Ursula Murders a Roman Emperor

Ursula poses in costume for a photographer ostensibly taking publicity pictures for  "Nero," a Roman tragedy produced by the English Club at UC Berkeley around 1922

Ursula poses in costume for a photographer ostensibly taking publicity pictures for “Nero,” a Roman tragedy produced by the English Club at UC Berkeley around 1922

As a junior at UC Berkeley, Ursula danced and played the poisoner Locusta in the English Club's play "Nero,"  a tragedy by Stephen Phillips

As a junior at UC Berkeley, Ursula danced and played the poisoner Locusta in the English Club’s play “Nero,” a tragedy by Stephen Phillips

In an earlier post I mistakenly noted that Ursula played the wife of the Roman emperor Nero in a college production of the English dramatist Stephen Phillips’s tragedy, “Nero.” In reality, she was cast in the small role of Locusta, the infamous poisoner who, according to ancient historians, supplied the toxin to murder the fourth Roman Emperor, Claudius, at the behest of his wife, Agrippina. (Agrippina wanted Nero, her son from a previous marriage, to become emperor of Rome.)

From the San Francisco Chronicle, April 28, 1922

From the San Francisco Chronicle, April 28, 1922

In addition to that role, Ursula, our “Mystery Dancer,” danced with other young women in a scene featuring a great banquet held during the burning of Rome — “the most spectacular part of the play,” according to the Blue and Gold yearbook. Produced by the English Club during Ursula’s junior year and performed in the Greek theater, the play “set a new standard for campus drama, and added another achievement to [the club’s] splendid record.”

At some point during the play’s production, a photographer took pictures of Ursula and the other dancers in costume under the pretext that the photos were to be used for publicity. The women, who had given their consent for this use, were upset upon learning that the photographs actually were intended for publication in the Blue and Gold yearbook.

According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Ursula headed the group in protest and demanded that the photos not be printed. She and the other dancers felt that the poses arranged by the photographer, while apparently acceptable for publicity shots, “were such that they were not proper for the formal yearbook.” As a result, Dean of Women Lucy Stebbins called a meeting between Ursula and the yearbook publishers, and it was agreed that the pictures would be kept out of the yearbook.

I am thankful that, while not deemed suitable for the yearbook, the photograph of Ursula in Roman dress did make it into the antique photo album! It is one of my favorite pictures, and contributed to my desire to buy the album and discover and share Ursula’s story.

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2 thoughts on “Ursula Murders a Roman Emperor

    • Thanks — you, too! Yes, Ursula sure is not afraid to stand up for herself and her principles. I like that she’s a strong, fiery, independent woman in that day and age.

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