TWS Barker Catastrophe Current

Spring 1998

Virginity. A token to prize or a burden to cast off?
A mystical or simply a physical state?   
To be envied?   Or pitied?

Ursula 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"
The Guardian

"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?

Saint Ursula 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 been slaughtered. 

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 sword. 

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. 

Christopher Green