A Dig Deeper Article by Production Dramaturg Louise Casemore
Nestled inside its entertaining framework, the world of The 39 Steps harbours a spectre of war that is both past and present. As the 1930s saw the UK slammed by the most significant economic depression of the 20th Century, the years between the First and Second World War were rife with paranoia, nationalism, and a growing sense of unease. Concerns about foreign surveillance were not abstract ideas, but anxieties in plain view. Throughout allied countries, the threat of spies extended to the public in everyday spaces with poster campaigns declaring “Careless Talk Costs Lives: You never know who could be listening.”
In the introduction to Patrick Barlow’s stage adaptation of The 39 Steps, creator John Buchan’s granddaughter writes, “…two themes JB was anxious to convey in his novels were, firstly, that the veneer of civilization is very thin, easily exposing the horrors beneath and, secondly, that evil comes in very attractive forms, making it all the harder to resist.” This poignant acknowledgement from Deborah Buchan is a vital reminder that what exists below the delight of entertainment is a story brimming with difficult history. The contrast between fun and fear, style and substance – this tension is key to the story’s prevailing relevance, some hundred plus years after it first emerged. Barlow’s use of comedy is a uniquely defining principle of his theatrical adaptation. While the concept of “clown” figures is not present in the original novel or Hitchcock’s film, the play incorporates two inexhaustible performers charged with bringing together much of the physical world. This approach evokes the Italian Commedia dell’Arte style of performance, brilliantly utilizing physical comedy, sight gags, and the virtuosic convention of performers playing many characters to propel the story forward. Comedy in The 39 Steps works in tandem with other rich layers of genre, alongside recognizable motifs of romance, action, and noir both to decorate and conspire with the urgency of the plot. Barlow’s clowns work in joyful juxtaposition to the more melancholic character archetypes of Richard Hannay’s “troubled hero” and “femme fatale” Annabella Schmidt.
Amidst the playful use of comedy and genre, there is danger lurking around nearly every corner in The 39 Steps. And while our world outside the theatre looks very different than it did in 1935, many of the threats within the play remain (albeit now in largely digital form). Surveillance, information theft, people living on the brink without connection – these ideas reflect a war not just for the characters on stage, but for the strangers now gathered together in the dark to watch. Patrick Barlow offers that “there is much opportunity for comedy and satire here.”. He concludes that “But… through all the adventure and hanging from bridges and clinging to trains and escaping from villains – [two people] discover the beating of their own true hearts. That there’s a reason to live and a reason to love. And above all a reason… to look after each other and look after the world.”