In 1899 Henry Irving, the great eminence of the English stage, arranged a benefit at his Lyceum Theatre for the transatlantic queen of burlesque, Lydia Thompson. In her sixties, stoutish, and white-haired, Thompson witnessed a huge unrestrained celebration of her career - one of the greatest benefit extravaganzas of an era given to such rituals. Her place in the annals of the theatre was secure, for she and her troupe of British blondes established the mystique of blonde beauty in the late 1860s that has reigned unabated for a century and a half. And she was the first woman to dare to wear tights while performing on the 19th-century English stage, effectively making the revelation of the body a mode of projecting sexual power.
The sensation her burlesque troupe caused was unparalleled, a spectacle that inspired song and story: "An' way down front where the footlights glow / The baldheaded men sat in the front row. / They had big glasses to see all the sights, / Including the blonds who dance in silk tights."
As a dancer, Thompson lacked the refinement and technique of the classically trained ballerinas, but her introduction of skirt dancing established a long-lived stage genre. She began on the English stage as a dancer and occasionally played character parts, such as Norah in "Woman, Or Love Against the World." She quickly realized she lacked the versatility and temperament to be an actress, and the voice of a prima donna. But she had great hair, a body she was proud to display, and a love of fun that communicated from stage to house. She helped to fashion entertainments that centered on precisely those attributes.
In autumn 1868 Thompson and the British Blondes (featuring Pauline Markham, Ada Harland, Lisa Weber, Olive and Kate Logan, and comedian Harry Beckett) played at Wood's Museum in Manhattan, presenting the farce "To Oblige Benson," and "Ixion, or, The Man at the Wheel" an opera bouffe of the Offenbachian sort. Thompson stunned the New York audience: she was "beautiful, full of vitality, a gay, laughing, light-hearted, earnest creature." The burlesque played to packed houses until 1870 when she began to alternate it with another burlesque "Field of the Cloth of Gold."
Her success inspired extraordinary reactions, including charges that her blonde hair was a wig and newspaper columns calling her an English prostitute. When she moved her troupe to Niblo's Garden in 1869 newspaper fulmination swelled into a "war upon the blondes" that Thompson and Markham brought to a climax horsewhipping Wilbur Storey, the editor of the Chicago Times, on the streets of the city. Put on trial, the ladies were required to pay $100 damages each to Storey. They could not have purchased the ensuing publicity for ten times the amount of the fine.
Thompson would enjoy six lucrative years in America before returning to England to reinstall herself in English theater. Her later appearances in America lacked the novelty and sex appeal of her first triumph, yet so resonant was her name that the tours inevitably drew audiences, no matter how threadbare the vehicles or how perfunctory her dancing. David S. Shields/ALS