75th Anniversary of Orson Welles "The War of the Worlds"
Timeline: October 30, 1938. The Great Depression is just drawing to a close. Television has yet to appear on the horizon in America as the primary media for the masses and radio is the undisputed king. Citizens looked to it for news and entertainment every day.
A young but noted radio director, 23 year old Orson Welles, had an inspiration to do a broadcast of H.G. Wells Science Fiction novel "The War of the Worlds". His producer, John Houseman, is not too keen on the idea but Welles persists. At 8:00 Eastern Time on October 30, 1938, Welles debuted his play on The Mercury Theatre On The Air to an astounded nation. Few caught the lead in, stating that what followed was a dramatic play. Rather, the country truly thought they were being invaded; some by Germans, others by Martians.
Chaos quickly followed.
Seventy-five years ago tonight, Orson Welles had the world in his hands with the initial broadcast of War of the Worlds. He directed his cast of twelve actors and two dozen musicians over the hour long broadcast of the script with an ability rarely seen in one so young. Echoes of this broadcast still resound today.
This was a spellbinding performance of a group of talented individuals, none more so than Welles himself. For a tender young man of 23, his voice and presence carried immense weight. He had received permission to create this play only a few days prior to the performance. On Monday of the week, he had no script; no words to speak beyond the book itself. By Thursday there was a working script but one that left Welles less than enthused. He wanted more, something that would grasp the nation by the throat and take it on the greatest thrill ride it had ever been on. He decided to do the play as a News Broadcast, one that would appear to be real.
In a word, it was brilliant.
By Sunday afternoon they had the script. One, and one only, run through for the cast then it was time to deliver a Halloween scare like no other.
To those tuning in late, it had all of the appearance of a real, live news bulletin. Some took the invaders to be the Germans, a full army of soldiers charging across the fields near Grovers Mill, New Jersey. Others took the invaders to be otherworldly, from the planet Mars. Fear took hold of the listeners of both parties and refused to release them back into the placid lives. Bulletins reporting deaths of those present at the site of the battle came one after another across the airwaves.
Can you imagine the hundreds, thousands, possibly millions of people setting spellbound, glued to the radios in their homes and cars? Their hands covering their faces as they listen to accounts of mayhem marching across the country? Remember, no television to be viewed, no contact with any but their immediate neighbors. What unbelievable terror these people must have felt!
To me, the most incredible moment came at the 17:47 point where the supposed reporter on the scene is reporting a flame advancing towards him, then nothing. Silence. Silence that roared across speakers indicating to those listening that something horrible had occurred. For six long, unending seconds silence reigned over the radio until finally someone spoke again.
What brilliance Welles must have had to stretch that moment! One can imagine him standing in his circle of actors, arms held high requesting, demanding they hold that moment! Imagine the actors sitting there, waiting on their cue to continue the broadcast all the while imaging what must be going on in the world outside their booth. Then, words, words spoken for the first time in what must have seemed to be days or weeks before they continued with the news reports.
Phone calls flooded the studio office during the broadcast. Welles maintained a control over his performers and continued to supply report after report, further driving people into greater and greater fear as each report was heard. Finally, the radio station called for Welles to take a break and reveal that this was indeed a play. One of the unique features of the Mercury Theatre Radio Show was that there were no station breaks, so the action continued unabated. The heads of the studio demanded Welles take the break but he refused. By this time the broadcast had been going for nearly thirty minutes. Finally, at about the forty minute mark he relents and puts out an advisement to the public that this was indeed only a play, a fabrication.
But not everyone heard it. They were too busy calling the police, their government representatives, their families to find out if they still lived. Welles still had the country in the palm of his hand, and he refused to relinquish it.
Later, Welles was made to publicly apologize for the broadcast. Law suits were filed against Welles and the radio station. While Welles appeared to be properly chastised, I have to wonder at the sincerity of it. He was a performer after all, and he did what many could say was the epitome of performing in the directing of the play. He had the country believing every single word of his play to the exclusion of all else. They lived and breathed with him, hanging on his every word. Is that not what a performer lives for? To be adored by the world, to have them believing in his performance so much that everything else falls by the way? To put it bluntly, yes.
And so here we are, some 75 years later still talking about the greatest radio broadcast of all time. And he knows that this title is not given to a reporter broadcasting the news about a war, or space flight, or some other momentous occasion; instead it is given freely to a 23 year old man and his cast for a production of a play based upon a book by one of the greatest Science Fiction authors of all time.
I believe that somewhere Orson Welles is sitting with H. G. Wells beside a radio listening to us speak of him and his accomplishment, and beneath his beard there lies a smile.