Burlesques were a popular entertainment in the Victorian era. A burlesque took a well-known play, story, opera or pantomime and satirised it in an exaggerated style with music. Burlesques also featured exaggerated costumes and often the leading actress played in breeches roles, revealing their legs to a scandalised audience. Even political and social events were ‘burlesqued’.
Music sheet cover of the piano music to the Pas de Quatre dance in the burlesque Faust Up to Date, composed by Meyer Lutz, Gaiety Theatre, London, around 1888
Meyer Lutz, the composer, was the musical director at London's Gaiety Theatre where Faust Up to Date was first performed in 1888. The Gaiety was the home of burlesque under John Hollingshead and his successor George Edwardes, and it later became famous for musical comedy. Faust Up To Date was one of a series of burlesques on popular plays and operas of the day, including Carmen Up to Date (a skit on the opera Carmen), and Cinder-Ellen Up to Date (a skit on the pantomime Cinderella). Faust Up to Date was a skit on Gounod's opera Faust which had first been performed in London in 1864. The dance was performed by Lillan Price, Florence Levy, Eva Greville and Maud Wilmot and this illustration shows the short skirts which allowed them to dance freely, and would have been very popular with the men in the audience.
Gaiety Theatre souvenir brochure, December 1889
This is the colourful hardback cover of a souvenir programme issued for Christmas at the Gaiety Theatre in 1889. Inside, the audience found beautiful cards showing full length colour portraits of members of the cast - the very popular Miss Nellie Farren (whose head is popping through the paper hoop on the cover), Mr Fred Storey, and Miss Letty Lind. They are wearing costumes designed by Percy Anderson. He knew exactly what a burlesque audience liked… plenty of ladies showing off their legs in tights. The burlesque was the Gaiety’s main attraction - a kind of musical, mixing operetta, music hall and revue (then known as ‘Extravaganza’). Ruy Blas made fun of the play by Victor Hugo (who also wrote the book, Les Miserables). The full title of the burlesque was a pun Ruy Blas or the Blasé Roué. The more terrible the pun the more Victorian audiences were amused. One review says that audiences loved the show, laughing with ‘an hysterical Ho! Ho!’ or even a ‘rapturous, long-drawn Ha! Ha!’.
Print with Madame Vestris and Mr Liston in their duet Buy A Broom, 1826, hand coloured lithograph, given by Isobel Beard. Museum no. S.181-2009
In 1826, Eliza Vestris, dressed as a Dutch Girl, had a great hit with the song Buy a Broom, for which Alexander Lee set new words to an old German air. At her benefit later that year, Vestris teamed up with John Liston and, dressed in similar costumes, they sang the ballad as a duet. Liston was acknowledged as one of the funniest performers of his generation, and the combination of the bizarre and nonsensical comedian with the exquisite Vestris proved irresistible. The impression that the duet made was so great that Ingrey and Madeley found it profitable to issue this commemorative lithograph. Lithography was introduced at the beginning of the 19th century and was the first important mass printing technique for illustrations. At this time, colour was still applied by hand. You can see in the background of the image that Ingrey and Madeley took every opportunity to advertise themselves and their new technology!
Artist unknown, ceramic figurine of Eliza Vestris, around 1831. Museum no. S.940-1996
This ceramic figurine is of Eliza Vestris, also known as Madame Vestris. She was famous in the 1820s for playing male roles which revealed her shapely legs. A court case of the time shows just how excited people got about her legs. Mr Papera, an Italian plaster worker, made casts of Eliza's legs for one of her many wealthy gentleman-admirers. These were 'to a little above the knee, and including the foot'. One of his apprentices stole some to sell for a profit, but was arrested. At his trial, Mr Papera told the court 'such a leg was always certain to fetch a high price in the market and besides, the legs of this lady were in very great demand'. Since most people couldn't get hold of a model of Vestris's legs, they made do with a print or a ceramic figure like this one. These figurines are quite valuable to collectors today. However, in their time they were made fairly cheaply and sold at reasonable prices to middle-class buyers.