Knut Ove Arntzen
Burlesque, a historical phenomenon recycled
The burlesque is the show that traditionally opposed fine art, and which had a history of popular entertainment in the tradition of parody and grotesque mimes and pantomimes. It was included in classical drama, like when Shakespeare included smaller, burlesque episodes like the mime sequence Pyrramus and Thispe in a A Midsummer Night´s Dream (1600). A long history of the grotesque in drama and literature lays behind when John Gray wrote his Beggars´ Opera in 18the century England, a text that in the 1920s was rewritten by Bertolt Brecht into the Three Penny Opera (Dreigroschenoper), and stock figures from the Italian Commedia dell´Arte inspired the English Punch satirical figure as well as the German Hans Wurst. The literary drama of the 18th and 19th centuries was a refinement of classical traditions and promoting bourgeois values. The burlesque shows of the 19the century was a way to oppose these values, like when Parisian women decided to become nasty and established the Moulin Rouge in Paris at the end of the 1800s. They introduced the strip tease show, which more and more popped up into variety shows.
The American burlesque shows has existed since the mid 1800s, and was a kind of radical vaudeville including the nasty sex talk, and with stars like Sophie Tucker and Mae West, and one of the followers was Bette Midler. Talking about sex was not necessarily sexual in an explicit way, but the erotic dimension contributed to the popularity of the burlesque, not least in the night life of the early 20th century erotic cabaret and variety. However, the 19th century mainstream definition of the burlesque was the use of grotesque effects in musical art forms, operettas and light comedies.
When we speak about the burlesque today, we are referring to the neo-burlesque, which mainly is a recycling of the American and English burlesque forms related to music hall entertainment, different kinds of “adult” entertainments and broad comedy shown in revues and cabaret settings with minimal costuming, female appearance and erotic sketches. Charlie Chaplin described it as shows with harem comedies and as “cynical affaires”. The neo-burlesque is specifically related to a revival of the 1990s, performing sexual attitudes which are not necessarily sexual but playing on female images and sexual icons that can also be conceived of as exotic images in shining costumes, like “The Velvet Hammer Burlesque” and “The Dutch Weismanns´ Follies” revue in New York, with performing stars as Sally Rand, Gypsy Rose Lee and Lili St. Cyr. Kitch and camp is a part of it, and can to some extent touch upon the “whore carnivals”, and stand up comedians or performance artists like Annie Sprinkle and her famous “Her Story of Porn”. It seems that in a more and more new moralistic society coming up in Northern Europe and North America, the burlesque is important as a kind of ventilation, like I really think is the case with the Scandinavian Countries. Pornographic images or erotic dressing and sketches, seem to be replacing the strip tease as a new feministic, and paradoxical expression. It is not possible to hide away the erotic, be it in an esthetic or sexual context.
Knut Ove Arntzen is an associate professor of theatre Studies, University of Bergen.