History Of Burlesque: The Case Of Fanny and Stella, Small-Time Actresses Of The Burlesque and Burletta

The Victorian era is an interesting period, in that it made different types of entertainment accessible to audiences of all kinds. The Victorian age was that of discovery (and re-discovery in some cases) and the popularity of going to the theatre or music hall to see exotic acts, comedy, character-driven pieces was at it’s height, with an explosion of purpose-built theatres and halls to match (which, incidentally, mirrors the origins of burlesque, in Roman times, when exotic acts, comedy and character driven pieces were performed both on the street and in purpose built amphitheatres – built originally to ‘display’ the ritualistic performances to the god of wine, Bacchus).

Here we take a look at  the Victorian age’s most colourful characters, made infamous not because of their fine work on the stage, but because of the double standards of that society which put them on trial…

Music Hall was a popular entertainment throughout the 1800s (we’ll visit this in more detail in future posts), with character songs (often sang in character with a double meaning) all the rage. Burlesques and Burlettas had been popular entertainment throughout the 1700s – burletta, literally meaning ‘little joke’ in italian, defined operas with a satirical edge, but, as the entertainment became more popular and was performed for all different classes in theatres, halls and even private houses as parlor entertainment, had come to define a comedy musical drama featuring rhymed lyrics which parodied opera or a comic play containing songs, while burlesques were often literary or dramatic works (including those of Chaucer, Shakespeare – themselves containing elements of ‘burlesque’) ridiculed or twisted via exaggeration and caricature, mocking a situation, historical event or famous drama, with added observational jokes and twists and were derived from the pantomime.

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At this time it was popular for women to burlesque/parody men and men to impersonate women. Women such as Vesta Tilley, were so convincing at this, that it was believed she was actually male in her portrayal of Burlington Bertie, soldiers, policemen and even the clergy, and Hetty King who preferred to parody the working class man. While gender impersonation was taking the big stages by storm, it was also popular underground with small time actors and actresses finding fame in certain circles, bringing their portrayals of the opposite sex to stages and parlour entertainments across the country. Two such performers were Stella Boulton and Fanny Park (aka Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park). The two met at a young age and with so much in common (they were both gay at a time where finding an allie who understood them was uncommon, plus they both loved dressing as ladies) they became firm friends. Although they had both worked as clerks, they sometimes supplemented their wages by casual soliciting whilst dressed as Stella and Fanny as well as touring music halls and parlors both as the double act Fanny and Stella, and as part of an ensemble cast in longer productions.

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Now, here’s where the double standards of Victorian times comes in. While it was okay to cross-dress on stages and as part of entertainment, to go about your daily business dressing as you pleased, which in Fanny and Stella’s case, was female, seeing as they felt female and lived a ‘female’ lifestyle (Stella had been wearing female clothing since a young child), was forbidden, coupled with the fact that in those hypocritical Victorian times (where the aristocracy could enjoy being ‘themselves’ with whoever they wanted) the law stated that homosexuality was scandalous and unnatural behavior. Fanny, Stella and like-minded companions, which included the Comical Countess and Carlotta Gibbings, plus Stella’s live-in partner Lord Arthur Pelham-Clinton, were bold and defied their societies conventions. You could say they were unknowingly and passively protesting against the hypocrisy of the times they lived in. They would be invited to public events and social happenings (sometimes events of high society), arriving in a flurry of taffeta and lace on the arm of the manly-looking Pelham-Clinton and in many cases be taken for the women they portrayed. They would often visit the theatre and camp it up with wolf-whistles and coo-eys. In short, it was this behavior that led to their arrest in April 1870.

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Unknown to Fanny and Stella, they had been under surveillance, followed by police officers as they left their rooms at Wakefield Street (a so-called ‘house of accomodation’ – not a brothel, but a place where a landlady would let rooms with no questions asked to tennants such as same-sex couples, cross dressers and prostitutes) with Pelham-Clinton and to the theatre where they were observed in the company of two further men in a private box – doing nothing ‘lewd’ except heckle the performance, we might just add. As soon as they left the theatre, the police swooped in, and Stella, Fanny and one of the men, Hugh Mundell who they had met earlier that evening, were arrested, while the other two escaped. The next morning, Mundell was released on bail after claiming he did not know his companions were male, while the rooms in Wakefield Street were raided, and articles such as dresses, make-up and wigs, along with a bunch of letters from Pelham-Clinton, were seized as evidence. Fanny and Stella, still in ladies attire, were brought before the court as the start of a trial of infamous proportions. They were subjected to humiliating intimate examinations by a number of ‘professionals’ to establish whether sodomy had occurred. A number of Fanny and Stella’s cohorts were rounded up, including the Comical Countess, Carlotta Gibbins and Lord Arthur Clinton-Pelham and all of them set for a May trial. Basically, this was the Victorian culture putting homosexuality on trial, in leyman’s terms, making an example of them for others. The trial was a sensation, with Fanny, Stella et all, having to endure crowds of a different kind to the ones who had enjoyed them on stages, all eager to get a view of these curiosities, and what began as a shocking account made all the more sensationalist by newspapers of the time calling homosexuality a “pestilence that must be stopped”, thankfully backfired on the law, with public sympathies for the accused increasing as the trial wore on. By the final day of the trial in July of that year, the public were firmly behind these two (advised by their defence lawyer to appear in court as young men), and despite reports of the prosecution bribing witnesses, they were found not guilty as the case against them collapsed.

Sadly, just before the end of the trial, Pelham-Clinton died of ‘scarlet fever’ but many believe he had sadly taken his own life, unable to deal with the scandal of his homosexuality becoming public knowledge. The trial also took its toll on Fanny’s father, who gave evidence in defence, the stress brought on illness and subsequent death. In the years after the case, Stella continued to tour as drawing room entertainment, with a succession of new leading men in tow, taking to the stage just two months after her acquittal. Fanny left the UK for America and as Fred Fenton, carved out a modest career for herself as a comedian, female impersonator and character actress, nearly always playing the part of eccentric English dowager, which took her to stages including New York’s famous Fifth Avenue Theater.

You can read more on Fanny and Stella in Neil McKenna’s excellently written book of ‘Fanny & Stella’, which gives a real insight not just into Victorian attitudes and lifestyles but into theatre and entertainments of that time.

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