This week marks the 75th anniversary of a regional and national response to something that never was: an interplanetary attack on Grovers Mill, New Jersey.
As is well known, theater and radio director/actor Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast of “War of the Worlds” was a war of words, a non-event that inadvertently caused a real panic.
The live radio drama — which is being locally staged several times this week — also produced a second front of warring words in the form of thousands of newspaper articles and public musings on the way a million American citizens would think that visitors from space had suddenly arrived outside of Trenton, of all places.
As arm chair speculation grows smugger as time passes — and we head into an election season where non-events and political fictions fill the air waves to create anxiety — it is worth considering what it was that made this particular radio show into what it became.
The answer is simple: “The War of the Worlds” broadcast was a powerful piece of theater, one that was able to cast a seemingly real conjuring of imaginary events.
That ability was born of an artistry that had been fermenting for a few years before it exploded into history.
The Mercury Theater Company, founded in 1937 by Welles (age 22) and John Houseman (35), grew from youthful experimentation and ability to excite and entrance audiences. Both worked in the WPA-sponsored Federal Theater.
Houseman, who in his later years became well known for his haughty professor roles in movies and on television, said that their theater audiences were eager for an experience. “One had the feeling, every night, that there were people on a voyage of discovery in the theater.”
Playing it safe was not a consideration, and the company thrived on expanding boundaries.
Their Depression and pre-World War II-era productions included a “Julius Caesar” set in fascist Italy, “Macbeth” performed by an African-American cast, and a premiere of a folk opera based on a steel strike, “The Cradle Will Rock.”
When conservative members of congress froze funding on the controversial opera’s opening night, the company moved its audience several blocks to an empty theater, had composer Marc Blitzstein play the score on an onstage piano, and let the actors deliver their lines from the audience (so the financially strapped company would not have to pay union “stage actor” scale).
It was company of moxie, innovation, and talent.
That talent also extended to the airwaves, where Welles had been performing regularly on the new medium of radio (for a season as the crime-fighting hero the Shadow). Eventually he, Houseman, and the company found a home at the Columbia Broadcasting System and launched the Mercury Theater on the Air, broadcasting their first one-hour radio drama, “Dracula,” on Monday, July 11, 1938.
Each week the company created a new script based on fairly well known writings — “Treasure Island,” “Jane Eyre,” “A Tale of Two Cities” — and performed it live, a staggering achievement in itself.
The Mercury Theater on the Air was building an audience for its quality productions, and CBS moved its broadcasts to the 8 p.m. Sunday night time slot, where Welles and company warred for ratings with the highly popular Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show, (which, go figure, featured a ventriloquist performing on the radio).
“The War of the Worlds” was just one of the works selected for adaptation by writer Howard Koch and fit the schedule for the night before Halloween broadcast.
The company artists’ willingness to experiment, desire to create artistic experiences, and being in tune to the zeitgeist of the moment all came together in their effort to bring to life a fictitious moment.
Simply put, their artistry became too real.
The radio drama maintains the basic elements of British writer H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel, which starts with a chapter titled “The Eve of the War,” written with the author’s intent to let readers experience and then reflect on the aggression exhibited by colonizing Europeans.
And the radio company introduces the play with the statement shared by the book about humankind being scrutinized by “intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own” and that “as human beings busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”
The play — as does the book — brings the listener into a world where these sinister forces are gathering while present-day folk go about their daily business, complacent in their routines.
That sense of unpredictable gathering forces was already in the 1938 air and on the air waves: Nazism and fascism were on the rise, Japanese aggression was expanding, and the Depression lingered.
While the novel creates a solitary reading experience for the reader, the radio adaptation creates a shared one. In an unprecedented development, the acting company now had the opportunity to expand beyond the limits of a physical theater that could hold a few thousand people to being “on the air” and reaching millions of listeners through the Columbia Broadcasting System’s 110 affiliate radio stations located in 44 states.
Novelist Wells designed the story as a contemporary tale and set his “what if” saga in his contemporary Surrey, England. The Mercury Theater team followed likewise and made choices to bring the action of the story to where broadcasting was actually happening: the New York City vicinity.
Both the book and radio play’s storytelling power depended on the reader or listener’s imagination to conjure the invaders and the ensuing carnage. Since it was more personal, it was more powerful.
The decision to have the Martians arrive in Grovers Mill was through blind chance, literally. Scriptwriter Howard Koch took a map of the New York City region and placed the tip of a pencil on a random spot. From there he used the names of New Jersey locals as a backdrop to the story. While other states were mentioned in the broadcast, New Jersey and New York City were constantly referenced, putting listeners in those areas right into the center of the imaginary battlefield.
Divided into two parts, the first part of the radio drama replicated the seemingly normal series of announcements, musical programming, interviews, and mundane commentary. The second section uses mainly a first-person narrative, introspective musings, and commentary of the story’s protagonist, a Princeton professor who shows up early to examine the space craft (sonorously delivered by thespian Welles).
It is the first section — a fictional broadcast that uses actual broadcasting practices — that unintentionally overpowered the casual listener who had become habituated to radio for entertainment and information.
H.G. Wells’ hope to cast the silent reader into the position of a victim of colonization was now happening through the live orchestration of voices and sounds that moved from innocuous weather reports and the uninspired music of Ramon Raquello and his orchestra, to the sinister unscrewing of the space ship portal, from people screaming, radio blackouts, and then a lone broadcast and the riot of church bells sounding the alarm to evacuate New York City.
While many of today’s media consumers are used to sophisticated eye and ear-catching techniques and divorced from radio’s more subtle storytelling approach — one that depended on the audience’s ability to imagine rather than provide the image — it may be easy to miss that the first part of the radio production of “War of the Worlds” is an innovative and effective piece of dramatic construction.
In one half-hour the drama expertly twists the listener’s emotions, moving from being pleasantly diverted to panicking.
The use of a broadcast to create a story unfolding in broadcasting was the aural equivalent of a well-crafted trompe l’oeil painting or a life-like sculpture, such as those created by Seward Johnson. Art trumped reality.
In any case, the company’s use of a news-presenting media as a means to realistically frame a story was a canny approach, one used effectively by Welles again in 1941 when he moved from radio to film to create “Citizen Kane.”
That celebrated film — consistently proclaimed by film scholars as one of the most important films in history — opens with a news reel in the style of those regularly shown in the theater to inform audiences of real-life events. The effect, again, is to use a “reliable” news vehicle to imbue fiction with truth, giving the work more presence and power.
While the radio broadcast included announcements that the work was a transcription and clearly said “You are listening to a CBS presentation of Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater on the Air in an original dramatization of ‘The War of the Worlds’ by H. G. Wells,” the production was a satisfying piece of storytelling for the informed or those fully in tuned.
For the casual listener or those tuning in too late, however, it was an unexpected artistic experience, an unparalleled testament to the power of what story tellers can do, and a cautionary warning about believing what one hears — especially during election season.
Fittingly area organizations are commemorating the 75th anniversary of the historic radio broadcast with recreations and events on “The War of the Worlds.”
Radio Once More, Grover’s Mill Coffee House, Southfield Shopping Center, 295 Princeton-Hightstown Road, West Windsor. Wednesday, October 30, 7 p.m. The company dedicated to old-time radio programming presents a “Live Re-Broadcasting” of the radio play and a panel discussion. 609-716-8771 or www.groversmillcoffee.com.
Raconteur Radio, a Metuchen-based company that stages theatrical presentations of vintage and original radio plays for live audiences, recreates the radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds. www.raconteurradio.com.
Wednesday, October 30: Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street,Princeton. 7:30 p.m. in the library’s Community Room. Free. 609-924-9529 or www.princetonlibrary.org.
Thursday, October 31: West Windsor Branch of the Mercer County Library System, 333 North Post Road, Princeton Junction. 7:30 p.m. Free. 609-799-0462 or www.mcl.org.
Celebrating the 75th Anniversary of the War of the Worlds Radio Show, Peyton Hall, Princeton University. Wednesday, November 6, 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Panel discussion with professors David Spergel and Christopher Chyba (astrophysics); WIlliam Gleason (English); Tullis Onstott (geosciences); and Jeremy Kasdin and Rob Stengel (mechanical and aerospace engineering). Themed snacks and period radio broadcast. Period dress encouraged. www.princeton.edu/mae.