The 39 Steps: theatrical conventions of the period

The 39 Steps: theatrical conventions of the period

The 39 Steps: Play Background and Creator

  • Play: “The 39 Steps” was written in 1915 by John Buchan, but the most well-known theatrical version is the comic adaptation by Patrick Barlow from 2005.

Stylistic Influences and Conventions

  • Comedy Style: Being a comedy, the play borrows its style heavily from the traditions of British pantomime and farce; featuring larger-than-life characters and absurdly exaggerated performances.
  • Multi-Rolling: The play is known to use the convention of multi-rolling, where four actors play a multitude of different roles. This is done in a highly stylised and openly acknowledged way, with characters often swapping roles in full view of the audience.
  • Brechtian Techniques: The play uses ‘Brechtian’ techniques; a style associated with German playwright Bertolt Brecht. This includes the ‘alienation effect’ (Verfremdungseffekt), designed to constantly remind the audience that they are watching a play.

Physical and Technical Aspects

  • Physical Theatre: Physical theatre is also a key convention of the performance. This includes miming actions, using the body to create scenery or objects, and general exaggerated physicality.
  • Suggestion: The play relies on ‘suggestion’. It doesn’t seek to realistically portray every single element of the story, but rather suggests them using minimal props and set pieces. The audience has to suspend their disbelief and use their imagination.
  • Technical Elements: Lighting, sound, and stage effects are key to creating the different locations and moods throughout the play. The use of these technical elements is frequently exaggerated and humorous in execution.
  • Costume Changes: Quick costume changes are a convention seen throughout the play, helping to denote changes in character while keeping the pace brisk and the tone light-hearted.

Interactivity, Pace and Tone

  • Pace and Tone: The play has a fast-paced, almost frantic style. This is a hallmark of ‘matey’ theatre, a style characterized by fast and energetic action.
  • Audience Engagement: The performance encourages active audience engagement. Audience members are meant to participate in the experience rather than just passively observe.
  • Parody and Pastiche: Finally, another significant convention of this play is the use of parody and pastiche, incorporating and exaggerating elements of other well-known stories or genres for humorous effect.