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While the American form of burlesque has its origins in 19th century music hall entertainments and vaudeville, in the early 20th century American burlesque re-emerged as a populist blend of satire, performance art, and adult entertainment featuring striptease and broad comedy acts that derived their name from the low comedy aspects of the literary genre known as burlesque. Here the term "burlesque" was used loosely to describe these adult revue shows in which striptease acts would perform—often with themes, characters or gimmicks—but classic striptease and "hootchy kootchy" dance were already forms in themselves and not automatically "burlesque" by default.
In burlesque, performers, usually female, often create elaborate sets with lush, colorful costumes, mood-appropriate music, and dramatic lighting, and may even include novelty acts, such as fire breathing or contortionists, to enhance the impact of their performance.
Put simply, burlesque means "in an upside down style". Like its cousin, commedia dell'arte, burlesque turns social norms head over heels. Burlesque is a style of live entertainment that encompasses pastiche, parody, and wit. The genre traditionally encompasses a variety of acts such as dancing girls, chanson singers, comedians, mime artists, and striptease artistes, all satirical and with a saucy edge. The striptease element of burlesque became subject to extensive local legislation, leading to a theatrical form that titillated without falling foul of censors.
The American form also was highly influenced by 19th century English variety and music hall shows as developed in the 1840s, early in the Victorian era, a time of culture clashes between the social rules of established aristocracy and a working class society. Originally, burlesque featured shows that included comic sketches, often lampooning the social attitudes of the upper classes and their music (particularly parodies of opera songs), alternating with dance routines. It developed alongside vaudeville and ran on competing circuits. In Britain, burlesque continued its established position in theatreland and enjoyed its own theatres (such as the Olympic Theatre in London) and was largely a middle class pursuit, where the jokes relied on the audiences' familiarity with known operas and artistic works.
In its heyday, American burlesque bore little resemblance to the earlier literary and musical burlesques of the UK (now known as "classical" or "traditional British" burlesque) which parodied widely known works of literature, theater, or music and did not feature striptease. Possibly due to historical social tensions between the upper classes and lower classes of society, much of the humor and entertainment of later American burlesque focused on lowbrow and ribald subjects.
The popular burlesque show of the 1870s through the 1920s referred to a raucous, somewhat bawdy style of variety theater inspired by Lydia Thompson and her troupe, the British Blondes, who first appeared in the United States in the 1860s, and also by early "leg" shows such as The Black Crook (1866). Its form, humor, and aesthetic traditions were largely derived from the minstrel show. One of the first burlesque troupes was the Rentz-Santley Novelty and Burlesque Company, created in 1870 by Michael B. Leavitt, who had earlier feminized the minstrel show with his group Madame Rentz's Female Minstrels.
Burlesque rapidly adapted the minstrel show's tripartite structure: part one was composed of songs and dances rendered by a female company, interspersed with low comedy from male comedians. Part two was an "olio" of short specialties in which the women did not appear. The show's finish was a grand finale.
The genre often mocked established entertainment forms such as opera, Shakespearean drama, musicals, and ballet. The costuming (or lack thereof) increasingly focused on forms of dress considered inappropriate for polite society. The British form, however, carried on much in the same musical-satirical style of the 19th century and is still so today.
By the 1880s, the genre had created some rules for defining itself:
* Minimal costuming, often focusing on the female form.
* Sexually suggestive dialogue, dance, plotlines and staging.
* Quick-witted humor laced with puns, but lacking complexity.
* Short routines or sketches with minimal plot cohesion across a show.
Charlie Chaplin in his autobiography gives this account of burlesque in Chicago in 1910:
Chicago... had a fierce pioneer gaiety that enlivened the senses, yet underlying it throbbed masculine loneliness. Counteracting this somatic ailment was a national distraction known as the burlesque show, consisting of a coterie of rough-and-tumble comedians supported by twenty or more chorus girls. Some were pretty, others shopworn. Some of the comedians were funny, most of the shows were smutty harem comedies—coarse and cynical affairs.
—Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography
The popular burlesque show of this period eventually evolved into the striptease which became the dominant ingredient of burlesque by the 1930s. In the 1930s, a social crackdown on burlesque shows led to their gradual downfall. The shows had slowly changed from ensemble ribald variety performances, to simple performances focusing mostly on the striptease. The end of burlesque and the birth of striptease was later dramatized in the film The Night They Raided Minsky's.