The War of the Worlds
Bill Long 3/8/08
Orson Welles' 10/30/38 Dramatization
Last evening, after the DVD of the movie "Frida" didn't work in my machine, I floundered around for a moment before deciding on another topic to study. I ended up, for some reason, reading about Orson Welles, and then discovered that the tape of the famous October 30, 1938 radio dramatization of HG Wells' 1898 "War of the Worlds" was on "YouTube." So, I listened to this tape for the first time, and was delighted and entertained by its verisimilitude and power. Welles, 23 years-old at the time, had already made a minor name for himself in NY drama circles, but this effort put him on the "map" as nothing else would. The purpose of this essay is to review: (1) the calculation of Welles; (2) the verisimilitude of the broadcast; and, finally (3) the reaction to the broadcast, as measured by a NY Times article from the next day.
First, A Background Word
The Sunday night October 30, 1938 (Halloween edition) dramatic adaptation of HG Wells' 1898 The War of the Worlds was part of the drama series entitled "Mercury Theater on the Air," where Welles was commissioned to present classic theater dramatizations from 8-9 p.m. on Sunday nights for the Columbia Broadcasting System. He was going up against the most popular show in radio at the time, the Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy show, which was hosted by Don Ameche. Interestingly enough, both Ameche and Welles were natives of Kenosha, WI, born seven years apart (Ameche, the "old man of 30" was born in 1908, while Welles was born in 1915). Bergen's show had a listenership of about 30 million; the Mercury Theater had 6 million listeners. So, the "little guy" was facing the challenge that always faces the little guy--try to do something to siphon off the audience of the "big guy." This show managed to do it, or at least to divert attention for a while...
The "Calculation" of the Show
As said, this was a dramatization of HG Wells' science fiction book. The events narrated weren't "really" happening. But two aspects of Welles' calcuation are evident. First, he decided to transfer the Martian attack from just outside of London (as in Wells' book) to just outside of NYC. But, second, he made sure that the attack of the Martians happened about 10-15 minutes into the radio program. They landed in New Jersey but, before anyone knew what was happening, the radio reporter on the scene described the unusual missile-shaped object embedded in the ground. The Martians began to emerge from the cylinder just at the time that the Bergen show was going into its commercial "break." It was well-known at the time, as it is true today, that people tend to "spin the dial" when there is an "ad." So, people would and did spin the dial right when the first Martian attack happened. It was here that verisimilitude took over.
Two things made the broadcast seem "realistic." The first 10 or 15 minutes of the show used the clever method of "breaking in" to a music program to "announce" curious happenings on the surface of Mars and, eventually, in New Jersey--about 20 miles from Princeton. People had become accustomed to these "breaking news stories" interrupting radio programs in the previous year or so, as Adolf Hitler marched into Czechoslovakia. Thus, one could understand the beginnings of the anxiety. Then, the program managed to make sure that an "expert," Professor Pierson from Princeton, was on hand to describe the significance of what was happening. It was clear that he was nonplussed, just like everyone else. But he added a dimension of seriousness and scholarly dispassion to the story, constantly downplaying whatever was happening so that the audience wouldn't become too "concerned." But, of course, reverse psychology would make sure that people became even more concerned when they heard the professor try to calm them down. They were convinced that a Martian attack was happening in Grover's Mill NJ, about an hour or so west of NYC, and that the Martians were moving towards NYC at an alarming rate.
Even though it was announced that the program was a dramatization, and Orson Welles himself came in at the end to tell people that it was like putting on a sheet and saying "Boo" on Halloween, people's fears were not allayed. The Oct. 31 front-page story in the NY Times described some of the reaction. Let's conclude with a few choice statements from that article.
The NY Times October 31, 2008 Article
Fears were so prevalent during and after the broadcast that people did some of the following things, according to the Times' front-page story.
"In Newark, in a single block at Heddon Terrace and Hawthorne Avenue, more than twenty families rushed out of their houses with wet handkerchiefs and towels over their faces to flee from what they believed was to be a gas raid. Some began moving household furniture."
The scene was repeated elsewhere.
"Throughout New York families left their homes, some to flee to near-by parks. Thousands of persons called the police, newspapers and radio stations here and in other cities of the US and Canada seeking advice on protective measures against the raid."
A few other reactions are noteworthy.
"East Orange police headquarters received more than 200 calls from persons who wanted to know what do do to escape the 'gas.' Unaware of the broadcast, the switchboard operator tried to telephone Newark, but was unable to get the call through because the switchboard at Newark headquarters was tied up."
"Thousands of calls came in to Newark Police Headquarters. These were not only from the terror-stricken. Hundreds of physicians and nurses, believing the reports to be true, called to volunteer their services to aid the 'injured.' City officials also called in to make 'emergency' arrangements for the population. Radio cars were stopped by the panicky througout that city."
The recording is clearly "dated" now, almost 70 years after the first broadcast. But the genius and dramatic flair of Orson Welles is evident throughout. Here is a young man who wants to make a splash. And, he made a splash, maybe "before [his] time."