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…

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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.)

Behind the performers, ingenious scenery changes and state-of-the-art magnesium lighting transported the audience from rain-sodden London to a beautiful sunset in a Spanish vineyard and then on to a winter garden full of fairies. These exotic sets mingled with forms of entertainment far more familiar to the 19th-century theatregoer: scantily clad chorus girls, clog dances, parlour songs and plenty of terrible puns.

Money to burn

Welcome to the riotous world of Victorian burlesque. Nowadays ‘burlesque’ might conjure images of corsets, fishnet stockings and striptease. To the men and women taking their seats in the Prince of Wales’s Theatre in 1865, however, it was entirely different: they craved something that both titillated them and enabled them to demonstrate their middle-class respectability. That burlesque succeeded in meeting these competing demands makes it one of the most remarkable forms of entertainment of the 19th century.

So what exactly was Victorian burlesque? In many ways it was similar to music hall: both offered variety performances including song, dance and comedy. But burlesques were unique. They lampooned high-class culture – especially opera, Shakespeare and those who revelled in their classical educations – and often targeted plays or operas then running at Covent Garden or Drury Lane. Indeed, the burlesque being shown at the Prince of Wales’s Theatre that night in December 1865 loosely followed the plot of Mozart’s much-loved opera Don Giovanni.

Burlesque was born in working-class London theatres. At the start of the 19th century, these were often grimy, seedy places: audiences drank beer and consorted with prostitutes in the dimly lit foyers, while scantily-clad women danced provocatively, and bawdy comedy was performed on stage. At this time, theatres had a tarnished reputation as places of drunkenness and public displays of sexuality.

Working-class theatre could also be provocative in a political sense. The satire found in burlesques was often subversive, criticising the aristocracy and controversial legislation like the new Poor Law of 1834.

Productions had to appeal to repressed middle-class gentlemen’s sexual appetites, while providing references to Shakespeare

But the landscape was changing. By mid-century the West End had become a place of impeccable respectability. This was partly due to the campaigning of writers like Charles Dickens, who argued that theatre had redemptive, educational powers. Perhaps more influential was the realisation that upper-middle-class tourists had money to burn. Theatre managers cleaned up their establishments so that their new audiences felt safe in them. Gradually, the West End morphed into a stylish hub of shopping, leisure and entertainment.

Some types of performances now went out of fashion. It was no longer possible to put on vulgar melodramas like Zarah the Gypsy Girl at the Queen’s Theatre for sixpence, and expect audiences to flock to enjoy the sensational murder scenes.

Burlesque was being pulled in two directions. A burlesque production would not be complete without chorus girls kicking their bare legs, but the audience now wore dinner jackets and evening dresses, and their programmes were printed on silk.

Some wondered if burlesque could ever escape its past. Its use of lowest-common-denominator humour, such as slang and terrible puns, drew criticism. Yet, these aspects also formed part of its appeal.

Such competing priorities may explain the treatment meted out to one unfortunate member of the audience at London’s Strand Theatre in 1865. The woman had the temerity to take her seat in a low-cut dress – a ‘crime’ that subjected her to a barrage of hisses from the gallery, forcing her to draw her opera cloak around her shoulders and beat a hasty exit. Given the theatre’s earlier reputation as a den of iniquity, it is likely the audience took her for a prostitute. In their anxiety that burlesque should now be respectable, they felt compelled to expel her from the theatre.

As this incident suggests, burlesque held a precarious position within the minefield of Victorian snobbery and social politics. In many ways, its bawdiness challenges the modern stereotype of the prudish Victorian: our 19th-century predecessors liked sex as much as any other generation, and those putting on the productions sought to appeal to repressed middle-class gentlemen’s sexual appetites. All the while, however, burlesque had to provide references to Shakespeare to provide a veneer of propriety.

French seaside towns

So how did burlesque managers walk this tightrope? Their solution was to make the satire less pointed, less questioning of the status quo, more given to snobbery. WS Gilbert’s Robert the Devil; or, the Nun, Dun, and the Son of a Gun (a parody of Meyerbeer’s opera) sneered at people who went day-tripping to Margate instead of holidaying in the more fashionable French seaside towns. Leicester Silk Buckingham’s Lucrezia Borgia! At Home and All Abroad (targeting Donizetti’s opera) played on a bugbear of the middle classes: the high rate of income tax.

Clever musical choices also enabled managers to profit from burlesque’s risqué reputation without alienating their respectable audiences. Composers included popular genres like minstrelsy and parlour songs in their arrangements, drawing the line at working-class music hall tunes. Minstrel songs were rewritten with references to elite culture, or segued into operatic arias or fashionable operetta. And the whole performance took place in grand surroundings.

Not everyone was a fan of this riotous marriage of sex and sophistication. In January 1865, Punch opined that “The method of getting up a burlesque, extravaganza or pantomime differs according to the theatre where it is produced. The piece itself is scribbled, off-hand, on bits of waste paper, backs of old envelopes, and the like. Sometimes the greater part of the MS [manuscript] is written on shaving paper during the author’s toilette.”

It was the dancers’ attire that most offended Fun magazine. In its review of Robert the Devil in 1896, it observed: “We may note particularly that the – shall we call it dress? of the principal danseuse was so extremely sketchy that a few years back – ere the introduction of the can-can had expanded British tolerance – it would have been publicly condemned.”

The critics may have been sniffy but, for the most part, audiences enjoyed the dovetailing of operatic music and popular genres. Lucrezia Borgia! At Home and All Abroad, for example, included a clever transition from ‘Com’è Bello’, an aria from the original opera, into Stephen Foster’s parlour song ‘Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming’.

Yet burlesque writers could also be merciless in their mockery of the snootiness and exoticism of opera. In The Lady of the Cameleon (a burlesque of Verdi’s La Traviata), the tragic heroine, Violetta, became the rather more down-to-earth Vile Letty, a fish seller. In Little Don Giovanni, audiences were amused when the statue of the Commendatore, who comes to life to drag Don Giovanni down to hell in the original opera, put up his umbrella in the burlesque to shelter from the London rain. Opera’s exoticism, elitism and the absurdity of its plots were all targets for ridicule.

We can see this in the arrangement of the minstrel song ‘The Pullback’ in Little Don Giovanni. It was scored as an ensemble piece and ended with a roll call of operatic arias. Those in the audience able to recognise these arias could feel smug, and raise a smile as the burlesque song turned these titles into a hodge-podge of foreign-sounding words.

A shapely pair of legs

Even though they were now respectable, burlesques still offered audiences sexual titillation. Alongside a chorus of beautiful young women, most burlesques included a trouser role for a woman playing a boy. The opportunity to admire a pair of shapely legs in a reputable setting remained an important part of the genre’s appeal. In Little Don Giovanni, the Don was played by the popular burlesque actress and manager of the Prince of Wales’s Theatre, Marie Wilton. Wilton’s performance was greatly admired by one reviewer, who declared: “It is impossible to conceive a prettier, brisker, nattier or neater little libertine than Miss Marie Wilton looks in a pink doublet, slashed with gold embroidery and bright blue satin knickerbockers.”

In many ways, Marie Wilton’s story echoed the rise of burlesque itself. She had begun her career delivering the crude, outrageous puns that were a signature of the genre, before making the transition to legitimate comedy, earning a reputation as one of the leading actresses of the day. Like Wilton, burlesque had to traverse the notoriously tricky terrain of Victorian social and sexual politics before it could establish its place in the nation’s affections. It was a long journey – one that required it to reinvent itself to meet changing public tastes. But, as a string of box-office hits in the 1860s and 70s attests, burlesque was up to the challenge.

Joanne Cormac is a Leverhulme early career research fellow at the University of Nottingham. She was editor of 30-Second Classical Music (Ivy Press, October 2017). For more on the Victorians, visit historyextra.com/Victorians

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This article was first published in the May 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine