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Victorian burlesque

Victorian burlesque, sometimes known as travesty or extravaganza, is a genre of theatrical entertainment that was popular in Victorian England and in the New York theatre of the mid 19th century. It is a form of parody in which a well-known opera or piece of classical theatre or ballet is adapted into a broad comic play, usually a musical play, usually risqué in style, mocking the theatrical and musical conventions and styles of the original work, and often quoting or pastiching text or music from the original work. Victorian burlesque is one of several forms of burlesque.

Like ballad opera, burlesques featured musical scores drawing on a wide range of music, from popular contemporary songs to operatic arias, although later burlesques, from the 1880s, sometimes featured original scores. Dance played an important part, and great attention was paid to the staging, costumes and other spectacular elements of stagecraft, as many of the pieces were staged as extravaganzas. Many of the male roles were played by actresses as breeches roles, purposely to show off their physical charms, and some of the older female roles were taken by male actors.

Originally short, one-act pieces, burlesques were later full-length shows, occupying most or all of an evening's programme. Authors who wrote burlesques included J. R. Planché, H. J. Byron, G. R. Sims, F. C. Burnand, W. S. Gilbert and Fred Leslie.

Burlesque theatre became popular around the beginning of the Victorian era. The word "burlesque" is derived from the Italian burla, which means "ridicule or mockery". According to the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Victorian burlesque was "related to and in part derived from pantomime and may be considered an extension of the introductory section of pantomime with the addition of gags and 'turns'." Another antecedent was ballad opera, in which new words were fitted to existing tunes.

Mephistopheles: "Along the Riviera dudes her praises sing."
Walerlie: "Oh, did you Riviera such a thing?"
Ye who love extravaganza,
Love to laugh at all things funny,
Love the bold anachronism.
And the work of paste and scissors,
And "the unities" destruction,
Nigger airs, old glees, and catches,
Interspersed with gems of Op'ra,
Jokes and puns, good, bad, and so-so, –
Come and see this mutilation,
This disgraceful Hiawatha, Mongrel, doggerel Hiawatha!
So for burlesque I plead. Forgive our rhymes;
Forgive the jokes you've heard five thousand times;
Forgive each breakdown, cellar-flap, and clog,
Our low-bred songs – our slangy dialogue;
And, above all – oh, ye with double barrel –
Forgive the scantiness of our apparel!
  • Adams, William Davenport (1904) A Dictionary of the Drama. London: Chatto & Windus
  • Frye, Northrop. (1957) Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press
  • Gilbert, W. S. (1869). The Pretty Druidess, London
  • Hollingshead, John. (1903) Good Old Gaiety: An Historiette & Remembrance. London: Gaiety Theatre Co.
  • Kenrick, John, "A History of The Musical Burlesque", Musicals 101, accessed 3 February 2011
  • Reinhardt, Paul (December 1968). "The Costume Designs of James Robinson Planché (1796-1880)". Educational Theatre Journal. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 20 (4): 524–44. doi:10.2307/3204997. JSTOR 3204997. 
  • Stedman, Jane W. (1996). W. S. Gilbert, A Classic Victorian & His Theatre. Oxford University Press. ISBN . 


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