The Victorian burlesque dancers and their flamboyant, elaborate costumes.1890

Neil Patrick
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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.

 

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

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.

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

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

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.

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

 

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

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

 

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

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.

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

 

Elvira Viola, sitting in fur fringe.

Elvira Viola, sitting in fur fringe.

 

Gracie Wilson in costume with a cape.

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 intravesty roles, dressed in tights to show off their legs, but the plays themselves were seldom more than modestly risqué.

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