“So I broke into the palace with a sponge and a rusty spanner….”

“When the heck else will we ever get to see this?” With every seasonal email from the American Shakespeare Center, I ask myself this question—and then I gladly make the three-hour trek to Staunton, Virginia, to see a play I’ll never see on any other stage, let alone in a faithful reconstruction of the Blackfriars, Shakespeare’s indoor theater. This time, the play was Henry VI, Part 2, not juilenned in the interest of run time or mashed up with other plays in the trilogy but staged in its entirety as part of a three-year “War of the Roses” event—and marketed, cheekily, as “The Rise of Queen Margaret.”

Henry VI, Part 2 isn’t subtle or artfully written, but the Blackfriars players make it fun just to see the damned thing at all. In the current production, which runs through November, Chris Johnston nails his role as Henry, a pious doofus who’s out of his depth. Alison Glenzer (who was haunting as the Jailer’s Daughter in The Two Noble Kinsmen in 2013) gives the cheating, scheming Queen Margaret unexpected heart and soul; no one laughs as she cradles the severed head of her lover. Rene Thornton, Jr., does double duty as both a hounded, frazzled Gloucester and, late in the play, the future Richard III, gleefully wielding a spiked and shielded crutch. ASC newcomer Jessika Williams is subtle and poignant as Gloucester’s wife, Eleanor, whose tenderly depicted marriage falls apart when political winds blow ill. The preposterously versatile John Harrell (who cracked me up in Ben Jonson’s Epicene in 2014) makes a good Duke of York, ambitious and haughty, and earns a blast of applause after a genealogical discourse that’s as effortless as it is endless. And then David Anthony Lewis comes roaring in, as if flung from a Viking mosh pit full of cocaine, to brutalize England as the willfully ignorant rebel Jack Cade.

Those were my favorites, but the truth is, everyone at the Blackfriars is good—because who signs on to play multiple roles in four or five plays per season, four seasons a year, for years at a time, unless they love the theater more than they love sleep, leisure, or life itself? The actors also introduce each performance, sell raffle tickets, play songs at intermission, and handle the on-stage concessions. Their bios in the playbill all include a line like “more than 123 roles in 99 productions”—a staggering claim when few of them seem older than 40. I can’t imagine that there are more dedicated stage actors anywhere in North America; maybe that’s how they always make American-accented English sound like Shakespeare’s natural voice.

I’ve seen plenty of Shakespeare productions by other, bigger companies, and they’re too often beguiled by novelty: Measure for Measure presented as a nude Weimar cabaret, Two Gentlemen of Verona as special-effects-laden grunge-melodrama with U2-themed karaoke, a drag-queen Taming of the Shrew strained beyond its limits with 18 pop songs by Duncan Sheik. I wince to remember a lifeless All’s Well That Ends Well that ended with the grinning cast, clad in World War I costumes, breaking into a frantic, almost apologetic riverdance.

The folks in Staunton do none of that. They study the play, learn their lines, and then come out on a bare but beautiful stage to interpret their characters almost entirely through voice, motion, and costuming, tight formal constraints that make every performance immediate and real. Despite the breezy atmosphere—including pre-show pop concerts and improvised interactions with audience members, who themselves may be drinking beer or scarfing down gummi bears—their work feels, in its fashion, more respectful of its source material than productions by larger companies. The Blackfriars actors let you see a play for what it is; they make you all the more aware of how other companies can smother a play under sets, lighting, and boffo art direction in the name of “deconstructing,” “reimagining,” or “reinterpreting” it.

The Blackfriars Playhouse celebrates its 15th birthday this month. I can’t imagine a better place to keep filling in the massive gaps in my knowledge of English theater and be entertained with every nutty visit. These folks turn even weak plays into crowd pleasers—and really, who else is going to stage Fletcher and Massinger’s ridiculous 1622 Tempest-inspired, horny-Amazon comedy The Sea Voyage? Where else will you see Beaumont and Fletcher’s naughty-bits stab-fest The Maid’s Tragedy? Happy birthday and congratulations, Blackfriars; I hope this post finds you a few new fans. To swipe the final triumphant line of the play I saw last night: “And more such days as these to us befall!”

“…but as for fame, it’s just a name…”

Blackfriars Playhouse interior. Photo by Lauren D. Rogers.

What was it like to see a play in the 1590s? The good folks at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, answer that question at least five nights a week, as unflagging actors stage the work of Shakespeare and his contemporaries in a cozy recreation of Shakespeare’s first theater in London. The Blackfriars is now in the throes of its Actors’ Renaissance Season, the annual late-winter whirlwind where a dozen actors direct themselves and play all of the roles in five plays at once, with only a few days to prepare and rehearse. (There’s a prompter nearby, but it’s a sign of the actors’ immersion in their work that they rarely need to “prithee” him.)

This weekend, we drove down to Staunton for two shows: Aphra Behn’s “The Rover,” which taught me a useful new 17th-century exclamation—‘sheartlikins!—and John Webster’s “The White Devil,” a lurid, over-the-top revenge tragedy packed with vivid metaphors and similes about death and the cruel indifference of nature. “But keep the wolf far thence, that’s foe to men, / For with his nails he’ll dig them up again”—T.S. Eliot parodied those lines, and I was startled to hear the originals spoken by a grieving mother; it’s rare to spot a footnote from “The Waste Land” running loose in the wild.

Because I’ve written so much about Charlemagne, I was also surprised to hear a character name-check the Carolingians during one of Webster’s most frantic scenes: Two women think they’re tricking a scoundrel named Flamineo into a complex, three-way suicide pact, but he’s actually tricking them into revealing their falseness by giving them pistols loaded with blanks. As he feigns preparation for death, he muses on his afterlife—so the Blackfriars actor said something like this:

Whither shall I go now? O Lucian, thy ridiculous purgatory! To find Alexander the Great cobbling shoes, and Julius Caesar making hair buttons, and King Pippin crying apples in a cart.

A reference to one of the Pippins, but not Charlemagne? That surprised me, so I looked up the full text of the play, and sure enough, the Big C is right where I thought he would be:

Whither shall I go now? O Lucian thy ridiculous purgatory! To find Alexander the Great cobbling shoes, Pompey tagging points, and Julius Caesar making hair buttons, Hannibal selling blacking, and Augustus crying garlic, Charlemagne selling lists by the dozen, and King Pippin crying apples in a cart drawn with one horse.
Whether I resolve to fire, earth, water, air,
Or all the elements by scruples, I know not
Nor greatly care—Shoot, shoot,
Of all deaths the violent death is best,
Far from ourselves it steals ourselves so fast
The pain once apprehended is quite past.

What intrigued me here is that either the actor, overwhelmed by having to learn five plays at once, skipped over several of the mighty men who are reduced to menial labor in purgatory—or, more likely, he and his castmates cut the play for time, paring down this overwrought passage to the three names an early 21st-century audience might know: Alexander, Julius Caesar, and…Pippin?

Although they all had the same name, Charlemagne’s disfavored hunchback son who inspired the 1972 jazz-hands musical wasn’t the same guy as Charlemagne’s other son Pippin, who ruled Italy, or Charlemagne’s father Pippin, the first Carolingian king. The fact that a Pippin made the cut but Charlemagne didn’t hints at the priorities of theater people, who know the musical but not necessarily the history behind it—but that’s not a complaint. The Blackfriars’ productions are engrossing and smart, historical figures are doomed to whirl ’round Fortune’s wheel, and Webster knew that drawing sustenance from the mouldering past is part of the natural and necessary gloom of life:

Or, like the black and melancholic yew-tree,
Dost think to root thyself in dead men’s graves,
And yet to prosper?

“You say, ‘ere thrice the sun done salutation to the dawn…'”

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.

“A long time ago, we used to be friends…”

On the day after a national election, it’s bracing to stroll through the blustery streets of Colonial Williamsburg—which, lucky for me, is just footsteps away from a conference I’m attending. I’d hoped to find some trace of American medievalism, and the colonial city did not disappoint: along the green leading to the Governor’s Palace is a house where a Virginia lawyer lit a medieval torch in the mind of a Founding Father.

That’s the home of George Wythe, signer of the Declaration of Independence and delegate to the Constitutional Convention. Fresh out of William and Mary, a young Thomas Jefferson spent five years here as Wythe’s law apprentice and stumbled early into one of his innumerable lifelong hobbies: the study of Old English.

Poring over a 15th-century legal tract, Jefferson encountered a modern preface arguing that a student should learn “Saxon” to understand the essence of English law. Already intrigued by languages, the young man was hooked; Stanley R. Hauer points out (in “Thomas Jefferson and the Anglo-Saxon Language”) that the future third president of the United States collected Old English textbooks, painstakingly copied footnotes in Anglo-Saxon script into a 1778 legal treatise, and made sure that the University of Virginia was the first American institution to offer Anglo-Saxon language courses when it opened in 1825. According to Hauer, Jefferson’s grasp of Anglo-Saxon was weak—often he couldn’t distinguish it from Middle English—but if you’ve studied Old English, or even if you’ve read Beowulf in a college class, its presence was partly Jefferson’s doing.

Jefferson’s obsession with Old English resonated far beyond the English department. During his five years in Wythe’s study, he imaginatively plunged into what historians have dubbed the “Saxon myth,” the common belief among Whigs of his era that the best English institutions—parliament, trial by jury, common law—were the unbroken legacy of freedom-loving Germanic tribes who’d crept into Britain as early as the fifth century. (This idea was itself the legacy of 16th- and 17th-century reformers who’d tried to prove that both the Church of England and Parliament were continuations of ancient, primitive democracy.)

In letters and treatises, Jefferson trumpeted his belief that America had directly inherited liberty from the Anglo-Saxons. His strongest statement on the matter was surely his (unsuccessful) push to decorate the Great Seal of the United States with the figures of Horsa and Hengist, “the Saxon chiefs from whom we claim the honor of being descended, and whose political principles and form of government we have assumed.”

I suppose we are the political heirs of the Anglo-Saxons, since Jefferson believed it to be so when he helped establish our republic. He knew, though, that his contemporaries held conflicting views. “It has ever appeared to me,” he wrote to English political reformer John Cartwright in 1824, “that the difference between the Whig and the Tory of England is, that the Whig deduces his rights from the Anglo-Saxon source, and the Tory from the Norman.” It’s instructive, two centuries later, to see how our predecessors reached into the past for conflicting myths to answer a perennial question: What sort of people are we to be?

“River, I’ve never seen the sea…”

“The evening passed delightfully: we sat out in the moonlight on the piazza, and strolled along the banks of the Patapsco; after which I went to bed, had a sweet night’s sleep, and dreamt I was in Mahomet’s Paradise.”

Washington Irving romanticized his life. In an 1854 letter to his niece, he even found whimsy on the Patapsco River in Maryland, where he stayed at the home of John Pendleton Kennedy: Whig politician, Secretary of the Navy, Maryland Congressman, and a man immersed in the pop-medieval daydreams of his age.

No one reads Kennedy’s 1832 book Swallow Barn anymore, and the author’s own description of it isn’t likely to bring readers back: “There is a rivulet of story wandering through a broad meadow of episode. Or, I might truly say, it is a book of episodes, with an occasional digression into the plot.” Kennedy loved Irving’s Bracebridge Hall, in which an American visitor describes an English manor through a series of character sketches and anecdotes, and he mimics it in Swallow Barn: a northerner visits his cousin’s plantation on the James River in Virginia and describes the place in anecdotal fits and starts. (Swallow Barn so closely resembles Irving’s style that when it was published under the name “Mark Littleton,” the public assumed Irving has simply adopted a coy new nom de plume.)

Medievalism is rampant in Swallow Barn. In his prologue, Kennedy cites the Morte d’Arthur. He likens a miller to a Robin Hood character, an old slave to an ancient crusading knight, and a group of pedantic Virginia lawyers to an Anglo-Saxon “wittanagemote.”

As it turns out, the early 19th-century Virginians of Swallow Barn are as obsessed with the Middle Ages as the narrator is. Here’s Prudence Meriwether, the plantation owner’s sister:

There is a dash of the picturesque in the character of this lady. Towards sunset she is apt to stray forth amongst the old oaks, and to gather small bouquets of wild flowers in the pursuit of which she contrives to get into very pretty attitudes; or she falls into raptures at the shifting tints of the clouds on the western sky, and produces quite a striking pictorial effect by the skillful choice of a position which shows her figure in strong relief against the evening light. And then in her boudoir may be found exquisite sketches from her pencil, of forms of love and beauty, belted and buckled knights, old castles and pensive ladies, Madonnas and cloistered nuns,—the offspring of an artistic imagination heated with romance and devotion.

Next we meet Ned Hazard, a 33-year-old Princeton dropout who stands to inherit Swallow Barn:

A few years ago he was seized with a romantic fever which manifested itself chiefly in a conceit to visit South America, and play knight-errant in the quarrel of the Patriots. It was the most sudden and unaccountable thing in the world; for no one could trace the infection to any probable cause;—still, it grew upon Ned’s fancy, and appeared in so many brilliant phrases, that there was no getting it out of his brain . . . However, he came home the most disquixotted cavalier that ever hung up his shield at the end of a scurvy crusade…

“His mind,” Kennedy insists, “is still a fairy land, inhabited by pleasant and conceited images, winged charmers, laughing phantoms, and mellow spectres of frolic.”

The object of Ned Hazard’s chivalrous amour is Bel Tracy, who’s so obsessed with Sir Walter Scott that she uses his novels to try to teach herself hawking:

In her pursuit of this object she had picked up some gleanings of the ancient lore that belonged to the art; and, fantastic as it may seem, began to think that her unskillful efforts would be attended with success . . . A silver ring, or varvel, was fitted to one leg, and on it was engraved the name of her favorite, copied from some old tale, ‘Fairbourne,’ with the legend attached, ‘I live in my lady’s grace.’ I know not what other foppery was expended upon her minion; but I will warrant he went forth in as conceited array as his ‘lady’s grace’ could devise for him. A lady’s favorite is not apt to want gauds and jewels.

By the time Swallow Barn winds down and “Mark Littleton” heads north, Ned Hazard survives a chivalric duel (a fistfight); slaves decked out to resemble “troubadours and minnesingers” tell ghost stories about nearby Goblin Swamp; and the narrator likens himself to Gregory of Tours and William of Malmesbury and quotes Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale.”

In an introduction to the most recent reprinting of Swallow Barn, Lucinda H. MacKethan writes that Kennedy “manages merrily both to revere and to ridicule almost all of the Old South’s icons,” adding that reviewers disagreed on whether the book was a faithful depiction of Southern plantation life or blatant satire. I think it’s both: Swallow Barn shows a South in which overprivileged plantation-dwellers are so immersed in chivalric tales that they come to inhabit a shared medieval delusion.

When Washington Irving visited John Pendelton Kennedy in Maryland in 1854, life had been good to both authors, but especially to Kennedy. He had married Elizabeth Gray, daughter of textile baron Edward Gray, and moved into the Gray mansion. Gray liked to see himself as a feudal lord as he surveyed his factories on the Patapsco, a fancy Irving apparently shared.

In an 1854 letter to Elizabeth Gray Kennedy after returning home to Tarrytown, Irving let his inner medievalist romp:

 I envy Kennedy the job of building that tower, if he has half the relish that I have for castle building—air castles, or any other. I should like nothing better than to have plenty of money to squander on stone and mortar, and to build chateaux along the beautiful Patapsco with the noble stone which abounds there; but I would first blow up all the cotton mills (your father’s among the number), and make picturesque ruins of them; and I would utterly destroy the railroad; and all of the cotton lords should live in baronial castles on the cliffs, and the cotton spinners should be virtuous peasantry of both sexes, in silk skirts and small clothes and straw hats, with long ribbands, and should do nothing but sing songs and choruses, and dance on the margin of the river.

Only Washington Irving could look past textile mills and see a medieval peasant fantasy—but as Paul J. Travers points out in The Patapsco: Baltimore’s River of History, “Irving’s words were prophetic”: A great flood in 1868 washed away part of the Gray mansion, Kennedy’s personal library was ruined, and the family was forced to move. (Elizabeth Kennedy kept the factory going for 20 more years—until another devastating flood.)

Today, if you hack through the weeds between down Ellicott City and Patapsco State Park, you can walk in the footsteps of a wide-eyed Washington Irving…

…and spot the “picturesque ruins” Irving joked that he wanted to see. They’re now monuments to a forgotten writer and a half-remembered natural disaster.

Nearby, you’ll find more recent wrecks that put Irving’s romanticism in perspective.

Shops on Main Street in Ellicott City now sell plastic swords, pirate gear, and Viking hats alongside antique shops that burnish the relics of Irving and Kennedy’s age. On the outskirts of town, Marylanders hike and bike; some latter-day rustics fish along the river’s edge. Whether you see timeless fantasies here, as Irving did, depends on your affinity with Swallow Barn’s Bel Tracy, who found “something pleasant in the idea of moated castles, and gay knights, and border feuds, and roundelays under one’s window, and lighted halls.”

Mark Twain saw something else in Southern medievalism: a sort of mass insanity, a “maudlin Middle-Age romanticism” that’s still more tenacious in America than he ever foresaw. Even now, many Americans would answer Twain in the same tone Bel Tracy uses to scold her cousin: “Pshaw!…You haven’t one spark of genuine romance in your whole composition.” When a 19th-century New Yorker can find Virginia medievalism on the banks of a Maryland river, I’m not sure both notions aren’t right.

“Well, it’s a long way to Richmond, rollin’ north on 95…”

Before the Civil War, Richmond was, in the words of historian Rollin Osterweis, the “intellectual headquarters” of the upper South. In days of yore, it was also, not by chance, the regional capital of trendy medievalism.

In a state formed by the manners and patterns of English life, the Richmond-based Southern Literary Messenger (edited by Edgar Allan Poe) reinforced the romanticism of its readers by treating them to Gothic yarns, the pageantry of Sir Walter Scott, the thought of Thomas Carlyle, and, in the twenty years before the Civil War, mountains of chivalric poems. The wealthy in and around antebellum Richmond adored chivalric pageants and tournaments; by the 1850s, writes Osterweis, “[i]nstead of longing awkwardly for the days of knighthood, the gentry is now convinced that it is living in them.”

This weekend, I was honored to be a guest at the annual James River Writers Conference, an event hosted by what may be the most hospitable writers’ group in the country. New to a city that was once obsessed with knighthood, courtliness, and English heritage, I took advantage of glorious weather to track down charming traces of old, neo-medieval Richmond.

Crammed between newer buildings on 5th Street is the Second Presbyterian Church, completed in 1848. Here, we’re told, the first pastor “proclaimed that he was ‘tired of Grecian temples with spires on them'” and “determined to build the first Gothic church in Richmond, a city noted for its classic Greek architecture. His building committee persuaded the noted New York Architect Minard Lafever, one of the leading masters of the Gothic Revival in America, to design the building.”

Ages later, the parking deck next door feebly acknowledges its Gothic elder.

Old buildings in Richmond favor classical and Federal styles intermingled with eclectic Victoriana, but on the eastern edge of Monument Avenue, Jeb Stuart, statuesque, presides over a Gothic revival.

It’s the right assignment for a general whose biographer calls him “the Confederacy’s knight-errant . . . Amid a slaughterhouse, he had embodied chivalry, clinging to the pageantry of a long-gone warrior. He crafted the image carefully, and the image befitted him. He saw himself as the Southern people envisaged him. They needed a knight; he needed to be that knight.”

Around the statue of Stuart rise the First English Lutheran Church (above), St. John’s UCC (below), and Grace Covenant Presbyterian (photo).

Here, the Gothic fought the Federal to a standstill, if only in facades.

On the north end of town, at Union Presbyterian Seminary, whimsy is the prime mover at Watts Hall, designed by Charles H. Read and built in 1897. Gleefully asymmetrical, Watts is one of those buildings that gets weirder the longer you look at it.

With its buttresses and blind triforium (those little rows of fake indented windows), its chapel could, at first glance, almost pass for medieval, but for that clock tower…

…and the quatrefoil-mad chimneys with wild Corinthian capitals.

Still, one terrific detail on the front of Watts Hall is all-American Gothic, perhaps befitting an age in which religious architecture is no longer a prominent carrier for medievalist ideas:

A lone grotesque, fleeing the scourge of theology.

“…the dreams all made solid, are the dreams all made real.”

After fifteen weeks of teaching about King Arthur, reading about King Arthur, gabbing about King Arthur, and drumming into my students that King Arthur is omnipresent in modern culture, I shouldn’t find it weird when the creaky old king makes a cameo—but honestly, I hadn’t expected that a wrong turn in suburban Virginia would land me in the Camelot subdivision of Annandale, where the streets are named after Arthurian characters and motifs.

Unlike the occasional cul-de-sac dubbed “King Arthur’s Ct.” by some card of a developer, the Camelot neighborhood along the Beltway appears to have been mapped out around 1966 by someone whose knowledge of Arthurian legend wasn’t entirely facile. Lancelot, Merlin, Guenevere, and Arthur are all here, but characters who rarely surface in popular Arthuriana are also represented by such stately addresses as Balin Court, Bedivere Court, and (my favorite) Pellinore Place. Charmingly, Lancelot Way meets Guenevere Drive while King Arthur Road does not—although King Arthur Road does cross Saxony Drive before turning into something else.

There’s no Mordred Avenue, but the residents of this particular Camelot probably hope their neighborhood leans toward Lerner and Loewe rather than Tennyson. Mortgages and foreclosure are mundane subjects for Arthurian legend, but nowadays “my house hath been my doom” might hit too close to home.