Before even discussing Kurt Gänzl's new biography of dancer and actress Lydia Thompson, born in London in 1838 and a superstar of the burlesque theater by the time of her death 70 years later, we should take a moment to doff our caps to the author and his publisher, Routledge. Lydia Thompson, Queen of Burlesque is the first in a new series edited by Gänzl and called "Forgotten Stars of the Musical Theatre." In a gloomy publishing climate, and in an age when musical theater is by no means a gauranteed moneymaker, the sheer nerve involved in launching such a series merits a warm welcome if not wild cheering.
Plus, it's a really fun book. Maybe you've never heard of Lydia Thompson (I sure hadn't), but that's why they call them "forgotten stars." Gänzl, who writes in a charming and cheeky tone, rediscovers not only the tumultuous career and love life of this sex symbol of the Victorian age but also the lost world in which she operated--all the archaic theatrical conventions, rambunctious audiences, and behind-the-scenes chicanery. One story of many: In 1860, early in her touring career, Thompson played Dublin and encountered the so-called "gallery boys," who were "accustomed to demand payment from visitors for their applause. Anyone who was brave enough to refuse them their customary blood money would, of course, be given a rough time, on stage and off." Thompson refused this blackmail and therefore spent her Dublin run hustling out a side door post performances to avoid getting beaten up.
Somewhat frustratingly, Gänzl doesn't provide a full description of what is meant by "burlesque," or what was meant by that term in Thompson's era, until well into the story. The occasion is the American debut in the late 1860s of Thompson and the rest of a five-person British company managed by the producer Alexander Henderson (an important character in Thompson's life, both professionally and personally). Installed at New York's newly opened Wood's Museum and Metropolitan Theater, the troupe was a phenomenon, in part because American audiences had only seen sorry, piecemeal burlesque until then and were hungry for the real thing. They got it, with Thompson in the lead of something called Ixion, or The Man at the Wheel. This success was to be a turning point in Thompson's career, vaulting her from popular British star to international sensation.
Ixion was archetypal burlesque, "a kind of entertainment that parodied or burlesqued the subject and characters of its target tale or play." In this case, the subject was the Greek story of the King of Lapiths, who angers Zeus. The form allowed its writers and performers "the wildest of extravagances, the vastest of exaggerations, the most over-the-top incongruities." Other hallmarks of burlesque included pointedly terrible puns (Gänzl explains that the scripts would actually put the puns in italics, so the performers wouldn't fail to grind them home) and shapely actresses in tights.
Gänzl reprints the entire program and scene order of Ixion, which is not unusual. He also provides an incredibly detailed, at times even overwhelming, account of Thompson's touring schedules, the parts she played, and, later, her financial status. Yet he never manages to delve into the star's interior life, her emotional journey, her private fantasies and despairs. (This may be due to a dearth of first-hand sources like diaries or journals.) The only time we hear Lydia speak to us is tangentially, as in a letter to the editor of the New York Herald in which she denies dying her hair.
The author is a keen researcher, clearly, and seems to take particular delight in biographical detective work; this allows for illuminating if slightly self-congratulatory passages like the following, which relates to the philandering Henderson, who had angrily denied a press rumor that he was married to Thompson: "Alex's career as a cruising Casanova would have taken a distinct knock had it been known for certain that he was a married man. Was he? Well, it took me many years to find out, but I did. And the answer is...he wasn't. Not yet."
Indeed, many of the book's best sections deal not with Lydia but with Henderson, who eventually did number Thompson among his several wives and, as Gänzl would have it, "six miles of bedmates." The section where Henderson gets into a public feud with a theater critic, who then threatens him with a pistol, is priceless. But whether Gänzl is walking us through the business arrangements of the 1870s stage, imagining what performances by Thompson and Her Blondes looked like to the SRO crowds, or speculating on which starlet was married to which producer and when, the author's personable style--coupled with a sincere enthusiasm for his subject--is infectious.