A Comprehensive Account Of Every Feeling I Have Ever Had At A Medieval Times
There are three types of dinner theater in modern America: Cabaret nightclubs, from the Nick-and-Nora highbrow to the regional murder-mystery variety, chuck wagon suppers at dude ranches (the American West’s version of the corporate resort luau), and Medieval Times (taxonomically speaking, the Rainforest Cafe is a subtype of Medieval Times).
I grew up in two of the great Medieval Times strongholds during their glory days, first California’s San Bernadino County (second-ever castle built in Buena Park in 1986, the same year as my birth, a scant fifteen minutes away from my hometown of Chino Hills) and second Illinois’ Cook County (fourth-ever castle built in Schaumburg in 1991, an even scanter ten minutes away from my hometown of Hoffman Estates).
I read enough as a child to know that I was being brought up in a series of cultural deserts. By rights I ought to have been one of Evelyn Waugh’s children, jaundiced and sophisticated by twelve, babysat by Virginia and Vita, fluent in Latin, sick of London and life by fifteen; instead I went to church services held inside a movie theater twice a week and was taken to the theater once a year to see either The Nutcracker or a traveling production of Les Misérables. I knew only enough to know that I was missing a critical opportunity to become a beloved chronicler of my catastrophically troubled upper-class childhood in interwar Britain. I wanted the drama of the bullfight, the cultural cachet of the Cave of the Golden Calf, the intrigue of Ripley in Venice. I had Medieval Times.
I went there only twice, which sometimes feels impossible, given how hugely both memories impressed themselves upon my psyche. But I went only twice, despite staring longingly out the window at the sandy battlements and the pert, whipping little flags every time the school bus took Roselle Road, once in second grade on a family outing for (I think, although I couldn’t swear it) my birthday, and once in sixth grade for a class trip, where I got in trouble for saying a rude word (not a curse word, but a rude one; I think it was for shouting “You suck” at the “evil” knight). Both experiences fascinated but could not satisfy my bottomless desire for theatricality, for pageantry, for grandeur, for spectacle. I had read Ivanhoe, and felt entitled to a certain degree of historical flourish. My life was not yet Rabelaisian, and yet I knew within every one of my bones that it was meant to be Rabelaisian. I felt none of the initial discomfort and secondhand embarrassment that sometimes troubles my first half-hour as part of a theatrical audience, I think because there was no artificial division between audience and players – I was not being asked to sit still and pretend they couldn’t see me. Though it may mark me out as a social climber and a parasite, I do love the freedom that comes with immersion theater, where every turn is Rose’s turn.
At Medieval Times, you are seated behind a long wooden bench that encircles a sawdust-covered ring. Everyone you have spoken to thus far, from the ticket-collector at the entrance to the usher guiding you to your suit, has adopted an Olde English patter just this side of discomfiting.
Yes! Yes!!! Yes!!!! I was always intended to be spoken to like this! I have always needed this! This hole was made for me!
A joust! Ha-ha! A joust, yes, to lift the spirits and gladden the hearts of noble men! A joust, very good! Scumps!
I believe this evening I will bestow my favor on…The Green Knight. Yes. He pleases me!! He has long and handsome hair like Tommy from Power Rangers…should he prove victorious, I wish for him to be bathed and brought to my rooms after vespers
You are served a prix-fixe menu on imitation pewter plates; the use of cutlery is discouraged, if not outright forbidden.
Ho-ho, ha-ha! Meat for tearing! Forks are a decadent Venetian affectation and I do not permit them in my robust barbarian court!
I remember rotisserie chicken, the greatest culinary delight I could imagine at the age of eight; I remember a bowl of something called “dragon soup.”
More dragon soup for me, the king!
There is a brief laser show; there is a joust.
P L E A S U R E
one of those Requiem For A Dream-style close-ups of a bunch of pupils dilating and contracting
The blood on sand! The pounding of the hooves! The balletic whirl of lance and beast that balances life and death on a sword’s edge! To live, to die, to live again in honor! I will never need long division in real life, I will need only this!
At some point the master of ceremonies chooses a “Queen of Love and Beauty” from the audience. Usually (by “usually” I mean “the two times I was there in the 90s”) it’s a really little kid who’s thrilled out of her mind to get a rose or whatever. I was a medium-little kid, and therefore Too Old.
Dark Willow-level fury
Morgana le Fay-level fury
Galadriel thinking about the ring-level fury
OVERLOOK ME AND PERISH
Her? Her?? HER??
She is a rag and a bone and a hank of hair and this will be your last mistake, churl-knight
After this point everyone in the audience experiences total ego dissolution and blacks out, waking up the next day in their own beds asking, “Was it all a dream? Could they have done it all in one night?” I remain forever grateful to Medieval Times for confirming my fervent eight-year-old belief that there was glory somewhere, and that I would have to leave home to find it.