Friday, October 31, 2014

Halloween Monsterthon, For Your Ears Only Edition: The War of the Worlds

The War of the Worlds at the Internet Archive

Since the Monsterthon has unintentionally taken on a very alien character, it’s appropriate to use the holiday to commemorate the Halloween edition of the first alien invasion story of all time. The Mercury Theatre On The Air’s broadcast of The War of the Worlds is a thing of legend, a radio play that allegedly spooked an entire nation with its documentary realism. The furor over it helped catapult Orson Welles into the national spotlight and resulted in a lot of rules preventing radio and TV from ever being too convincing in the future. But setting all that aside, it’s just a damn good audio play, one of the great works of the medium.

After a brief prologue, the first half of the play unfolds as a series of news reports interrupting regular broadcasting, detailing first an eruption on the surface of Mars, then a strange object crashing near a farm in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. Welles voices Andrew Pearson, a scientist who heads to Grover’s Mill in time for the cylinder to begin unscrewing, revealing first the Martian invaders and their weapon, a deadly heat ray. The aliens then fan out in giant tripod machines, spewing poisonous black smoke and destroying airplanes and artillery units with their rayguns, and climactically sweeping through all of Manhattan. The second half abandons the documentary conceit, however, and presents the narration of Pearson as he tries to survive and explore Earth under the Martians.

The building of tension in the play’s first half is beautifully orchestrated. The writers specifically timed the actual attack of the Martians to begin during a musical break on Edgar Bergen’s show, which had been walloping them in the ratings. The key was to catch listeners who were just tuning in, and obviously audiences who missed the prologue and didn’t stay around long enough for the intermission and second half were the ones who started making a fuss about the Earth actually being invaded (though newspapers exaggerated the story in an attempt to warn people of the dangers of a competing format- while some people were undoubtedly fooled, it's difficult to know how many.) The gravity and intensity of the story builds segment by segment, and the producers managed to capture the sound of outdoor and other remote broadcasts in studio, which is impressive given the limited technology. The most effective sound, though, is that of the heat ray, an almost musical hum.

Inevitably the play loses some momentum in its second act, with Pearson’s diary narration not being quite as convincing a device, and making most of it a monologue. But a slight slowdown is welcome after the harrowing tension of the first half, and listening to Welles deliver a monologue in his prime is never a bad thing. The protagonist’s encounter with a half-mad artilleryman does help break up the pace, though, and helps key off some of the contemporary fears Welles was taping into. When this play was broadcast, war was already engulfing Europe and the fascist threat of the Third Reich was strong; while there are echoes in the early scenes, the fear is driven home most keenly when the artilleryman begins to talk about the new society he wants to create, one without room for weakness or mercy.

The play famously ends with a disclaimer by Welles, which was thought to be a response to the unexpected panic but actually appears in the original script; it’s the kind of wonderfully smug treatise the man was great at, and it’s easy to forget that he didn’t actually write the production- rather, it was a collaboration by many extremely talented people all in the name of delivering a good Halloween scare, and hopefully goosing the ratings. The original broadcast is free to stream from the Internet Archive and is available on just about every “old time radio” compilation there is, so there’s really no reason not to have experienced it. Happy Halloween.

Based on the novel by H. G. Wells
Written by Howard Koch and Anne Forelock
Produced by John Houseman and Orson Welles
Directed by Orson Welles

Grade: A+

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