Wednesday, April 29, 2009

We Interrupt This Program... bring you news of a Martian invasion in Grover’s Mill, NJ.

I just finished H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel The War of the Worlds and followed it up by listening to Orson Welles’ and Mercury Theatre’s infamous 1938 radio broadcast and watching an hour long video documentary subtitled as “an historical Perspective of the H.G. Wells Classic Book”. [Both links are to free downloads of the respective pieces.]

The success of the original novel was considered by some to be due to the fact that Wells used real places in his tale of invasion which personalized and familiarized the story for many readers. Welles did the same in his radio adaptation (written by Howard Koch) by setting it in Grover’s Mill, NJ.

In addition to Welles’ cheeky wrap-up of the broadcast (transcribed below for your enjoyment), what I found most interesting was that people panicked and were then quite angry about being duped. Don’t get me wrong – it was designed to incite fear, as many forms of entertainment are – but panic?

In 1938, the radio was the news and entertainment center for the household; radio broadcasts were serious business. In addition to this elevated place in the family, radio programs were limited to a few choices: but the choices existed. In fact, Orson Welles was thought to take advantage of the fact that the average listener’s attention was initially drawn by the Chase & Sanborn Hour, featuring Charlie Bergen and Don Ameche, and would join the Mercury Theatre’s dramatization after the disclaimer that it was just a dramatization. From Wikipedia:
Edgar Bergen and Don Ameche, who were continuing their Chase & Sanborn Hour broadcast on NBC, are often credited with "saving the world". It is said many listeners were reassured by hearing their tones on a neighbouring station.”
The timing of this bit of entertainment, the time leading up to World War II when people were already quite on edge, may or may not have been considered in the plan to dramatize an invasion, but some people claimed to have thought it was about a German invasion. Clearly, not amusing, but again, why would someone who listened long enough to be frightened, not understand that it was about Martians? Or am I missing the point?

It should be noted that when the broadcast was adapted and played in Quito, Ecuador in 1949, angry citizens burned the radio station and six people were killed. Why should this be noted? Despite the panic which ensued and the intentional methods used by Welles to maximize fear, the government did not step in to curtail free speech. Welles and CBS were censured, but not charged with breaking any laws. Mob rule did not occur in America. Until now.

Like the mob action in Ecuador, the Supreme Court, yesterday, upheld the FCC’s ability to define decency in radio and television by “contemporary community standards” .

Welles’ Wrap Up:
This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen – out of character – to assure you that The War of the Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be: the Mercury Theatre’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying, “Boo!” Starting now we couldn’t soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night, so we did the best next thing: we annihilated the world before your very ears and utterly destroyed the CBS. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn’t mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business.

So goodbye everybody, and remember please for the next day or so, the terrible lesson you learned here tonight: that grinning glowing globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody is there – that was no Martian – it’s Halloween.
He was a cheeky bastard.

There’s much more to the novel that I hope to discuss at another time.

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