Burlesque, as we know it today evokes images of extravagantly attired showgirls and beautiful women disrobing in Martini glasses; fabulous singers with voices that soar to the rafters; wonderful comedians reducing the audience to tears of laughter. It is a beautiful, funny and fascinating world with a rich history, stretching back as far as human history.
Dita von Teese: the face of modern Burlesque
“Burlesque” The OED tells us that the word derives from the Latin 'burla' meaning 'to joke' and the French suffix '-esque' meaning 'in the style of'. Therefore the word literally means 'In a joking style' or 'In the style of a joke.' Despite the notions of burlesque as satire and comedy being around for thousands of years, the word itself did not appear until the early 16th Century, in the title of a series of verses; 'Opere Burlesche' by Francesco Berni, and it was not until the late 1870's in American English that it came to be known as a 'variety show featuring striptease'.
The origins of Burlesque are usually cited as being Ancient Greece – specifically the playwright Aristophanes: his political comedies were aimed at leading government or public officials and intended to challenge and mock the contemporary social order. They were also considered rather risque – take, for example, the play 'Lysistrata': the women of Greece, tired of their men constantly marching off to war, withhold sex as a means of convincing them to negotiate peace. It is a political, social and sexual commentary that still holds appeal today, despite being first performed around 411BC!
Lysistrata, and two modern interpretations
From there, we travel to Medieval Italy and the tradition of the Commedia dell'Arte (the closest translation, from the longer form of the title is 'Comedy of the craft of Improvisation'). Travelling troupes of players would journey through Italy, performing plays and skits using stock characters, such as the innamorati (the lovers) Harlequin and Columbine, and the zanni (the clowns) among whom were characters named Pierrot, Pantalon and Burlesque: each of whom embodied a different mood (ie: happiness, mockery,etc). The plays themselves often had roots in Ancient Greek tales, but were also drawn from current events, local news or the political scandals of the day. As the plays were always improvised, it would have been easy to change the action to suit regional tastes, while still performing within the confines of the 'masks' or given characters. Interestingly, during the Napoleonic reign over Italy, Commedia was outlawed: maybe Napoleon was concerned about how he would be portrayed! Commedia is also notable in that women were usually part of the troupes, documented as early as the 1590's: women were not allowed on British stages until the late 1660's after the Restoration.
Commedia performers in their ubiquitous masks
Commedia was just as popular, if not more so, in France during the 16th and 17th Centuries: characters were refined and stories became set, using folk and fairy stories as their main influences. It is easy to see how the English tradition of Pantomime developed from there.
Performers from the French School of Commedia
The earliest recorded Pantomime show was produced at the Drury Lane Theatre in 1702, and consisted entirely of dances and “dumb-shows” (there was an odd law at the time that prohibited spoken word in theatrical performances without special permission from Parliament which was not repealed until 1843!) The first Pantomime – as we would recognise it now – was Cinderella, again produced at the Drury Lane Theatre around the mid-1800's. These pantomimes followed a set structure: the Opening would introduce the story (for example Aladdin or Jack and the Beanstalk) which would be followed by the Harlequinade: the lovers of the main story would be transformed into Harlequin and Columbine, and the action would become fast-paced and primarily visual with dances, stage magic and music. The Harlequinade would feature four main characters: the Harlequin (romantic male lead), Columbine (romantic female lead), Pantalone (the evil man in power, often Columbine's father) and the Clown, named... Burlesque. The night would end with an Extravaganza in which all strands of the story would come together to create a happy ending, utilizing magnificent props, special effects, spectacular costumes and scenery, and a full-cast finale number.
Victorian Pantomime Playbill
During the reign of Queen Victoria, the word burlesque came to be associated with musical pastiche, in which popular stories, operas, plays or ballets were parodied and mocked, and Burlesques were produced, to much acclaim across London; most notably by Madame Vestris at the Olympic Theatre. The shows began as one-act pieces, as part of a longer variety show, similar to the Harlequinade of Pantomime. Over time the Burlesque became an entire evening's worth of entertainment, including risque jokes and songs, dancing girls (in tights!) and bawdy humour.
Victorian drawing of Burlesque Dancers
The English style of Burlesque was introduced to America with great success around the late 1860's with the arrival of Lydia Thompson and her troupe of 'British Blondes'. The quick-witted Miss Thompson and her girls caused scandal and outrage (one publicity story stated that a Russian soldier, so smitten by Thompson, wrote her a love letter then placed it, along with a glove of hers on his chest and shot himself through the heart – unlikely but still lapped up by the American public!) The shorter Burlesques of the English tradition, once across the pond, were interspersed with other American variety acts such as minstrel shows, acrobats or magicians, and the night would end with a boxing match or a demonstration of exotic dancing.
Lydia Thompson: a forerunner of today's Drag Kings?
Briefly back to France, and the Folies Bergere, which opened around 1869 – the French laws on nudity were much more relaxed than anywhere in the world, and nude revues soon became all the rage – dancers, singers and courtesans flocked to the Folies, and later the Moulin Rouge (which opened in 1889) and both attracted stars such as Cleo de Merode, Josephine Baker, Mistinguette and Loie Fuller.
Vintage Moulin Rouge Poster
By the early 1900's in America, focus in Burlesque shows was mainly on the dancing girls and featured soubrettes who would show off their figures in tight dresses or revealing costumes, and entertain with singing and dancing: some girls would move more than others, but the ones who were less skilled at dancing often compensated with more elaborate costuming. The most famous Burlesque revues were the Ziegfeld Follies and the Minsky's Theatre: Flo Ziegfeld had been inspired by the Parisian Folies, and also possibly the British Pantomime Extravaganza with lavish sets, gorgeous costumes and the glorification of the female form. The Minsky's Burlesque were known as 'the poor-man's Follies' and included more ribald jokes, raunchier dance routines and often quite literally burlesqued the Ziegfeld Follies uptown.
Lucille Ball (American actress) began as a Ziegfeld Girl
A Ziegfeld show poster from 1915, and a poster for the 1946 film
In variety shows all over the USA, burlesque girls were present: as part of comedy sets, to feed the comedians the 'straight-lines', and to dance a little in-between set changes. Inspired by the latest dance craze – the hooch-cooch, derived from the belly dance and popularised at the Chicago World Fair of 1893 by the dancer Little Egypt – the dancers in burlesque shows would perform their own version of the hoochie-coochie; what would eventually become known as the Bump and Grind.
A cigarette card for one of many 'Little Egypt's
The Minsky's in New York quickly became the most popular venue for burlesque: the stories go like this: one night in 1917, a dancer, wanting to save on laundry bills, began removing her costume as she left the stage. The other story is that as one of the girls was dancing, the suspender holding her stockings up snapped – this became known as 'The Snap Heard Across New York.” In both versions of the tale, the audience went wild and the police raided Minsky's, which immediately gained massive popularity and notoriety with tag-lines such as “Not a Family Show!” By the late 1930's, shows would consist of around six 'featured dancers' supported by one or two variety acts – a turnaround from the days when the girls were incidentals while the sets were changed behind the curtain!
Minsky's Marquee in New York
However, over the next few decades, the Mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia, launched a concentrated campaign against Burlesque shows and theatres, attributing the illegal liquor and uninhibited atmosphere with a rise in crime. By 1937 the Supreme Court ruled that burlesque should be banned: even the word and the name of Minsky was made illegal!
Rose Darling and Sherry Britton - both dancers who appeared at Minsky's
At the same time in Europe, the rise of the Nazi party was stifling the previously thriving cabaret culture that arose during the Weimar Republic. The strict regime disapproved of the hedonistic, openly sexual culture of the cabaret scene and sought to repress any form of entertainment other than that which celebrated the government and it's ideals.
Weimar Cabaret Performers
However, in Britain, despite the strict censorships, a form of Burlesque was taking hold: as long as the girls on stage did not move, it was considered to be artistic, in the style of tableaux vivants or Ancient Greek statues. The Windmill Theatre, opening during a time when many theatres were in decline, soon developed a reputation for producing spectacular variety shows: comics, magicians, dancers: all supported by the infamous Windmill Girls who would appear in different poses throughout the evening: “If you move, it's rude.” Later, more ingenious methods were developed involving large props which could be used to conceal nudity, then having clothed dancers remove the props as the nude girl became still. During the second World War, the Windmill Girls became pin-ups for the forces, and the theatre, despite being bombed and most theatres in London at the time closing, remained open throughout: it's famous motto being “We Never Closed.”
During and after the war, burlesque experienced a resurgence: in America movies such as 'Lady of Burlesque' and 'Teaserana' glorified and revealed the world behind the glamour; Gypsy Rose Lee toured with her full-scale show 'The Star and Garter' and Bettie Page gained popularity as a pin-up and fetish model. In France the now world-famous Crazy Horse opened in 1951 and in 1958 in London, Paul Raymond's Revue bar became a popular destination in the heart of Soho.
Lady of Burlesque ** Star and Garter Show
Raymond Revue Bar, London ** Crazy Horse, Paris
It was short-lived though. The appeal of the cinema and the popularity of home television caused a massive decline in theatre attendance. Several of the stars of the variety stage, including Morecambe and Wise, and Bruce Forsyth, made a successful transition to the television (and it is worth noting that burlesque humour lingered on in many ways, such as the 'Carry-On' films). Many, however, did not and once thriving theatres across the country – both in England and America, and including the Windmill Theatre – were forced to close. The last remnants of burlesque in the UK were swept away by the Theatre's Act, enforced in 1968 which ruled that nude girls were now allowed to move on stage. Burlesque's slow peel and tease, and illusion of untouchable glamour, could not compete with the proliferation of strip clubs which allowed private nude dances, lap or table dances, and often a little more at the right price.
Men queuing outside a Burlesque Theatre
1960's Burlesque Dancers: Neptuna and Miss Beverly Hills
Decades passed. Burlesque was outdated and passe: something of the past, relegated to a handful of costumes, props and memories. A dancer from the American hey-day, Miss Dixie Evans (known then as the Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque!) began collecting some of these together, eventually creating a small museum, called The Burlesque Hall of Fame. As a way of drawing visitors to this small attraction in Las Vegas, Miss Evans held what would become an annual pageant. In 1991, the first Miss Exotic World Pageant was held, and won by the dancer Toni Alessandrini. In 1992, Catherine D'Lish was crowned Queen, and the pageant itself has grown in international popularity ever since – fuelled by a generation nostalgic for the lost glamour of a bye-gone era and grown tired of the gratuitous displays of nudity available in any corner-shop or at the click of a mouse button.
Dixie Evans - The Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque
Toni Alessandrini ** Catherine D'Lish
Burlesque Hall of Fame Museum in Las Vegas
Now often called Neo-Burlesque, we are seeing a rise in popularity unrivalled at any point in history. Cabaret and Burlesque shows are thriving in an unprecedented way, reaching new audiences and gaining new fans all the time. In America, touring Burlesque troupes and dancers entertain vast audiences as they travel across the US; in France the Moulin Rouge is as popular now as it was during the Belle Epoque; and in England cabaret and variety shows are available in almost every city in the country!
Roxi D'Lite ** Kiki Kaboom
Marni Scarlett ** Narcissister
The term encompasses an increasingly wide-range of performance styles: classic-striptease, comic acts, singing and circus to name just a few, honouring traditions of the past while pushing the boundaries to new and exciting pastures.
Jett Adore ** Satans Angel
Empress Stah ** Scotty the Blue Bunny
I don't know where burlesque will go in the future: will we go full-cycle again as audiences become hungry for more; smaller costumes, quicker reveals or increasing nudity, and raunchier routines? Will there be a a return to a more traditional, vaudeville format: where the burlesque dancer is merely a part of a longer variety show, alongside other styles of performance? Will audiences simply get bored as a new technology rises to take the place of live entertainment as happened with cinema and television? Will one style of burlesque die out as another takes its place – such as the smoky cabaret club being super-ceded by the spectacular stage production of a burlesque-inspired revue, or vice-versa? All of these scenarios have possibility: there are contemporary and historical examples of all of these situations being played out and it is barely possible to say where burlesque will be in another ten, twenty, fifty or one-hundred years. Maybe even a thousand years in the future, people will look back through history to our modern style of cabaret and reference this era as we do the Ancient Greeks or the Italian Commedia; as part of a long and varied tradition of burlesque theatre whose roots are deep and branches still growing...
The Evil Hate Monkey ** Dirty Martini
Michelle L'Amour ** Kittie Klaw
SallyRand ** Tigger
Lili St. Cyr ** Kitten Deville
Wikipedia Articles: Burlesque, Neo-Burlesque, Harlequin, Commedia dell'arte, Pantomime, Victorian Music Hall, Lysistrata, Aristophanes, Burlesque Hall of Fame,
Burlesque Bible Magazine: Issue One (articles by Jo Taylor and Kittie Klaw)
Burlesque and the art of the Teese: Dita von Teese
It's Behind You! A History of Pantomime