The Unknown Cultural Phenomenon

History 394

Janine Quinn














The term Burlesque is usually thought of as slightly naughty theatre produced and performed between the 1890s and World War II.  Webster defines it as a literary or dramatic work that seeks to ridicule by means of grotesque exaggeration or comic imitation, mockery usually by caricature or theatrical entertainment of a broadly humorous often earthy character consisting of short turns, comic skits, and sometimes striptease acts.  Today Burlesque has no meaning as a contemporary phenomenon to most Americans.  Burlesque is far from the commonplace twentieth century definition.  The background, rise and fall of American Burlesque takes place in less then forty years.  The entertainment known as Burlesque has had many different types of audiences.  It has entertained all classes of people.

Burlesque has been a legitimate type of entertainment for centuries.  Aristophanes, the classic Greek dramatist and poet was known as the "Father of Burlesque."(Sobel, 10)  The word burlesque comes from the word burlare, which means "to laugh at, to make fun of."  Aristophanes liked to make fun of the world and laugh at it and he wanted to make other people laugh too.  The burlesque was then what a movie is now.  They were written for the purpose of letting people have an escape from daily life.

     The development of Burlesque in England is what affected the American stage the most.  The first burlesque in England, entitled, The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbie was produced in London in 1600.  While burlesque was becoming popular it picked up two defining features: first, musical numbers and second, the play themes were based on French parodies and revues.

     In 1750 burlesque traveled to Great Britain's North American colonies.  One colonist claimed, "In those days in New York you had to shoulder Indians aside to get into the theatre, but thousands of Americans did."(Corio, 9)  It took American playwrights a long time to begin to write plays.  Around seventy-five years later, a man known as the "American Aristophanes", John Brougham started writing

American plays.  According to the author Ann Corio "The Beggar's Opera, John Brougham, Adah Isaacs Menken and The Black Crook were just a prelude."(Corio, 14)  Burlesque at that time was small time show business.  One historian asserted "The girl whom everyone credits with the establishment of burlesque as an American institution was about to arrive."(Corio, 14)    

The English imported the phenomenon known as Burlesque, into the United States.  A woman, Lydia Thompson and her Blonde Troupe, brought the art of burlesque to the United States.  Miss Lydia Thompson performed the first stage play in New York City (NYC).  The news of the first show spread quickly by means of theatre managers, actors, aficionados and the Clipper.  George Wood, the owner of several theatres in Manhattan, asked Thompson to appear at his 1,302-seat Broadway theatre.  There was a delay of her appearance and Wood elected to premier her at his newly refurbished theatre further uptown on the west side of Broadway near 30th street. The new theatre sat 2,200 people and beneath it was an 800-seat lecture hall. 

There was much fanfare about Lydia Thompson's arrival in NYC.  Members of the NYC press received a biography about Thompson.  The troupe's publisher wrote in her         biography "At Helsinki her pathway was strewn with flowers and streets illuminated with torches carried by her admirers."(Allen, 7)  The biography even stated that a man had shot himself through the heart for her love.  Though many heard of this love and admiration for Miss Thompson and her troupe, the Clipper stated the poster for the play

Ixion "resembles more a finishing school portrait than a theatrical advertisement."(Allen, 7)

The Spirit of the Times was impressed by the response of the crowd to the play Ixion though its reviewer did not particularly like the play.  The New York Times said the troupe's success was "unbounded, the wildest symptoms of delight burst forth as each individual of the new company appeared, and Miss Thompson, Miss Markham, and Miss Weber were nearly lost in several floral avalanches which occurred during the progress of the entertainment."(Allen, 13)  There were many reviews published about the play.  The paper, the Spirit of the Times was the first to respond about the troupe's blondness and how it might have been achieved.  The article claimed "[She] too has yellow hair, and it is probably all her own, for the property man rarely furnishes such things, and the chances are she paid for it herself… but to the eye she was fashionable as well as fascinating."(Allen, 15)  Though remarks could be negative at times, one author asserted, "The initial critical response to Ixion was favorable and focused on the looks and abilities of the principle female performers."(Allen, 13)  Ixion ran at the theater until 28 December 1868.  The play ran for three months and two days, before its close it was announced that Niblo's Garden had secured the troupe for a play beginning 1 February 1869.  

After the move to Niblo's Garden there was a shift amongst New Yorkers towards burlesque.  It was "re-viewed" as "leg business" and the "nude drama" and burlesque performers were recast as "brazen-faced, stained, yellow-haired, padded limbed creatures."(Allen, 16)  The same papers that raved about the performances and the performers were now disgusted by the new phenomenon.  By the time Thompson ended her run at Niblo's all the major papers had denounced burlesque.  Several attacked Thompson and her manager/husband personally.  Ministers, legislators, literary figures and suffragettes had joined the anti-burlesque campaign.  "The burlesque 'disease' had indeed spread throughout the New York theatrical scene in the winter and spring of 1869."(Allen, 16)  By March of that

Year, "burlesque had become so prominent a cultural phenomenon that it was the subject of a burlesque."(Allen, 17)  An example of this is the urbanization of the play Romeo and Juliet.  As for Lydia Thompson, one historian wrote about it.

"Thompson's success in the U.S. was responsible for transforming what burlesque was understood to be – by those who performed it, those who attended the performances, and those who wrote about it."(Allen, 21) 


The rise of Burlesque in the United States was quick.  Though it was very successful in the beginning it did not reach its peak until the early twentieth century.    

     While burlesque was popular and widely produced, it fulfilled several useful purposes.  "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."(Sobel, 9)  The first audiences were what could be called middle-class men and women.  One historian asserted "The plays reflected the interests, character, and desires of the typical variety show audience: the working class (including immigrants) and white-collar workers."(American Memory, 1)  There were large amounts of people, including artists and authors, coming to see Lydia and her Troupe. 


"A young man by the name Brander Mathews, who would later be mentioned as Professor in the Drama Department of Columbia University, must have been

among these, for he wooed and won the original beauties."(Sobel, 22)


     The popular response to burlesque in the United States was surprising to many and exciting to others.  "No mere accident has made so monstrous a kind of entertainment equally acceptable to three publics so different as those of Paris, London and New York."(The Galaxy, 1)   

The first burlesque in England was a take-off of A Midsummer Night's Dream.  "In 1671, George Villiers set the pattern for future writers of 'legitimate burlesque' in The Rehearsal, a spoof about Dryden and the heroic drama."(Sobel, 11)  Sheridan developed this pattern in The Critic and Henry Fielding perfected it in Tom Thumb, the Great and Tumble Down Dick.  In 1728, Beggar's Opera was the first burlesque to have songs in it.                            

     The first of the plays that fascinated Americans were directly from Lydia and her troupe.  They had never seen

such extravagances performed before.  Each play out did the next.  At times there could twenty to thirty people on stage.  There were props and costumes brightly filling the playhouse with color. 

The play Ixion or The Man at the Wheel was the first shown and it was replaced at Wood's theatre by Ernani or The Horn of a Dilemma.  There were different types of entertainment produced there. There were comedies, short skits and magic acts.  There were also ballets like, The Black Crook.  Every time a play closed another was opening no less then three or four days afterward.    Playwrights at the time also changed the name and the scenes to fit in with New York.  "The week of 29 March, Tony Pastor staged Romeo and Juliet or The Beautiful Blonde Who Dyed (Her Hair) for Love". (Allen, 17)  The first scene was set in "A Street in the Fourteenth Ward, Verona" and the third scene took place in "The Capulet's Back Garden, Hoboken."(Allen, 17)  The authors were recreating the plays to fit into the lives of the people watching them.  In most plays you could find themes that were familiar to the audience, "aspiring singers who can't sing, fledgling actors who can't act, pushy suffragettes, man-starved old maids, social climbers, playboys, tramps, rubes, city slickers, untrustworthy theatre managers and cruel bosses."(American Memory, 1) 

Since the sketches were short there was not a lot of time for character development.  There was always a need for new material so writers had to work fast.  "The use of stereotypes helped writers create and revise their work at break neck speed while under the pressure of deadlines, touring schedules, cast changes and the constant need for new material."(American Memory, 1)

In the early twentieth century there were two more kinds of Burlesque acts.  There was the two-person act and the monologue.  "Two person acts were popular from the 1890s until the demise of vaudeville in the 1930s."(American Memory, 2)  These dialogues were usually written for a man and a woman to perform.  Sometimes two men would do the dialogue and rarely two women would. 

     The years that Thompson and her Troupe had spent in the United States greatly affected the type of writing by American playwrights.  "Every New York theatrical season between 1869 and 1938 included some variant of burlesque that could be traced back to Ixion and The Forty

Thieves."(Allen, 21)

     The fall of Burlesque had both external and internal causes.  The external causes included the loss of the traditional audiences through World War I, the invention of movies and radio, the popularity of the new Broadway revues, press opposition, politicians, police, Prohibition, the market crash and the Depression.  Internally, changes in management, bankruptcy, arrests and stock companies all helped Burlesque come to an end. 

In the book Horrible Prettiness, A.J. Goldstein asserts, "Stop ten people on the street and ask what's their idea of burlesque and if only one them says anything but strip-tease, I'll forfeit a month's salary."(Allen, 241)  This statement was an example of popular belief at the time Burlesque was ending.

      The clubs had much to compete with, they had all outside competition such as movies but they also had it between themselves and to keep up the clothes came off.    The city of New York sent in sensors to the Burlesque houses and tried to catch them in the act.  When they did, arrests were made and the club was shut down.  Time and time again the city tried to clean up Burlesque but they failed.  There were certain rules they had established to "Keep Burlesque Clean" but those were being broken due to competition. 

Burlesque was banned for a short time in 1933 but it wasn't until 2 May 1937 that it was permanently banned.  Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia and his License Commissioner, Paul Moss had good reason to close Burlesque down.  There was always going to be one show or club that did not follow the rules.  "Whenever someone comes up with a good thing, other profiteering types will attempt to copy it, out do it, and eventually ruin it."(Corio, 181)  Mayor LaGuardia was tired of giving the owners second chances.  He gave them so many chances because the district made jobs and closing it down would cause unemployment. 

Burlesque and the commissioner had jousted for several years.  The Kings County District Attorney William Geoghan even launched his own raids of the clubs.  Geoghan claimed, "Burlesque theatres were places of filth, rottenness and iniquity."(Allen, 257)  Even Brooks Atkinson, a Burlesque fan agreed with the Mayor and the commissioner.  Atkinson asserted, "The form had contributed to its own demise."(Allen,257)  He wrote Burlesques obituary.  He stated,


"The recent war in which Burlesque had been defeated, he wrote, was caused in part by the fear of public bodily display of any form: 'The human body always terrifies some people.  The crusade is an old one'."(Allen, 257)  


Finally with no more chances to give Mayor LaGuardia took Burlesque to court, put it on trial and won.  "The appeal failed and for the first time since September 30,1869 there was no Burlesque to be found in New York City."(Allen, 257)

The way Burlesque was produced and performed in its first years in the United States are no longer recognizable now.  It has been through many changes.  In the beginning it was more of a play or theatre show.  It transformed from there into little one act stage shows with girls and comedians.  From there it turned a leg show with girls removing their clothes to keep the customers coming in. Finally a tired and annoyed Mayor shut down the business in New York City.

Though technically Burlesque had died the day LaGuardia shut it down there were still some people that believed in it.  In 1960, Ann Corio and Mike Iannucci put together a revue.  They had barely any funding but somehow managed to open the show.  There were all kinds of press coverage including local newspapers and national ones, like Newsweek.  The show opened, with hesitation, the crowds inside slowly started to relax, even laughing at the jokes.  The show was called "This Was Burlesque."  The New York Herald Tribune review stated, "The Joyous thing about 'This was Burlesque' is not simply that this is what it was, kiddies- but we finally have on hand a simple, funny revue."(Corio, 191)   

In the Golden Era, 1900-1910 Burlesque was an unstoppable phenomenon.  "If there's a good show on television one year, the next season there will be three copies of it and the public will get sick of all four, including the original."(Corio, 181)  This process is still going on today.

The topic of Burlesque relates to class, culture and urban America.  An example of that can be shown in the revision of Romeo and Juliet.  The director of the play rewrote some of the scene titles to fit the area in which it was being produced.  The director also changed the entire name of the play, "The Girl Who Dyed (her hair) for Love."  This was commonplace at the time Burlesque was starting.      

The fact that the class of people in NYC came together to enjoy a mutual entertainment at this time was an atypical occurrence.  There were many barriers that kept upper, middle and lower classes apart; Burlesque was not one of them. 

























Allen, Robert Clyde, Horrible Prettiness

(1950,The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill)


Corio, Ann, This Was Burlesque

(1968, Madison Square Press, Grosset and Dunlap, New York)


Sobel, Bernard, A Pictorial History of Burlesque

(1956, G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York)


American Memory

English-Language Play scripts

(Library of Congress)



The Age of Burlesque

[The Galaxy/ Volume 8, Issue 2, August 1869