Orson Welles’s hour-long radio play The War of the Worlds was the greatest Halloween prank of the 20th century. Twelve million people tuned in for the original broadcast on Oct. 30, 1938 — about the same number as watch Glee now, but the population of the U.S. was only 40 percent of its current size back then. In a 1947 Princeton University survey, roughly one in 12 respondents said that upon first hearing Welles’s radio verite report of hostile Martians landing at Grover’s Mill, NJ, they had indeed believed it to be real news coverage of a frightening calamity.
The use of fake news reports as a narrative device has long since become ubiquitous in genre movies and TV shows, because it’s an efficient way for storytellers to offload big, doughy chunks of exposition. When Welles dreamt it up, he was just trying to give his update of the eponymous, then-40-year-old novel by H.G. Wells (no “e”; no relation) — one he fretted was too widely familar to be of any use to him — a contemporary sense of menace. His fake-news gambit didn’t just work: He sparked a bloody panic, driving tens of thousands of people from their homes with his reports of advancing Martian war machines. Some later said they’d heard radio reports of German war machines — this was 1938 — and a few even claimed to have seen the mechanical three-legged behemoths trundling across the Jersey countryside.
Though Welles professed the following day to be mortified by the trouble he’d caused — there were deaths — he admitted years later that he’d fully intended to attack the credulousness with which his audience received the medium of radio.
Retcon rationalizing? Maybe. The 23-year-old Welles certainly did his best to scare listeners out of their wits. In 1938, CBS’s interruptions to regular programing with Edward R. Murrow’s urgent bulletins from Europe about the rising German war machine — no pun intended — sounded just like Welles’s phony dispatches. The actor in the role of the newsman who narrates the opening of the Martian spacecraft before getting zapped to fiery doom prepared by listening to radio coverage of the then-year-old Hindenburg zeppelin disaster, wherein the airship caught fire and crashed, killing a third of the 97 passengers aboard. (That, too, had happened in New Jersey — Lakehurst. What is it about that place?)
Anyway, Welles was clearly on to something, because the joke didn’t work only once: As I learned from this fantastic episode of Radiolab two years ago, a radio station in Ecuador performed its own War of the Worlds in 1949, resulting in deadly pandemonium there, too. Tragic, but sort of understandable: That audience was unlikely to have heard, or heard of, the original 1938 broadcast. But the listeners of the FM station in Buffalo, New York, who fell for yet! another! War of the Worlds on Halloween night 1968? It just goes to show you the power of a spooky story well-told.
Which brings us to Scena Theatre’s new gloss on this 72-year-old hoax. Director Robert McNamara takes us inside the CBS studio as Welles and his cohorts in the Mercury Theater on the Air perform The War of the Worlds, with interjections from a “chorus” of radio listeners recounting their experiences of that fearful night. It’s too bad they’re all female, which gives the false and surely unintentional impression that only “hysterical women” — as the decidedly
unhysterical woman levelheaded redhead who accompanied me to the show expressed it — were fooled by Welles’s joke.
That’s about the only thing not to like. McNamara’s layered imagining of the clowning around inside the studio during that 1938 live broadcast is a marvelous amusement powered by a company of actors who really get the tone. Regen Wilson is a wonderful Welles, a man for whom outsized was life-sized, in charge of his operatives but still enjoying his own cheek — I loved how he stifled a laugh while three of his actors pretended to be suffocated by a cloud of poisonous Martian gas. When his foley artist drops a bowling ball into a bucket of nails (or whatever it was) to simulate an artillery barrage, Wilson looks giddy with delight at the success of his own illusion. John Tweel I hope will take my observation that he was made for radio in the spirit I intend: He’s got a limber, powerful voice that mimics the cadences and conventions of the era splendidly.
There’s some business with the cast passing around a box of doughnuts, and teasing the actors who can’t partake because they’re on the mic. Another actor gives Tweel a finger-violin eulogy when the body of Tweel’s phony newsman Carl Phillips is discovered, blasted by the Martian heat ray. Nothing revelatory, perhaps, but imaginative and fun.
When Steven Spielberg consciously prodded our memories of the 9/11 attacks for his Tom Cruise-headlined War of the Worlds movie five years ago, critics attacked him for too-frivolous-too-soon. But his scary movie was of a piece with Welles’s prewar prank. So is this.
A shorter version of this review appears in today’s Examiner.