Coined in the 16th century as a literary or theatrical form that inverts form and content, burlesque is a subset of parody that either elevates the mundane or vulgarizes the lofty. When Lydia Thompson and the British Blondes brought their unique brand of burlesque to New York City in 1868, the public understanding of burlesque transformed from a literary form to a performance style, and the worlds of “leg shows” and burlesque became largely synonymous in the public imagination. These early burlesque shows were evening-length parodies of classical texts or myths and focused on women “putting on” the other gender (rather than its later association with “taking off” via striptease).
This course will cover some of the major historical shifts in American burlesque traditions including Thompsonian burlesque (and those that followed), female minstrel shows, hootchy cootchie dance, burlesque wheels, the emergence of striptease, queens of burlesque, exotic dancing, and the neo-burlesque movement. Rather than codify the defining characteristics and time periods of these historical moments, we seek to understand and trace how the definitions, conceptual preoccupations, and performance techniques of burlesque have adapted and changed over time. Special consideration will be given to understanding burlesque in relationship to other entertainment genres such as vaudeville, minstrelsy, early film, melodrama, musical theatre, world’s fairs, and to the larger social, cultural, and historical contexts in which burlesque has taken place. We watch films that document burlesque; read biographies of major figures and scholarly works about burlesque, theatre, and popular culture; attend neo-burlesque performances, and discuss the neo-burlesque and performance art movements with guest artists.