Victorian burlesque: cheap thrills for the chattering classes

The 19th century saw the rise of a new breed of stage show offering theatregoers sexual titillation with the veneer of propriety. Joanne Cormac introduces the melange of elite culture and bawdy humour that was Victorian burlesque

A souvenir for a burlesque adaptation of the classic opera 'Carmen' at the Gaiety Theatre, 1890. (Image by Bridgeman)

On 21 December 1865 a fashionable crowd gathered at the Prince of Wales’s Theatre in the heart of London’s West End. Respectable ladies and gentlemen alighted from their carriages to settle into the theatre’s comfortable, cushioned seating. They engaged in a little star-spotting, hoping that the Prince of Wales himself might be among the company. They admired their sumptuous surroundings, their eyes drawn to the proscenium arch, decorated with the Prince of Wales’s heraldic badge. Then they fell silent and the curtain rose…

What exploded onto the stage can only be described as a riotous medley of elite culture and bawdy comedy. In one scene the audience was titillated by a young actress in tight breeches attempting to seduce an older, bearded actor, unconvincingly costumed as a young girl. A semblance of sobriety was restored when a soprano sang an operatic aria in earnest, accompanied by a full orchestra. But the audience fell about laughing when she whipped out a banjo and quickly segued into blackface minstrel song and dance. (Though it is widely regarded as offensive now, minstrelsy was popular with the Victorians, including Queen Victoria herself.)

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