Burlesque In Storytelling

Charles Green - Her First Bouquet

Burlesque is a type of entertainment that caricatures serious works. It is an extreme form of parody. Burlesque can be used as a verb i.e. to burlesque something.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF BURLESQUE

The word derives from the Italian burlesco, in turn derived from burla – mockery. Starting in early 1700s Europe, ‘burlesque’ described musical works which juxtaposed and combined serious and comic elements. This achieved a grotesque effect.

‘Burlesque’ as a literary term became widespread in 17th century Italy and France, and later England. In literature, it was most popular during the Victorian era.

Today ‘burlesque’ is still used in music to indicate a bright or high-spirited mood, sometimes in contrast to seriousness.

Burlesque overlaps in meaning with caricature, parody and travesty and, in its theatrical sense, with extravaganza.

In modern usage, it can also mean a kind of striptease. What has this on-stage striptease got to do with the original meaning of the word? This form is more properly called ‘American Burlesque’, a genre of variety show popularised in the late 1800’s. The style was derived from the ideas of Victorian burlesque, but by the 1900s it had evolved into a combination of satire, comedy, striptease, and musical theatre. It seems the striptease was the most popular part of this ‘variety show’, and now it’s the main thing left.

In modern popular culture, the most commonly represented form of burlesque in film and television is the parody. In fact, parodies have a massive presence in the popular film industry, especially films which parody older films.

WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF BURLESQUE?

Burlesque has two distinct functions: to elevate or denigrate. 17th and 18th century burlesque was divided into two types: high and low. One elevates — the other denigrates.

High Burlesque

A literary, elevated manner is applied to a commonplace or comically inappropriate subject matter. A high burlesque ‘elevates’.

Low Burlesque

Low burlesque applies an irreverent, mocking style to a serious subject. It denigrates its subject. Also known as ‘Mocking satire’.

Burlesque literature is much more than entertainment. It has been a major literary and dramatic technique for social activism and commentary for thousands of years; using humour to attract attention to serious and unresolved issues in society. 

Burlesque can be used as a way to deliver opinions and messages to encourage change and awareness, all by presenting information through comedy that is often outrageous, unusual, and vulgar.

HOW DOES BURLESQUE HUMOUR WORK?

Burlesque makes audiences laugh because of the gap between the content and the form (the style and the substance).

Burlesque relies on the audience having prior knowledge about its subject—the writer assumes that the audience will understand the context and the theme.

EXAMPLES

Note that stories featuring cannibalism are often an indicator of burlesque sensibility.

Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey
  • A parody of gothic fiction
  • Heroine Catherine Morland is a young woman with a vivid imagination. The author suggests this is caused by her love of gothic novels.
  • Austen is mocking the popular Victorian view that literature could cause unrealistic ideas as a result of reading fiction (especially in young women).
  • Today, Jane Austen’s work itself is parodied e.g. Pride, Prejudice and Zombies  (2009) by Seth Grahame-Smith. 
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
  • A parody of the 1978 cult classic Dawn of the Dead
  • Makes fun of the zombie flick genre by mimicking its style in an exaggerated way.
Not Another Teen Movie
  • This movie takes teen movie tropes and plays them for laughs.
  • There’s an entire category of film spoofs, spoofing other movies: Epic Movie, Austin Powers, Tropic Thunder.
  • Scary Movie makes fun of serious but unrealistic teen horror films like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer.

MYTHOLOGICAL BURLESQUE

This term refers to Greek and Roman 4th century comedy. These comedies burlesqued traditional Greek mythical stories. They did very well in the Athenian theatre, especially between 400 and 340 BCE.

FEATURES OF THE MYTHOLOGICAL BURLESQUE
  • Comedians refashioned well-known mythical tales according to the model of their contemporary Athenian society. This is now known as “Atticisation).
  • The marvellous motifs of myths were given the rational treatment
  • If marvellous motifs were kept, they were placed in a fully urbanised environment. This produced ludicrous incongruity.
  • Comedians applied standard genre story structures to mythical material, so now mythical beings were seen as stereotyped stage figures in comic love plots. They were given happy endings.

 

Header painting: Charles Green – Her First Bouquet

Who’s-Dead McCarthy by Kevin Barry

In the short story “Who’s-Dead McCarthy“, Irish short story writer Kevin Barry takes someone’s darkly morbid fascination with death and exaggerates it in a story-length character sketch — a man who talks about death so incessantly that people cross the road to avoid him. It’s wonderful.

I think humour only ever exists in something that sets out to be serious. Anything that sets out to be humorous is doomed.

Common Faults In Short Stories

Do you know anyone who takes a keen interest in death? My mother is a longterm resident of the area where I grew up. She’s worked in various fields and knows a hell of a lot of people. She’s also very good at remembering names and faces. So every morning, first thing she does when reading the paper is open to the funerals page at the back. Every now and then — more and more often more lately — she will say, “Oh no, Such-and-such has died.” Sometimes this is whispered in a mournful tone — sometimes stated matter-of-fact.

As a teenager living at home, I found this aspect of my mother’s morning routine comically morbid. I couldn’t imagine ever taking such an interest in the death pages myself.

Read the full text of “Who’s-Dead McCarthy” at The Irish Times.

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Ernestine and Kit by Kevin Barry

“Ernestine and Kit” is a short story by Kevin Barry. It has been made into a short film by Simon Bird if you can get a hold of it.

This is black humour at its best. I was captivated with this crime story from beginning to end — the suspense is well-paced, and the reveals well-positioned, because we don’t know at first what these two are up to. By the time we see the two women carry out their plan it comes as a bit of a shock.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

“Ernestine and Kit” is sort of like Thelma & Louise meets “The Child” by Ali Smith. In fact, one of the children in “Ernestine and Kit” is called Allie, and I wonder if it’s a nod to Smith’s well-known short story, in which a woman finds a child in her supermarket trolley, takes it home and learns it’s a little bastard.

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