Virginity. A token to prize or a burden to cast
A mystical or simply a physical state? To be envied? Or
is a study of sexual love and the mysterious power of virginity based
on the tenth century legend of Saint
Ursula who undertook a journey down the Rhine in the company of
10,000 virgins to break off a betrothal after a vision of Christ.
In Barker's retelling of the narrative,
their journey ends tragically when the group's spiritual leader becomes
entwined in a passionate but forbidden liaison with the jilted prince.
Powerful poetic language, provocative ideas and rich, dark humour build
an epic, erotic study of what virginity means, the power it exerts and
the price it demands.
Ursula is a classic Barker
text. From an obscured piece of history he teases a powerful and compelling
exploration of new ideas which resonate with contemporary relevance and
linger on in the mind long after.
In Howard Barker's own production for the company the emphasis was on
the elaboration of the physical and spiritual journey that forms the central
theme of the work. The work's rich, poetic text was matched by a playing
style incorporating stylised movement and vocalisation by the chorus of
virgins in a development of the choral speaking technique successfully
employed by the company in previous productions.
"Barker's terrifyingly well acted production is
so pure and hard it hurts"
POINT OF DEPARTURE: "The play took its inception from an image, The Massacre of the Virgin
Martyrs in the sixteenth century altarpiece by Cranach the Elder in Dresden.
Cranach revolutionised the subject by shifting the attention of the viewer
from the victims to the perpetuator, the Prince. Far from being a parody
of a pagan barbarian, he is infinitely cold and beautiful, leaning on his
unused sword and observing the massacre with the moral detachment of the
SS Officer. He thus affirms those extraordinary continuities that shock
and dignify European culture. In a similiar way, I chose to again strip
and reconstruct the legend, moving the focus to a different place." Howard Barker
1. Virginity is the
fear of hell... the hell of a vertiginous desire for another.
2. To choose virginity is to assert one's independence from the insistence
of nature - virginity is the repudiation of determinism.
3. Virginity is a vision... of all that lies after ecstasy.
It is a premonition of the banal.
4. Virginity is an attitude to reality which relegates pleasure to a low
priority. Perhaps that is where it belongs?
5. If one can deny sex, might one also not deny death?
and the 11,000 Virgins; Fact or Fiction?
What do we really know about St.Ursula? Very little. It's
clear that in the 5th Century, a memorial church for a few un-named maiden
martyrs was rebuilt in Cologne and an inscription carved recording this
fact. Over the centuries since, that simple record of the fate of
some unknown pious women has become a legend of great complexity, embroidered
to an astonishing degree by each generation.
Ursula, so the story went, was a British princess, who, to get out of
being married off to the son of a ferocious tyrant, decided to dedicate
her virginity to God. Persuading her father to postpone the marriage,
she set off on pilgrimage to Rome with eleven thousand similarly celibate
ladies. A Welsh version of the legend has it that these women
were intended as husbands for a colony of warriors in Northern France
but the ships were blown off-course and they found themselves traveling
up the Rhine to Cologne. Here, they were slaughtered by the Huns.
In 1106, newly discovered bones were produced to prove this account,
but sceptics soon questioned the presence of male bones and several
tomb-stones with male names. Fortunately, an ecstatic nun was on
hand to explain through visions that the Pope and several cardinals had
been inspired by Ursula's sanctity to go to Cologne as well and had also
And the tombstones? More visions conveniently revealed that the
Archbishop of Antioch had gone to visit the Pope. Told his Holiness was
clambering the Alps in pursuit of 11,000 beautiful virgins, he followed.
Arriving in Cologne too late to stop the massacre, the good Archbishop
just had time to inscribe a few memorials before he too was put to the
The nun died just as the bones of babies started turning up and unseemly
rumours began to circulate about the Pope and St. Ursula. Fortunately,
a passing monk declared, through yet more visions, that Ursula's married
relations with all their families had joined her and were also martyred.
As more bones came out of the ground, the list of the slain grew ever
longer, including Princes and Princess from most of the known world and
even the Empress of Byzantium. To this day visitors to St. Ursula's
Church in Cologne can see bones piled high, some stuck to the ceiling,
others in decorative patterns.
Through the ages, dozens of artists have been drawn to the legend.
Howard Barker conceived his play after seeing The Massacre of the Virgin
Martyrs, a sixteenth century altarpiece by Cranach the Elder in Dresden.
Unusually, Cranach shifts the attention of the viewer from the victims
to the perpetuator, the Prince. Far from being a parody of a pagan barbarian,
he is infinitely cold and beautiful, leaning on his unused sword and observing
the massacre with the moral detachment of an SS Officer. This image
inspired Barker to approach the legend afresh.
As each age has invented its own St. Ursula, so he has reinvented the
myth to create an Ursula for the late 20th.Century, a haunting exploration
of the enduring fascination and power of virginity.