Not Just a Leg Show: Gayness and Male Homoeroticism in Burlesque, 1868 to 1877
Michelle Durden

On September 28, 1868 the Lydia Thompson Burlesque Troupe, comprised of star burlesque actresses from the top theatres in London, made its New York. debut[1] Both contemporaries and historians credit the Thompson Troupe for starting a "burlesque mania" that would sweep the nation. These performances combined burlesque's traditional aspects of satire, parody, travesty, and caricature with pantomime's cross-dressed "dame" and "principle boy" roles. In the burlesque performances of the era, male actors performed female roles in drag, while actresses played male characters attired only in thigh-length tunics and tights, the masculine costume of the ancient world, which some people found scandalous by the standards of the day. In these cross-dressed roles performers flirted and fought with one another, while speaking in witty dialogue full of topical allusions and sexual double-meanings.

As a theatrical genre, burlesque in the post-bellum era could be described as musical comedy. Popular playwrights of the 1860s and 70s, including Henry J. Byron, F.C. Burnand, and William Brough, wrote burlesques in rhyming verse, peppered with puns and energetic song-and-dance routines. Burlesque differs from the American Musical, a genre it helped create, in that burlesque writers adapted pre-existing popular tunes rather than creating original musical scores. To this music, burlesque actresses sang parodies and performed a variety of dances, including the quadrilles and waltzes that graced society balls, breakdowns borrowed from minstrel shows, and ethnic folk-dances such as polkas, hornpipes and clog dances. For the grand finale, the entire company would often perform the French can-can, titillating audiences with high kicks that revealed the female dancer's legs in tights.

Burlesque playwrights and performers often parodied other theatrical productions, either whole or in part. For instance, Thompson's burlesque 40 Thieves parodied and punned the still-famous scene in Augustin Daly's drama Under the Gaslight, where Joe Smokey is tied to a railroad track in front of an oncoming train (Appelbaum 66). An 1871 playbill for the Lydia Thompson Troupe described it as "an intensely thrilling scene, during which [...] a real train will cross the stage at the rate of 70 miles per hour [...]" (Wood's Museum, 40 Thieves). According to one spectator, while "the sleeping Ali is rescued from instant destruction by the passing train," it was not a locomotive that threatened him, but "the train of his wife's dress" ("The Burlesque Mania").

The main effect of these burlesques was to make topical subjects or well-known figures appear ridiculous or absurd by displaying them in an incongruous style that juxtaposed high and low culture. Dressed scantily in flesh-coloured tights under a short tunic or trunks, burlesque actresses parodied masculinity and femininity, and joked about everything from politics to popular culture. Burlesque actors generally wore more clothes, but they also parodied gender, donning dresses and wigs to caricature society belles and "strong-minded women," including well-known women's rights advocates such as Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Amelia Bloomer.

While both contemporaries and historians construct burlesque as a female leg show designed for men's sexual pleasure, I argue that burlesque was also an arena for representing and disseminating ideas, coded references, and collective social types associated with an emerging gay male subculture.[2] While historians suspect that American "fairy" subcultures of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries somehow evolved from the English "molly" subcultures eighteenth and early nineteenth-centuries, they are still working to make concrete connections.[3] There are a few things historians do know, however, which are significant for my arguments. While a history of gay subcultures in the United States before 1890 has not yet been written, according to George Chauncey, "sufficient evidence exists to establish that the fairy was recognized as a distinct cultural type by the 1870s" (Chauncey 385).

Additionally, if there were communities of gay men in New York and other U.S. cities in the late 1860s and 1870s, burlesque performances would be a likely place to find evidence of them. Burlesque was an Americanised version of an English theatrical tradition which for centuries had been associated with love between men. According to John Franceschina, between the sixteenth century and the end of the nineteenth century English theatrical productions represented various evolving "homosexualities" (Franceschina). Similarly, Rictor Norton argues that as early as 1650 English theatres were "denounced [...] as the haunts of sodomites" (32). The genre of burlesque is specifically connected to these gay male subcultures through playwright and actor William Foote, the man known as the "English Aristophanes". Aristophanes was the classical Greek writer credited with inventing burlesque.[4]

While historians such as George Chauncey, Douglas Shand-Tucci, and Nan Alamilla Boyd have demonstrated the existence of gay male subcultures in several American cities by 1890, including New York, Boston, and San Francisco, we still know little about the culture of these groups between 1868 and 1877. The gay and homoerotic allusions in burlesque combined with the social contexts that give them meaning fill in the cultural contours of this era. These allusions include stock characters like the dandified swell and the fashionable belle, which represent fashionable gay young men and effeminate, cross-dressing "fairies." They also include narratives of male love from Greek and Roman mythology, and slang-filled homoerotic songs. Burlesque writers would not have included these allusions if there had not been an audience for them, an audience comprised of gay men and those who knew them. More specifically, the evidence of burlesque indicates that many of the subcultural codes gays used after 1890 - the words, personal appearances, and mannerism used to indicate membership in "gay life" - were established during or before the post-bellum period.

Burlesque as a Leg Show and a Sexual Case Study

Despite its comic diversity, the popular press of the day interpreted this new burlesque hybrid as a "leg show," meaning a spectacle of feminine nudity designed for a masculine audience. For example, The Spirit of the Times claimed that shapely legs were the essence of burlesque's success: "At our two burlesque theatres - Niblo's and Wood's - it is certain that hair and legs only are required, and even the former of these might be dispensed with unless of the lightest golden hue" ("The Burlesque Mania"). The New York Clipper agreed, "after all there is nothing like legs, good legs, to keep a place running" ("City Summary" italics original). In a similar vein, the New York Tribune suggested that the managers of Niblo's Garden erect an "emblem to their success - the Female Leg," "cut in symmetrical effigy and clothed in nothing but its natural loveliness" ("General Notes").

If burlesque is depicted as a leg show by the popular press, burlesque actresses are nothing but legs and body parts: they are reduced from talented performers to sexual objects. For example, The Clipper describes Elise Holt's performance at the New California Theatre in San Francisco as a titillating spectacle of legs, hair, breasts and shoulders. Rather than comment on her acting, singing, or dancing abilities, The Clipper describes Holt's "yellow hair and 14 calves," and her revealing attire: "Were the poor little girl to lose her lace collar during the performance she would have nothing left to cover her but her boots" ("Dramatic"; "Of Theatrical News"). Male actors were never described in this manner, as sexual objects, even when they portrayed women. Instead they were rated on how much laughter they received from the audience.

While female sexual display is not the only characteristic of burlesque, it came to define the genre for middle-class Victorian audiences because of economic and cultural reasons. Robert Allen and Faye Dudden argue that between 1866 and 1900 burlesque managers and performers emphasised female sexual display in order to boost audience attendance in response to an increasingly competitive market, gradually transforming it into a business that sold access to women's bodies for men's visual consumption. In addition to these market influences, this display of near naked women held powerful meanings for middle-class Victorians, inverting their notions of female modesty and propriety (Allen; Buckley). According to Peter Buckley, the burlesque actresses who showed their legs in tights soon "became a metaphor for a more general transgression of the boundaries of class and gender" in the post-bellum era (116). In response, the New York popular press created an "anti-burlesque" discourse to "maintain the moral and geographical distance between the Bowery and upper Broadway," sites of working-class depravity and middle-class respectability in the great city (125). These symbolic meanings of naked women help explain why viewers and historians of burlesque have tended to frame burlesque as a spectacle of female nudity or a leg show.

By constructing burlesque solely as a female leg show, however, writers have ignored other transgressions of the genre, erasing them from the historical record. For example, theatre historian Tracy Davis notes that in 1890s Britain the discourse against burlesque focused on "the indecency of women's bodies" and the "immorality among the highest paid [male] customers" who solicited sex with actresses from the most expensive parts of the playhouse (149). This discourse neglected other public transgressions of the sex/gender system, namely the "sodomites" who frequented the low-cost gallery seats (Davis 149). Similarly, while historians of American theatre argue that between 1868 and 1877 burlesque actresses displayed their bodies and told ribald jokes to entertain and titillate men, their inquiry has focused on relations between men and women, ignoring evidence that many burlesque stage-types, songs, jokes, and comic narratives also alluded to sexual relations between men (Allen; Buckley; Dudden).[5]

Because of its sexual content, the evidence of burlesque serves as an historical repository of popular knowledge about sexuality, in the form of jokes and comic situations. It therefore makes an excellent choice for an historical case study. As anthropologist Mary Douglas notes, jokes are funny because they invert or exaggerate some aspect of the socio-cultural order. To understand a joke's punch line, a person must be familiar with the society and culture from which it comes. This aspect of humour provides a unique opportunity for historians. If scholars can piece together enough information to find out why a joke is meaningful or funny in a particular era they can reconstruct aspects of the culture at that time.

Robert Darnton uses this method in his classic analysis The Great Cat Massacre. Darnton argues that in the process of trying to understand why people of another time found something funny, such as the grisly murder of cats, researchers can recover the cultural contexts that made it humorous to those involved. Outlining the logic of his method he writes: "When we run into something that seems unthinkable to us, we may have hit upon a valid point of entry into an alien mentality. And once we have puzzled through to the native's point of view, we should be able to roam about in his symbolic world" (262). To accomplish this, historians "tease meaning from documents by relating them to the surrounding world of significance, passing from text to context and back again," eventually reconstructing "a foreign mental world" (Darnton 6). Similarly, by comparing burlesque comedy to other historical evidence of gayness and homoeroticism in Victorian urban culture, culled from a variety of primary and secondary sources, I partially recreate those aspects of the Victorian "symbolic world" which give it meaning. The result is a glimpse into the sexual underworld of Victorian America.

The Gay Young Swell and the Fashionable Belle

As a stage-type, the swell is recognisable from his highly fashionable and affected appearance. He is generally depicted wearing an evening jacket, kid gloves, walking stick, monocle, and top hat. For instance, as the swell Genarro in Byron's burlesque Lucretia Borgia, M.D., "Miss Holt appears dressed in male attire in a pair of rich purple velvet pants, white satin coat, vest, and white silk hat [...]" (in Croghan 207). In another of Byron's plays the character Abdallah, played by Pauline Markham, describes men like himself as "light-whiskered dandies, with eye-glass and curls, / And drawling lisp, like sentimental girls" (Ali Baba 12). In addition to his "drawling talk," the swell has an "affected walk" or "mincing gait" (Mistress Jinks 51; "Wood's Museum"). Young Albert in Byron's William Tell demonstrates this affected pose. He "twists his moustache into two thin spikes," wears his "hat cocked to one side," holds his cigar "at the traditional angle," and wears his "eye glass so" (6, italics original). According Albert this style and pose make him a man despite the fact that he is still young enough to be at "that age, when, too oft, one must confess, / Man's attained everything, but manliness" (Byron, William Tell 6, italics original).

"The Cheeky Little Cove" and "The Pet of the Girls," sung by Elise Holt, exemplify the typical swell. "The Cheeky Little Cove" is always "ready for a spree, Champagne or Eau de Vie," and basically "does just as [he] please[s]." He gets in fights, drives a fast team of horses, and brags that he's the girls' "favorite" because he's "small." His father thinks he is "rather fast and very forward," especially when he spends money, but the "Cheeky Little Cove" isn't worried about finances, because he's "one of the festive lads of Harvard" and "a man who can turn his hand to anything" (Wall). While the "Cheeky Little Cove" is a rowdy, noisy swell, "The Pet of the Girls" is butterfly dandy, a type still associated with The New Yorker magazine.[6] According to the lyrics, "The Pet" speaks with a lisp and consciously moulds his actions to imitate the dandies he sees around him: "To be a swell is weally gay, I pwactice it both day and night!" He learns to be "a butterfly," "quite distingue" in his "dress and air," including "dainty ringlets" and a "gay mustache all twisted to a hair." Dressing "with the gweatest care," his appearance is designed to attract looks from both "the ladies" on Broadway and the "fellows" at his club, who envy him and copy his "style." He is rich, with "Lots of friends and lots of cash to spare." Unlike more rowdy swells, who smoke cigarettes and look for fights, he hasn't "got the nerve" to smoke, his walking cane "weally tires" him, and he avoids physical confrontations with others because he is afraid of spoiling his good looks: "A Wrow! Why! it makes me shudder! Suppose I should get a discolored optic?" (Cooper 5).

This fashionable style is associated with young upper-class men. In his 1869 book about New York social life, Junius Henri Browne describes men of this sort as members of the most elite New York clubs, always wearing "the sleekest hats, the shortest of sack-coats, the most elegant of pantaloons, and the daintiest of gloves [...]" (46). Verses From the Harvard Advocate also contains several descriptions of this type. One is a "Nobby Sophomore," who wears

A Vandyke collar, long and sharp,
Without a fold or spot;
A radiant scarf of all the hues,
Drawn through a golden knot;
Thin ladies-gloves upon his hands, --
Sixes, perhaps, not more;
And nobby trousers, tight as skin
On slender legs he wore (11-12)

Another is described as "A youngish student fellow" who is "dressed up to kill, -- Hat, new; tie, blue; gloves, yellow" (105).

The swell's female counterpart is the fashionable belle, also called "the queen of society" or "the girl of the period." Quick-change artist William Horace Lingard specialised in skits about the belle. Pictorial sheet music covers for "The Grecian Bend," "I'm Not a Gossip," "On the Beach at Long Branch," and "The Gay Masque Ball," depict Lingard in wigs and stylish dresses. In each, he assumes a stereotypically elite feminine pose, such as coquettishly holding a fan or attempting to walk in the new Grecian Bend corset. However, Lingard's impersonations of fashionable women are not overly exaggerated, as he could easily pass as one of them.

The practice of actresses playing dandies and actors mimicking belles enhanced the gender ambiguity of these characters and invited several ways of perceiving them. In other words, burlesque humour was polysemic, meaning that the caricatures, puns, and comic situations were open to a variety of audience interpretations. The creators of burlesque did not expect audiences to get every joke, but the ones they did get made up for those they missed. Most of the jokes were unimportant to the overall plot anyway, since burlesque plays did not attempt to create a coherent storyline or provide narrative closure at the end. Rather, by presenting spectators with a series of absurd scenes loosely connected by a well-known story, these burlesques worked to destabilise cultural assumptions and to question the existing social order. Ironically, burlesque performers' realistic acting style helped this endeavour by blurring the boundaries between theatre and reality. What I mean is that these actresses and actors burlesqued modern life, but they also demonstrated that modern life was itself a burlesque. For example, an actress smoking a cigarette was both burlesquing masculinity and simultaneously referencing women who smoked. The image of smoking women was often used by the popular press of the day to represent and ridicule emancipated women, playing on what some saw as the absurdity of middle-class women smoking, voting, and wearing pants. Similarly, by playing a society belle an actor burlesqued the cultural trappings of elite femininity, and perhaps even a specific woman. But he also, at the same time, realistically portrayed a man who burlesqued femininity by dressing in drag. While some people would only get the first meaning of the burlesque, others would understand the second meaning as well, particularly if they had seen women smoking or men wearing dresses in other social contexts.

"Gay" as a Double-Entendre

Burlesque writers and performers used double-entendres and other sexual allusions strategically, in order to signify sexual topics to one portion of the audience while at the same time allowing another part of the audience to remain in ignorance, or pretend ignorance, of the sexual content. In other words, people unfamiliar with popular sexual terminology and social categories like the gay dandy, fairy or prostitute would not understand the allusions, and would not get the jokes. On the other hand, people who were familiar with sexual slang and knew what prostitutes, fairies, and other social "deviants" looked like would understand the allusions and hence the humour as well. Audience responses included laughter, embarrassment, and offence. However, to get the jokes people would have to interpret them in a sexual manner. Because of this, some people probably pretended not to get the jokes, in order to preserve the appearance of being "well-bred." According to etiquette expert Mrs. Duffy (1877), when confronted with a double-entendre or slang term "A well-bred person always refuses to understand [...]" (39-41). Certainly, as stage-types the swell and the belle ridicule the fashionable youth of the period. But when played in drag these urban dandies and fashionable belles would also connote gay men and "fairies" to some portion of the audience.

For example, the dandified swells represented in burlesque look gay, act gay, and go to gay places. In the song "I'm Such a Winning Man," the protagonist brags, "I look so fine and gay" (Great Lingard's 110). "The Pet of the Girls," wears a "gay mustache all twisted to a hair," spends his time promenading "gay Broadway," and refers to the gay life, singing "to be a swell is weally gay, I pwactice it both day and night!" (Cooper 5). The swells not only look and act gay, they are gay. "Rackety Jack" informs his listeners:

I like a lark, I do of course I can't help being gay, I follow in my father's steps, So at least the people say. (Mistress Jinks 86)

"Humpty Dumpty Joe" exclaims, "I'm the gayest chap in Boston" (Mistress Jinks 19). Similarly, a fashionable girl describes her beau thus: "When he's dressed up I do declare, / you'd say he's a gay young swell" (Great Lingard's 34). The word "gay" has significantly different implications today than in the years following the Civil War. What connotations did it hold for burlesque audiences, writers, and performers during this era?

In the late nineteenth century "gay" held several meanings. Chauncey traces the historical implications of this term and its appropriation by the gay subculture. He argues:

Originally referring simply to things pleasurable, by the seventeenth century gay had come to refer more specifically to a life of immoral pleasures and dissipation (and by the nineteenth century to prostitution, when applied to women), a meaning that the "faggots" could easily have drawn on to refer to the homosexual life. Gay also referred to something brightly colored or someone showily dressed - and thus could easily be used to describe the flamboyant costumes adopted by many fairies, as well as things at once brilliant and specious, the epitome of camp. (17)

These definitions of gay as "a life of immoral pleasures and dissipation," as "something brightly colored," "brilliant" or "specious," and as "someone showily dressed" accurately describe the lifestyle and attire of fashionable urban swells. Moreover, in the late nineteenth century "gay" also meant impudent, cheeky, socially forward or overly-familiar, adjectives often used to describe these audacious young men (Green 470). Most audience members would understand "gay" in these ways, even the swells themselves.

However, as Chauncey argues, for those involved in the subculture the term "gay" acquired additional significance, referring to a specific lifestyle, a mode of dress, and a camp sensibility. According to Chauncey, by 1890 "gay" was used as a double-entendre to signify membership in the subculture:

Because the word's use in gay environments had given it homosexual associations that were unknown to people not involved in the gay world, more circumspect gay men could use it to identify themselves secretly to each other in a straight setting. A properly intoned reference or two to a "gay bar" or to "having a gay time" served to alert the listener familiar with homosexual culture. (18)

However, while men used the term gay to indicate their membership in this subculture, it still referred to things "pleasurable and desirable" rather than to a "homosexual" identity (16). According to Chauncey these alternative meanings of gay were commonly used by 1890. Burlesque's consistent use of the term suggests that it was used by members of the gay subculture as early as 1868, and in burlesque theatres every evening, writers, performers, and audiences members helped establish and disseminate these coded references to gay life.

Fashion, Effeminacy, and Sex Between Men

In addition to these "gay" descriptions, the swell's fashionable dress would also connote sexual interest in other men. According to Randolph Trumbach, fashionable men became associated with effeminacy and sodomy by the beginning of the eighteenth century when "the queen" emerged as a social type. In response, many men rejected the trappings of fashion in order to disassociate themselves from the queen's perceived femininity and criminalised sexual practices. According to fashion historians, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were characterised by a "great masculine renunciation of fashion," when typical male dress become more sombre and uniform (Kuchta 55-67). In the United States by the 1830s, dark suits and stovepipe hats had replaced the knee breeches, bright ribbons, and floral waistcoats worn by the founding fathers.

This association between fashion, effeminacy, and sex between men continued in the nineteenth century with dandyism and the aesthetic movement. The dandy emerged as a social type at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The archetypical dandy, the legendary George Bryan "Beau" Brummell of Regency England, became the model of dandified masculinity in England, France, and the United States for decades. According to Ellen Moers, Brummell began cultivating his exquisite style of dress during his education at the elite institutions of Eton and Oxford, where he met and is thought to have had sexual relations with the Prince of Wales, the later King George IV (17-38).

By the 1850s, dandyism and male love became entwined with the cult of aestheticism, a doctrine that affirmed beauty as a prime value and whose members cultivated good taste and refinement in all things (Dellamora; Dowling; Shand-Tucci; Sinfield). Aesthete men were closely associated with elite colleges on both sides of the Atlantic, most notably Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and Yale. Shand-Tucci notes that at Harvard College and the nearby city of Boston during the 1860s and 70s, young men drew on the opposing styles of the athlete/warrior, characterized by Walt Whitman, and the artist/aesthete, later associated with Oscar Wilde, to understand their masculinity and sexual attraction to other men. By the 1890s, the connections between dandyism and male love were obvious enough in some social circles for historian Marylene Delbourg-Delphis to claim that while "all homosexuals might not be dandies [...] the majority of dandies were homosexual" (in Franceschina 291). Burlesque performances in the post-bellum period relied on and re-presented this connection between dandyism and desire for other men through the trope of the fashionable swell.

Some people might argue that the swell's obvious interest in girls negates this interpretation. However, sexuality at this time was not organised into a strict hetero/homo dichotomy, and many gay men also married or expected to marry (Shand-Tucci; Chauncey).[7] Moreover, the usage of feminine terms like "girls" and "ladies" could easily be a camp reference to other gay men (Chauncey; Boyd). Additionally, not everyone in the audience would make these connections between dandyism and love between men. Instead, many Victorians would have considered the effete dandy to be a "ladies' man" because of his interest in things considered feminine (Sinfield 2). For instance, even close friends of the dandified Oscar Wilde did not know of his sexual relationships with men until he was accused of sodomy in 1894 (Sinfield 2). Moreover, while many people considered the swells effeminate, they most likely saw dandification as a masculine rather than feminine style. For example, Byron's character Albert Tell characterised the swell pose as a way for adolescents to achieve the privileges of "man's estate," despite their lack of "manliness" (William Tell 6).

Similar to the dandified swell, the society belle, when performed by men in drag, also referenced the gay subculture in the U.S., particularly the effeminate "fairies" that sometimes dressed as women. According to George Chauncey, "sufficient evidence exists to establish that the fairy was recognised as a distinct cultural type by the 1870s" (Chauncey 385). He notes that although most gay men did not dress in drag due to laws prohibiting it, the male transvestite was the emblematic symbol of the subculture. When men such as W.H. Lingard dressed as fashionable belles, they not only commented on young women of high society, but also simultaneously referenced these fairy men. Nan Alamilla Boyd makes a similar argument, claiming that in San Francisco as early as the 1860s and 70s, "female impersonators transported the language and gestures of the nascent queer culture to the popular stage" (34). To anyone familiar with them, burlesque transvestite actors obviously referenced these other men in drag.

But readers should understand that except for members of the gay subculture, most people probably did not connect dressing in drag with sex between men. Jeffrey Weeks notes that in 1871 male cross-dressers who solicited sex with men were tried in London not for criminalized sexual activity but rather for "transvestitism" (in Sinfield 6). The New York Times article, "A Man Arrested in Female Attire - Justice Perplexed," shows a similar pattern. The man, William Hamblin, successfully passed as a woman when observed by the Thirteenth Precinct Sergeant, but was arrested later that evening when "his disguise was penetrated by a Tenth Precinct Officer." The article makes no mention of sexual activity, but instead focuses on the Justice's "perplexed" reaction to seeing a man dressed as a woman.

Greco-Roman Love: Ixion, Jupiter, and Ganymede

Many burlesques also relied on stories from Greek and Roman mythology to connote love between men. The burlesque of Ixion; or, the Man at the Wheel performed by the Lydia Thompson Burlesque Troupe in the fall of 1868 exemplifies this tendency. Written by H.C. Burnand, the burlesque is loosely based on the Greco-Roman myth of Ixion, the king of Thessely.[8] According to the myth, Ixion married and then refused to pay the bride price to his father-in-law, who he then pushed into a pit of fire. To free Ixion of the consequences for his wrongdoing, Jupiter invited him to visit Olympus, where Ixion fell in love with Juno, Jupiter's wife. Jealous, Jove punished Ixion by sending him to Hades bound to a fiery, revolving wheel.

While the burlesque version follows this basic plot, it also incorporates the myth of Ganymede. According to Greek mythology, Ganymede was the beautiful son of Tros, king of Troy. Attracted to the boy, Jupiter, disguised as an eagle, carried him to Olympus to be the cupbearer of the gods. In some versions Ganymede was transformed into the Zodiac constellation of Aquarius. According to theatre historian John Franceschina, during the European Renaissance this myth "became the paradigm for... same sex relationships" and was the origin of many "homosexual allusions" that exist into the twentieth century (3). These connotations included: the cup, which referred to sodomy; the term catamite, meaning boy-lover or boy prostitute, which is derived from Catamus, the Latin name for Ganymede; and the "Age of Aquarius," which connoted social and sexual freedom (Francheschina 3).

Thompson's burlesque of Ixion uses the character of Ganymede to suggest sexual relations between him and Jupiter. In this version Ganymede is cupbearer to the gods, albeit in the form of a Victorian servant. Those familiar with the myth would recognise the sexual connotations of Ganymede the cupbearer, namely that Ganymede is Jove's boy lover. The playbill further establishes this meaning through additional word play, describing Ganymede as "Jupiter's beautiful 'Buttons;' a nice active lad, the original Fat Boy." "Button" is derived from the French word bouter, whose meanings include "to thrust" or "to pierce," suggesting penile penetration. This message is also communicated through the description of Ganymede as "an active lad." At this time the term "active" is used to describe a sexual partner who penetrates or takes the dominant, "masculine" role in sex, while "passive" refers to a sexual partner who is penetrated, or assumes the subordinate or "female" sexual role. While this interpretation violates the hierarchical organisation of classical sexuality, which requires that a higher-status or older man penetrate a lower-status or younger man, it corresponds to more egalitarian forms of male love which emerged in England at the end of the eighteenth century and the United States during the nineteenth century. "Fat" also carries sexual connotations, including pleasures of the flesh and uncontrolled appetites (Rowe 25-49). These meanings may over-ride the dominant meaning of fat as large, corpulent, or fleshy, since in this burlesque a thin man plays Ganymede (Appelbaum 107). Moreover, Ganymede is the "original Fat Boy." This makes sense if "fat boy" refers to a boy lover, because Ganymede is the classical archetype of boy-lovers. Ganymede also fraternises with Bacchus, drinking wine and whiskey stolen from Jupiter's cellar (Burnand 16-17; Wood's Museum, Ixion). In Roman mythology, Bacchus is the god of wine, and Bacchanalian festivals are characterised by orgiastic sexual revelry in addition to intoxication. Those familiar with the myth would probably find it hilarious that Ganymede the "boy lover", played by tall, wiry Sol Smith Jr. towers over Jupiter, performed by petite actress Ada Harland.

Additionally, the burlesque combines the storyline of the Ganymede myth with the myth of Ixion to suggest sexual relations between Jove and Ixion, played by actress Lydia Thompson. According to the playbill, it is Ixion, not Ganymede, who is "'taken' up" by Jupiter and flies to Olympus on the back of the Eagle (Wood's Museum, Ixion). In Burnand's script, Jove invites Ixion to live with him in Olympus, to which Ixion responds:

Great Jove, of all queer tastes how queer and odd is his
Who would refuse to dwell with gods and goddesses? (12)

Jupiter and Ixion proceed to sing a duet to the tune of "Come live with me and be my love." Jupiter sings:

Come live with me, with me above,
And you shall all our pleasures prove. (12)

And Ixion responds:

Yes, 'tis the sort of life I love;
Such a rise would be a good move. (12)

Jove leaves and sends Mercury, the celestial messenger, to transport Ixion on the back of a giant anthropomorphised Eagle. Mercury tells Ixion "to mount the bird don't fear." According to the stage directions, Ixion "strokes Eagle, who resents the familiarity," while responding "I've got the courage and my pecker's here" (italics original).

All of these allusions have double-meanings, one innocent and one sexual. Ixion is "'taken' up" by Jupiter, meaning on that Jupiter will support him financially. The quotation marks, however, suggest that Jupiter has "taken" Ixion sexually as well. In the line about "queer tastes" the word queer can be read as odd, meaning that only a fool would refuse Jove's offer. However, queer is also used to suggest love between men (Shand-Tucci 30). The line by itself -- "Great Jove, of all queer tastes how queer and odd is his" -- connotes that Jupiter has "queer tastes" in sexual partners. The duet and the scene with the Eagle further support this interpretation. The duet refers to the pleasures Jove and Ixion will have together, and the word "rise" could be interpreted as an allusion to penile erection. Additionally, the tune and some of the lyrics come from the popular song "Come Live With Me and Be My Love," and while neither actually sings this line, because burlesque only uses popular tunes the title would be familiar to many audience members. Those who know the original myth would also remember that Eagle is Jupiter in disguise. Ixion "strokes" Eagle and is asked to "mount" him, both of which can be read as sexual innuendos. When Ixion claims that "his pecker's here," he is using a triple-entendre. Pecker refers to the Eagle (a bird who pecks), but is also a slang term referring to Ixion's courage and to his sexual anatomy (Green 910). The italics mean that the actress performing Ixion should stress this word to ensure that the audience both hears and understands these puns.

The majority of audience members would have some familiarity with Greek and Roman culture and mythology through a variety of popular sources, including children's books, art, statuary, popular theatricals, and even pornography. However, men with elite preparatory or university educations would have the most extensive knowledge of Greek and Roman culture. In the United States, Harvard and Yale required their students to learn Greek or Latin and to study the classical texts of ancient Greece and Rome (Bagg; Rudolph; Shand-Tucci). At Harvard, the curriculum in 1877 even included Greek pederasty, the practice of grown men loving adolescent boys (Shand-Tucci 37). Historian Linda Dowling argues that in the last half of the nineteenth century Greek studies at Oxford served as a "homosexual code," providing aesthete students with a counter-discourse that recognised and legitimated love between men. Most likely classical studies in the United States served a similar purpose. Like their English counterparts, Harvard and Yale fostered close, even sexually intimate relations among their all-male student body and between students and male faculty (Shand-Tucci).

Homoerotic Songs: New Music of the Lydia Thompson Troupe, 1877

In addition to gay stage-types and Greco-Roman narratives of male love, burlesque also referenced and addressed gay men through homoerotic songs. Sheet music from the 1877 series New Music of the Lydia Thompson Troupe, "On the Strict Q.T." and "He Always Came Home to Tea," exemplify this tendency. Lyrics from "On the Strict Q.T." discuss people who deceptively indulge in pleasures forbidden by middle-class Victorian propriety. The fourth verse is particularly interesting:

Just take a pretty miss,
And offer her a kiss,
When there's anybody standing by to see.
She'll say she'd rather die,
But you may snatch it on the sly,
And she'll like it on the strict "Q.T."

Now there's a needy swell,
Who calls a girl a gell,
Wears an Ulster quite a yard below his knee.
Then comes an ancient beau
Upon whose cheek's a-glow
That we think is on the strict "Q.T."

Both stories describe secret sexual encounters, the first between a woman and man, the second between two men. The second story refers to a wealthy old man who pays a young, working class fellow for sexual favours. The phrase "ancient beau," has multiple meanings: a boyfriend, a dandy, and a man who loves men. The old man's "cheek's a-glow" with a sex flush, the result of a recent sexual encounter. The other partner is a working-class dandy. The song indicates this directly by calling him a "needy swell," and indirectly though his improper English: "he calls a girl a gell." Despite his financial situation, he still plays the dandy, wearing the new fashion for long coat tails to its extreme, a "yard below his knee."[9] These lyrics also suggest that the sexual encounter was paid for - a "needy swell" with large tailor's bills would need a way to get money.

Another burlesque song, "He Always Came Home to Tea," also suggests sexual relations between men, relying on double-entendres to convey this message. The first verse and the chorus of this song are particularly interesting.

There was a man whose name was Dan
And a trav'ller gay was he,
And ev'ry day he was away
But he always came home to tea

And the people knew
That whatever he might do,
And wherever he might be,
In India or China, or in South Carolina,
He always came home to tea.

He always came home to tea...
Wherever he might be...
This man call'd Dan
This regular man
He always came home to tea. (sic)

From our contemporary perspective this seems to be a nonsense song, a common type in the burlesque musical repertoire. How is it possible for Dan to return home "every day" when he is on the other side of the world? However, to people familiar with code words from the gay subculture, the song takes on entirely new meanings. Subcultural meanings of the word gay have already been discussed above. "Tea," according to Chauncey, is a reference to "tearoom trade," meaning anonymous bathhouse sex between two men. This practice was noted in San Francisco in 1890 and was common among New York gays by the turn of the century (Boyd 27; Chauncey). The phrase "regular man" connotes a "manly" or "normal" man, a fellow who does not act or dress in an effeminate manner (Chauncey 15-16). "Normal" men are frequently sailors or soldiers who have sex with both female prostitutes and fairies (Chauncey 16, 219).

The song's narrative makes more sense when interpreted through these subcultural meanings, indicating that they were used as early as 1877. Dan is described as "gay," which in this case does not refer to dissipation or fancy clothes, but is used as a coded reference to his sexual practices with other men. He is a "regular man" who "always comes [...] to tea," meaning that he is a masculine fellow who visits bathhouses to engage in sexual relations with other men. While Dan is not a sailor he travels as if he was, visiting exotic ports all around the world, everywhere from North Carolina to India or China. Like the sailors, he knows where to find sexual partners in all of these ports of call, for "wherever he might be" he "always came [...] to tea." Additionally, it is significant that the author chose to use the word "came," which also means orgasm, rather than a synonym such as goes, went, arrived, or returned (The Pearl 29; Green 259).

Later verses also contain inferences to Dan's preference for sex with men. In the third verse Thompson sings, "Oh, didn't he spoon / In the mountains of the moon." Readers may assume that this is another nonsense verse, since Dan has no way to travel to the moon, but careful consideration suggests otherwise. "Spoon" is a common slang term meaning to engage in ostentatious lover-like displays, such as kissing in public, while "moon" means buttocks. To spoon in the mountains of the moon, then, suggests sexual practices involving the anal area. Moreover, by the late nineteenth century the verb "to moon" was slang for anal sex (Green 801). While anal stimulation is practised and enjoyed by people of both genders, it is strongly associated with sexual relations between men. Lines from the fourth verse also imply that Dan is part of the gay subculture: "Then in 'Tipperary' / He would trip it like a fairy." Despite his status as a "regular" or manly man, in some situations Dan engages in camp behaviour, acting "like a fairy." "Tipperary" is a county in Ireland, but it is also a reference to the anal area (Green 1207). The quotation marks in the lyrics call attention to this second meaning, suggesting that the performer should emphasise it. In this context "Trip it like a fairy" could also refer to anal sex.


Historians know very little about the organisation of sexuality in the United States before 1890. As a site of commodified sexuality, burlesque is important for understanding gendered sexual practices during the post-bellum era. These burlesque performances provide evidence of gay subcultures in New York and other urban centres before 1890, and demonstrate that many of the gay semiotic codes of the 1890s were established during or before the Reconstruction era. The gay subtexts found in burlesque stage-types and coded homoerotic narratives would not have existed if there had not been an audience for them, an audience comprised at least partially of fairies and other gay men, as well as the working-class men and women who lived close to their establishments and knew their cultural symbols.

Through stage performances, publicity photographs, sheet music, and songbooks, the creators of burlesque helped to establish a national popular culture, including a national gay subculture. Burlesque troupes were among the first entertainers to travel across the country on the newly completed trans-continental railroad, bringing with them gay stage-types and narratives of male-male love, and connecting the gay subcultures of New York, Boston, San Francisco, and other cities in ways that were previously impossible. These gay subcultures became much more visible to outsiders by 1890, partially through their representation in burlesque. Burlesque was much more than a leg show: it was an arena for exploring and representing a diversity of sexual relations and social types in the post-bellum era.


1 Thompson and other burlesque managers of this time were the first to produce shows with predominately female performers, leaving only a few roles for their male counterparts. While my contemporaries and I generally prefer the term "actor" to refer to a female performer, I have decided to retain the gendered terms "actress" and "actor" for this paper because they conveniently mark the performer's gender without additional words. Moreover, these are the terms used by people of the time. back

2 I use the term "gay" to reference a subculture of men who love men because it appears frequently in the evidence of burlesque. By "subculture" I am referring to a culture within the dominant culture, with its own morals, values, argot, and modes of dress. While these cultural codes may vary somewhat between the gay subcultures of New York, Boston, and San Francisco, burlesque troupes traveling between these cities on the recently completed trans-continental railroad helped to establish a national gay culture through their performances, publicity photographs, sheet-music and song-books. back

3 Randolph Trumbach argues that in England around 1700 effeminate men became associated with "the emerging role of the exclusive adult sodomite - known in the ordinary language of his day as a molly, and later as a queen" (134, italics original). Rictor Norton traces the emergence and development of these molly subcultures in England from 1700 to 1830. Both authors claim that in their clubs or "molly houses," these men cultivated feminine airs, called each other by feminine or "maiden" names, and dressed as women for special social occasions, similar to nineteenth century "fairies" in the United States. back

4 This connection between English theatre and homosexual male subcultures continued through the nineteenth century. Rictor Norton and Tracy Davis note that gay men could be observed in and around English burlesque theatres. These same theatres produced the burlesque plays and trained the burlesque performers that arrived in the United States in the fall of 1868. These historical links between English theatre and homosexuality suggest that the Americanised British burlesque of the post-bellum era would likely reference gay male subcultures in the U.S., and provides some historical connections between the English molly subcultures of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and the gay male subcultures which emerged in the United States in the late nineteenth century. back

5 It is important to note that the evidence of burlesque also suggests relations between women, however, this topic needs to be investigated further. back

6 The New Year's cover illustration generally depicts a butterfly dandy. Rictor Norton notes that in 1784 "butterfly" also meant "catamite" or boy-lover (223). Similarly, Jonathon Green argues that "butterfly" was used by the 1940s to refer to homosexual men. back

7 For instance, Oscar Wilde, the most infamous gay man of the nineteenth century, had a wife and children. back

8 In Burnand's version some of the characters have Greek names, others Latin. For clarity I retain his mixed usage. back

9 Readers might notice that the swells described in the earlier section wore short coats, not long ones. This is explained by changes in fashion between 1869 and 1877. back


Works Cited

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