As I noted in the last post, the excitement of recent world events had wound down by the time Ursula entered UC Berkeley, but the drama – literally – for her was just beginning. I learned from the activities listed in her senior yearbook entry that freshman Ursula was a member of the cast of the Partheneia, an original, open-air pageant or masque presented each spring term. It was the first of many dramatic productions in which she would participate during her time at UC Berkeley.
While the specific story of the Partheneia was determined each year by the results of a student-written script competition held in the previous fall term, the general theme was the transition from girlhood to womanhood. More than 300 women took part in the 1920 production, entitled “The Poets Answer,” which was based on the idea of Dante as the inspiration of the poet, and prominently featured dancing choruses. A two-day festival in April, it was the most elaborate Partheneia yet produced at the university, reported the Oakland Tribune, which also described it as “a charmingly colorful play of the Italian Renaissance period.”
According to Who’s Who Among the Women of California, the Partheneia pageant was considered representative of the best talent among the students of the current year.
“Women authors, women composers, women artists, women managers, women directors, women in the entire cast, in the male roles as well as the feminine roles; in fact women, exclusively, present the masque. They dye the cloth for their costumes, they design and make the costumes, they design the settings for the scenery-parts, they direct the orchestra.”
The women presented the Partheneia outdoors among the natural scenery in the Faculty Glade. Again, from Who’s Who:
“Overhanging oak trees, a background of tall brush edging the creek over which are built practical bridges, form the wings of the stage where the students play their parts and register anew their appreciation of literature and the cannels for original expression.”
An Oakland Tribune news brief announcing the postponement of the second day’s show due to rain also noted, “This festival is regarded as one of the most successful yet staged by college girls.”
Not everyone was pleased, however. Perhaps emblematic of the time’s ingrained sexism women students had to contend with at the co-ed school, a male reporter writing in the UC Berkeley student newspaper panned the production in “most ungentlemanly” (and, I must say, funny) terms, drawing protests from the university’s female students. One thing he complained about was the lack of skin revealed by the fair young ladies! Here is a report of the controversy by the Oakland Tribune on April 9, 1920:
According to the University of California, the first Partheneia was presented on April 6, 1912. It was produced regularly until interest in pageantry declined generally and was discontinued in 1931.