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
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
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).