When people first hear about the Burlesque Butcher, they automatically think I’m a dancer, and although I love to dance, I’ve never practiced enough to be adequate to perform in that role. The incredible recent popularity of “burlesque” has led to a fairly narrow view of what this word means, especially with respect to a woman. Burlesque today, particularly in the popular imagination, conjures a sexy, erotically clad woman who does a dance rooted in strip tease with costuming and music often informed by a nostalgic sense of history (the icon for the new burlesque movement is someone like Dita von Teese–who I love, although I tend to prefer the more wide-ranging interpretations of the burlesque strip-tease artist presented in shows like Chicago’s Kiss Kiss Cabaret).
I do certainly mine this strip-tease history for the Burlesque Butcher’s work, but more often I play off of other definitions and historical contextualizations of the word. I also try to incorporate the more “male” side of both contemporary and historical burlesque shows by fusing elements from the “supporting acts” with those of the star performers.
I recently came across a historical Burlesque Butcher in the pages of a book, published in 1897, called Puppets at Large: Scenes and Subjects From Mr. Punch’s Show by F. Anstey (aka Thomas Anstey Guthrie).
Mr. Punch’s Show, if you are not familiar with it, refers to the “Punch and Judy” puppet shows which have a long history of parody, critique, and education. The scene goes on to provide similar glimpses into the characters of a variety of other market vendors and attendees but few are described as evocatively as the Burlesque Butcher–the “Farsical Fishmonger (with two comic assistants)” and the “Lugubrious Vendor” come close). [Note: you can read the whole text here.]
What was so exciting to me about this 1897 Burlesque Butcher find was not only his gender but that someone dramatically and “triumphantly” selling something gory and cheap–“the scrag-end of a piece of mutton–had so many resonances with some of what I am trying to do with my Burlesque Butcher character in terms of nose to tail eating. Yes I love fancy food, but I appreciate the scrag-ends of pieces of mutton too (although true mutton is pretty impossible to come by in America these days).
It also prompted me to look up a then-contemporary definition of burlesque. As food for thought (pun intended!), I will leave you with this definition from the 1919 “concise” Oxford English Dictionary (I’ll try to track down the full first edition definition some other time):