Ettore Rella.

A history of burlesque (Volume 1939 14) online

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firmly seated on the horse of Marcus Aurelius, and the drama-
tists of our own day who are worth their salt recognize their
lineage. Too bad that Campidoglio itself, where the flanks
of the old bronze horse are green with the sea of many years,
cannot ring with the satirical glee of the critical spirit;
but from that land, burlesque, along with anybody who looked
like or remembered Garibaldi, has been banished to the is-


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Burlesque 34

Before quitting this first decade of burlesque in
San Francisco It is illuminating to observe th^ rough hand-
ling Shakespeare endured at the hands of the Brothers Brough.
They gave their burlesque the following much-amplified title:

"The Enchanted Isle, or Raising the Wind on
the most Approved Principles: a Drama Without
the Smallest Claim to Legitimacy, Consistency,
Probability, or Anything Else but Absurdity;
in which will be found much that is imaccounta-
bly coincident with Shakespeare's 'Tempest,*"

The Enchanted Isle , first performed at the Adelphl in London,
opened at Maguire's Opera House, April 5, 1858. The charac-
ters were very thoroughly explained: Alonzo had become "one
of the numerous instances nowadays of a Monarch all abroad
and quite at sea"; Ferdinand was described rather cryptically
as "Alonzo 's son, a part man, thro^vn loose upon the waves";
Gonzales, easily adapted to satire, became "a Minister in a
queer State; with many hankerings after the Home Department";
Prospero and Ariel were not particularized; but Caliban had
become "a smart, active lad, wanted (by Prospero) to make
himself generally useful, but by no means inclined to do
so — an Hereditary Bondsman, who, in his determination to
be free, tal^es the most fearful liberties"; Miranda is fully
reckoned with as "the original Miss Robinson Crusoe — Pros-
pero 's pet and Ferdinand's passion"; the Covir tiers have "no
Court to shelter in"; and the Lords are "doomed to short
Commons." As for the "Foreign Propagandists," there is Easa
di Baccastoppa "captain of the Naples Direct Steamer, first

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-fj " i..,,. ." ■;.•..■ i .

:.:.iRiii o:J<- 'toi'^qKc-xl, -^^d)-: X?octnr;vf, ■•:\f>i5X' ■&v-i.^"fiV0- ii:J'?'Pxtte t*''

Burlesque 35

seen in the paddle box, but subsequently discovered In the
wrong box" and Srauttlefacio "a Neapolitan Stoker, very badly
off in the commodity of Naples soap." And finally, the Fair-
ies of legend achieve a very practical solidity: "in conse-
quence of the disturbed state of the times, it has been foiind
necessary to swear them in as Special Constables."

Prospero and Miranda are reclining upon the bright,
green banks of the happy island. Miranda, out of her fa-
tigue, recalls her dream in a song to the tvme of "SuchaGet-
ting Up Stairs*"

I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls
'Midst richly gilt and papered walls.
With mirrors largo on all the piers,
And groat big cut-glass chandeliers.

Such a pleasure-ground too ,

With a fountain in the middle,

Such a very nice place

You never did see.

(During the chorus, Prospero produces a pair of
"bones" from his pocket and accompanies her ^a
la Ethiopian Serenadors) •

I dreamt that all the fine folk there
Doemed nought for mc too good or rare.
And to serve my lightest wish
Tall men, in powdered wigs and plush.

St\ch a very nice place.

And such very pleasant people.

You never did sec.

To the tune of "Guy Pawkcs," Ariel tolls Prospero
of the shipwreck of the king and his party. An ominous con-
versation follows the song:

PROSPERO: The King is safe, then?

ARIEL: Safe as Kings can bo

In these queer times of hot Democracy.

.<^ ? rVor-t-botq oic^^
• lOooR fins


'fr>cr50i*i bXi.o;}

.•',:3i:>if.ic."ii'':'-''I • :^OJ:i - 5.0 C ::xi:

Burlesque 36

PROSPERO: The Prince, you say?

ARIEL: Though a grown man, he floated like
the buoy.

The outline of the story itself follows Shakespeare

rather closely. In scene IV, Caliban suddenly develops his

character to the tune of "Gregory Barnewell, Good and Pious":

Sons of freedom hear my story,
Pity and protect the slave ;
Of my wrongs the inventory
I'll just tip you in a stave.

Tiddle ol, etc*

Prom morn till night I work like winkin'.
Yet I'm kicked and cuffed about.
With scarce half time for grub or drinkin'.
And they never lets me have a Sunday out.

And if jaw to the gov 'nor I gives vent to.

He calls up spirits In a trice.

Who grip, squeeze, bite, sting, and torment — ohi

Such friends at a pinch are by no means nice.

But I'll not stand it longer, that I'll not,

I'll strike at once, now that my mettle's hot,

Hal here he comes I Now soon I'll make things better,

"Hereditary Bondsman", lim, Et Cetera.

Prom this point on, Caliban's political development
is very rapid. He is next seen in a wild part of the island
singing to the music of the "Marseillaise Hymn." He enters
in a martial manner, "with the Cap of Liberty on his head, a
red flag In one hand, a small bundle of firewood in the oth-

I'm resolved - ! '11 have a revolution —
Proclaim my rights — demand a constitution.

With Caliban and Easa di Baccastoppa deep in machinations for

the seizure of the Island, the other situations of the old

plot are resolved and "a delightful ship appears for the trip

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to- Naples." Caliban steps forward and demands:

"What's to be done for the people — meaning us?"

The burlesque ends with the very modern (and pro-
found) trick of directly involving the audience in the re-
sponse :

ARIEL: (to Caliban) You — what do you desorve?

CALIBAN: (smiling and looking at avidience) I hardly
know —
V/hat do we all deserve? But put it so.

ARIEL: (to audience) Ay, what?

CALIBAN: (pushing forward and interrupting)
Excuse me, pray: my lawless acts

With stirring language I'll inflame

the meeting.
(to audience:)

Be noisy — and excuse the observation —
Get up a devil of a demonstration;
But not with arms — no, only with a hand —
(indicating clapping)
That's all we want. And, please to

Tho ' noise 'mongst you we're wishing

to increase
Here on the stage we wish to keep the


During the years of 1860 to 1869, in the "respecta-
ble" theatres in town, an endless, dreary shift was made from
grand opera to legitimate drama and back again. Famous tra-
gedians such as Kean and Forrest received well-studied ac-
claim in the press but no overwhelming public response. The
sleight-of-hand of such a man as Professor Anderson, Great
Wizard of the North, was successful in drawing a few dollars
from the people in the street. Japanese juggler troupes were

.-ofiq Jbrw) fi'xefjQ?; '^;iay •arl:* .riiJiw' p.bae m'p^

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. ob&m sew d"liTf5. -^isoil? ,88sX6na na ,nwo;t nl eoi^Jjcrricf- *'

Burlesque 38

emblazoned brightly on alluring posters. The unconscious
mock-heroics of Roman chariot races were offered as the last,
great, final thrill. In desperation, the opera companies
were dissolved and reorganized in an effort to enhance their
drawing power. The stock companies deserted the homely, over-
stuffed morality of the English plays for the American "aeji-
sation" dramas, Maguire's Opera House, the Academy of Music,
and the Metropolitan were in a constant condition of precipi-
tate insolvency. Art considered as ''old, serious and great"
was definitely in a funk at the big playhouses. Thomas
Maguire, still Napoleon of the San Francisco theatre even in
adversity, controlled only two of the few golden threads in
the theatrical pattern of the time: he was still manager of
the San Francisco Minstrel troupe which usually played at the
Academy; and the Martinetti-Ravel Pantomimists, on their fre-
quent visits to the city from 1860 to 1870, were with few ex-
ceptions, presented under his aegis.

All this time, however, there was an undercurrent
of successful theatre; the music hall melodeons were flour-
ishing. The "men-only" limitation somewhat circumscribed
their effect but this deficiency was taken care of by the
opening of the Alhambra where performances were diluted from
the direct stimulant for masculine customers to the spicy in-
nuendo for the whole family.

The exact content of the melodeon programs is as
lost and irrecoverable as some handbill, perhaps for a new

auoloeixoofiw erIT ..^latfaoq QiilTuSlB no x^^^^?A'i^ bectosBla'sne
,:izfil.sdi en berrai'io onav; soobi ctox'tjsrio narrtoH lo eoioi^jci-jfooitt
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Burlesque 39

show at the Bella Union, blovm into the street mud of those
times. The melodeon shows were rarely reviewed by the news-
papers; and their only advertisement were these ephemeral
handbills, hastily printed and distributed. Doubtless a
good part of these melodeon entertainments would be \inintol-
ligible nowadays anyway. The burlesque element was immedi-
ate and particular: some detail of city government; the lu-
dicrous or lugubrious angle of some public incident; the sup-
pressed gossip about some bigwig. And the whole life of the
"respectable" theatres was reflected with flamboyant empha-
sis. The voice and carriage of Harriet Gordon, "late of Lon-
don" and "now at Maguire's Opera House" in a season of musi-
cal extravaganza, were no doubt given excessive tremolo and
embonpoint at the Bella Union or the Olympic; the acrobatic
legerity of the Martinetti-Ravel Troupe was no doubt heavily
clowned across the boards of some smoke-filled hall» Adah
Isaacs Menken as Mazeppa at the Opera House in 1863 was re-
flected in a Bella Union Mazeppa, who, it is recorded, was
played by a different actress in each scene.

As for Shakespoaro, the slightest indication of
kingly panoply or balustraded romance at tho Opera House or
the Metropolitan roloascd some riotous vulgarization to tho
hooting delight of a music hall full of minors. An anecdoto
concerning Charles Backus,* tho minstrel, and Charles Kean,

* See monograph. Minstrelsy , Vol. XIII, this series, pp.171-72

fizocsi 1l- buv .-? ■•'3icfe. •v'J a^ril n-^oM. •:tnolniJ jsIi'.aS .erfct :t« urbde
-ev/ofi. 0xtJ •, ■>■:}■:-. •zi:9's an eiow swojrfe nooJboXaat -orfT .eeral^..-

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Bxirlesque 40

the tragedian, siarvives. Baokus vras playing at the Eureka.
Among other ntunbers on his program, he conceived a satire of
Kean's Hamlet. The piece was very successful and gained the
attention of the whole tovm.» Kean, with thorough-going dig-
nity, invited Backus to his hotel, where he thanked Backus
for his attention, hut expressed his desire that if he were
satirized he would appreciate a thorough job. He promptly
rehearsed for Backus the intricate acting problems of the
role. There is no means of determining w^hether or not Backus
continued with further burlesque of this same subject.

Throughout the decade 1850 to 1870, in between poor-
ly received seasons of opera and legitimate drama, even the
most sanctified halls tiirned to burlesque for economic sta-
bility. These so-called burlesques at the big theatres actu-
ally tended away from burlesque toward the uncontroversial
extravaganza. The Bulletin published the following notice
February 6, 1860:

"On Wednesday night, the new musical and spec-
tacular extravaganza of Pluto and Proserpine
will be produced on a scale of unusual magnif-
icence. One scene alone in this piece cost,
it is said, !i?2500, and v/as taken from London
to Australia, and brought thence by Mr. Si-
monds on a recent occasion. This spectacle
will exceed in beauty and grandeur everything
heretofore brought out in this city. Mr. and
Mrs. Slrnms, and other principles, and a host
of superniimeraries will appear in this piece.
The music introduced will be from II Trova -
tore and other recent operas."



-Hi a Di-Tion-ccc-} lo'i ex/pee X'-siira' o;? :'

d ;-iA

^-a^liiJ-srifte ttsoia

■ nx orioXi-

-x2 .tM vcs

Biirlesque 41

The evening of the production at Maguire's Opera

House, the Bulletin ran another notice on February 8, 1860:

"Here is 'ample room and verge enough' for the
playwright, the poet and the wag to construct
an extravaganza that should surprise and please
by its splendor, its contrasts of scenery, its
poetic turns and its tomfoolery. The burlesque
to be performed tonight on the subject (Pluto
and Proserpine ) , is expected to be one of the
finest ever brought here, the management having
been exceedingly liberal in the expenditure
necessary to produce the piece effectively."

The comedy element in burlesque extravaganza was
usually heightened by the casting of men in some of the femi-
nine roles and vice versa. This custom was maintained in
Maguire's production of Pluto and Proserpine , with Harriot
Gordon as Pluto, and Harry Courtaine as Cores. Walter Leman
was cast as Charon. Of Mr. and Mrs. Simms, mentioned in tho
February 6 notice, there is no further mention.

The Bulletin completed its coverage of this produc-
tion with a critical article February 9, 1860:

"The extravaganza of Pluto and Proserpine
passed off pretty fairly for a first represen-
tation. There were a few hitches in the working
of the scenic machinery, and in some of the
leading personages not being fully acquainted
with their parts , but subsequent representa-
tions will rectify all these things. The piece
as a burlesque is somewhat long and tiresome.
Much of the hvimor consists in an endless string
of puns, that pop off with a feeble noise like
a pack of Chinese crackers — some of them being
only understandable in London, (where the piece
was originally produced,) and the others being
so dull and far-fetched as to provoke a feeling
of v/eariness and contempt. The feature of the
extravaganza is Mr. Courtaine 's droll imperson-
ation of Mother Cores — although he was by no
means perfect in the part. The chorus singing

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Burlesque 42

was excellent. Miss Gordon does not Improve In
rendering operatic airs. She is pleasing in a
ballad. • • 4 The closing scene of the extravaganza
is nearly as beautiful as gilding and gaudy
colors, pretty girls, rich dresses and red fire
can make it."

A low point in the "feeble noise" of this piece by

Francis Talfourd was given to Harry Courtaine to declaim in

the role of Ceres :

The Earth, by the hard times of Winter, made
Insolvent, nov\f resumes her thriving trade;
Before your eyes her treasures are unrolled,
The fields she prodigally tips with gold;
And, lavishing her wealth v/lth hand unsparing.
The first trees have a heaving claim on bearing;
Damsons are worth a plum, and its surprising
To see how rapidly the stocks are rising;
For any interest in winter lent
The flov/ers will nov; return you scent per scent.

The creaking enormity of revived myth gives way a

couple of times to a more direct reflection of the author's

London environment: Pluto, ushered into the reception room

of Minerva's seminary where he asks for Proserpine, declares

after the vanishing attendant:

I feel as many here have felt before

V/ho've left their first farce at the theatre door,

^Vhen all anxiety to learn its fate.

They tremblingly hand in their card and wait;

Meantime the pot-boy, with unconscious lear

Passes unquestioned with the Gas-man's beer;

How the yotuig aspirant for dramatic fame

Longs for the time, when he may do the same;

And as he hears the slamming door of baize.

Veiling stage glories from his stranger's gaze.

The author's pride is for the nonce forgot.

In envy of that happier pot-boy's lot J

Why, Where's that dog? Here, Cerberus, I sayi

And take your nose out of the butcher's tray.

on o.I^

0*, 0.8:';

Bvirlesque 43

At the grey nadir of his frustation, Pluto deliv-
ers himself of his melancholy with some lines that create a
sharp picture of the contemporary London milieu, once they
get beyond the Shakespearean echo of their commencement:

Let's have a disquisition upon graves

Or sit upon the ground, and, in the damp,

Discuss the probabilities of cramp;

Or buy the Times , and read through the debates;

Listen with interest to Christmas waits;

Pot-house harmonic meetings go among,

'Till we have, by perseverance, wrung

Delight from senseless comic songs ill sung;

Let's go to parties where you get a cup o'

Cold tea, a little music, and no supper I

\%iere all are strangers, without even so great a

Relief as the acquaintance of the waiter.

The following malediction pronounced by Ceres upon
the chorus of the show for the disappearance of Proserpine,
and the stage direction which succeeds it, recreate not only
one of the ballet movements of the production but also some-
thing of the costumes and their coloring:

Upon the land a withering blight shall fall;
(All bow their heads)

And used-up rakes ne'er seek their beds at all;

Axes fall powerless to lop a twig.

And spades enjoy their ''otlum sine dig,"

Your ploughs you may as of no further use bury;

I'll with the champagne country play old gooseberry;

'Twill be such still champagne you won't know it;
In vain you may apply yourselves to mow it.
Now having made these cursory observations.
To realize your pleasant expectations-
Poppies i ye Red Republicans, with whom
I've long waged war, your hour of triumph's come J
Roar your proud heads o'er the surrendered plain,
V/ith poisonous kisses choke the golden grain.
And whisper in the dying ears of corn

'Till Ceres finds the daughter from her tornl
The land shall of her sorrows be partaker.
And every rod on the earth's back an acher.


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Burlesque 44

(She waves her hand. Popples start up every-
where through the corn and choke it, bending
over it as in triumph. The load of corn be-
comes a load of poppies, and the whole scene
is red with a field of them. Thunder and
lightning . )

After this passage it is not difficult to see a
line of red-costumed ladies pop up from behind a line of
yellow-costumed ladies, the red dominating the yellow with an
aggressive, forward movement. The costumes of both lines no
doubt bore overtones of vegetation: red-petaled hats for
the poppies, and gold feathers for the corn. Foliate scal-
lops of bright green probably carried the motif into the
dancing skirts. At any rate, the eye of the beholder was
being constantly knocked out by the splendor of extravaganza
and, thus floored with color, it is at least conjectural how
receptive the nervous system could be to the stubborn persist-
ence of such puns as the one upon "aero" and "achor." A dis-
eased malice or delight infests these old English burlesques
with a word-spinning which was svirely rarely Intelligible be-
yond the eye of a careful reader* A last too typical exam-
ple from this Pluto and Proserpine burlesque by Talfourd:

Diana declares :

A husband? no, give me my own field sports;

The whole he-race I'll er-ase from my thoughts.

•The spring season of 1860 passed off with a halting
series of bigger and better spectacle burlesques. A heav-
ily-punned Romeo and Juliet , enlivened by Walter Leman's act-
ing as the Apothecary, was repeated several times atMaguiro's

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Burlesque 45

Opera House. Late February brought the most ambitious pro-
duction of the year - Faust and Marguerite . According to the
Bulletin » "The present dramatic version was originally produced
at the Princess Theatre, London, by Charles Kean, where it
had a great run." Before the opening, it was rumored about
town that the carpenters at Maguire's were being overworked.
The ex machina apparatus for the deus was clearly going
to be more refulgent and startling than ever before. It was
announced by the Bulletin that ''the principal characters will

Online LibraryEttore RellaA history of burlesque (Volume 1939 14) → online text (page 4 of 29)