Thursday, December 02, 2004

It's Burlesque, Baby

The way Allen explains it in Horrible Prettiness, “the emblematic trope of burlesque was the pun,” which weren’t only popular in America; they had enjoyed popularity in Europe as well. But the difference in the Thompson act was that women got to tell the jokes (147). Burlesque humor also used “incongruity and miscegenation” (147).

Allen says burlesque “flaunted the language of the street, of the uncultured, and of the urban working classes: slang.” But when it did that, “it flouted the right of bourgeois culture to determine the propriety of public discourse.” Effectively, burlesque celebrated in its own disapproval, or as Allen put it, “reveled in its illegitimacy” (148). I could certainly connect that to the present-day coolness about coming from the working class and the general approval for using informal language under most circumstances.

A pioneer of the burlesque at this time was Michael Leavitt, who discovered a way to mix up “the lady minstrel shows, vaudeville, and musicalized travesty into one production theater” (163). The result was a more formal burlesque that was able to tour—and which toured with black-face performers. The interesting thing about Leavitt’s show was that it was at least “on the surface [...] a curious hybridization of two [...] disparate forms of popular entertainment,” burlesque and the minstrel show. Allen observes that the mixture was curious since the burlesque was customarily an all-woman show, while the minstrel program traditionally was made up of an all-male cast of performers. So when Leavitt used females in the minstrelsy, it seemed a purposeful subversion. In fact, though, it had more to do with “the economics of popular entertainment”—a single cast was probably cheaper to tour with, I’m guessing (165).

Still an odd connection between burlesque and minstrelsy made them ideal companions. Allen says the “sexual objectification of the burlesque performer confirmed the authority of the male spectator to visually possess her, while, at the same time her inversive and transgressive performance pointed to the social and sexual system within which both spectator and performer were situated” (170). But in much the same way, “the black man represented by the blackface minstrel was obviously an object of ridicule, a construction of thoroughgoing otherness that allowed white audiences to see themselves as both ontologically different and constitutionally superior” (170). These minstrel shows “implicitly (and sometimes explicitly)” sanctioned slavery, but Allen says it would be oversimplifying to say that they were just “a spectacle of racial hatred rendered palatable to the audience through comedy” (170). In fact, says Allen, in a sense, “the blackface minstrel” had a “very low otherness” that let him offer a “displaced, bottom-up critique of the social order, an order in which the white audience itself has been figured in a low other” (170). So from this I gather that the minstrel show was not as simplistic as one might have taken it at first glance.

Allen cites Alexander Saxton’s view that minstrel shows were vehicles for expressing “class identification and hostility, the blackface convention rendering permissible topics which would have been taboo on the legitimate stage or press” (173). These comedians, then, got away with saying things that otherwise would have been inappropriate—long the domain of comedians.

The bodies of the performers in both burlesque and minstrelsy were important parts of their “transgressive and inversive qualities” (174). For example, burlesque performers’ bodies often were a “parody of masculinity” (174). Also, “In jokes, songs, and sketch humor, minstrel characters were represented as fixated on animalistic bodily functions, particularly eating, drinking, and – albeit disguised under cover of primitive courtship – sex” (175).

Part of the “spectacle” of burlesque, of course, was the “celebration of the body. But “the ‘nudity’ of the burlesque performer” made it difficult to understand her performance. In fact, Allen theorizes that it might have been her “acting out’ that “bothered some critics much more than her ‘showing off her body’” (148).

Now the body was important in burlesque, but expectations about the way it would and should look changed over the years. Early burlesque troupe’s “would hire no woman who did not weigh at least one hundred and fifty pounds” (176). Even as late as 1899, burlesque troupe owner W.B. Watson recruited his troupe by size, calling the troupe “Billy Watson’s Beef Trust.” Allen says some performers “weighed as much as two hundred pounds” (176). One late nineteenth century novel describes a backstage burlesque scene where two dancers talk. One says of the male spectators, “they don’t believe it’s female unless it looks like what they’re used to in the barnyard and the cattle pen” (177).

Later, Allen distinguishes between vaudeville and burlesque, saying that vaudeville was for more of “a squeaky clean” audience, after there was a crackdown on burlesque (184). B.F. Keith was responsible for the growth of vaudeville, and he caused this growth by strictly controlling the content of performances in his clubs. Descriptions of performances (and the resulting censorship remind me of the political correctness that began in the 1990s). But both burlesque and vaudeville peaked in 1910; Allen says both were mainly East and West-coast experiences (with some for Chicago in between).

In “Burlesque at Century’s End,” Allen discusses the advertisements of burlesque and gender-based assumptions of the time. Allen cites an article from an 1871 Clipper edition. An essay talks about the “danger” of the “predatory female.” One memorable remark is “Few will dispute the fact that a bad woman is worse than a bad man” (202). We see this prejudice at play in popular culture at the time. For example, “predatory chorus girls in cartoons, stories, and other media were either explicitly or implicitly from the working class,” whereas their “victims” on the other hand “were frequently from the upper class and always at least from the middle class” (204).

Eventually, in the twentieth century, burlesque evolved into the cooch (short for hootchy-kootchy) dance, which was the precursor to the striptease (225). Allen discusses striptease acts in connection with freak shows. He says, “the physically exceptional person becomes a freak when his or her abnormality is made the basis for the commercial construction of radical otherness. That otherness is structured as a grotesque essence, which confuses and thereby challenges the boundaries between key self-definitional categories: self and other, male and female, human and animal, large and small” (234). The connection between these two is the result of Leslie Fiedler – remember him, from Love & Death in the American Novel? – who “explicitly links the experience of watching an exhibition of human biologic abnormality and that of witnessing sexual spectacle.” He saw that connection because each has “the sense of watching, unwilling butt enthralled, the exposed obscenity of the self or the other” (234).

Now, as all good stories must, the story ends for burlesque around about the 1920s, when motion pictures began to put them out of business. Allen explains that “for less than the price of the cheapest seat at a Keith vaudeville theater, one could see three hours worth of films and live entertainment” (244). Allen calls burlesque’s “primary contribution to American show business [...] the development of comedic talent” such as “Phil Silvers, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Jackie Gleason, Red Skelton, and Red Buttons” (258).

Allen goes on to talk about some other performers who crossed over, most notably Mae West, about whom I have written extensively earlier, so I won’t do it again. But I will repeat that she is massively underappreciated—not many realize that she wrote plays and screenplays and was quite brilliant, hiding under her vampishness, not because she was ashamed, but because she was smart and she knew it would win over her audience.

But powerful as Mae West was and powerful as Lydia Thompson was before her (with her burlesque act), Allen reminds us that ‘at no point in the history of burlesque were performers totally in control of the form’” (284). Even so, he says that women were “empowered” by burlesque in a way that they never had been before. They got to tell the jokes, to be in control of the stage, and to be in control of their bodies. It didn’t always make people happy, but it made a big difference: lives of women were not the same ever after.

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