Burlesque is a style in literature and drama that mocks or imitates a subject by representing it in an ironic or ludicrous way; resulting in comedy. It is a form of the literary genre, satire. The term “burlesque” originates from the Italian burla and later burlesco, meaning ridicule, mockery, or joke. Correspondingly, burlesque creates humor by ridiculing or mimicking serious works, genres, subjects, and/or authors in one of two ways: either by presenting significant subjects in an absurd or crude way, or by presenting insignificant subjects in a sophisticated way. As a literary and dramatic device, the term is often used interchangeably with parody, though a parody is actually type of burlesque.
Burlesque literature is much more than mere comedy and entertainment. It has been a major literary and dramatic technique for social activism and commentary for thousands of years; using humor to attract attention to serious and unresolved issues in society. Nowadays, the main purpose of burlesque literature and drama is generally entertainment and comedy, but it has historically been an important way of using humor to critique social issues.
As mentioned above, burlesque works mimic the styles and subjects of other works in a humorous way. Take the classic cute love poem:
Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
Sugar is sweet,
And so are you!
A burlesque version of the poem, specifically a parody, would be:
Roses prick your fingers,
Violets make you sneeze,
Sugar fills your veins with fat,
It’s best you stick to peas!
First, the poem above mimics the style of the first poem in that it follows the same ABCB rhyme scheme. Second, it mimics the subject of the first poem by using the same words—roses, violets, sugar, and you. However, the second poem is funny because it highlights the negative elements of these things rather than the positive. Thus, by changing these words to funny alternatives, while keeping the same style, the second poem mocks the traditional love poem, making it a burlesque poem.
Burlesque was made most popular during the Victorian era of literature. Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is a parody of gothic fiction, which was a very popular genre of literature for young Victorian women. The story follows Catherine Morland, a young woman with a vivid imagination, which is the author suggests is “caused” by her love of gothic novels. Austen is mocking the popular Victorian mentality that literature could cause fantastic, improper, and unrealistic ideas as a result of reading fiction. Northanger Abbey follows the style of gothic novel because Catherine experiences similar feelings and situations that a gothic heroine would face—fear, mystery, curiousity, danger—however it is a parody because nothing scary or mysterious ever actually happens to Catherine, she just has an active imagination. See the selection below:
Catherine’s blood ran cold with the horrid suggestions which naturally sprang from these words. Could it be possible? – Could Henry’s father? – And yet how many were the examples to justify even the blackest suspicions!
Here, the language is gothic in style—blood ran cold, horrid, blackest suspicions. However, after this, we learn that Catherine is just imagining nonsense—nothing out of the ordinary ever occurs throughout the novel. Catherine longs for mystery and adventure like her novels provide, so she imagines countless things to be evidence of conspiracy and horror, realizing after each time how silly she was being.
Jonathan Swift is one of literature’s greatest satirists, and his essay A Modest Proposal is an excellent example of a burlesque work that critiques serious social issues, specifically those of 18th century Irish society, such as poverty and the way the rich treat and view the poor. In his essay he suggests several solutions to these problems—
I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust.
In this passage, Swift suggests that children make an excellent food. He continues his essay by defending the reasons why it is an excellent solution to poverty, as many poor people have extra children that they could use to feed mouths, rather than as mouths to feed. Obviously, these ideas are over-the-top and outrageous; which is precisely the point of the essay. It mocks a very serious issue; which highlights its importance and begs for change in society.