Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

39 Steps: The British Effect

September 14, 2010 · 1 Comment

While watching 39 Steps, I was particularly struck by the British quality the play. I should first say that I thought that the play was brilliant. It was funny, inviting, featured brilliant directing and acting, and was unlike I had anything I had seen in theatre before.

It was innovative in many ways (at least, to me). The use of intentional mistake, such as the delayed ringing of the telephone, the late entry of the professor, the female hostess having to kick the fireplace to make it roar, etc. endears the viewer to the play, and the cast. With a cast of four, the audience was obviously aware that different characters were played by the same actors – a risky, but in the end, incredibly successful strategy. The talent required and involved in pulling off such a play with only 4 actors made it a hilarious experience, especially when an actor had to play multiple characters in the same scene. Many of the chase scenes, or most of the danger, such as when Hannay is dodging the airplanes, or climbing across bridges, and so on and so forth, always looked silly. The death of the professor, the absurd throwing of the body on to the stage renders a potentially dramatic and tragic scene hilarious. All of the above examples demonstrate the “importance of not being earnest” rule that Fox emphasizes in her text (62). I particularly enjoyed the use of multiple hats, or two sided costumes, which can call into question the legitimacy of character and identity in drama. This risk taking, in my opinion, was really reflective of what Rick was talking about: the greater freedom West-End theatre/directors have, and how it can be used to produce a much more fun play to watch.

The play also featured many staple aspects of British sociological culture, prescribed by Fox in Watching the English. Understatement (see pg. 66) made its most obvious appearance right before intermission: Hannay is shot in the chest, the audience thinks him dead, and his only response: “Booga.” As previously seen in The Merry Wives of Windsor, the poor Scots are again mocked for their accent (which is quite exaggerated, as is the German accent?), reinforcing the British obsession for their own particular accent, as speech is considered “all important” (82). As much of our class has noticed, the overuse of “sorry” in the English lexicon is satirized (following the importance of not being earnest, and the love of hypocrisy) in most notably, the train scene as passengers infinitely apologize. Other staple phrases in the play include “carry on” and “stay calm,” a not-so-distant relative of the ubiquitous “keep calm and carry on.”

Other particularly English qualities of the play include the speech that Hannay is thrust into. With nothing to draw on except creativity, he resorts to a favorite idea of the British: fair play (407). This uniting idea draws applause from the crowd and he pulls it off. Politeness’ importance (407) is also emphasized in the play, where after the fight in the bog, Hannay sincerely says “bless you” to the opponent’s sneeze. The potentially sexy but instead amusingly awkward hotel room scene is reflective not only of how uncomfortable the British are with sex but also the men failing as flirts (327, 328). Though Hannay is handsome with his “brown, wavy hair,” he can’t seal the deal (at least until later).

Well, 39 Steps is clearly influenced by British culture. However, two token aspects of British culture I felt were missing: class and imperialism. Imperialism makes a small appearance right at the beginning, but then is absent, as is class. Perhaps these two issues (specifically Imperialism) would make the play too serious. Or, they could satirize it (again, imperialism), typical of British culture.

Do you think it’d be inappropriate to satirize such a serious breach of human rights, specifically in a comedic manner?

Categories: 2010 ChristopherB · Theatre
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1 response so far ↓

  •   battilaj // Sep 14th 2010 at 20:16

    I was going to write a blog on this, but you already made note of everything I was thinking, plus a lot of other really intelligent analysis.

    I thought the cast of 4 with so many characters was especially successful because the plot included a villain whose identity could change at will. It’s hilarious, and it creates uncertainty about the audience’s sense of reality.

    In terms of imperialism, I think the self awareness of all the actors that they were in a play (purposeful mistakes, mentions of the script within the script) was sort of indicative of a self consciousness of the British without ever acknowledging it. Maybe it’s sort of a stretch, but I wonder if imperialism is not included because it’s too uncomfortable to mention directly.

    I know the rabbi today said the book 39 Steps includes a lot of antisemitic parts that were editted out, and I wonder if class and imperialism play a larger role in the book, too.

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