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From Paul Dellinger in Wytheville, VA:
I report for a Virginia newspaper and am writing about the Barter Theatre production of your "Scarlet Pimpernel." I know the novel is from the woman's viewpoint, was written by a woman, and now adapted to the stage by a woman. Yet its hero seems the earliest incarnation of all the masculine dual-identity heroes (Zorro, Superman, Batman, etc.). I would be interested in your take on women pretty much creating that genre, and you carrying it on.

Thursday, 29 September 2005

Dear Paul,

Well, the short answer is "it's all about romance." Romance with a capital R- what appeals to the hungry heart. I think when the Baroness wrote the "S.P." books (and you may know that she wrote about 10 of them), she was writing directly to and for the romantic fantasies of the female reader of her times. "S.P." was not considered Grade A literature at the time it was published. That's why it wasn't taught in schools for such a long time. The Baroness was- oh, kind of like the Anita Shreve of her time- a very good writer, but a writer whose bottom line was always going to be romance. And what could be more romantic than a vapid husband who turns out to be a dashing hero? Wouldn't this be every married woman's fantasy? Your husband is not really the unbearably predictable guy who works every day, comes home, eats, belches and hits the bed, snoring. He has a secret life; he has unplumbed mysterious depths, and any day now he will emerge as a hero who sweeps you off your feet into a new life where not one moment is predictable. I think the Baroness naturally fed into this fantasy.

However, another aspect of the female fantasy is the desire to herself be the adventurer. Particularly in the Baroness's day, most women were confined to a purely domestic life, but the souls of so many longed for the exciting avenues open to men. I think about the many reported cases of women in the Civil War who disguised themselves as men so they could be soldiers and plunge into the fray. From this vantage point, it is not so surprising that a woman would write a swashbuckling book- it enabled her to vicariously live the life of a man, a super-man. And indeed, this may have been the stronger fantasy for the Baroness, as she so scrupulously did her historical research and so consistently set her books during the bloody revolution.

Obviously men, too, have the same fantasy of emerging from an average Joe into a hero- look at Thurber's Walter Mitty. But when men tell the story, it usually does not combine the adventure with the same degree of romanticism found in a woman's version. The typical man would not devote an entire chapter to the hero and heroine standing on the steps of their house at dawn, both burning up to touch each other until she finally flees, and he then leans down to kiss the step upon which she stood. (This, of course, is a chapter in The Scarlet Pimpernel- it made quite an impression on me. I think I even still remember the chapter title- "Richmond.")

Once the dual-identity genre was created, men did seem to take over, and I think this is why we see less and less true romanticism in it as time goes on. "Batman" and "Spiderman" movies are focused primarily on the male action, the good guy vs. bad guy scenario, and the sardonic, ironic touches within the set-up. There's always the woman in the background who doesn't suspect the real identity, but it is not her story, and it's frankly going to appeal a little more to him than to her.

In terms of how I approached "Pimpernel." I am more of the school of women who would have liked to be a cowboy or a soldier. I love the vicarious adventure. Also, I am as interested in the male villain as the male hero because I believe most women prefer to see a complex, sexually compelling aspect to the villain. In addition, I am only interested in writing about a woman who is complex, never passive. In Marguerite's case, what fascinated me was that she was a former actress, which was a bold choice in those times. So I had these three characters. I disagreed with the Baroness in that I did not feel the story should be told from Marguerite's point of view. I wanted it to be Percy's story. I mean, it is Percy's story, and I suppose I broke with the Victorian sensibility in insisting upon this. I am very glad I made this choice. One comment I heard over and over again from women was that it was "the first Broadway show my husband really liked." If I'd told the story through Marguerite's point of view, I doubt this would have been the case. I loved writing "Into the Fire" because I could put myself onto that boat and feel the surge. In fact, most men react to that song (we got a letter from an Israeli soldier who said he played "Into the Fire" every morning before heading into the day) where most women write to me about "When I Look at You" or "Only Love." I wanted both women and men to love Percy. He was every modern woman's fantasy- a leader and hero who was still a gentle and sensitive man. I gave him fears because I wanted him to be a male role model: yes, I can get out there and prove myself despite my fears- I can do it. And his humor was most important to me, not only because I love humor, but because it made both genders love him.

The same vicarious needs prompted my take on Chauvelin. In the book and the Leslie Howard movie, he is a rather static older man, not romantically involved with Marguerite; but between the lines of the book I sensed a sexual tension, particularly in the way the Baroness would describe Chauvelin's eyes riveted on Marguerite or his arm gripping hers. I decided to take that several steps further and give him deep character colors. Women do react very strongly to "Where's the Girl?" which I think plays into their fantasies- a "bad" guy who is luring them in despite themselves. Men react more to "Falcon in the Dive," which feasts on bloodlust and a harrowing ache to be in control.

Marguerite had to be a character who fully met the challenge of both men. She had to be just as strong, just as complex and compelling. And so I made her a former revolutionary of the first degree. I made her a really viable actress- when is she lying, when speaking truth? She is defiant. She has power over both men. I even had her join the final duel.

I decided not to take the strictly "female" vantage point on the story because what excited me was the triangle- three strong personalities duking it out. Yet, being a woman, I was also naturally predisposed to deliver some truly romantic moments as well. I would hope that if the Baroness had been writing today, this is the overall direction she, too, would have taken. A man's modern version of this show might have been both less romantic and more war-oriented, or it might have taken the more sardonic approach of a "Batman" or "Spiderman." I wanted to deliver the derring-do and the aspect of finding courage within oneself without dwelling on the mechanics of the war. A man might have given the show just as much humor, but he might not have given Percy the same degree of silliness as I do- he had to be just silly enough, without forfeiting masculine appeal. I am clearly just speculating here- every writer is an utterly different sensibility regardless of gender. However, since you are asking me to speculate on the gender aspect of the writer here, I'm taking that liberty. In short, as I said at the beginning, it's all about Romance with a capital R, and I believe a woman (especially one who loves to vicariously step into a man's shoes) is the natural choice for delivering this. And the Baroness ultimately triumphed as The Scarlet Pimpernel is taught in schools today. Hurrah.

Sorry for the rambling, but your question really made me think. No one's asked it before. So thank you for that. Hope the answer is somewhat clear.

Best to you-
Nan Knighton

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