catapult magazine

catapult magazine


Is a Burlesque show genuine theatre?


May 14 2002
05:38 pm

If you read Time magazine, you might be aware that the Burlesque show is having something of a revival. Folks who are involved in it claim it’s an art form of higher caliber than the basic strip club where pole-and-lap-dancing requires reduced physical talent. There definitely is acting involved in both, some rehearsal, costumes, make-up; but is it theatre? Where do you draw that particular line? Before reading this article I thought the line was somewhere between liturgical dancing, church dramas and then genuine (and good) theatre. Now I see there’s much more grey area than I thought. Someone help me out of this murky no man’s land where absolute truth won’t show it’s beautiful face.


May 15 2002
04:23 am

Are they making a comeback? Sounds classier than a strip joint. Probably brought on by the Moulin Rouge craze. Well.

Our word “theatre” comes from a Greek word which means something like “to see” or “to watch”. You Greek scholars know this. Spectacle has been a big part of theatre from the beginning. And that’s really what a burlesque show is, isn’t it? Spectacle.

For many “theatre” refers to only the performance of a STORY with a dramatic arc (beginning, middle, and end), that takes place in a space, before an audience. Some define it by the artistic quality of the performance, which is pretty subjective. Some by the presence of a character (as opposed to a real person) on stage. For a few others, it’s about footlights and curtains. The main gap (as I have experienced it) is between those who insist on narrative and those who have a more liberal understanding of the word.

The Guthrie Theatre just presented a coherent, two hour long comic story written by Eugene O’Neill called “Ah, Wilderness!”

Richard Foreman’s Ontological Hysteric Theatre is currently presenting “Maria Del Bosco”, a bewildering hour of broken down ballet dancers, floating lambs, huge shapes, and loud sounds, with no narrative to speak of.

A man in Covent Garden, London is juggling and performing magic tricks for passers-by.

In the late ‘60s, Gunter Brus, while dressed in women’s lingerie, would cut himself with scissors, defecate on stage, and then eat his own feces before an audience.

Women are undressing on stage in countless strip clubs and bars around the world.

Christian church groups are presenting music with accompanying interpretive movement along with short skits.

In 1971 Robert Wilson directed “KA MOUNTAIN AND GUARDenia TERRACE” in Iran, which included 140 performers and lasted for 168 hours. Often during the performance there was no audience.

I would call all these things genuine theatre. Including burlesque. If you’re asking what is good theatre, then I don’t know. I’ll work on it.


May 16 2002
12:54 am

Theater is, of course, an art. It seems to me the distinctions between good art and bad art have never respected genre. Can a play be good and thoughtful and contain nudity — yep. Read Peter Schaafer’s “Equs” Can a play be bad and contain nudity? Yep. Can a burlesque be good? I suspect so. It seems to me that most forms in art can be redeemable. (Though maybe no one has done that for burlesque yet). Most tunes for hymns (I hear again and again) began as bar songs.

Redemption within the art world is cool.


Jul 03 2002
04:09 am

To continue further: According to Jason’s definition of theatre, then, all spectacles organized by humankind is theatre. If (according to the definition of theatre as spectacle) the crashing of airplanes into the World Trade Towers is just as much theatre as this weekend’s production down our street that displays Jesus as a homosexual, how and in which way do they fall into the category of “bad” theatre? I know a play that includes the killing of hundreds of people should rightly be criticized, but 9-11 still was quite an excellently staged performance.


Jul 03 2002
06:18 am

Good topic.

Well, Grant, to begin an attempt to answer your question, let me preface by saying BBC is right. Theatre (or theater) is art.

What determines whether it is good art or bad art?

Once can take that question two ways. Firstly: What determines whether this spectacle is “Christian” or not, and secondly: what determines how good (e.g. on a scale of 1 to 4 stars) it is.

Art that is Christian can be horrible art on the star scale.

Art that is non-Christian can be a wonderful 4 stars.

To really determine what category art, and more specifically theater, falls into, one must examine the message it is trying to get across.

Once that overall message (or messages intertwined within) have been evaluated and analyzed, Christians should ask the question, “Does this art [message] display God’s order in a world filled with chaos? Is this conveying truth” (Boerman-Cornell, DeVries 2)?

Les Miserables, likely the best musical in the world today, says “shit,” “bastard,” takes Christ’s name in vain at several points throughout the show, and has a little child screaming “What the hell, let’s go to our deaths” in the first act. He then dies, along with many others, in the second.

Les Miserables is one of the most Christian spectacles of theater in the world. It shows (among other things) that God is your help in ever-present struggle, that true love is a decision, and that mercy and grace triumphs over the law. Sounds pretty Christian to me.

I’ve seen some skits at church that have said all the right, Christian things, but it wasn’t reality. It wasn’t truth. People don’t really talk like that. And on top of that, it was poorly prepared and performed. It was Christian, all right, but the message it gave to me semed fake or false—like a lie.

In Christian art there also is a struggle for excellence, meaning when Christian artists are making art, they strive to make it the very best and most excellent as a pleasing gift of sacrifice and thankfulness to God. If something has been thrown together quickly (like the skit I mentioned above) without any care and without even an attempt at making it good, this also does not glorify God, and I would call it unchristian art.

BBC, could you back me up and fill in my holes? I have to leave for a moment.

Thanks, guys.


Jul 03 2002
10:31 am

Yes, 9/11 was a pretty astounding performance. And I suppose my definition of theatre would be able to contain a terrorist attack as well as a church drama. And why not? Anything is theatre. Everything is theatre. For the sake of clarification we refer to theatre as a representative act which appeals primarily to our aesthetic sensibilities. But looking at other things as theatre gives a new perspective.

All the world’s a stage…

More later.


Jul 04 2002
07:31 pm

I like this definition of theatre, Jason, and would like not to shy away from the implications of an “all of life is theatre” thesis. I’m thinking lately that some of the same decisions that go into what makes the attacks of 9-11 “evil” deeds are very similar if not the same as the decisions that go into what makes something a “bad” play or an “evil” production.


Jul 08 2002
10:49 am

The “everything is theatre” thesis (which I have not thought of as a thesis until now) brings out the element of performance in everyday actions and the element of interpretation in everyday experience. In life, YOU are both the actor and the audience.


Grant, do your conclusions reveal more about the nature of theatre or the nature of good and evil (or “good” and “evil”)?


Jul 09 2002
06:02 am

The “all of life is theatre” thesis does not contradict the “all of life is a story” thesis that I had hoped to promote in a follow-up article to the Storytelling one. Maybe I’m just trying to claim a victory over the sciences, but I am more and more convinced that taste and a sense of the aesthetic encompasses what we call “real life” and gives us a foundation for life in general. Even those who never set foot in a museum or who claim not to believe anything about anything have to put themselves into some kind of story that makes sense of themselves and that follows a certain aesthetic that they themselves value.

About the “all of life is theatre” thesis: Hannah Arendt has written much on the idea that judging whether something is right or wrong depends on the relationship of spectator and actor (What is a courtroom scene if not a drama played for a jury whose task is to decide who’s the good guy and who’s the bad?). Judging whether something is right or wrong should not have to do with reaching the goal of a good society, Arendt says. Rather, we want to reach a good society because such a society is a beautiful society. Therefore, the reasons for judging right or wrong are a matter of a universal TASTE for beauty. Our desire for the good depends on our love of beauty.

So, when we say that the killing of hundreds of people at 9-11 is evil, we make a statement about what kind of world we want to live in. We don’t want more events like this to be part of our story. This ugly event can only be conquered if it’s recontextualized; the story can only be made beautiful again if terrorism is wiped out, if the perpetrators are found, if peace is restored to the world.

Likewise, then, a staged play (which, as Shakespeare knew so well, is a play within a play within a play) that is created, produced or performed but does not live up to or fit into our beautiful story is JUDGED bad by the jury/audience. And according to the Biblical story that we accept as our own, such un-beautiful stories that do not fit with the story that leads to life must be on the path to death. So, to carry our conclusions as far as we can, a bad play can be deemed just as murderous as the events of 9-11, especially if the bad play is accepted as the truth of the world, as the full story. Because theatre is a matter of life and death, artists who seek to promote the beautiful story must engage in battles on stage against the many bad stories that tug at the hearts of the jury.


Jul 15 2002
02:28 pm

By my own logic, then (that is, if anyone other than myself can follow it), burlesque shows must be completely harmless, since they would never pretend to be the whole story, the whole truth. They’re just fantasies played out for people. They’re not pretending to reveal truths about the world in general. No one expects a burlesque show to present the reality of sexual consequences. No good burlesque show would end with one of the characters contracting a venereal disease. That would be the very definition of a BAD BURLESQUE SHOW.

If we take the burlesque show as it is, then, as a dream world/ a fantasy world that knows its place and role in society, should our judgement apply to it at all? It would seem rather harsh to judge people for their fantasies, which are beyond our control. Does the child who tells his mother that he dreamed of having sex with her next to his father’s rotting corpse deserve a spanking?

Or should we be held responsible for our dreams, as Kubrick seems to suggest when he has Tom Cruise’s character say “no dream is just a dream” (or something to that effect) at the end of EYES WIDE SHUT?


Jul 16 2002
02:42 am

I’ve been gone for a while (I was spending some time in the beautiful fantasyland of Northwest Iowa). I’m not sure I can follow Grants logic all the way, but maybe I can make tow (helpful?) distinctions.

One: regarding the All the World is a Stage thesis: the trick here, of course, is that theater employs some kind of aesthetic barrier to get us to stop a minute and see that it is theater — which then lets us think aobut it. Some performance art has effectively used the thesis (I had an idea some time ago that I should construct a huge viewing area — audience seats, and a big proscinium — looking out on the parking lot of a strip club that is near where I live. The intention wouldn’t be to shame the “actors” going in and out of the club (in fact, maybe I would need a one-way mirror or something). but to presnt a piece of theater aobut how lust and despair so often go together. — but you see, I would need the proscinium and stands (and ushers and tickets too) to get people to think about the experience in a certain way).

Two: Although I said that theater is theater and can rise above bad genres, I wonder if perhaps for burlesque to be good theater, whether it would have to get past some of the limitations of its genre (lack of thoughtful message for instance.) Isn’t there a burlesque scene in “Godspell” that does this effectively? A similar example might be American musical theater — generally a pretty lame genre, there are moments when it rises above (Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Les Miserables being a prime example — he’s American, isn’t he?)

Thanks for the thoughts, guys. This is a wonderful discussion (and a good topic too).