded troupe of foreign ballet troupe in a rather dull piece.

But the results were calculated. Commercial managers got busy and turned out plays like The White Fawn and Humpty Dumpty, so that by May, 1869, Olive Logan was savagely denouncing the rage for nudity before the Women’s Suffrage Convention.

“No decent woman,” she asserted, “can now look to the stage as a career. Clothed in the dress of an honest woman, she is worth nothing to a manager. Stripped as naked as she dare, and it seems there is little left when so much is done, she becomes a prize to her manager, who knows that crowds will rush to see her.”

Denunciation of this sort, of course, swelled box office receipts and quickened the managers in the purchase of tights and the duplication of ideas. For the American burlesque, from it’s inception, overlapped other forms of light entertainment – travesty, musical comedy, extravaganza – causing, thereby, endless confusion concerning status of actors and the nature of productions.

- Bernard Sobel, ‘A Pictorial History Of Burlesque’, 1956

Enjoy you reading.


Little Miss Risk

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