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Burlesque is a humorous theatrical entertainment involving parody and sometimes grotesque exaggeration. In 20th century America, the form became associated with a variety show in which striptease is the chief attraction.

The term burlesque may be traced to folk poetry and theater and apparently derived from the late Latin burra (‘trifle’).

The origin of the term ‘burlesque’ is contentious with most citing the French burlesque, which was, in turn, borrowed from the Italian burlesco, derived from the Spanish burla (‘joke’) as its root.[1][2][3][4][5] Its literal meaning is to ‘send up’. In Britain ‘burlesque’ in verse and prose was first popularised in the 14th century by Geoffrey Chaucer’s satirical The Canterbury Tales. Later many Irish and British satirical writers came to prominence with political and social burlesques in the 18th and 19th centuries such as William Makepeace Thackeray.[6]

In 16th century Spain, playwright and poet, Miguel de Cervantes, ridiculed medieval romance in his many satirical works. Among Cervantes’ works are Exemplary Novels and the Eight Comedies and Eight New Interludes published in 1615.[7]

The first widespread use of the word was as a literary term in 17th century Italy and France, was where it referred to a grotesque imitation of the dignified or pathetic.[8]

Beginning in the early 18th century, the term burlesque was used throughout Europe to describe musical works in which serious and comic elements were juxtaposed or combined to achieve a grotesque effect. Early theatrical burlesque was a form of musical and theatrical parody in which a serious or romantic opera or piece of classical theatre was adapted in a broad, often risqué style that ridiculed stage conventions. In late 19th century England, in particular, such dramatic productions became very popular, especially at particular theatres such as the Olympic and the Gaiety in London. In Britain, burlesque was largely a middle class pursuit, where the jokes relied on the audiences’ familiarity with known operas and artistic works. Its predilection for double entendre and casting female stars in the lead male roles (or ‘breeches parts’) gave burlesque its risqué popular appeal. Gradually burlesque performers started appearing in music halls too, performing musical sketches for the working classes with political and social satire. This form remained popular well into the 20th century and can still be found today on television sketch shows.To save confusion, the traditional British burlesque style is now known as ‘musical burlesque’ or ‘classical burlesque’ (in the case of sendups of the classics) and is still active today with a handful of specialist writer/performers and producers.[9]

In 20th century America the word became associated with a variety show in which striptease is the chief attraction. Although the striptease originated at the Moulin Rouge in 1890s Paris and subsequently became a part of some burlesque across Europe, only in American culture is the term burlesque closely associated with the striptease.[8] These shows were not considered ‘theatre’ and were regarded as ‘low’ by the vaudevillians, actors and showgirls of neighbouring theatreland.