By Peter Royston
(The Scarlet Pimpernel Souvenir Brochure,
Later Reprinted in Center Stage Magazine, Winter 2000)

"The Scarlet Pimpernel, Mademoiselle, is the name of a humble English wayside flower; but it is also the name chosen to hide the identity of the best and bravest man in the world, so that he may better succeed in accomplishing the noble task he has set himself to do." - from the novel The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy

To create her hero, Baroness Orczy took elements from Sherlock Holmes, the legends of Robin Hood and the novels of Alexandre Dumas, but then added a final ingredient of her own: the secret identity. The notion of unlikely heroes finding hidden reserves of courage is as old as The Frog Prince, Beauty and the Beast, or David and Goliath. But Orczy introduced a new idea into the collective consciousness: a heroic figure who creates a lounging, foppish alter ego to hide his (or her) true, heroic nature. It was as if Orczy saw that the Age of Heroism was over, and that the 20th century would be controlled by bureaucrats and small men. For the hero to survive, he would have to hide behind a mild-mannered mask.

Orczy always stated that her main purpose in inventing the Scarlet Pimpernel was to create the image of the proper English gentleman. But her idea of the ideal Englishman went beyond the stereotyped vision of a waistcoat and breeches; like the pimpernel itself, the humble way-side flower that could nevertheless withstand the harsh English weather, Sir Percy's frail, garish exterior hid an inner strength and resolve.

Although The Scarlet Pimpernel was originally written for an English audience, it was really in America that the idea of the secret identity touched a nerve. As the 20th century moved on and the average man or woman felt more and more overwhelmed by the roar of history, America became a land of hidden heroes. Jerry Siegel, who created Superman with Joe Schuster in 1934, said it best when he spoke of being a high school student, trying to impress his fellow students "who either didn't know me or didn't care I existed. It occurred to me: what if I had something special going for me, like jumping over buildings or throwing cars around or something like  that?"

While the Scarlet Pimpernel didn't leap over tall buildings in a single bound, Orczy seemed to tap into a deep need in us all to break out of everyday existence into the life of a hero. Superman was only the most famous of the many modern warriors who came after the Scarlet Pimpernel.

In 1919, Johnston McCulley created the secret identity of the rich idler, Don Diego, who put on the black mask of Zorro, saying, "The moment I donned cloak and mask, the Don Diego part of me fell away. My body straightened, new blood seemed to course through my veins, my voice grew strong and firm, fire came into me! And the moment I removed my cloak and mask I was the languid Don Diego again. Is it not a peculiar thing?" Not so peculiar to a world just learning about the rules of secret identities with such pulp heroes as the Grey Seal, the Spider, and the Black Bat.

In 1931, the Shadow, hiding behind the face of the lounging playboy Lamont Cranston, first put fear into the hearts of evildoers, thanks to writer Walter Gibson. And from there, it wasn't a long jump to 1939, when Bob Kane and Bill Finger created that "weird figure of the dark," Batman.

In his book, The Night Master, Robert Samson writes that such heroes are "glorious dreams. Myself as I should be, if only. These heroes live above customary consequences. Not really of society, they occupy a privileged position outside. They are guardians, not subjects. It is their self-imposed responsibility to protect society from those terrible forces that gnaw at it."

With the popularity of Superman and Batman, not to mention Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne, the secret identity quickly became part of 20th century iconography. Everyone wants to rip open their shirt to reveal the hero underneath; their true nature, or so they hope. In the end, Baroness Orczy succeeds because this idea is so optimistic. She gives us hope that someone strong, charismatic, audacious, and, most importantly, heroic, lies just underneath the face we look at in the mirror. While Robert Louis Stevenson discovered the monster in us all with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Baroness Orczy looked for the hidden hero.

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