When 39-year-old John Buchan, recuperating from a duodenal ulcer, turned to writing (in a matter of weeks) a "shocker" or "dime novel" in the first months of the first world war, he was already the admired author of more than 10 works of fiction and spoken of in literary circles as a name to watch. Indeed, Buchan might quite plausibly have become a great Scots novelist following in the footsteps of Walter Scott and RL Stevenson. Instead, with ideal timing, he wrote another kind of classic, The Thirty-Nine Steps, an archetypal English spy thriller.
Long before the outbreak of war, the English reading public had become gripped by invasion fever. This was a volatile cocktail of jingoism and xenophobia inspired by the Anglo-German naval arms race and stoked by bestsellers such as The Great War in England in 1897 by William Le Queux and the infinitely greater 1903 classic The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers.
Buchan, who worked for the British War Propaganda Bureau, was well-versed in this Edwardian genre and the outbreak of war across the Channel became the perfect inspiration for a topical and thrilling tale of acute jeopardy involving British secrets, German spies and the sinister plotting of the Black Stone gang, a conspiracy hellbent on fomenting a vicious global conflict.
So far so (fairly) conventional. Buchan's contribution to this "dime novel" scenario was to create in his protagonist, Richard Hannay, an appealing antihero, both cool and brave, but also "pretty well disgusted with life" who, caught up in a high-octane international drama, has the resource, intelligence and daring to thwart a naked foreign attempt to drag Britain into war.
Hannay, who would feature in four more subsequent Buchan thrillers, is a mix of sleuth and action man, a cross between Sherlock Holmes and James Bond. His creator was obviously influenced by Conan Doyle (No 26 in this series) and would, in turn, later influence Graham Greene and Ian Fleming.
Buchan's other great contribution to this genre, which also owes something to Kidnapped (No 24 in this series) was to refine the "man on the run" yarn into a page-turning adventure. He knew exactly what he was doing, describing a "romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the border of the possible". None of this would have amounted to a hill of beans without Buchan's brisk characterisation, loving evocation of Scottish landscape and his switchblade prose. This is lethal, spare, clean and contemporary. When Hannay returns to his London flat after dinner in clubland, the reader can hardly escape the grip of Buchan's brilliant narration: "I snapped the switch, but there was nobody there. Then I saw something in the far corner which made me drop my cigar and fall into a cold sweat." Now read on.
A note on the text
The Thirty-Nine Steps, a brilliantly teasing and memorable title, was first published as a serial adventure story in Blackwood's Magazine from August to September 1915, appearing in book form that same October from the Scots publisher, William Blackwood & Sons, Edinburgh.
The book has never been out of print and has inspired many film and television adaptations: Alfred Hitchcock's liberty-taking 1935 version, starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, a female character absent from the novel; a 1959 colour remake; a 1978 version, with Robert Powell as Hannay, that sticks rather more faithfully to Buchan's text than Hitchcock; and finally a 2008 British television version, starring Rupert Penry-Jones. There's also a long-running West End spoof abridgement, indicating the novel's enduring appeal.
Three more from John Buchan
Greenmantle (1916); Mr Standfast (1919); The Island of Sheep (1936).
The 39 Steps is a melodrama adapted from the 1915 novel by John Buchan and the 1935 film by Alfred Hitchcock. The original concept and production of a four-actor version of the story was by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon. Patrick Barlow rewrote this adaptation in 2005.
The play's concept calls for the entirety of the 1935 adventure film The 39 Steps to be performed with a cast of only four. One actor plays the hero, Richard Hannay, an actress (or sometimes actor) plays the three women with whom he has romantic entanglements, and two other actors play every other character in the show: heroes, villains, men, women, children and even the occasional inanimate object. This often requires lightning fast quick-changes and occasionally for them to play multiple characters at once. Thus the film's serious spy story is played mainly for laughs, and the script is full of allusions to (and puns on the titles of) other Alfred Hitchcock films, including Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Psycho, Vertigo and North by Northwest.
The first version of the play written by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon for a cast of four actors and funded by a £1,000 Yorkshire Arts Grant, premiered in 1995 before an audience of 90 people at the Georgian Theatre Royal in Richmond, North Yorkshire, before embarking on a tour of village halls across the north of England.
In 2005 Patrick Barlow rewrote the script, keeping the scenes, staging and small-scale feel, and on June 17, 2005 this re-adaption premiered at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, directed by Fiona Buffini and designed by Peter McKintosh. The featured actors were Robert Whitelock, Lisa Jackson, Simon Gregor and Mark Hadfield.Maria Aitken directed the revised production in its London premiere at the Tricycle Theatre (London), which opened on 10 August 2006 titled John Buchan's The 39 Steps. The cast for the London premiere comprised Rupert Degas, Charles Edwards, Simon Gregor and Catherine McCormack, again with designs by Peter McKintosh. The production transferred to the Criterion Theatre in London's West End in September 2006.The 39 Steps closed on 5 September 2015 after 9 years in the West End, making it the fifth longest running play in West End history.
On 27 August 2008 a Spanish production opened at Maravillas Theatre in Madrid directed by Eduardo Bazo and starring Gabino Diego, Jorge de Juan, Diego Molero and Patricia Conde (later replaced by Beatriz Rico).
United States premiere
The play premiered the U.S. at the Boston University Theatre, by the Huntington Theatre Company, in Boston on 19 September 2007. Billed as Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, it opened on Broadway in a Roundabout Theatre production at the American Airlines Theatre, with previews beginning on 4 January 2008 and the official opening on 15 January 2008. The initial run concluded on 29 March 2008 and transferred to the Cort Theatre on 29 April 2008 and then transferred to the Helen Hayes Theatre on 21 January 2009. Aitken also directed the United States productions, with McKintosh designing, and Edwards transferred to these productions as Richard Hannay, the only actor from the UK cast to do so. The other actors in the premiere US productions were Jennifer Ferrin, Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders. Edwards concluded his run on 6 July 2008 and Sam Robards took over the role of Richard Hannay.
Jeffrey Kuhn and Francesca Faridany joined the cast on 28 October 2008. In December 2008 it was announced that Sean Mahon would take over the role of Richard Hannay. The show had its final Broadway performance on 10 January 2010 after 771 performances, "the longest-running Broadway play in seven years" (according to the writer for Playbill.com).The 39 Steps transferred to the off-Broadway venue New World Stages, reopening on 25 March 2010.
On April 1, 2015, performances of the play, subtly retitled "39 Steps," resumed at the Union Square Theatre with the entire original creative team, and starring Robert Petkoff as Hannay, Brittany Vicars as the women, Billy Carter as Man #1. Arnie Burton resumed his long-running stint as Man #2; a role he continued until the 'clock' for his tenure reached 1000 performances on September 28, 2015. Mark Cameron Pow replaced Arnie Burton in the role and the production continued performances until January 3, 2016, when the theatre and building were closed for repurposing of the building into creative office space and high-end retail. This production, produced by Douglas Denoff, ran 317 performances to 61,590 ticket holders ranging in age from 5 years to 103, and each received a trademark red nose in honor of the plays' branding "Hitchcock Made Hilarious." A Broadway return for this production is anticipated in 2018-2019.
The play won the Olivier Award for Best Comedy in 2007 and the What's On Stage Award for Best Comedy 2007.
The 2008 Roundabout Broadway production won the 2008 Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience and Outstanding Lighting Design (Kevin Adams). It won two Tony Awards on 15 June 2008 for Best Lighting Design and Best Sound Design. It was nominated for four other Tonys: Best Play, Best Direction of a Play (Maria Aitken), Best Scenic Design of a Play (Peter McKintosh) and Best Costume Design of a Play (Peter McKintosh).
Film references & production notes
The play shares the plot and characters with the film. However, the play is a more comic treatment of the story, in the style of Monty Python and Barlow's own National Theatre of Brent, compared to the original and more serious film. The play incorporates references and use of music excerpts from other Hitchcock films. The cast of four actors portrays between 100 and 150 roles, including actors doubling parts within the same scene. The quick, comic changes are reminiscent of Charles Ludlam's The Mystery of Irma Vep. The actress playing Annabella Schmidt also plays the two other romantic females, Pamela and Margaret, while the two clowns play the nearly all the other roles. The part of Richard Hannay is the only one where the actor does not double in another role in the play.
Apart from the transfers to London and Broadway, this lists only the first production in a country.
- 2005, Leeds - West Yorkshire Playhouse
- 2006, London - Tricycle Theatre
- 2006, London West End - Criterion Theatre
- 2007, Boston - Huntington Theatre
- 2008, New York City, Broadway - American Airlines Theatre, Cort Theatre, Helen Hayes Theatre
- 2008, Melbourne - Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre (Melbourne Theatre Company)
- 2008, Aachen - Grenzlandttheater, first performance in German
- 2008, Tel Aviv - Habima Theatre, in Hebrew
- 2008, Hong Kong - Lyric Theatre, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts
- 2008, Mexico City - Ramiro Jiménez Theatre
- 2008, Athens - Knossos Theatre, Greek adaptation
- 2008, Madrid - Maravillas Theatre, in Spanish
- 2008, Turku - Åbo Svenska Teater, in Swedish
- 2008, Tampere - Komediateatteri, in Finnish
- 2009, Paris -Paris théâtre Labruyere
- 2009, South Korea - Sejong Arts Center
- 2009, Wellington - Circa Theatre
- 2009, Warsaw, Poland - Teatr Komedia (in Polish)
- 2010, Gananoque, Ontario - The Thousand Islands Playhouse (Canadian Premiere)
- 2010, Buenos Aires, Argentina - Teatro Piccadilly
- 2010, São Paulo,Brazil - Teatro Frei Caneca
- 2011, Makati City, Philippines-Greenbelt, Ayala Center
- 2011, Montevideo, Uruguay - Gran Teatro Metro
- 2011, Barcelona, Spain - Teatre Capitol
- 2012, Shanghai, China, Shanghai American School
- 2012, Dubai, United Arab Emirates [Backstage Theatre Group]
- 2013, Stockholm, Sweden - Intiman theatre
- 2013, Nuremberg, Germany – Staatstheater, in German
- 2015, Halifax, Nova Scotia - Neptune Theatre
- 2015, Kincardine, Ontario- Bluewater Summer Playhouse 
- 2015 American Stage St Petersburg, Florida
- 2017, Los Angeles, California - Caroline's Loft. Starring Eitan Gurvis, Alyssa Lopez, Moss Woodbury, Kyle Tomlin, and Trevor Keyfauver
- 2017, Alley Theatre, Houston, Texas
- 2017, The Lake Charles Little Theatre, Lake Charles, Louisiana
- 2017, Oakhill College, Castle Hill, Sydney
- 2017, Alberta, Calgary, Vertigo Theater 
Closing West End Cast
- Richard Hannay - Daniel Llewelyn-Williams
- Pamela/Annabella/Margaret - Kelly Hotten
- Man 1 - Gary Sefton
- Man 2 - Darryl Clark
Awards and nominations
- 2008 Tony Award for Best Play
- 2008 Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play (Maria Aitken)
- 2008 Tony Award for Best Scenic Design of a Play (Peter McKintosh)
- 2008 Tony Award for Best Costume Design of a Play (Peter McKintosh)
- 2008 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Sound Design (Mic Pool)
- 2009 Molière France révélation Actress Andrea Bescond
- 2009 Molière France Best Director Métayer Éric
- 2009 Molière France Best adaptation Gerald Sibleyras
- ^ abcJoel Brown (16 September 2007). "4 actors, 150 roles add up to 39 Steps". Boston Globe. Retrieved 2008-04-04.
- ^ abJohnson, Andrew (15 June 2008). "Thirty-nine steps to an unlikely theatrical triumph". The Independent. Retrieved 1 May 2013.
- ^Kate Bassett (3 July 2005). "The 39 Steps, West Yorkshire, Playhouse, Leeds". The Independent. Retrieved 2008-04-04.
- ^Sam Marlowe (18 August 2006). "The 39 Steps". The Times. Retrieved 2008-03-30.
- ^ abJasper Rees (18 August 2007). "The 39 Steps from Leeds to Broadway". Telegraph. Retrieved 2008-03-30.
- ^Lynne Walker (11 July 2005). "The 39 Steps, West Yorkshire, Playhouse, Leeds". The Independent. Retrieved 2008-04-04.
- ^Dominic Cavendish (18 August 2006). "Irreverent romp down the nostalgia track". Telegraph. Retrieved 2008-03-30.
- ^ abcBen Brantley (16 January 2008). "Spies, Blonde and a Guy Go North by Northwest". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-03-30.
- ^Brian Logan (23 September 2006). "The 39 Steps (Criterion, London)". The Guardian. Retrieved 2008-03-30.
- ^Georgia Snow (17 June 2015). "The 39 Steps to close after nine years in the West End". The Stage. Retrieved 2015-06-23.
- ^Louise Kennedy (21 September 2007). "Hitch a ride". Boston Globe. Retrieved 2008-04-04.
- ^Jones, Kenneth."The Chase Is Back On! 39 Steps Begins at Broadway's Helen Hayes", playbill.com, January 21, 2009
- ^Robert Simonson (4 June 2008). "Charles in Charge". Playbill. Archived from the original on 8 June 2008. Retrieved 2008-06-14.
- ^Kenneth Jones (4 June 2008). "Sam Robards Is the Next Pursued Man of Broadway's 39 Steps". Playbill. Archived from the original on 7 June 2008. Retrieved 2008-06-14.
- ^Jones, Kenneth."Broadway's 39 Steps Gets Two New Zanies Starting Oct. 28"Archived 2008-10-31 at the Wayback Machine., playbill.com, October 28, 2008
- ^Jones, Kenneth.The Chase Ends! Broadway's 39 Steps Will Close in January 2010" playbill.com, September 21, 2009
- ^ abBroadwayWorld.com, 21 January 2010
- ^Paul Taylor (15 August 2006). "The 39 Steps, Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn, London". The Independent. Retrieved 2008-04-06.
- ^Gates, Anita. "Revisiting a Thriller, Revised as a Farce". www.nytimes.com. The New York Times. Retrieved 10 April 2016.
- ^"Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2013-05-12. Retrieved 2013-06-02.