For the 1938 Halloween show of the American radio drama anthology series, ‘Mercury Theatre on the Air’, actor and filmmaker, Orson Welles, decided cheekily yet cleverly to adapt H. G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds. He rewrote the novel as a 60 minute radio transcript, shortening the story and rendering it much more personal and relevant by changing the location and time to present day New England. The show aired over the Columbia Broadcasting System radio network on the 30th of October.
At the time, ‘Mercury Theatre on the Air’ was competing with the ‘Chase and Sanborn Hour’, a show playing at the same time on a different channel. A common propensity of a ‘Chase and Sanborn Hour’ radio listener was to turn the dial every Sunday, at around 8:12, in a bid to avoid the musical section… and then turn back once they thought the music was likely to be over, as you might do any day with television ads. But what happened on the 30th of October, 1938, was that when all those ‘Chase and Sanborn Hour’ radio listeners turned their dials, they tuned in to what they thought were news alerts warning of ‘Martian invasion’.
|Orson Welles performing 'The War of the Worlds'|
The first two thirds of the broadcast were depicted as a series of simulated news bulletins. Having missed the introduction to the play, and hearing only these very realistically enacted commentaries and interviews, was enough to convince thousands that it was true. In fact, Richard J. Hand (this is a neat little fact to pull out of one’s hat), cites “studies by unnamed historians who ‘calculate[d] that some six million heard the CBS broadcast; 1.7 million believed it to be true, and 1.2 million were ‘genuinely frightened’,’”. It has been argued by a few sources that the atmosphere of apprehension and tension prior to WWII rendered many susceptible to such a scare.
|The New York Times Newspaper Clipping|
In the months following the broadcast, some 12, 500 newspaper articles had been published. Hitler himself is rumoured to have stated that the panic resulting from the broadcast was “evidence of the decadence and corrupt condition of democracy”, but whether or not that is true or just gossip is beyond me. I think, however, that it proves quite a big point about the immensity of the impact. Apparently among the effects were thousands of calls to police, several miscarriages and early births, distribution of gas masks, public rallying etcetera etcetera. Yes, so quite a big deal.
Everyone sued, but it all ended up being cleared away quite simply, with ‘Mercury Theatre on the Air’ having to promise not to use the phrase ‘we interrupt this program’ for dramatic effect. Simple enough. Really, the fact that it was only announced once during the broadcast that it was an adaptation of a novel, and the public’s readiness to believe what they heard on the radio, made it less about the cleverness of the adaptation itself and more about how and when and where it was done, but still, I think that besides all the controversy, besides the negative view, wasn’t it just the most incredible and impacting, gosh impacting, way of conveying a story? Imagine it! To have been a part of that would have been pretty unimaginable. Not terribly well-advised or well-thought-out, but unforgettable. Would you like to hear it?