Burlesque, a genre of live performance characterized by music, comedy and elaborate burlesque costumes, has recently seen a resurgence of interest. You may know friends who perform burlesque, but most derive their knowledge of it from media representation. Movies and TV, for better or worse, have painted a specific picture of the medium that only represents a fraction of the truth. And if most or all of what you know comes from the 2010 film Burlesque, dear reader, this article is for you. (No disrespect, it’s a fun musical romp, but it’s more of an homage to Christina Aguilera than anything else.)
The Evolution Of Burlesque
So, What Does The Word “Burlesque” Mean?
For many, the term evokes performances by scantily clad or naked women… which is a significant part of it. We’ll get to that in a minute. However, its origins are actually rooted in a genre of literature!
Broadly, the term “burlesque” implies ridicule and mockery of the “dignified or pathetic”, and encapsulates two specific forms of parody. High burlesque refers to works in which lowbrow or inappropriate subject matter is presented in an elevated, sophisticated manner. Low burlesque, inversely, treats serious or solemn subjects with irreverence and mockery – Think of The Cabin In The Woods and Young Frankenstein, respectively, as modern examples of each. In fact, if you watch South Park, you’ve likely seen countless examples of both!
The term “burlesque” was first coined to describe written works, but Victorian burlesque was much closer to its modern association. Throughout the 1800s, classic operas and ballets were adapted into musical theatre parodies that poked fun at the original material through juxtaposing time periods, pastiches of the original script, and risqué themes. Primarily staged in London, these performances were usually characterized by musical numbers across a variety of genres, travesty roles wherein actresses portrayed male characters, and a lot of bad puns. But hey, some literary devices are timeless… even if the rest of the script is tearable.
Victorian burlesque enjoyed its heyday in London until around 1890, when public interest dwindled in favor of Edwardian musical comedy. However, burlesque had already been well-received in New York since 1840, and there a new variant quickly took shape. Early iterations of American Burlesque were heavily influenced by minstrel shows, the first form of theater unique to America. (Regrettably, it was unique for its extremely racist nature; consisting of white actors in blackface perpetuating stereotypes of African Americans.)
Ultimately, the main element derived from minstrelsy was the general three-act template. The first act showcased songs and bawdy comic sketches. The second act usually saw a broad spectrum of entertainment, such as magic shows, acrobatics, or vaudeville numbers. The third act often included musical theater parody in Victorian costumes, and typically concluded with exotic dancers or boxing. These were variety shows in the truest sense of the word, and they dominated New York clubs and cabarets by the early 1900s. However, as all art forms do, these shows gradually shifted focus towards one specific motif…
The Rise And Fall Of Burlesque Circuits
It probably comes as zero surprise that sex appeal became the defining aspect of burlesque. It started with elaborate costumes, and slight physicality injected into the acts. Over the course of the early 20th century, as the dancers saw more and more attention, they showed more and more skin. By the late 1930s, burlesque had a whole new format; and nudity was right at the heart of it. Although comedians and MCs were present as supporting acts, strippers were the new headliners of burlesque. Unfortunately, the new burlesque immediately suffered a series of setbacks.
Prohibition was a big factor in the demise of American burlesque; as the free-spirited, sexually liberated nature of performances were fueled by alcohol. Furthermore, New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia deemed the shows “offensive”, and effectively shut down burlesque theaters. Consequently, with nudity becoming more commonplace in movies and stage productions, burlesque was more or less dead by the 70s. Fun fact: La Guardia also passed sweeping bans on organ grinders, pinball machines, and baby artichokes.
For the remainder of the 20th century, the scene dwindled. Burlesque existed mostly in nostalgic films produced throughout the decades. Like many cultural phenomenons, it may have stayed obsolete… if not for those born after its demise. Gen X’ers and Millennials had the opportunity to view burlesque’s glamour through a rosy lens, and they sought to resurrect it in their own image. A cult following developed in the mid 90’s, and thus, the neo burlesque movement returned the best facets of the art to American culture.
Today, burlesque still incorporates plenty of nudity, but seldom focuses on it. In fact, performers tend to favor extravagant costumes, circus acts, and the bawdy sense of humor that defined the original shows. It’s spectacle and empowerment, not overt sexualization, that modern burlesque seeks to preserve.
You can still see authentic NYC burlesque at venues such as The Slipper Room, House of Yes, and Duane Park. For an immersive burlesque experience, check out the Coney Island USA museum and weekly sideshow!