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.
Burlesque overlaps in meaning with caricature, parody and travesty, and, in its theatrical sense, with extravaganza, as presented during the Victorian era.
“Burlesque” has been used in English in this literary and theatrical sense since the late 17th century.
It has been applied retrospectively to works of Chaucer and Shakespeare and to the Graeco-Roman classics.
Contrasting examples of literary burlesque are Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock and Samuel Butler’s Hudibras.
An example of musical burlesque is Richard Strauss’s 1890 Burleske for piano and orchestra.
Examples of theatrical burlesques include W. S. Gilbert’s Robert the Devil and the A. C. Torr – Meyer Lutz shows, including Ruy Blas and the Blasé Roué.
A later use of the term, particularly in the United States, refers to performances in a variety show format. These were popular from the 1860s to the 1940s, often in cabarets and clubs, as well as theatres, and featured bawdy comedy and female striptease.
Some Hollywood films attempted to recreate the spirit of these performances from the 1930s to the 1960s, or included burlesque-style scenes within dramatic films, such as 1972’s Cabaret and 1979’s All That Jazz, among others.
There has been a resurgence of interest in this format since the 1990s.
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