History Of Burlesque: Ancient Greece

When the ‘casual observer’ imagines burlesque, the usual image that comes up is 1940s/1950s era pin up girls, stockings ‘accidentally’ being revealed as a skirt is blown up by a gust of wind, Hollywood-style bombshells and cheeky winks. In actual fact, burlesque is a lot older than it’s ‘vintage’ image…

We’re not talking about the 1920s prohibition-era, where burlesque clubs were banned, or when burlesque got ‘exotic’ when shimmies and bump and grind movements entered the performer’s vocabulary thanks to the emulation of the Algerian Dancers of the Chicago World Fair in the 1880s (you can read our post about that, and the arrival of ‘Little Egypt(s)’ on the scene here: Little Egypt and Chicago World Fair) – or even the Victorian Music Halls, where parodies, innuendo and male/female impersonation were popular forms of entertainment… No, we’re rewinding right back through the ages, past Shakespeare and Chaucer (we’ll visit their burlesques in future posts), ancient Rome to Ancient Greece…

Before we head back in time, we have to note the true meaning of burlesque – and that is to lampoon, to mock and to satire events or figures, a style still popular with today’s burlesque performers (check out Honey Wilde’s excellent burlesque of Margaret Thatcher) and a popular form of entertainment through genres (Spitting Image or Little Britain, anyone?) and throughout the ages. When unraveling the history of comedy, all roads lead mostly to Ancient Greece and plays penned for the annual celebrations of Dionysus – the god of the grape harvest, wine, fertility, ritual madness and religious ecstacy. It is believed that the invention of the ampitheatre (theatre!) was to provide a stage so citizens could gather to watch these rituals and performances – a tradition upheld by the Romans (if you look above the stage in surviving amphitheatres you will see a plaque with Bacchus on – their version of Dionysus – like the one below from the amphitheatre in Aspendos, Turkey, taken by Lilly Laudanum). The Dionysia was an important festival in Athens (second only to the Olympic forerunner, the Panathenaic Games) where ritualistic and theatrical performances and tragedies and comedies were played out and the play writes given prizes for the best work. Far from today’s offerings, where false lashes, a wink and a smile are (mostly) de rigueur, the works on show were often political, offensive and powerful – and not a single sequin in sight!


Aristophanes, born 446BC, dubbed the ‘Father of Comedy’ was a constant favourite, winning first and second place for his works of satire. While other writers of the time were penning ethics` (Aristotle), essays on old age and friendship (Cicero), founding Western philosophy (Socrates) or founding the first ‘institute of higher learning’ and writing themes for platonic love (Plato), Aristophanes was taking a look at all society and making a mockery of it in a style called Old Comedy. No one was safe from the mocking pen: Gods, politicians, poets, artists, philosophers and ordinary citizens were all tarred with the same sharp wit. for example, one of Aristophanes’ famous plays The Clouds portrays Socrates as a clown and manipulator, and although parody, this caricature was deemed partly responsible for Socrates’ downfall (he was sentenced to death by Hemlock after being found guilty of corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens at a time when Athens was rebuilding its democracy after the Peloponnesian War). He lampooned public figures such as Athenian statesman and general Cleon (in The Knights, Cleon is repeatedly presented as a war monger and high manipulator via Aristophanes’ wit, while in The Wasps, he not only lampoons Cleon, but the law courts and the elderly jurors – Cleon’s so-called power-base). In a time where plays could sway public opinion of a person, his comedies were a dangerously political tool.

Looking past the more political side, but still seen as something of a ‘current affairs’ commentary with manipulation, again, at the helm, Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata is where things get a bit racy. Set at the time of the Peloponnesian War, the protagonist Lysistrata persuades her fellow women of Greece to withhold sexual privileges from their men soldiers as a way of forcing them to negotiate peace. This parody of the women in sexual command via teasing and rebuff also shines a spotlight (albeit through the lens of spoof) on the woman’s sexual role in a male-dominated ancient society. Another of Aristophanes’ more sexual plays, Thesmophoriazusae, takes a look at the role of women in society, it hinges on the satirical notion that tragedy writer Euriphides has misrepresented women in his plays, painting them as mad, sexually depraved and murderous. Here the women take revenge by conducting an assembly to decide the fate of Euriphides at the festival of Thesmorphoria. This convoluted tale, loaded with parody and mockery, is not too dissimilar from the modern farces, in that there’s men trying to pass themselves as women in order to infiltrate (think of the countless times this has happened in Carry On films!), a baby taken as ‘hostage’ (which is really a skin full of wine!), more dressing as women to escape from prison and a happy ending.

Competition between Old Comedy writers was rife, and as above, satirists often lambasted and lampooned one another in their works. Cratinus’ The Pytine (aka The Wineflask) is a direct response to Aristophanes mockery of him in The Knights, where he is portrayed as a “drivelling old man” that “could not even procure to quench the thirst of which he was perishing”. Cratinus takes the unexpected revenge of lampooning not Aristophanes, but himself, with ‘comedy’ as his wife, having illicit dalliances with ‘young wines’ (in reference to his drivelling, alcoholic caricature). A clever piece.

For further reading: 

For the background ritual and festival, check out Susan Guettel Cole’s Procession and Celebration at the Dionysia.

For more on how Aristophane’s works influenced society (and more of a glimpse in Ancient Greek civic culture and religion), see Jeffrey Henderson’s The Demos And Comic Competition.

If you can get hold of it, The Origin Of Attic Comedy by Francis Macdonald is an excellent insight, with chapters on phallic songs, dramatic fertility ritual, impostors, stock masks of the old comedy, comedy and tragedy and also includes a synopsis of the surviving plays.

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