If you’re anything like me, the version of THE 39 STEPS you’re most familiar with is the 1935 Hitchcock film starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. If you are me, then you watched it as part of a fairly random Hitchcock marathon during which you learned valuable lessons like “Communism is bad” and “Anything can be explained by Freudian psychology.” As we prepare to bring THE 39 STEPS to life onstage, however, I thought it would be fun to explore the many of versions of this now-classic tale.
While Hitchcock, Master of Suspense that he was, turned THE 39 STEPS into a thriller laced with plenty of political intrigue, the 1915 John Buchan novel is surprisingly fun. Narrated by Richard Hannay, the main character in all three versions, it feels like an adventure story being recounted by an explorer. It was, in fact, written as much to amuse its author as to entertain its readers. According to Buchan’s dedication to his friend Thomas Arthur Nelson:
You and I have long cherished an affection for that elementary type of tale which Americans call the ‘dime novel’ and which we know as the ‘shocker’ – the romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible. During an illness last winter I exhausted my store of those aids to cheerfulness, and was driven to write one for myself.
That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty of political intrigue in the novel, only that our dear Mr. Hannay isn’t exactly unwilling to become involved. Bored with life in London, his reaction to revelations about spies and assassinations and conspiracies is a cool, “Things did happen occasionally, even in this God-forgotten metropolis.”
In the many versions of THE 39 STEPS, plenty of things happen, at least all the versions except Monsterpiece Theatre’s THE 39 STAIRS, a parody by Sesame Street featuring Grover the Muppet.
The play, written by Patrick Barlow, takes elements from both the book and the film to create something entirely new. There’s a bit of romance, something not even touched on in the book. There is also a sense of delight in the storytelling, a lightness that it shares with Buchan’s “little volume.” Perhaps the most resonant element, however, is the use of disguise and deception that is present in all three versions. Hannay, in the novel, notes:
If a man could get into perfectly different surroundings from those in which he had been first observed, and – this is the important part – really play up to these surroundings and behave as if he had never been out of them, he would puzzle the cleverest detectives on earth.
When you see the play, you’ll see the obvious relevance of this observation as two actors play some 200-odd characters, but the role that deception plays in the story goes much deeper than costume and lighting changes. Buchan’s work had a theme, as his granddaughter, Deborah Buchan, Lady Stewartby wrote:
…that evil comes in very attractive forms, making it all the harder to resist. So the leader of the Black Stone gang in the book (Professor Jordan in the film and play) is urbane, cultured, charming and established in British country life – to such an extent that Hannay cannot believe he is evil. Despite the deft and funny way the action in the marvelous script by Patrick Barlow is portrayed onstage, those themes are not lost.
So come laugh, enjoy, and be deceived for an evening.
— Alex Keiper, Featured Contributor
THE 39 STEPS opens Nov. 18 and runs through Dec. 13 at American Stage Theatre Company. For tickets and more information, visit americanstage.org/the-39-steps.