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.
In the history of the United Kingdom, the Victorian era was the period of Queen Victoria's reign, from 20 June 1837 until her death on 22 January 1901. The era followed the Georgian period and preceded the Edwardian period, and its later half overlaps with the first part of the Belle Époque era of Continental Europe. In terms of moral sensibilities and political reforms, this period began with the passage of the Reform Act 1832. There was a strong religious drive for higher moral standards led by the nonconformist churches, such as the Methodists, and the Evangelical wing of the established Church of England. Britain's relations with the other Great Powers were driven by the colonial antagonism of the Great Game with Russia, climaxing during the Crimean War; a Pax Britannica of international free trade was maintained by the country's naval and industrial supremacy. Britain embarked on global imperial expansion, particularly in Asia and Africa, which made the British Empire the largest empire in history. National self-confidence peaked.
Parody music, or musical parody, involves changing or copying existing musical ideas or lyrics, or copying the particular style of a composer or artist, or even a general style of music. Although the intention of a musical parody may be humour, it is the re-use of music that is the original defining feature.
A pastiche is a work of visual art, literature, theatre, or music that imitates the style or character of the work of one or more other artists. Unlike parody, pastiche celebrates, rather than mocks, the work it imitates.
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, to show off women's legs in tights, and some of the older female roles were taken by male actors.
The ballad opera is a genre of English stage entertainment that originated in the early 18th century, and continued to develop over the following century and later. Like the earlier comédie en vaudeville and the later Singspiel, its distinguishing characteristic is the use of tunes in a popular style with spoken dialogue. These English plays were 'operas' mainly insofar as they satirized the conventions of the imported opera seria. Music critic Peter Gammond describes the ballad opera as "an important step in the emancipation of both the musical stage and the popular song."
An extravaganza is a literary or musical work characterized by freedom of style and structure and usually containing elements of burlesque, pantomime, music hall and parody. It sometimes also has elements of cabaret, circus, revue, variety, vaudeville and mime. Extravaganza may more broadly refer to an elaborate, spectacular, and expensive theatrical production.
A breeches role is a role in which an actress appears in male clothing. Breeches, tight-fitting knee-length pants, were the standard male garment at the time breeches roles were introduced.
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.
Sir Francis Cowley Burnand, usually known as F. C. Burnand, was an English comic writer and prolific playwright, best known today as the librettist of Arthur Sullivan's opera Cox and Box.
Sir William Schwenck Gilbert was an English dramatist, librettist, poet and illustrator best known for his collaboration with composer Arthur Sullivan, which produced fourteen comic operas. The most famous of these include H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and one of the most frequently performed works in the history of musical theatre, The Mikado. The popularity of these works was supported for over a century by year-round performances of them, in Britain and abroad, by the repertory company that Gilbert, Sullivan and their producer Richard D'Oyly Carte founded, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. These Savoy operas continue to be frequently performed in the English-speaking world and beyond.
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.
Pantomime is a type of musical comedy stage production designed for family entertainment. It was developed in England and is performed throughout the United Kingdom, Ireland and in other English-speaking countries, especially during the Christmas and New Year season. Modern pantomime includes songs, gags, slapstick comedy and dancing. It employs gender-crossing actors and combines topical humour with a story more or less based on a well-known fairy tale, fable or folk tale. It is a participatory form of theatre, in which the audience is expected to sing along with certain parts of the music and shout out phrases to the performers.
Madame Vestris produced burlesques at the Olympic Theatre beginning in 1831 with Olympic Revels by J. R. Planché.In these pieces, comedy stemmed from the incongruity and absurdity of the grand classical subjects, with realistic historical dress and settings, being juxtaposed with the everyday modern activities portrayed by the actors. For example, Olympic Revels opens with the gods of Olympus in classical Greek dress playing whist. In the early burlesques, the words of the songs were written to popular music, as had been done earlier in The Beggar's Opera . Later in the Victorian era, burlesque mixed operetta, music hall and revue, and some of the large-scale burlesque spectacles were known as extravaganzas. The English style of burlesque was successfully launched in New York in the 1840s by the manager and comedian William Mitchell, who had opened his Olympic Theatre in December 1839. Like the London prototypes, his burlesques included characters with nonsensical names such as Wunsuponatyme and The King of Neverminditsnamia, and made fun of all kinds of music currently being presented in the city.
Lucia Elizabeth Vestris was an English actress and a contralto opera singer, appearing in works by, among others, Mozart and Rossini. While popular in her time, she was more notable as a theatre producer and manager. After accumulating a fortune from her performances, she leased the Olympic Theatre in London and produced a series of burlesques and extravaganzas, especially popular works by James Planché, for which the house became famous. She also produced his work at other theatres she managed.
The Olympic Theatre, sometimes known as the Royal Olympic Theatre, was a 19th century London theatre, opened in 1806 and located at the junction of Drury Lane, Wych Street and Newcastle Street. The theatre specialised in comedies throughout much of its existence. Along with three other Victorian theatres, the Olympic was eventually demolished in 1904 to make way for the development of the Aldwych. Newcastle and Wych streets also vanished.
Whist is a classic English trick-taking card game which was widely played in the 18th and 19th centuries. Although the rules are simple, there is scope for scientific play.
Unlike pantomime, which aimed at all ages and classes, burlesque was aimed at a narrower, highly literate audience;some writers, such as the Brough brothers, aimed at a conservative middle class audience, and H. J. Byron's success was attributed to his skill in appealing to the lower middle classes. Some of the most frequent subjects for burlesque were the plays of Shakespeare and grand opera. From the 1850s onwards, burlesquing of Italian, French and, later in the century, German opera was popular with London audiences. Verdi's Il trovatore and La traviata received their British premieres in 1855 and 1856 respectively; British burlesques of them followed quickly. Our Lady of the Cameleon by Leicester Silk Buckingham and Our Traviata by William F. Vandervell (both 1857) were followed by five different burlesque treatments of Il trovatore, two of them by H. J. Byron: Ill Treated Trovatore, or the Mother the Maiden and the Musicianer (1863) and Il Trovatore or Larks with a Libretto (1880). The operas of Bellini, Bizet, Donizetti, Gounod, Handel, Meyerbeer, Mozart, Rossini, Wagner and Weber were burlesqued. In a 2003 study of the subject, Roberta Montemorra Marvin noted:
Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi was an Italian opera composer. He was born near Busseto to a provincial family of moderate means, and developed a musical education with the help of a local patron. Verdi came to dominate the Italian opera scene after the era of Vincenzo Bellini, Gaetano Donizetti, and Gioachino Rossini, whose works significantly influenced him. By his 30s, he had become one of the pre-eminent opera composers in history.
Il trovatore is an opera in four acts by Giuseppe Verdi to an Italian libretto largely written by Salvadore Cammarano, based on the play El trovador (1836) by Antonio García Gutiérrez. It was Gutiérrez's most successful play, one which Verdi scholar Julian Budden describes as "a high flown, sprawling melodrama flamboyantly defiant of the Aristotelian unities, packed with all manner of fantastic and bizarre incident."
La traviata is an opera in three acts by Giuseppe Verdi set to an Italian libretto by Francesco Maria Piave. It is based on La Dame aux camélias (1852), a play adapted from the novel by Alexandre Dumas fils. The opera was originally titled Violetta, after the main character. It was first performed on 6 March 1853 at the La Fenice opera house in Venice.
By the 1880s, almost every truly popular opera had become the subject of a burlesque. Generally appearing after an opera's premiere or following a successful revival, they usually enjoyed local production runs, often for a month or longer. The popularity of stage burlesque in general and operatic burlesque in particular seems to have stemmed from the many ways in which it entertained a diverse group, and the manner in which it fed and fed on the circus-like or carnivalesque atmosphere of public Victorian London.
W. S. Gilbert wrote five opera burlesques early in his career, beginning with Dulcamara, or the Little Duck and the Great Quack (1866), the most successful of which was Robert the Devil (1868).In the 1870s, Lydia Thompson's burlesque troupe, with Willie Edouin, became famous for their burlesques, by such authors as H. B. Farnie and Robert Reece, both in Britain and the U.S.
The Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells notes that although parodies of Shakespeare had appeared even in Shakespeare's lifetime, the heyday of Shakespearean burlesque was the Victorian era.Wells observes that the typical Victorian Shakespeare burlesque "takes a Shakespeare play as its point of departure and creates from it a mainly comic entertainment, often in ways that bear no relation to the original play." Wells gives, as an example of the puns in the texts, the following: Macbeth and Banquo make their first entrance under an umbrella. 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'". Musically, Shakespearean burlesques were as varied as the others of the genre. An 1859 burlesque of Romeo and Juliet contained 23 musical numbers, some from opera, such as the serenade from Don Pasquale , and some from traditional airs and popular songs of the day including "Buffalo Gals", and "Nix my Dolly".
The dialogue for burlesques was generally written in rhyming couplets, or, less often, in other verse forms, such as blank verse; it was notable for its bad puns.For example, in Faust up to Date (1888), a couplet reads:
According to Grove, although "an almost indispensable element of burlesque was the display of attractive women dressed in tights, often in travesty roles ... the plays themselves did not normally tend to indecency."Some contemporary critics took a sterner view; in an 1885 article, the critic Thomas Heyward praised Planché ("fanciful and elegant") and Gilbert ("witty, never vulgar"), but wrote of the genre as a whole, "the flashy, 'leggy', burlesque, with its 'slangy' songs, loutish 'breakdowns', vulgar jests, paltry puns and witless grimacing at all that is graceful and poetic is simply odious. … Burlesque, insensate, spiritless and undiscriminating, demoralizes both the audience and the players. It debases the public taste." Gilbert expressed his own views on the worth of burlesque:
The question whether burlesque has a claim to rank as art is, I think, one of degree. Bad burlesque is as far removed from true art as is a bad picture. But burlesque in its higher development calls for high intellectual power on the part of its professors. Aristophanes, Rabelais, Geo Cruikshank, the authors of the Rejected Addresses , John Leech, Planché were all in their respective lines professors of true burlesque.
In his 1859 Longfellow burlesque Hi-A-Wa-Tha, the American playwright Charles Walcot encapsulated the character of burlesque in the epilogue, addressed to the audience by Mrs. John Wood as Minnehaha:
In a similar vein, ten years later, Gilbert gave an English viewpoint on burlesque, in his epilogue to The Pretty Druidess :
Actresses in burlesque would often play breeches roles, which were male roles played by women; likewise, men eventually began to play older female roles.These reversals allowed viewers to distance themselves from the morality of the play, focusing more on joy and entertainment than catharsis, a definitive shift away from neoclassical ideas.
The depiction of female sexuality in Victorian burlesque was an example of the connection between women as performers and women as sexual objects in Victorian culture.Throughout the history of theatre the participation of women on stage has been questioned. Victorian culture, according to Buszek in 2012, viewed paid female performance as being closely associated with prostitution, “a profession in which most women in the theatre dabbled, if not took on as a primary source of income.”
Burlesque became the specialty of London's Royal Strand Theatre and Gaiety Theatre from the 1860s to the early 1890s.In the 1860s and 1870s, burlesques were often one-act pieces running less than an hour and using pastiches and parodies of popular songs, opera arias and other music that the audience would readily recognize. Nellie Farren starred as the Gaiety Theatre's "principal boy" from 1868, and John D'Auban choreographed the burlesques there from 1868 to 1891. Edward O'Connor Terry joined the theatre in 1876. Early Gaiety burlesques included Robert the Devil (1868, by Gilbert), The Bohemian G-yurl and the Unapproachable Pole (1877), Blue Beard (1882), Ariel (1883, by F. C. Burnand) and Galatea, or Pygmalion Reversed (1883).
Beginning in the 1880s, when comedian-writer Fred Leslie joined the Gaiety, composers like Meyer Lutz and Osmond Carr contributed original music to the burlesques, which were extended to a full-length two- or three-act format.These later Gaiety burlesques starred Farren and Leslie. They often included Leslie's libretti, written under his pseudonym, "A. C. Torr", and were usually given an original score by Lutz: Little Jack Sheppard (1885), Monte Cristo Jr. (1886), Pretty Esmeralda (1887), Frankenstein, or The Vampire's Victim (1887), Mazeppa and Faust up to Date (1888). Ruy Blas and the Blasé Roué (1889) made fun of the play Ruy Blas by Victor Hugo. The title was a pun, and the worse the pun, the more Victorian audiences were amused. The last Gaiety burlesques were Carmen up to Data (1890), Cinder Ellen up too Late (1891), and Don Juan (1892, with lyrics by Adrian Ross).
In the early 1890s, Farren retired, Leslie died, and musical burlesque went out of fashion in London, as the focus of the Gaiety and other burlesque theatres changed to the new genre of Edwardian musical comedy.In 1896, Seymour Hicks declared that burlesque "is dead as a doornail and will never be revived." From her retirement, Nellie Farren endorsed this judgment.
Frederick George Hobson, known as Fred Leslie, was an English actor, singer, comedian and dramatist.
A burlesque is a literary, dramatic or musical work intended to cause laughter by caricaturing the manner or spirit of serious works, or by ludicrous treatment of their subjects. The word derives from the Italian burlesco, which, in turn, is derived from the Italian burla – a joke, ridicule or mockery.
Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old, is an operatic extravaganza that was the first collaboration between dramatist W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan. No musical score of Thespis was ever published, and most of the music has been lost. Gilbert and Sullivan went on to become the most famous and successful artistic partnership in Victorian England, creating a string of comic opera hits, including H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado, which continue to be popular.
James Robinson Planché was a British dramatist, antiquary and officer of arms. Over a period of approximately 60 years he wrote, adapted, or collaborated on 176 plays in a wide range of genres including extravaganza, farce, comedy, burletta, melodrama and opera. Planché was responsible for introducing historically accurate costume into nineteenth century British theatre, and subsequently became an acknowledged expert on historical costume, publishing a number of works on the topic.
George Joseph Edwardes was an English theatre manager and producer of Irish ancestry who brought a new era in musical theatre to the British stage and beyond.
The Gaiety Theatre was a West End theatre in London, located on Aldwych at the eastern end of the Strand. The theatre was first established as the Strand Musick Hall in 1864 on the former site of the Lyceum Theatre. In 1868, it became known as the Gaiety Theatre and was, at first, known for music hall and then for musical burlesque, pantomime and operetta performances. From 1868 to the 1890s, it had a major influence on the development of modern musical comedy.
Henry Pottinger Stephens, also known as Henry Beauchamp, was an English dramatist and journalist.
Cinder Ellen up too Late is a musical burlesque written by Frederick Hobson Leslie and W. T. Vincent, with music arranged by Meyer Lutz from compositions by Lionel Monckton, Sidney Jones, Walter Slaughter, Osmond Carr, Scott Gatti, Jacobi, Robertson, and Leopold Wenzel. Additional lyrics were written by Basil Hood. The show was a burlesque of the well-known pantomime and fairy tale, Cinderella.
Wilhelm Meyer Lutz was a German-born British composer and conductor who is best known for light music, musical theatre and burlesques of well-known works.
Frankenstein, or The Vampire's Victim is a musical burlesque written by Richard Henry. The music was composed by Meyer Lutz. The piece is a burlesque of the Mary Shelley novel Frankenstein and the Adelphi Theatre drama based on the novel.
Priscilla Horton, later Priscilla German Reed, was a popular English singer and actress, known for her role as Ariel in W. C. Macready's production of The Tempest in 1838 and "fairy" burlesques at Covent Garden Theatre. Later, she was known, along with her husband, Thomas German Reed, for creating the family-friendly German Reed Entertainments. There, she was a mentor to W. S. Gilbert, and her performances inspired Gilbert to create some of his famous contralto roles.
Galatea, or Pygmalion Re-Versed is a musical burlesque that parodies the Pygmalion legend, and specifically W. S. Gilbert's 1871 play Pygmalion and Galatea. The libretto was written by Henry Pottinger Stephens and W. Webster. The score was composed by Wilhelm Meyer Lutz.
Ellen "Nellie" Farren was an English actress and singer best known for her roles as the "principal boy" in musical burlesques at the Gaiety Theatre.
John Hollingshead was an English theatrical impresario, journalist and writer during the latter half of the 19th century. After a journalism career, Hollingshead managed the Alhambra Theatre and was later the first manager of the Gaiety Theatre, London. Hollingshead also wrote several books during his life.
Robert the Devil, or The Nun, the Dun, and the Son of a Gun is an operatic parody by W. S. Gilbert of Giacomo Meyerbeer's grand opera Robert le diable, which was named after, but bears little resemblance to, the medieval French legend of the same name. Gilbert set new lyrics to tunes by Meyerbeer, Bellini, Offenbach and others.
Carmen up to Data is a musical burlesque with a score written by Meyer Lutz. The piece was a spoof of Bizet's 1875 opera Carmen. The libretto was written by G. R. Sims and Henry Pettitt.
Frederick John D'Auban was an English dancer, choreographer and actor of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Famous during his lifetime as the ballet-master at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, he is best remembered as the choreographer of many of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas.
Robert Soutar was an English actor, comedian, stage manager, writer and director for the theatre. He began his career as a journalist but soon moved into acting. In 1867, he married actress Nellie Farren, and the next year, the two joined the company at the Gaiety Theatre in London. There, he stage managed and wrote for the theatre in addition to acting. His wife became well known for her roles as the "principal boy" in musical burlesques at the theatre. Soutar also directed plays and wrote pantomimes and other pieces. His son was the actor and singer Joseph Farren Soutar.
Monte Cristo Jr. was a Victorian burlesque with a libretto written by Richard Henry, a pseudonym for the writers Richard Butler and Henry Chance Newton. The score was composed by Meyer Lutz, Ivan Caryll, Hamilton Clarke, Tito Mattei, G. W. Hunt and Henry J. Leslie. The ballet and incidental dances were arranged by John D'Auban, and the theatre's musical director, Meyer Lutz, conducted. The play's doggerel verse was loosely based on The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.