Culture History

Madness, hysteria, panic and Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds.

In the first half of the twentieth century, the radio ruled the air waves in homes around the world. An astonishing 80% of Americans, for example, had a radio in the home during the Golden Age of Radio. Between the early 1920’s to the early 1950’s the radio was for most people the first and last thing they switched on in their homes. In its heyday before the onset of television, the radio entertained people with a variety of programming from live drama, comedy, music and news. In this atmosphere of live programming came a live radio drama that to this day is still talked about by old audiences with fond memories of yesteryear and new audiences for the first time. The extent of hysteria or public panic that it produced almost 80 years ago will always be up for debate, but what it did manage to achieve was unimaginable fame and notoriety. 

In 1938, CBS Radio producer John Houseman asked Orson Welles and his newly formed Mercury Theatre company, whether they would be interested in doing H.G. Wells novel as a radio drama version of H.G. Wells novel The War of the World. Orson Welles initially laughed it off as a boring idea, until it was later reworked and updated from an English country setting to the backwoods of New Jersey and New York City for an American audience. With the change in location to an American setting, he instantly saw the potential in it and decided to direct and narrate the radio drama, as a Halloween special, splitting it into two. The first part was organised as a series of musical pieces broken up by troubling news bulletins. The news updates became increasingly urgent as the drama unfolds as an alien invasion by Martians annihilates humankind. The second part focused on a survivor as they looked for remains of human life. The story ends with some form of hope with the Martians falling ill to germs that they have no immunity to.

Listening to it today with its crackling dialogue, sounds and shrilling musical pieces, it still holds your attention. It may almost be 80 years since it was first broadcast, but it would have to still rank as one of the most breath taking pieces of live radio drama ever produced. It’s innovative crosses to other programmes and technical glitches throughout the first part of the drama gives it a feeling of realism. Furthermore, despite the clear identification at the start of the broadcast that it was a fake drama, anyone (back in 1938) who had missed this introduction and tuned in part way into the broadcast would have thought the world was coming to an end ! This, of course, was all part of the controversy that development during the airing of the drama. Horrified listeners rang in to the (CBS) station and police departments believing the world was being attacked by Martians. To his credit at the end of the broadcast, he burst out of character to reassure listeners that it was all a joke….

“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 C. B. S. 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 the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian. . .it’s Halloween.”

We will never really know the true extent of this hysteria, although what we do know about it is that it received harsh criticism for its realism in stories written by the newspapers. Apparently many public figures also expressed their anger and outrage. Orson Welles received his fair share of criticism too. He was after the event quoted as saying, “If you read the newspapers the next day, you would have thought I was Judas Iscariot and that my life was over.” In fact, the radio drama had the opposite effect and would make him a star. He would go onto direct, write and co produced arguably the greatest film ever made Citizen Kane in 1941.

Photo Credit: The header image is Orson Welles explaining to reporters how he had no idea the sheer panic the War of the Worlds radio broadcast would cause. I am not the uploader of the You Tube clip embedded here.

3 comments on “Madness, hysteria, panic and Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds.

  1. Every time I read about this, I wish I was alive at the time and had been taken in!

  2. Pingback: Via Rearview Mirror-Madness, hysteria, panic and Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds. – Fang & Saucer

  3. Orson Welles was a master showman and self-promoter. He played innocent with the press the next day, even though he relished the attention it produced, with his ‘Martian cylinders and heat rays.’ Little known fact: they chose Grovers Mill, New Jersey by throwing a dart at a map.

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