Posted by: acheever19 | November 16, 2018

Victorian Burlesque: Photography & Entertainment

While doing some research on stage photography in Victorian England, I came across striking photographs from a specific genre of female entertainment: burlesque. Of course I’m familiar with modern burlesque shows but I hadn’t realized that burlesque was popularized in London from the 1830s to 1890s before reaching stages in New York and Chicago by the 1840s and 1850s. Was burlesque considered socially acceptable by Victorians? I wondered. Yet, Victorian era burlesque created a space for female performativity (and often seductive) entertainment. The archived photographs of these women suggest further discourse on the visuality of (gendered) entertainment and photography’s link to the theatrical– their costumes, movement, and the staged documentation by photographers create a niche that appealed to audiences throughout England and America.

The term burlesque was first used in 17th century Italian theater, representative of an extravagant comic interlude deriving from the Italian word “burla,” meaning ridicule or joke. Eventually, burlesque also became a literary device applied to literature, music, or theater: “It’s often a form of humorous parodies or pastiches of serious dramatic or classical works. It was related and partly derived from the English tradition of pantomime, in which a musical theatre parodied a serious work such as a Shakespeare play, with the addition of music and songs and humorous verse” (Uren). The theatrical nature of a burlesque often included comic skits, and striptease acts, leading to burlesque as its own entertainment genre. However, burlesque was not considered to be scandalous, pitiable, or low-brow in nature–it was a visual and performance art form that enabled women to create characters and skits that interacted with and responded to popular culture in Victorian society, literary references, and theater.

Ruy Blas and the Blas Roue

Figure 1. Advertisement and program for Ruy Blas and the Blase Roue which made fun of Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas. It opened in London on September 21, 1889 at the Gaiety Theatre and ran for 289 performances. This type of theatrical burlesque was known for its overt literary re-imaginings, musical scores, and playful female characters (New York Public Library Digital Collections).

In England, burlesque became the specialty of London theaters such as the Gaiety and Royal Strand Theatre. I will note that in America, burlesque took hold in large cities (especially New York) and devolved more into a strip tease. Performances also took some elements from minstrel shows, such as the three-part format and its often mocking qualities (“Forms of Variety Theater”). American burlesque moved slightly away from stage theater and became like a “sketch performance” with “quick-witted, sexually suggestive dialogue and skimpy costumes for female performers” (Uren). Whether burlesque became more or less socially acceptable after its transformation and proliferation to the widespread social classes of American cities is something I don’t yet know. However, reading the images below can help to imagine the artistic context in which burlesque formed and what it produced for its actors and audiences alike.

The photographs I have mostly include images from America during the Victorian era, taken from the Charles H. McCaghy Collection of Exotic Dance from Burlesque to Clubs, a personal collection of Charles H. McCaghy at Bowling Green State University. In England, burlesque was later replaced by Edwardian musical comedy. Although I found several London newspaper ads for burlesque shows, I found very few British photographs due to the theatrical nature of English burlesque which became more stated and obvious in American entertainment and photography.

Eliza Blasina

Figure 2. This photograph was taken on 107th & Broadway in N.Y. during the musical debut of “The Devil’s Auction” at Banvard’s Opera House. Her costume both fantasizes and fetishizes the female form and showcases how burlesque manipulated its costuming as a visual apparatus, in addition to the set of this photograph (Charles H. McCaghy Collection).

Falk & Warren

Figure 3. Left image: Vernona Jabeau, in high boots, hat, holding a candle in a long holder. Right image: Viola Clifton facing front in a sleeveless, short, fringed top and short, fringed trunks (Charles H. McCaghy Collection).

I was particularly struck by the way these burlesque photographs encompassed a wide range of female body types and gender expression through costuming. Burlesque as a parody did not seem to require specific Victorian ideals of feminine beauty or dress, which is why burlesque emerged as a theatrical site of invention, especially in America. These burlesque photographs reinforce the idea that photography is a form of theater, with characters, backdrops, and a set of conventions that can be subverted. In “Caught in the Act: Photography on the Victorian Stage,” Daniel A. Novak asserts that many have tried to separate photography and drama but the history of photography linked itself to the stage from its invention:

“As many critics have pointed out, photography had its origins in theatrical spectacle and spectacular technologies of illusion: Louis Daguerre ran a panorama theater at the same time that he popularized photography. Laurence Senelick argues that from the beginning, the photographic studio was patterned on the theater: ‘a reduced model of the proscenium stage. . . . Backed by a painted canvas as in the theatre, the studio’s confined space was akin to that of neoclassical drama.’ The use of elaborate props and costumes in the studio—-a practice so common that it was routinely mocked in print and on stage—only reinforced this association” (37). 

Novak captures the common link between photography and the stage, especially in its history and propensity for absurdity and invention. Famous Victorian photographers like Julia Margaret Cameron played into this association. Through her role as photographer, she became the stage director of her home productions, enacting the theatrical with her visitors, many of whom were actors themselves. Burlesque, in particular, opened up a new medium for these connections where posing for a still photograph captured part of the lively parody intended for the stage, in which females could play new parts.

Works Cited:

“Charles H. McCaghy Collection of Exotic Dance from Burlesque to Clubs.” Knowledge Bank, The Ohio State University, kb.osu.edu/handle/1811/47556/browse?type=title.

Daniel A. Novak. “Caught in the Act: Photography on the Victorian Stage.” Victorian Studies, vol. 59, no. 1, 2016, pp. 35–64. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/victorianstudies.59.1.02.

“Forms of Variety Theater.” American Memory: Remaining Collections, Library of Congress, memory.loc.gov/ammem/vshtml/vsforms.html.

“Ruy Blas at the Gaiety Theatre, 1889.” The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints, and Photographs, New York Public Library Digital Collections, digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-0dfb-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.

Uren, Amanda. “1890: Victorian Burlesque Dancers and Their Elaborate Costumes.” Mashable, Mashable, 11 Nov. 2014, mashable.com/2014/11/11/victorian-burlesque-dancers/#j7sywoVQl5qr.


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