Emmuska Orczy, a Baroness of Hungary, left her estate in Budapest at a young age. In 1868, her parents packed up when they feared a peasant revolution. Eventually she ended up in London, where she married an English clergyman. After the birth of her first child, she started writing novels.
Imagine this: a man with a heroic alter ego. One who would don a costume and go on daring adventures, rescuing the innocent from certain death. But his other alter ego would be that of a completely idle rich gentleman — one who seemed careless and aloof and worries not about the less fortunate. Here’s the thing, though: the gentleman is a disguise, and the hero is the real person. Sound familiar?
The Scarlet Pimpernel has been considered the precursor to heroes with mild-mannered alter egos, specifically The Shadow and Batman. In 1903, Orczy and her husband worked on a stage play about Sir Percy Blakeney for London’s West End. It proved incredibly successful. The show ran for four years and played more than 2,000 performances. The book adaptation, released in 1905, was also a hit. The original book was followed by 10 sequels, two short story collections, and a Scarlet Pimpernel literary universe.
Her story is set amidst Robespierre’s Reign of Terror in France, where the aristocracy and perceived allies (and political enemies) were sent to the guillotine. The most compelling thing about the story is Percy’s relationship with his wife, Marguerite. The secret identity conceit is poisonous to their marriage. Marguerite was somewhat responsible for the death of Percy’s friend, and it soured their marriage. Percy deals with it by being a swashbuckling hero by night and mincing dandy by day. Marguerite never reveals why she did it due to her crippling guilt, and under duress starts working for Robespierre’s cronies to save her own family. It’s only after Marguerite discovers the Pimpernel’s true identity (and thus fostering communication and trust among equal partners) does their marriage get back on track.
The Scarlet Pimpernel has been adapted several times. The 1934 movie, starring Leslie Howard and adapts parts of the first two books, is probably the best one. Howard shifts between alter egos with ease. One of my favorite scenes: when the villain assumes that he’ll be reciting one of his dumb nursery rhyme poems, and Blakeley drops him some actual verse in a cold, reserved tone. He’s dropping his mask using only his voice.
The 1982 TV movie, which I’ve only seen parts of, looks worthwhile as well. That cast includes Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour and Ian McKellen.
Yet I have a soft spot for a version I’ll probably never see. That would be the 1997 musical, which returns The Scarlet Pimpernel to his roots on stage. It’s basically trying to piggyback off the success of Les Miserables, what with the whole French Revolution theme. (Probably also trying to grab some Phantom of the Opera fans, if that poster in the Youtube thumbnail below is any indication.) It kinda failed at it because the story is a light adventure and not a grand epic as Les Mis and Phantom are.
The songs, however, are damn catchy. I’ve been humming “The Creation of Man” all day myself.
La, but someone has to strike a pose and bear the weight of well-tailored clothes! And that is why the Lord created MEN!