Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds: Part I

April 30, 2011 | By

The face that punked a nation would like a hug, please.

On the eve of Halloween in 1938, Orson Welles mounted a fake newscast of Martians invading Earth, and he managed to terrify a significant chunk of Americans into believing little green men had landed and were starting to massacre humanity. Or maybe it was the Nazis, as others believed.

Adapted from the classic H.G. Wells novel by Howard Koch and performed by Welles’ Mercury Theatre troupe for CBS, The War of the Worlds was either the ultimate prank taken far too seriously, or it simply captured the mass fear of invading forces just a year before the outbreak of WWII.

On the one hand, you can’t blame Welles for sticking to his guns and performing the show without any mid-drama disclaimers to alert listeners that the whole broadcast was ‘someone behind a white sheet shouting ‘Boo!’ but he did establish a significant precedent: that if you package things correctly, some people will believe almost anything.

To prove the point (or rather, exploit the novelty of creating a bit of infamy), a Spanish version of Koch’s script was performed in Ecuador in 1949, with tragic results; and some local American stations took a poke at the concept, notably Buffalo’s WKBW in 1968 with their own adaptation.

In addition to other re-mountings of the 1938 production, there was also Without Warning, an original teleplay in 1994 (aired by CBS) in which the concept was transposed to a live CNN-type news feed.

Perhaps the most intriguing re-conceptualization of the script happened this past March thru April Fool’s weekend at Toronto’s Harbourfront World Stage, where The Art of Time Ensemble not only performed the radio play in front of an audience, but designed the production to resemble a fly-on-the-wall experience, with live foley and band.

Prior TV dramatizations of the mass-hysteria that pricked a nation – Studio One’s 1957 production of The Night America Trembled, and the 1974 TVM The Night That Panicked America – featured recreations of the radio studio environment in excerpts or vignettes, but this 2011 performance gave audiences an opportunity to experience the complete play, and a sense of the workings involved in a live radio performance, with the actors, sound effects man, and musicians just a few meters away.

Directed by Andrew Burashko, AOTE’s production was also preceded by a half-hour tribute to composer Bernard Herrmann, who scored / conducted the Mercury Theatre dramas in addition to classic Alfred Hitchcock films such as Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), and Psycho (1960).

(This year marks the centenary of the composer’s birthday, and I’ll have a set of DVD reviews of classic Herrmann-scored films still unavailable in Region 1 land, but of course, widely available in Spain, because unlike Fox in America, Spain’s home video labels realize the classic film market hasn’t collapsed on a global scale, and people don’t want to re-buy All About Eve, An Affair to Remember, Patton, and The Sound of Music for the 4th time.)

So in this first part of a new series (Yes! Another one!), I’ve uploaded a review of the AOTE production, plus an interview with director Andrew Burashko [M], who discusses the project’s genesis, the Herrmann suite, and his plans to mount a live version of “I send you this cadmium red,” with Daniel Brooks directing Gavin Bryars’ dramatization of the correspondences between John Berger and John Christie.

And I’ve added reviews of The Night America Trembled [M], part of VSC’s Studio One 3-volume series released in 2002 on DVD; and Without Warning [M], which did get a fleeting DVD (and now OOP) release via Madacy, but I happened to videotape when it was broadcast by Hamilton’s CHCH for Hallow’s Eve.

Yes, I’m that olde, and I’ve a storage locker of this ephemera that I’ll continue to mine until invading little green men ring the doorbell, masquerading as Girl Guide cookie vendors.



Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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