Early nineteenth century burlesque shows, such as those at New York’s Olympic Theater under William Mitchell, mocked fashionable drama, events, and people. During the mid-nineteenth century burlesque shows increasingly featured female entertainers. In actress and manager Laura Keene’s Seven Sisters (1860), for example, almost all roles were played by women dressed in costumes considered highly revealing at the time. This evoked criticism, which increased in 1868, when Lydia Thompson brought her troupe, the British Blondes, to New York to present Ixion, generally considered the first modern burlesque show.
Initially favorable reviews gave way to condemnation when Thompson’s show moved to New York’s fashionable Niblo’s Gardens. Newspaper editors, members of the clergy, legislators, and women’s rights advocates were disturbed by the show’s suggestive language, impudent interaction among performers and audience, music associated with African American culture, and abundant displays of female bodies. The women performers were condemned as unnatural. When Thompson’s group went on tour, the criticism published by the Chicago Times was so vicious that Thompson and members of her troupe horsewhipped the newspaper’s editor.
Controversies such as that apparently helped burlesque to gain in popularity. Variety show entertainments (later known as vaudeville) that were developing during the same period attracted...
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