The dictionary has it right, even though the vast majority of people today might not agree. Ask them what burlesque is, as Sharon Nowlan observes in the introduction to her one-woman show Burlesque Unzipped, and they would almost certainly equate it with striptease. But if you consult a dictionary you’ll see that burlesque is actually defined as “a literary or dramatic work that seeks to ridicule by means of grotesque exaggeration or comic imitation.”
Performers identified by Nowlan as operating in the burlesque tradition include Mae West, the balcony-dwelling grumps Statler and Waldorf on The Muppets and Carol Burnett. If you remember Burnett’s old CBS variety show, there was an animated bit at the start where Burnett was depicted as a grubby charwoman. Almost certainly as a nod to the show, that’s how Nowlan first appears on stage, unpacking evening gloves and other swank accessories which she hangs carefully on a dressing screen.
During her performance, Nowlan traces the evolution of burlesque from its orgins in the early days of the Industrial Revolution when a newly urbanized work force sought out entertainment at night to help escape the drudgery of their assembly line jobs through the upheaval of France’s 19th century transformation from a monarchy to a republic to the golden era of vaudeville in the United States.
For most of its history, Nowlan observes, burlesque was an avenue of empowerment for women, enabling them to confront restrictive social, religious and sexual mores. Grounded firmly in working class culture, it also served a means of critiquing the foibles of the moneyed elite and subverting their power.
Realizing the economic potential of burlesque, men slowly began to take over the industry. Once that happened, Nowlan notes, the show became more about displaying female bodies than female wit. That’s when striptease started to take over. That, in turn, attracted the attention of reform-minded puritans in the U.S. and led to burlesque being banned in the late 1930s.
Today, of course, there’s a thriving strip club industry (outside of the odd place like Saskatchewan where restrictive liquor laws render clubs economically unviable). But stripping in no way compares to traditional burlesque, which is apparently enjoying a revival.
Nowlan’s show is evidence of that. Generously laced with humour, including one bit with a lecherous male puppet that was particularly effective, and including several set pieces with costumes, music and dialogue chosen to recreate different eras of burlesque, Nowlan offers an insightful and entertaining overview of the art form. The only real quibble I have is that as a dancer, Nowlan’s technique needs some work. Otherwise, definitely worth seeing.