The History of Burlesque
I’m guessing if you’re at all connected to the Internet, you’ve heard the word “burlesque” before, and I’m guessing the mere mention of the word conjures images of scantily clad women prancing about on stage in myriad hellscape of saturated scarlet light and a panoply of scintillating and lascivious shadows… yeah. I’m a professional writer, folks.
There is far more history behind burlesque than catering to the lecherous libidinous cravings of a depraved and debauched audience. Look deeper and you’ll see certain themes to the various performances, following popular culture, media, politics, music, or cultishly classical movies. The reason for this is that the original basis for burlesque was grotesque farce. The word burlesque itself stems from the Italian word “burla-” meaning to mock or ridicule.
The concept of this as an institution began with satirical poetry written by Francesco Berni in the 16th century. A series which was called the “Opare burlesche.” Certain scenes in Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” are also early forms of burlesque. It was in the 18th century that burlesque blasted its way into musical works. I’d make up my own description of it, but the quote directly from the text is too fricking perfect: The term “burlesque” was used to describe “musical works in which serious and comic elements were juxtaposed or combined to achieve a grotesque effect.” (Kennedy, Michael (2006), The Oxford Dictionary of Music, p. 134).
Burlesque shows also had a huge boost in the 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly in Europe, and then in Britain coming off the Victorian era with it’s overstuffed sexual oppression bursting at the seams, and then again in the Second World War as the UK and Europe were flooded with young fighting men looking for entertainment.
The concept of burlesque has pervaded many facets of music, including pop and jazz… one could make a very easy argument that “Weird Al” Yankovic’s entire career is based on burlesque. Burlesque has, in the past five years, made a fairly significant resurgence in popularity. Alternative pinup website SuicideGirls.com hosts the Blackheart Burlesque which has traveled all over the US, Canada, and Europe, performing to sold out houses all over the world. So get out there, see a burlesque show, and enjoy yourself. It’s good old-fashioned entertainment. I mean, if Shakespeare employed the concept, it’s gotta’ be good, right?