Lydia Thompson and Her Girls1 2015-10-14T12:48:02-07:00 Katherine Greer fc295a655478c83ef28fbc5d88f44e832ee8ba0b 5977 1 plain 2015-10-14T12:48:02-07:00 Katherine Greer fc295a655478c83ef28fbc5d88f44e832ee8ba0b
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The Birth of Burlesque
Lydia Thompson Biography
In the middle to late 19th century, feminists such as Susan B Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Mary Church Terrell were fighting for women's’ equality. In Susan B Anthony’s “Social Purity” 1875, she called for a “single moral standard for both sexes” and for women to be held to a higher standard (Anthony 85). Mary Church Terrell, president of the National Association of Colored Women, was an avid activist for women as well as civil rights. Later, Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger brought to light the lack of education about contraception and women’s rights to their bodies and proper medical care. At that same time, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg identified a “New Woman” in and began the discussion about homosexuality and the sexual and scientific discourse regarding it (Smith-Rosenberg 285). Earlier feminists like Susan B Anthony set the stage and more current activists like Carroll Smith-Rosenberg continued the resistance over the years against the new controversial form of dance known as Burlesque that hit the American stage for the first time in 1868.
In 1868, Lydia Thompson made her way from a successful career in Europe and Russia to New York City where she appeared on stage with her British Blondes. She was described a petite woman with dark blonde hair, a round face, blue eyes, and a long pointed nose. She was 32 years old at the time and had been on stage for about 16 years doing work in pantomimes and extravaganzas. Her troupes most famous first work was Ixion; best known for its mythological allusions and satire against upper class society. Her initial audience were middle class men and women received the performance publicly with adoration and obsession. This year initiated a shift in the theatrical world and created a radical transformation of the American theater as well as a divide between emerging social classes in society (Allen).
Anthony, Susan B. "Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) "Social Purity" United States, 1875." The Essential Feminist Reader. New York: Modern Library, 2007. 85. Print.
Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America. New York: Oxford UP, 1875. 285. Print.
Allen, Robert Clyde. "Chapter 1: A Chronicle of Lydia Thompson’s First Season In America." Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina, 1991. Print.
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The British Blondes and The Media
Lydia Thompson and the British Blondes hailed from London, and had remarkable success in Europe, receiving great reviews and huge turnouts. In 1868, Thompson and her troupe sailed to America and started performing in New York where they soon became the most popular troupe and form of entertainment. At first the media waxed poetic about the blondes. Wilbur F. Storey, owner of the Chicago Times, is quoted saying Thompson “possessed all the qualification for a pleasing actress in light comedy characters”, which was quite a pleasing review. Many similar articles were published along the same lines.
Later, when some unfavorable letters came about in the Chicago Times, stating that what these women were doing onstage was immoral, Thompson responded by saying burlesque was “harmless entertainment” and not morally wrong (Allen 19). Then, somehow, public perception changed, with a back and forth of critical and supporting views. Storey responded to Lydia’s remark by saying her troupe “have made an unnecessary and lewd exhibition of their persons, such as would not be tolerated by the police in any bawdy house; that they have made use of broad, low and degrading language, such as men of any self respect would repudiate, even in the absence of ladies; that their entertainments have been mere vehicles for the exhibition of coarse women and the use of disreputable language unrelieved by any wit or humor” (Allen 19). Thompson responded by going to his house with some of her troupe, including her publicist Archie Gordon, who held Storey while Thompson and fellow member Pauline Markham horsewhipped Storey at gunpoint. They were charged with assault and were fined and allowed to walk free. This caused a media storm and the audience to continue to grow for Thompson's shows. Shows sold out constantly, causing the troupe to be arrested when riots would break out outside the theatre. When Thompson was asked to comment on her and her troupes actions in regard to Storey, Thompson responded with, “The persistent and personally vindictive assault in the Times upon my reputation left me only one mode of redress… They were women whom he attacked. It was by women he was castigated… We did what the law would not do for us” (Allen 20).
It wasn’t just Storey who had a problem with Thompson and her British Blondes. Actress Olive Logan protested as well, "I cannot advise any woman to go upon the stage with the demoralizing influence which seems here to prevail more every day, when its greatest rewards are won by brazen-faced, stained, yellow-haired, padded-limbed creatures, while actresses of the old school – well trained, decent – cannot earn a living" (Hoffos 7). Logan believed Thompson and Co. made a mockery of the stage. As a women’s activist, Logan thought Lydia and her troupe were not helping women progress in a positive way, insisting that they brought women down and showed them as immoral creatures. Despite the backlash, Thompson and the blondes faired remarkable well in America before returning to Europe and picking back up where they left off.