War of the Worlds – A Radio Play, directed by Brian Richmond
Here’s something different: a radio play. It turns out, in 1930s, in the days before television (it wasn’t until the 1950s that saw the proliferation of TVs), families huddled around their radio sets after dinner. On October 30, 1938, a 23-year-old Orson Welles performed a broadcast of Howard Koch’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds with the Mercury Theatre for CBS. That broadcast would become known as the ‘Panic Broadcast’, as many listeners who tuned in mid-show missed the disclaimer at the show’s start about the work being fiction. As a result, panic erupted as some listeners booked out of town while others went into hiding, fearing the martian invaders who would melt all resistance with their dastardly ‘heat gun’. The resulting infamy propelled the young Welles into a household name, both stateside and around the world. Welles, riding the wave of fame, would go on to produce, star, and direct Citizen Kane two and a half years later, a movie on whom some critics have conferred GOAT status.
The radio play ran two days from October 30-31. FB and I went on Halloween night. The first act consisted of playing the 2013 PBS American Experience Documentary ‘War of the Worlds – The Panic Broadcast’. The second act consisted of a dramatic reading of the 1938 Mercury Theatre Broadcast by members of the Blue Bridge Acting Ensemble. After the conclusion of the second act the cast remained on stage for a Q&A talkback session to discuss what the dramatization means to us today.
FB estimated the crowd at 100. My tally came in a little lower at 90. Tickets were $30. So, going from FB’s estimate (round numbers are always good), the box office collected $3000 on Tuesday. If the box office drew in another $3000 on Monday, that would bring the total to $6000. With 6 members of the creative team (e.g. director, stage manager, costumes), 11 actors, 1 usher, and two concession workers, this $6000 would be divided by 20, leaving $300 per person. Good thing there are corporate sponsors: Caffe Fantastico, Times Colonist, City of Victoria, and Earth’s Herbal. Side note, I had a hard time reading the ‘Earth’s herbal’ corporate logos on the brochure, letters were quite small. I wonder how much longer the Times Colonist can continue to sponsor theatre? In unrelated news, a 71-year old theatre festival was in jeopardy after Sears Canada, which declared bankruptcy, ended funding.
The PBS documentary was entertaining on the big screen. It contained snippets of a wide variety of all-too-human reactions to the panic broadcast. There was a stern judge that wanted to put Welles in jail for mischief making. One lady told her son to finish the chicken dinner leftovers because ‘tomorrow isn’t coming’. The best was this one lady that decided that, since the aliens were invading, she might as well go down to the bar to down a couple of stiff drinks. Good thinking, that’s what I would have done! The documentary also went through some of the more interesting letters that came in to CBS, some praising Welles, some damning Welles, and some which both praised and damned Welles. One smart comment told Welles he’d better go to Mars himself, because it was the safest place for him after all the mayhem he caused.
The dramatic reading of the broadcast recreated verbatim the words of the original broadcast. You can see in the dramatic compression of time that takes place that realism was not the point. It seems that five or ten minutes after the aliens land they’re decimating the resistance, and after another ten minutes whole areas have become wastelands. The surprising thing is that, despite this, panic erupted, as audiences thought the newsflashes were real (the broadcast consisted of a fake music program which would be interrupted by equally fake ‘newsflashes’ reporting the advance of the Martians).
My favourite part of the show was the Q&A talkback session after the show. I would say about twenty-five people stuck around to listen and take part. I can see why they don’t always do these Q&A sessions. It would take some patience for the cast and director to answer these questions politely. There was some talk on the ‘fake news’ phenomenon today. And obligatory comparisons between Welles’ ‘propaganda’ to Hitler, Trump, and Limbaugh. There was a good comment when one person asked why Welles was seated and not standing during the reading. The director said that in the actual CBC studio, Welles could see the orchestra and the other speakers, so could act as more of a conductor. They thought about this, but it was difficult to set up the stage to accommodate this. Someone asked if anyone had died. The answer was no. But with a population of 140,000,000 at that time, you’d think that quite a few people would have died during the show. If 1 out of 100 people die each year, there would be 140,000 deaths in 1938 or roughly 380 deaths per day. How would anyone know whether the sudden stress of the alien invasion pushed anyone over the mortal precipice? Some good comments on how dramatic radio performances are: the mind fills in all the blanks. Back when I was a lad, we used to gather around to watch X-Files on Saturday night. After the show, we would put on the radio, there was this one station that, at 10 at night, would replay these old radio dramas. They were fascinating.
The most interesting point was made by the director: in a recent New Yorker article, the writer argued, and convincingly, that the panic itself was a media creation. The argument goes that, the newspapers did not like this upstart medium of radio. When Welles’ panic broadcast came out, to be sure, some were discomfited, but not to the extent that we had previously thought. What happened was that the newspapers blew it all out of proportion to discredit radio. I had a little laugh when I heard this. Not only was the broadcast a hoax, the panic was also (largely) a hoax as well. While we laugh at the people who fell for the alien invasion hoax, we ourselves, even today, fall victim to the hoax perpetuated by the newspapers that there was widespread panic. The urban legend continues today. When I told my friend MR about the show, he said, ‘Yeah cool, that the broadcast that incited pandemonium and people to kill each other’. Moral of the story: before we laugh at how gullible others are, we should make sure we have control over our own ‘fake news’!
Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.