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burlesque(bûrlĕsk`) [Ital.,=mockery], form of entertainment differing from comedy or farce in that it achieves its effects through caricature, ridicule, and distortion. It differs from satire in that it is devoid of any ethical element. The word first came into use in the 16th cent. in an opera of the Italian Francesco Berni, who called his works burleschi. Early English burlesque often ridiculed celebrated literary works, especially sentimental drama. Beaumont and Fletcher's Knight of the Burning Pestle (1613), Buckingham's The Rehearsal (1671), Gay's Beggar's Opera (1728), Fielding's Tom Thumb (1730), and Sheridan's Critic (1779) may be classed as dramatic burlesque. In the 19th cent. English burlesque depended less on parody of literary styles and models. H. J. Bryon was a major writer of the new, pun-filled burlesque. The extravaganza and burletta were forms of amusement similar to burlesque, the latter being primarily a musical production. They were performed in small theaters in an effort to evade the strict licensing laws that forbade major dramatic productions to these theaters. American stage burlesque (from 1865), often referred to as "burleycue" or "leg show," began as a variety show, characterized by vulgar dialogue and broad comedy, and uninhibited behavior by performers and audience. Such stars as Al Jolson, W. C. Fields, Mae West, Fannie Brice, Sophie Tucker, Bert Lahr, and Joe Weber and Lew Fields began their careers in burlesque. About 1920 the term began to refer to the "strip-tease" show, which created its own stars, such as Gypsy Rose Lee; in c.1937 burlesque performances in New York City were banned. With the increase in popularity of nightclubs and movies, the burlesque entertainment died.
See studies by C. V. Clinton-Baddeley (1952, repr. 1974); R. P. Bond (1932, repr. 1964), and J. D. Jump (1972).
(1) A genre of comic parody poetry. The comic effect in burlesque is determined by the contrast between the theme and the character of its interpretation: either a deliberately “lofty” theme receives a trivially routine treatment and is presented in an explicitly “low” style (Big Morgante by Pulci, The Aeneid Transposed Into the Ukrainian Language by I. P. Kotliarevskii) or a “low” theme is realized by means of a traditionally “lofty” style—the so-called heroicomic poem (the ancient parody of Homer, Batrachomyomachia, and The Lectern by Boileau).
In Europe burlesque was especially popular in the 17th and early 18th century (the poem Virgile Travesti by the French poet P. Scarron), and in Russia at the end of the 18th century (the heroicomic poem Elisei, or Bacchus Infuriated by V. Maikov and the travesty Virgils Aeneid, Inside Out by N. Osipov) as a reaction to the conventional solemnity of the heroic poem of the classicists. Elements of burlesque may be found in Mystery Bouffe by V. Mayakovsky and in the satirical poem by A. Tvardovskii, Terkin in the Next World.
(2) A musical piece that is humorous, at times comical or whimsical, in character. It is related to the capriccio and humoresque. There are burlesques by J. S. Bach (Partita, no. 3), R. Schumann (Pages From an Album, for piano), M. Reger, B. Bartok, and R. Strauss (Burleske, for pianoforte and orchestra).
(3) A short comic parody opera, similar to vaudeville. It originated in Italy and gained popularity in France, Ireland, and Great Britain.