If you’re wont to ask, “Where can I see plays that have rarely been staged for 400 years?”, then hie thyself posthaste anon to Staunton, Virginia, where the American Shakespeare Center reanimates old scripts in a reconstruction of London’s Blackfriars Theater, and under truly humbling conditions: The actors perform in as many as five plays at a time, with multiple roles in each.
We popped down to Staunton this weekend to see The Two Noble Kinsmen, an adaptation of Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale” by John Fletcher with an assist from William Shakespeare. The play is supposedly “deeply flawed,” but a dozen actors (who directed themselves) made it engaging and sharp. They earned a standing ovation—and propelled the Canterbury pilgrims through the 17th century and onto the sidewalks of a small Virginia town.
With my own ful devout corage, I did what I do in any new place: I hunted for further medievalism. After good finds in other Virginia towns—Williamsburg, Richmond, Annandale, and the imaginary Swallow Barn—I knew Staunton would come through, and it did, just up the hill from the theater.
Welcome to Thornrose Cemetery, designed by Staunton’s own Thomas Jasper Collins, who built eclectic homes and churches throughout his adoptive hometown.
Although Collins never visited Europe, he did (according to James Madison University) study Gothic Revival architecture in Baltimore, Richmond, and Norfolk. Just inside the cemetery gates is a monument to his medievalism: a stocky little keep.
When Collins went medieval by the cemetery walls, his work was striking, if too weighty to be whimsical.
Collins also designed the lovely Effinger family mausoleum, which looks like a stone drawer pulled from the facade of a Gothic cathedral.
One of the weirder corners of Thornrose leads to a monument to the Confederate dead. There’s good reason to associate faux-medieval castle ramparts with Southern chivalry, but look:
A huge neoclassical urn! A chuppah with square stone pillars and Tudor half-timbering! Civil War artillery! The committee-driven incoherence is wonderfully American.
Like Staunton itself, Thornrose grows ever more eclectic. Its wind-worn headstones aren’t lurid or sad; there’s a matter-of-factness here that harks back to The Two Noble Kinsmen:
This world’s a Citty full of straying Streets,
And Death’s the market place, where each one meetes.
A few blocks away, on a gloomy Sunday morning, you might spot the fellows who play Chaucer’s knights leaning into freezing rain and muttering lines that have only been heard from a handful of actors in 400 years. Later, on stage, they’ll offer up a fine reminder for the week before Easter: not everything that dies is gone for good.