Please, Mr. Memory: Concussion on The Thirty-Nine Steps

I felt torn last night. Torn between The Falcon’s Brother (in which George Sanders passes the thriller franchise to sibling Tom Conway) and John Buchan: Master of Suspense, a television documentary about the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps. Quandaries like these are peculiar to life in a single-TV household. Considering that I am going on a New Year’s trip to Glasgow (where Buchan grew up) and just saw a dramatization of his classic spy novel in London, I decided in favor of the latter. Not that the documentary (part of BBC Four’s Adventures for Boys season) did much to clear the muddle my mind, at work under the influence of Patrick Barlow’s stage adaptation, has made of the Steps, one of those books everyone claims to know but few ever read, let alone without preconceptions.

Now, I have read Buchan’s 1915 novel (available online here); and, like most readers who come to it by way of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 adaptation, I was astonished at the film’s brazenfaced infidelity. I was disappointed, as well. Missing was the wit that Hitchcock and writer Charles Bennett brought to the original by reworking it in the screwball comedy tradition. It Happened One Flight, they might as well have called what amounts to conclusive proof that tying a male hero to a dame (absent in Buchan’s story) does not have to slow down a fast-paced chase. Infusing sex appeal rather than sentimentality, Hitchcock’s cinematic update created a new adversary for the already much-beleaguered hero, Richard Hannay, who finds that a lot can go wrong in the effort to do right.

Barlow’s dramatization, by comparison, aims at demonstrating that a lot can go right in the effort to do wrong. When I read that John Buchan’s “The 39 Steps” was playing at London’s Criterion Theatre (where it can bee seen until April 2007), I had reason to expect an update of the novel, rather than a recreation of the film, however farcical the treatment (as reviews and poster art suggested).

As it turns out, Buchan’s novel has little to do with the nightly frivolities at the Criterion. The attribution to Buchan in the title of Barlow’s play (based on an “original concept” by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon) seems to be part of an elaborate practical joke—a set-up in which spectators gladly take the fall since they are being coddled by travesty into assuming themselves superior to the material, whatever its source. Being tongue-in-cheek is a convenient escape, a laughing away of what could—and perhaps ought to—have been an engagement or confrontation with Buchan’s story, a tale of espionage and persecution anxities so relevant in this age of terror and so-called anti-terrorism.

Aside from the material of which John Buchan’s “The 39 Steps” makes light, the main attraction of the play lies in its being performed by a cast of only four actors, who dare to take on well over a hundred characters. With a small supply of basic props, those nimble four are shown in the ludicrous struggle to recreate the screenplay as realized by Hitchcock (who, in one of the many inspired moments of silliness, makes a cameo appearance in silhouette). This minimalist-absurdist approach to adaptation was not entirely a novelty act to me, having previously attended a production of The Importance of Being Earnest acted out by a cast of two.

Overly familiar as well felt the play’s reflexivity, its awareness of and delight in the improbability of being equal either to Buchan’s spy story or Hitchcock’s screwball caper. Many self-conscious remakes operate in this manner, escaping the challenge of finding the new in the old by making a mockery of the attempt at renewal and a mess of what is presumably so outmoded that it deserves nothing more than a send-up.

There is enjoyment in seeing things go awry, no doubt; and John Buchan’s “The 39 Steps” rewards theatergoers for their knowledge of the Hitchcock version (one of three film adaptations of the story). Cineastes will appreciate the effort that went into finding ways of making it almost work, whereas those who read and respect Buchan may regret how much is being squandered by ignoring his paradigm. After all, his thrills, too, depend on the pleasure derived from seeing things go awfully wrong, albeit with far higher stakes for the protagonist and his world.

Calling the play John Buchan’s The 39 Steps obscures the fact that the first motion picture adaptation was already a comic revision of Buchan’s rip-roaring yarn. Going after Buchan, Hitchcock managed to be fresh (both new and irreverent) without losing sight of the hunter-on the-run formula that would serve him so well, without neglecting the task of dusting off this decades-old story for action-seeking motion picture audiences. Forgoing thrills, sentiment, and politics alike, Barlow is strictly after laughs.

That said, the bungled dramatization is a chuckles-filled joyride for those who take pleasure in playing fast and loose with supposed literary classics. I gladly go along, provided I can still pride myself in being able to tell a sly impostor from the real thing. Instead, the theatrical experience has given me somewhat of a concussion, leaving me in a state of confusion that neither the aforementioned documentary nor the numerous American radio dramatizations (by the Lux Radio Theater and the Mercury Players, for instance) are likely to clear up. Was Richard Hannay a South African, a Canadian, or a Scotsman? Was he driven by the impulse to save a crumbling empire, to counter boredom, or to clear his name? Come to think of it: just who built The Thirty-Nine Steps, an unstable architectural composite of which now arises before my mind’s eye?

Even Mr. Memory won’t be of much assistance to me, I suspect. Besides, he is . . . but you know the story.

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