Seventy years ago today, a 21-year-old Orson Welles, along with his Mercury Theater players, gathered at New York City’s CBS studios to perform a one-hour radio play—an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. Panic would ensue—though much of it was probably blown a wee bit out of proportion by newspapermen unhappy with radio’s increasing dominance—and mass media would never be the same. It’s easy to say that we were a younger, more naive society in 1938 and it was cake for Welles to convince six million listeners than Martians really were invading Earth, starting with Grover’s Mill, NJ. But when I think of War of the Worlds two things come to mind…
1) Welles, along with his writer, Howard Koch, knew exactly how to exploit the medium they were working in. Even though the program was interrupted with the occasional station identification and reiteration that what listeners were hearing was fiction, War of the Worlds was ingeniously presented as a series of news briefs, breaking into musical programming with updates from the invasion. The verisimilitude is what sold it, so much so that “We now interrupt your regularly scheduled broadcast” was afterwards banned from dramatic programs.
2) We’ll never see its like again. As a culture, we don’t trust enough to buy into something like War of the Worlds. We’d expect proof and corroboration, and if we didn’t get it, we’d automatically dismiss it as a stunt. That kind of large-scale, interactive entertainment is impossible nowadays and from a storytelling perspective, that’s kind of sad.
If you’ve never heard War of the Worlds, check out the clip below and (bearing in mind that this was broadcast seven decades ago) let us know what you think.