Sunday, August 20, 2023

The Spirit of Burlesque

In an 1888 article in The Universal Review, the British dramatist F.C. Burnand set out to defend burlesque, not the sexy strip-shows of today that we call by that name, but the comic plays of the 19th century that spoofed the hit plays then popular on the stage.

According to Burnand, "'To burlesque' is to make ridiculous by means of exaggeration, mimicry, parody, grotesque distortion, travesty, and caricature." Originally, though, the term had been used along with "melodrama" and "burletta" to define the types of plays that could be performed by the minor theatres that did not hold royal patents like the Theatres Royal at Drury Lane and Covent Garden had.

Prior to the passage of the Theatres Act in 1843, the minor theatres in London had to add a certain amount of music in order to prove they weren't invading the territory of the patent houses. (Exactly how much music they needed to add was a matter of some debate and considerable litigation.) For Burnand, though, the spirit of the burlesque goes back to the Miles Gloriosus of Roman comedy and the comedic Ancient Pistol of Shakespeare's history plays.

Burnand himself was a prolific writer of burlesque plays, but he looked back admiringly on earlier work by James Planché, whose Olympic Revels was a hit when produced by Madame Lucia Elizabeth Vestris. Planché also wrote an adaptation of The Birds by Aristophanes that utilized the structure of the original while poking fun of topics current in the 19th century. The play featured Charles Matthews as a one-man Greek chorus, comically dressed in a Doric chiton over his modern clothes.

Burlesque, in the hands of a skilled dramatist like Planché, is "the candid friend" of the drama, according to Burnand. He writes that burlesque "by means of parody, travesty, and mimicry, publicly exposes on the stage some preposterous absurdities of stagecraft which may be a passing fashion of the day, justly ridicules some histrionic pretensions, parodies false sentiment, and shows that the shining metal put forward as real gold is only theatrical tinfoil after all.” It is just such parody that "killed the old blood-and-thunder melodrama," he concludes.

Burnand should know, as he wrote burlesques of previously successful melodramas such as Black-Eyed Susan by Douglas Jerrold, as well as burlesques of Shakespeare classics like Richard III. The spirit of burlesque is present whenever we pull back the artifice of theatre and comically expose the rude mechanical conventions that lie beneath it.