The Double Meaning of Chauvelin's Limp Cravat
By Kirby Hall 

In the interest of understanding the story below, you must know one thing. I would never have met the Scarlet Pimpernel (in any form) if it hadn't been for Chauvelin. Well, one specific Chauvelin....

But I get ahead of myself slightly here. Two seconds of personal history, on fast speed: Summer semester in London in '85.....during which I was dragged off, like an unwilling snail, to a Shakespeare production of Coriolanus at the National Theatre....blown away by leading man, someone I'd never heard of named Ian McKellen....attended Coriolanus four times, hanging on every word....came home to College of William and Mary in Williamsburg to discover Ian is less-than-famous on this side of the Atlantic....go through "Ian withdrawal" until I discover -- Oh Happy Day -- he played in some tv movie-of-the-week called, um "The Scarlet Pimpernel"......(sounds botanical.....)I get movie on tape and proceed to watch it....Often....Usually with lots of friends, who humor me and lust after Anthony Andrews. (I'm the sole supporter of the MIB...)One night, after an especially exhausting week, my friends and I get into a bit of an argument over one portion of the movie. "I swear," quoth I, "that whenever Percy gets to teasing Chauvelin over the 'limpness' of Chauvelin's cravat, he's actually referring to Chauvelin's limp inadequacy in quite another area. Obviously, this can't be openly discussed in the story -- it is a family movie -- but the subtext is very very clear...."My friends joined in the fray, some for and some against this brilliant insight. Obviously, we ourselves can't actually say for certain what the film's creators intended as subtext (or if there was any subtext at all) but we know one man who can! Ian!...(and we know where to find him, too!) So, later on that day, I hammer out on our collectively-owned typewriter (yes, kids, this was before the advent of even the word processor....) the following missive:

Sept. 27, 1985Dear Mr. McKellen,Greetings from Williamsburg. We greatly enjoyed your performance this summer in Coriolanus, Wild Honey, and The Duchess of Malfi, especially since we are studying in a theatrical wasteland and the opportunities to see truly first-rate plays and players are rare at best. However, on to our question. A number of friends, while viewing "The Scarlet Pimpernel," began to argue over multiple bits of Percy's dialogue which refer to Chauvelin's "limp cravat." Were you and the rest of the cast aware of the Freudian implications of these statements? One comment alone can be ignored, but taken as a whole...we believe you get our point. A number of us claim that the statements must be taken at face value and can be chalked up to nothing but Sir Percy's feigned passion for fashion, but an equal number frantically claim otherwise.

......Surely, you can recall from your days at St. Catharine's [Ian's Cambridge alma mater] how important these matters are, especially at 3 am on the days of important examinations. There are, of course, small sums of money riding on the outcome, so any response would be welcome..... goes the letter to Great Britain...and our heads turn to other matters...until a legal-sized envelope bearing a British postmark drops through my letter box a month later! Imagine my excitement as I whip out a letter typed on National Theatre letterhead that goes as follows:

23rd October 1985Dear -----------,.....If you are asking why Chauvelin plays with his cravat whenever he meets Sir Percy, I think he is aware of his own sartorial inadequacy. The question as to whether this action could have Freudian implications is perhaps answered by pointing out that Freud was not yet born at the time of the French Revolution! If there is any money riding on this letter, I hope the normal terms of 10% commission will be agreeable to you all!Best Wishes,

Ian McKellen

Well! That letter made my day. (Actually, it made my month.) It was the first time I'd ever heard back from a "famous person" and it helped cement Ian's position as my favorite classical actor (a position he still holds).

For those of you who are interested, Ian still "treads the boards" quite often on both sides of the Atlantic, and as I write this, is starring in a controversial production of Peter Pan at the same National Theatre from which his memorable missive was despatched 12 years ago. In fact, although he's on the high side of 50, Ian's a really "with it" guy -- instead of listing his truly extensive credits in Playbills, he refers readers to his very own web site! If you want to review photos and credits -- or if you want to ask your very own "cravat question" -- try Tell 'im Kirby sent ya.....