Today is the anniversary of the 1938 CBS radio broadcast of ‘The War of the Worlds’ which was directed and narrated by Orson Welles. It was one of a series of plays called ‘Mercury Theatre on the Air’, broadcast live between 8 and 9 pm Eastern Standard time on a Sunday night. History would have you believe that it caused nationwide panic and hysteria. This is not really true.
The play was an adaptation of the 1898 novel of the same name by H G Wells about a Martian invasion of Earth. The play used a modern setting and transferred the action from the south of England to New Jersey. The broadcast almost didn’t happen at all. Five days before it was due to air, its writer, Howard Koch, was finding it almost impossible to adapt the novel into a play. Together with his secretary and producer he managed to work out a script, but it was still quite boring. Welles heard a recording of the first draft two days later and thought it needed more urgency and excitement; eyewitness accounts and newsflashes. The script was reworked overnight and the names of real people and places were added. But CBS thought that made it too real and several had to be changed, which was probably just as well. The following day, Saturday, the play was rehearsed with a sound effects team and on Sunday the orchestra arrived and they were all set for their live broadcast of the play.
The programme was listed in the Sunday newspapers as a drama and the New York Times had it among their leading events of the week as “Tonight – Play: H G Wells War of the Worlds.” It was also stated clearly at the beginning of the broadcast that it was a play. Yet popular myth makes us think that everyone who listened to it believed that they were really being invaded by Martians. The first two thirds of the drama are presented as new flashes interspersed with musical interludes. If you tuned in during this part, as some people clearly did, it would be easy to believe that you were listening to a news story unfolding in real time. Though if you were paying attention, you might notice that events escalate rather quickly. But radio was in its infancy and perhaps people weren’t wise to that sort of thing.
Just over half an hour into the performance, the station supervisor received a telephone call asking him to interrupt the broadcast to make an announcement about its fictional content. With the planned break less than a minute away, he waited. The planned break announcement clearly stated that it was a play. By this time a few policemen had begun to arrive. Soon the room was full of policemen, and CBS employees struggled with them to prevent them from breaking into the studio and stopping the show. As the play ended, the producer’s phone began to ring. It was the mayor of a mid-western town who was furious because he said there was rioting in the streets. But he had to hang up on the angry mayor, because, at that moment, the police burst in. Everyone involved in the play was hustled straight into a back room and locked in. Meanwhile other network employees gathered up all scripts and records of the broadcast and either destroyed them or locked them away.
Then, the press were let loose on the cast. They were faced with a barrage of questions. How many deaths did they think they had caused? Did they know about the riots? The traffic accidents? The suicides? Of course, they had been shut up in a studio and didn’t know anything. They were mortified. The station’s telephone switchboard was jammed with incoming calls and Welles thought his career was over.
The cast were eventually let out by a back door and Welles went straight to an all night rehearsal of a play at the Mercury Theatre that was due to open the following week. One of the cast members arrived late, shortly after midnight, and told everyone that the news about War of the Worlds was being flashed in Times Square. They all went out to have a look. The lighted bulletin that surrounded the New York Times building read: “ORSON WELLES CAUSES PANIC.”
After the night rehearsal, Wells had only three hours sleep before he was called to a press conference. Reporters accused him of making his play too dramatic. While he was very sorry, and not a little surprised, to hear that his broadcast had caused so much upset, he does point out it is not the business of a melodrama to be more boring than real life.
While there was some panic amongst listeners, particularly those who had tuned in part way through, the widespread hysteria was largely an invention of the press. Very few, if any, people believed America was being invaded by Martians, because people aren’t generally that stupid. In 1938 the world was an uncertain place, teetering on the brink of world war. Radio broadcasts were often interrupted by news from Europe. For the most part, the people contacting radio stations, newspaper and the police thought that the Germans were invading New York. If you missed the bit where they mentioned the Martians, this could be an easy mistake to make. Many newspapers assumed that all the phone calls and scattered reports of people fleeing their homes was evidence of a mass panic. In fact, this kind of reaction was not a common one. There was a problem in the town of Concrete, Washington, where the broadcast coincided with a power blackout. This meant that the phone lines were also down and they were unable to call friends to calm their fears, or hear the assurance that it was just fiction. So people were pretty upset there. Once the press heard about it, their experience was soon known all over America.
The New York Times would have us believe that the streets of the city were heaving with people anxious to leave town. Yet a reporter from another newspaper remembers, as he sped in a taxi towards the CBS studio that evening, that the streets were almost deserted. Only a tiny amount of listeners had actually heard the broadcast, and if they had anything to complain about it they had mostly forgotten about it in a few days. Newspapers, on the other hand, went on and on for weeks about what a terrible and unreliable thing radio was.
It’s interesting to learn that, in the late thirties, newspapers were losing a lot of advertising revenue to the new medium of radio. So they had a vested interest in discrediting it. Meanwhile, a short and hastily written play that was heard by almost no one, secured Welles’s fame as a dramatist.