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What is Burlesque?

Updated on November 16, 2010

Burlesque (from Italian burla, a jest) is a form of comic literary or theatrical entertainment. Burlesque literature seeks to amuse through distortion, exaggeration, or ridicule. Frivolous material is treated in a grand manner, and noble subjects are made to appear trivial. Burlesque thus is characterized by a ludicrous incongruity between subject matter and its treatment. Broader and less witty than satire, burlesque is frequently a comic imitation of a serious and well-known work.

There is an important difference between burlesque and other forms of comic parody, like mock-epic. Properly, mock-epic makes its effect by comically diminishing the highest, and burlesque by ludicrously exalting the lowest. Thus Pope's Rape of the Lock is a mock-epic, where grand effects of the epic are reduced to the scale of the trivia of a petty quarrel; and Fielding's Tom Thumb, 1730, is undoubtedly the most brilliant of all burlesques. In this play, in which 'a little Hero with a great soul somewhat violent in his temper, which is a little abated by his love for Huncamunca' allows satire to ridicule, by comic inflation, the huge tragic postures of nearly sixty years of pretentiousness. The hero is later eaten by a cow.

One of the first examples of a burlesque poem in English is the 14th century Rime of Topas, a parody by Chaucer of earlier English metrical romances. Later, in the theater, the extravagant heroism and sentimentality of serious English drama of the 17th and 18th centuries were ridiculed in such burlesques as Fielding's Tom Thumb (1730) and Sheridan's The Critic (1779). John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1728) made fun of the Italian music drama. In the 19th century, burlesque became a more popular form of theatrical entertainment. Its character changed, however, and it ceased to make any effort at criticism. Shows called burlettas depended for their appeal on songs and spectacular stage effects.

In the United States, the term burlesque is chiefly associated with a type of variety show, featuring bawdy comedy and chorus girls. It began in the mid-19th century, achieving its greatest popularity at the beginning of the 20th century, but was superseded after the First World War by cabaret and strip-tease.

American burlesque, soon popularly known as "burleycue," began as a "legshow" with the extravaganza The Black Crook in 1866. Two years later, Lydia Thompson and her "British Blondes," a chorus line of girls in tights, arrived in the United States and created a sensation. Burlesque was immediately branded as "wicked" entertainment which "proper" persons did not attend.

By the 1890's burlesque developed into a type of variety show, with comedians who did sketches, called "bits," made up of patter, tricks, and sight gags; singing and dancing girls; acrobats; and boxing and wrestling matches. Burlesque reached its greatest popularity about 1914 with the bawdy shows produced by the Minsky brothers of New York. Touring companies also took burlesque throughout the country. Many stars, including Al Jolson, Bert Lahr, Fannie Brice, W. C. Fields, and Sophie Tucker, began their careers in the burlesque "circuit."

After World War I the striptease, which had been a Minsky feature, became the principal attraction of burlesque shows. Striptease "artists" such as Ann Corio and Gypsy Rose Lee performed with style. However, most burlesque "queens" provided only a vulgar display of nudity, provoking censorship that ultimately brought about the decline of burlesque, which now exists almost entirely as a nostalgic memory.


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    • arthurchappell profile image

      arthurchappell 7 years ago from Manchester, England

      I'm a big fan of contemporary burlesque - the revival has been very succesful, thanks largely to Deeta Von Teese in particular

    • Mercredi profile image

      Mercredi 7 years ago

      Thanks for the interesting read on what entertainment was like just before the age of radio.

    • WhoWhatWhereWhen profile image

      WhoWhatWhereWhen 7 years ago

      You are so correct Marisa. And Cher and Christina Aguilera will be starring in a movie together that is released early next year that is simply titled "Burlesque" so it's going to get a lot more attention.

    • Marisa Wright profile image

      Kate Swanson 7 years ago from Sydney

      Actually burlesque seems to be having quite a revival as part of today's "raunch culture".