As I’m on a research mission this weekend, and having spent much of the week in hospital waiting rooms, I have dredged up a couple of old ones to share.This one was written two years ago…
Rafael Sabatini is not the best known of writers these days, though he left his mark on both literature and cinema. He was born in 1875 in Jesi, Italy to Englishwoman Anna Trafford and Vincenzo Sabatini. His parents were touring opera singers and sent their small son to England to be raised by his grandmother. A few years later, his parents stopped touring and the family settled in Milan. Rafael’s schooling took place in Portugal and Switzerland where he learned a number of languages. Returning to England, he worked as a translator and began to write.
Within four years, Rafael was a regular contributor of short stories for national magazines and in 1901 was asked to write his first novel, ‘The Suitors of Yvonne’ followed by ‘The Tavern Knight’ in 1904. His next novels became rather better known when Hollywood discovered his swashbuckling heroes and flawless heroines. The first films were products of the silent era, with later remakes of his bestselling books ‘Captain Blood’, ‘Scaramouche’ and ‘The Black Swan’ attracting Hollywood greats such as Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power to the leading roles.
I first read ‘Scaramouche’ as a youngster after watching the 1952 film with Stewart Granger and Vivien Leigh. I saw it on television in black and white and it was already old by then, but to me it was full of colour and a certain mystery. I read the book…possibly my first intimation of how far a screenplay can stray from its origins. But no matter, the book set in 18thC France at the beginnings of the Revolution, a time and place that already fascinated me. I had been to Paris and Versailles and I knew the bare bones of the Revolution’s story, though with little real understanding at that age.
The story tells of Andre-Louis Moreau, a young lawyer with a mysterious past who, on the death of his friend at the hands of the Marquis de la Tour d’Azyr, is drawn into the current of change sweeping through France. Just to complicate matters, the Marquis seeks to marry the beautiful Aline…
Moreau is forced to flee. On his travels he becomes a master swordsman and also hides within a troupe of travelling players where he becomes Scaramouche, one of the traditional characters of the Commedia dell’Arte… the ‘comedy of craft’. The masked figures of this touring troupe of players was intriguing.
Who were these people who could combine political and social satire with ritualised plays… who could insult the gentry and get away with it in the manner of the court jesters of old? It was many years before I would begin to get even a glimmer of understanding that stretched right back to the druid bards and through to the Punch and Judy show of the seaside pier. Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes and a line from James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ together somehow seemed to sum it up; “He laughed to free his mind from his mind’s bondage.”
How can the mind be in bondage? To false ideas and inflated opinion, to the ego and its fears and barriers. Like the little boy who points out the Emperors’ nakedness, laughter can break the spell that chains the mind to its illusions. Laugh at illusion and your vision clears; you can see the madness of the fallacies with which we hem ourselves in. Laugh at yourself and the bonds of the ego are loosed.
Sabatini was a prolific and popular author, writing 31 novels, 8 short fiction collections, 6 historical nonfiction books as well as many short stories and a stage play. He wrote with both a light touch and a real depth, drawing upon the experiences and emotions of his own life and observations. He was no stranger either to laughter or to pain. His son, Rafael-Angelo, was killed in a car crash in 1927 and his step son’s plane crashed and went up in flames the day he qualified as an RAF pilot; he had flown over the family home in celebration and his family witnessed the tragedy.
Sabatini fell ill with what was thought to be stomach cancer and died on holiday in Switzerland at the age of seventy-four.
“He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad,” is both the opening line of ‘Scaramouche’ and Rafael Sabatini’s epitaph.