I. What is Burlesque?
Burlesque (pronounced ber-lesk) is a style in literature and drama that mocks or imitates a subject by representing it in an ironic or ludicrous way; resulting in comedy. It is a form of the literary genre, satire. The term “burlesque” originates from the Italian burla and later burlesco, meaning ridicule, mockery, or joke. Correspondingly, burlesque creates humor by ridiculing or mimicking serious works, genres, subjects, and/or authors in one of two ways: either by presenting significant subjects in an absurd or crude way, or by presenting insignificant subjects in a sophisticated way. As a literary and dramatic device, the term is often used interchangeably with parody, though a parody is actually type of burlesque.
This article focuses on the original, literary understanding of Burlesque, should not be confused with the modern understanding of the word burlesque; which is actually American Burlesque—a genre of variety show that has been popular since the late 1800’s (see Related Terms).
II. Example of Burlesque
As mentioned above, burlesque works mimic the styles and subjects of other works in a humorous way. Take the classic cute love poem:
Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
Sugar is sweet,
And so are you!
A burlesque version of the poem, specifically a parody, would be:
Roses prick your fingers,
Violets make you sneeze,
Sugar fills your veins with fat,
It’s best you stick to peas!
First, the poem above mimics the style of the first poem in that it follows the same ABCB rhyme scheme. Second, it mimics the subject of the first poem by using the same words—roses, violets, sugar, and you. However, the second poem is funny because it highlights the negative elements of these things rather than the positive. Thus, by changing these words to funny alternatives, while keeping the same style, the second poem mocks the traditional love poem, making it a burlesque poem.
III. Types of Burlesque
Burlesque is typically divided into two types: high burlesque and low burlesque. With high burlesque, the style of the work is “high” (dignified, serious), but the subject matter is “low” (insignificant, trivial). In low burlesque, the style of the work is “low” (undignified, improper), but the subject matter is “high” (serious, significant). Most importantly, there are further distinctions within both high and low burlesque, which are defined below.
a. Types of High Burlesque
A parody mimics the style of a particular genre, work, or author. The purpose is to mock a trivial subject by presenting it in an exaggerated and more elegant way than it normally deserves. Parodies are the most popular and widely used form of burlesque.
Mock-heroics imitate the form and style of an epic poem (like Homer’s Odyssey); which is quite formal and complex. Technically, it is a type of parody. Mock-heroics induce humor by presenting insignificant subjects in the long, sophisticated style of epic poetry.
b. Types of Low Burlesque
A travesty is a lewd or exaggerated imitation of a significant work or subject, or, an absurd representation of a subject. Its purpose is to ridicule the subject, work or author by mocking it in a vulgar or grotesque way.
IV. Importance of Burlesque
Burlesque literature is much more than mere comedy and entertainment. It has been a major literary and dramatic technique for social activism and commentary for thousands of years; using humor to attract attention to serious and unresolved issues in society. Nowadays, the main purpose of burlesque literature and drama is generally entertainment and comedy, but it has historically been an important way of using humor to critique social issues.
V. Examples of Burlesque in Literature
Burlesque was made most popular during the Victorian era of literature. Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is a parody of gothic fiction, which was a very popular genre of literature for young Victorian women. The story follows Catherine Morland, a young woman with a vivid imagination, which is the author suggests is “caused” by her love of gothic novels. Austen is mocking the popular Victorian mentality that literature could cause fantastic, improper, and unrealistic ideas as a result of reading fiction. Northanger Abbey follows the style of gothic novel because Catherine experiences similar feelings and situations that a gothic heroine would face—fear, mystery, curiousity, danger—however it is a parody because nothing scary or mysterious ever actually happens to Catherine, she just has an active imagination. See the selection below:
Catherine’s blood ran cold with the horrid suggestions which naturally sprang from these words. Could it be possible? – Could Henry’s father? – And yet how many were the examples to justify even the blackest suspicions!
Here, the language is gothic in style—blood ran cold, horrid, blackest suspicions. However, after this, we learn that Catherine is just imagining nonsense—nothing out of the ordinary ever occurs throughout the novel. Catherine longs for mystery and adventure like her novels provide, so she imagines countless things to be evidence of conspiracy and horror, realizing after each time how silly she was being.
Jonathan Swift is one of literature’s greatest satirists, and his essay A Modest Proposal is an excellent example of a burlesque work that critiques serious social issues, specifically those of 18th century Irish society, such as poverty and the way the rich treat and view the poor. In his essay he suggests several solutions to these problems—
I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust.
In this passage, Swift suggests that children make an excellent food. He continues his essay by defending the reasons why it is an excellent solution to poverty, as many poor people have extra children that they could use to feed mouths, rather than as mouths to feed. Obviously, these ideas are over-the-top and outrageous; which is precisely the point of the essay. It mocks a very serious issue; which highlights its importance and begs for change in society.
A recent example of burlesque in today’s literature is Pride, Prejudice and Zombies, a parody novel written by Seth Grahame-Smith. This 2009 novel combines Jane Austen’s Victorian romance novel Pride and Prejudice with elements of zombie literature and culture. Furthermore, it is written completely in the literary style of a Victorian romance novel, but rather than focusing only on love, marriage, courtship, it includes zombies and survival. Take the following passage—
Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; and Darcy had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her. He really believed, that were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger of falling in love, and were it not for his considerable skill in the deadly arts, that he should be in danger of being bested by hers–for never had he seen a lady more gifted in the ways of vanquishing the undead.
Here, the author speaks of love and marriage while simultaneously addressing Elizabeth’s skills not in womanly duties (as Victorian novels typically do), but in the deadly arts. As mentioned above, it mimics the Victorian style of novel writing—it employs very typical Victorian language, grammar, and sentence structure—but does so while comically focusing on zombies. After the novel’s success, Grahame-Smith also wrote Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, whose title speaks for itself, and both novels have been developed into films.
VI. Examples of Burlesque in Pop Culture
In popular culture, the most commonly represented form of burlesque in film and television is the parody. In fact, parodies have a massive presence in the popular film industry; specifically films that parody older films, often with similar names. For example, Shaun of the Dead (2004) parodies its predecessor, the cult classic Dawn of the Dead (1978), in both title and genre—it makes fun of the zombie flick genre (specifically Dawn of the Dead) by mimicking its style in a ridiculous way.
Rather than being scary, Shaun of the Dead turns horror into humor by using slow, basically harmless zombies who seemingly go unnoticed by the main characters. Further examples of parody films include Not Another Teen Movie, Scary Movie, Epic Movie, Austin Powers—the list is seemingly endless.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a prime example of a modern burlesque film, specifically a mock-heroic. The storyline is inspired by the Odyssey, Homer’s famous medieval epic poem, but takes place in America during the 1900’s. It follows the major plotline and epic style—a hero on a quest—but replaces the elements of epic poem with humorous and exaggerated characters, settings, and situations.
For example, Cyclops (a mythological one-eyed monster) is represented by a stocky, evil salesman with an eye patch; Sirens (seductive sea nymphs who lure sailors to their deaths) are replaced by beautiful women washing clothes in the river, and the hero Odysseus is replaced by the crafty but unimpressive Ulysses McGill, whose quest is to make it back to his family before his wife marries another man.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? makes a mockery of the epic poem by following its style, but downgrading the importance of its content. Ulysses McGill is not a king like Homer’s Odysseus, and nothing important is riding on the success of his mission.
VII. Related Terms
American Burlesque is a genre of variety show popularized in the late 1800’s. The style was derived from the ideas of Victorian burlesque, but by the 1900s it had involved into a combination of satire, comedy, striptease, and musical theater. Nowadays, when people hear the term burlesque, the impression that comes to mind is of voluptuous women in racy costumes, cabaret style performances, and risqué musical numbers—this is American Burlesque. It remains a popular form of entertainment worldwide (particularly in cities with huge performance industries, like Las Vegas), and also has a presence in film and television. For example, the 2010 film Burlesque, featuring Cher and Christina Aguilera, is an American Burlesque film that captures the modern conception and understanding of the word burlesque.
In conclusion, burlesque is an important form of literature and drama because of its ability to make a mockery of serious and lighthearted subjects alike. What’s more, it can be used as a way to deliver opinions and messages to encourage change and awareness, all by presenting information through comedy that is often outrageous, unusual, and vulgar. Above all, especially today, burlesque is an exciting, smart, and endearing form of entertainment.