Victorian burlesque dancers on the Vintage News

Victorian burlesque dancers on the Vintage News

Victorian burlesque, sometimes known as “travesty” or “extravaganza”, was popular in London theatres between the 1830s and the 1890s. It took the form of musical theatre parody in which a well-known opera, play or ballet was adapted into a broad comic play, usually a musical play, often risqué in style, mocking the theatrical and musical conventions and styles of the original work, and quoting or pastiching text or music from the original work. The comedy often stemmed from the incongruity and absurdity of the classical subjects, with realistic historical dress and settings, being juxtaposed with the modern activities portrayed by the actors. Madame Vestris produced burlesques at the Olympic Theatre beginning in 1831 with Olympic Revels by J. R. Planché.  Other authors of burlesques included H. J. Byron, G. R. Sims, F. C. Burnand, W. S. Gilbert and Fred Leslie.

Eliza Blasina wearing horse-head headdress, short costume with attached horsetail, rows of round beads or bells around ankles, wrists, neck and upper arm.

Alice Atherton in a short, feathery costume, tights, parasol, mid-forearm white gloves, mid-calf white heeled and laced boots, feathery hat.

Carrie McHenry as Jako in Bohemian Gy-url [sic], Colville Opera Company.

Clara Davenport in a short sleeveless costume fringed at legs and armholes.

Dolly Adams with fringe at the bottom of a short costume, tights, short-heeled boots topped with fringe, cross at neck, cap.

Eliza Weathersby, as Gabriel, in Rice & Goodwin’s opera bouffe, Evangeline, probably during a performance at Boston Museum, 1877.

Victorian burlesque related to and in part derived from traditional English pantomime “with the addition of gags and ‘turns’.” In the early burlesques, following the example of ballad opera, the words of the songs were written to popular music; later burlesques mixed the music of opera, operetta, music hall and revue, and some of the more ambitious shows had original music composed for them. This English style of burlesque was successfully introduced to New York in the 1840s.

Ella Chapman in short metallic armor costume, including leggings, helmet with feather. Rice’s surprise party.

Elvira Viola, sitting in fur fringe.

Gracie Wilson in costume with a cape.

Some of the most frequent subjects for burlesque were the plays of Shakespeare and grand opera. The dialogue was generally written in rhyming couplets, liberally peppered with bad puns. A typical example from a burlesque of Macbeth: Macbeth and Banquo enter under an umbrella, and the witches greet them with “Hail! hail! hail!” Macbeth asks Banquo, “What mean these salutations, noble thane?” and is told, “These showers of ‘Hail’ anticipate your ‘reign’”. A staple of burlesque was the display of attractive women in travesty roles, dressed in tights to show off their legs, but the plays themselves were seldom more than modestly risqué.

Actresses in burlesque would often play breeches roles, which were male roles played by women; likewise, men eventually began to play older female roles. These reversals allowed viewers to distance themselves from the morality of the play, focusing more on joy and entertainment than catharsis, a definitive shift away from neoclassical ideas.

Ida Florence, The California Prize Beauty, in body stocking covered with transparent fabric, posed as statue.

The depiction of female sexuality in Victorian burlesque was an example of the connection between women as performers and women as sexual objects in Victorian culture.Throughout the history of theatre the participation of women on stage has been questioned. Victorian culture viewed paid female performance as being closely associated with prostitution, “a profession in which most women in the theatre dabbled, if not took on as a primary source of income.

Jennie Dickerson in a pseudo-military outfit.

Jennie Lee sitting on a chair holding a headdress.

Jessie Barlett-Davis’ costume suggests 15th century.

Leontine wearing ballet shoes.

Louise Montague in a mini dress with fringe.

Minnie Marshall sitting on a stone fence, in a short dress and boots.

Miss Darcey in short male Renaissance costume with over-the-knee leggings.

Miss Farrington in a short sleeveless costume, holding bow and arrow, with quiver and arrows on back, buttoned and heeled boots.

Rosie Gregory in a short, Mexican style costume.

Pauline Hall in a short, Greek style costume.

Rose Hamilton in a short costume, shoes with a strap over the instep.

Sylvia Gerrish with draped dress and pointed hat in the woods.

Unidentified female performer in a short sailor-style costume, shoes with knee-high stockings.

Vernona Jabeau, in high boots, hat, holding a candle in a long holder.

Viola Clifton facing front in a sleeveless, short, fringed top and short, fringed trunks.

Burlesque became the speciality of certain London theatres, including the Gaiety and Royal Strand Theatre from the 1860s to the early 1890s. Until the 1870s, burlesques were often one-act pieces running less than an hour and using pastiches and parodies of popular songs, opera arias and other music that the audience would readily recognize. The house stars included Nellie Farren, John D’Auban, Edward Terry and Fred Leslie.From about 1880, Victorian burlesques grew longer, until they were a whole evening’s entertainment rather than part of a double- or triple-bill. In the early 1890s, these burlesques went out of fashion in London, and the focus of the Gaiety and other burlesque theatres changed to the new more wholesome but less literary genre of Edwardian musical comedy.

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