The 39 Steps: historical context

The 39 Steps: historical context

Historical Setting and Social Context

  • The 39 Steps” is set in 1914, on the eve of the First World War.
  • This period was engulfed with anticipation and fear of the impending conflict, a mood which significantly influences the tone and context of the play.
  • This was a time when advanced technology like telephones, radios, and aeroplanes were newly emerging, thus shaping the backdrop of the narrative.
  • The British Empire was at its peak, with many colonies under its rule, which is signified by the frequent references to other countries and cultures in the play.

The Characters and Their Representations

  • The central character, Richard Hannay, is seen as the archetypal British hero of the period- brave, nonchalant about danger, and always carrying a ‘stiff upper lip’. His character typifies the societal expectations of men during those times.
  • Annabella Schmidt, a foreign character, represents the British perception towards foreigners during that era- both exotic and threatening. This alludes to the country’s troubled disposition towards Germany.

Espionage, Adventure and Theatre

  • The British intelligence agency, also known as the Secret Service, was in its early years of formation- a fact that enhances the drama, suspense, and theme of secrets, spies, and thrilling adventures in the story.
  • Theatre was a popular form of entertainment during those times. The fast-paced nature of the narrative was likely designed to captivate audiences.

Publication and Societal Norms

  • The 39 Steps was first published in 1915, when the First World War had recently begun. During this time, the suffragettes had temporarily shelved their campaign for women’s rights to support the war effort. This may explain the portrayal of traditional gender roles in the play.
  • The story clearly demarcates class divisions in British society, with an upper-class protagonist and working-class supporting characters- a reflection of the social structure and class-consciousness prevalent in pre-war society.