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Radio Play Review –  The War Of The Worlds

30th October 1938 – Spoiler alerts.


The Orson Welles Mercury Theatre broadcast of the War Of The Worlds on the eve of Halloween in 1938 is one of the most famous events in radio history. The outcry and panic generated by the play gained Welles instant notoriety that helped to prepare for his looming movie career.


The play, which can be accessed through various archive web pages, remains a powerful work of radio theatre, though it is hard to see how anyone could really believe it was anything but fiction.


The play condenses many themes from the well-known H G Wells novel of 1897 into just an hour. The first forty minutes were presented in real time as interruptions to a popular live music broadcast for journalists to report on the strange events occurring in New Jersey, which gradually erupt into the full scale Martian invasion, with anchor-men heard being killed by heat rays even in mid-broadcast. This section of the broadcast ends as Martian tripods cross the Hudson to attack New York City.


The final twenty minutes changes style entirely, as Welles plays an astronomer (briefly heard commenting on events earlier), now convinced that he alone survived the invasion, hiding from the Martians in various ruined houses, and briefly meeting an army-deserter. Welles’s Professor describes himself as writing, not broadcasting his account of events, and it is clear that he is talking over many weeks, not in real time. He eventually witnesses the death of the Martians, killed by micro-bacteria, just as they die in the Wells original.


The panic, which would be greatly exaggerated in the weeks following the broadcast, could only happen during the more realistic fake live news reports portion of the play, but even there, events move far too quickly to be credible. Why would an atmospheric disturbance on Mars seen by an observatory be an excuse to interrupt poplar entertainment shows? How does the army mobilize for a full siege against a cylinder in a trench on a farm in New Jersey within ten minutes?


The show opened by declaring itself to be a play called The War Of The Worlds. Listeners were not reminded of this until just before it switches to the Welles’ monologue. Then not until the close of the play when Welles, speaking as himself, tells the audience it was all a harmless Halloween prank. There were rumours that he was ordered to announce this due to the supposed national panic, but it was already written into the script.


The Mercury Theatre shows were growing in listenership, but still a low key broadcast beside many more popular shows. The plays also went out without advertising sponsorship, so sometimes, none-regular listeners tuned in when tuning for anything but sponsored ads – some may have tuned in right when the announcements of the fall of New Jersey, annihilation of the army or invasion of New York were going out in a real newsflash format.


Welles certainly knew that he would create a bit of a stir, but the full extent of public reaction amazed him. His name was however assured and without the fame, notoriety and success of what is a very tense play, there would have been no Citizen Kane.


Arthur Chappell

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