Tonight I turned off the lights and put on a recording of Orson Welles’ 1938 radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’ (confusing, that) The War of the Worlds. According to a popular urban myth, the format of this radio-play so confused and alarmed the listening audience that they began running amok, wandering into the country and firing guns at anything suspicious-like. While the extent of that panic is greatly exaggerated, having experienced the play I can appreciate why people might believe the myth. After an introduction which identifies the novel as its inspiration, the play begins as a period music broadcast which is interrupted periodically by news accounts of strange activity on Mars, then some sort of impact in New Jersey, and then — by golly — the dots are connected. The interruptions are first routine and annoying (I was rather enjoying “Stardust”, though the version wasn’t close to Glenn Miller’s) and then increasingly panicked. The scene in which an on-site reporter arrives at the first impact and witnesses the cylinder begin to open are especially well done, and later we seem to hear a man killed by the Heat Ray on air. Broadcast interruptions are frequent, as the fictional network officials scramble to keep accurate reporting even as the affair widens. By the time we reach an assumed-dead scientist commenting in a “it’s the world as we know it” fashion, musing over the events of the last several days, the radio-play status of the broadcast is much more obvious. The recording ends with Orson Welles reminding readers that this was a Halloween play, and please do not run amok. I don’t know how the panic myth started, but I certainly enjoyed listening to the play and experiencing an odd piece of American history. You can find copies on YouTube, of course.
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