By Ron N. Butler
Let me translate that for you: On the night of 30 October 1938, an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ ‘The War of the Worlds,’ presented on Orson Welles’s ‘Mercury Theatre’ radio program, resulted in widespread panic across America. Somebody might have even killed himself.
That’s the story, anyway.
Practitioners of the semi-lost art of radio theater in early-twenty first century America (I’m one) love that story. It is the ultimate high bar of achievement against which the effectiveness of any radio drama is measured. “Reach Out and Touch Someone,” indeed!
And that’s the story WGBH’s “The American Experience” segment set out to tell. There was a little background on Orson Welles, on how Howard Koch came to write the adaptation, and on the production in the studio. (All the stuff I’d like to hear more about.) But the focus of the show was on how and why millions [sic] of Americans came to be hiding in their cellars breathing through wet towels, or (alternatively) legging it out for Canada.
That’s the story, anyway.
And “TAE” told it with interviews, archival photos / footage, and re-creations. How well, the story was told — That was a mixed bag.
The technique of having actors read excerpts from letters written by people who listened to the show as if they were those people being interviewed did not work for me. People do not write the way they talk. (OK, I know some people who write exactly the way they talk. But public education was better back in the ‘30s.) It was very stilted; I felt for the actors. And why film them in black and white? To make those segments feel more “authentic”? My wife (who was not paying close attention) asked if these were actual interviews from 1938. Not even close…
(I believe I recognized many of the “documentary’s” shots of people listening to the radio as being recycled from old movies and TV shows. It would be an interesting trivia game to identify them.)
And it would have been a kindness to some of the interviewees to move the camera back. At least six feet. Into the next room for some. Or assign them a makeup artist.
There was lots of exposition by one of the interviewees on the automatic processes of the human brain and memory, explaining that people’s little lizard-brains could not help but react fearfully and irrationally to Welles’s radio magic. Unfortunately, he is a journalist, not a neuroscientist or psychologist, and was mostly talking through his hat. (My expert opinion. As an engineer.)
It was nice to see Orson Welles’s daughter, though she didn’t have much specific to add.
In recent years, there has been considerable revisionism among sociologists (or at least pop-culture historians) that the public panic caused by the Welles broadcast has been exaggerated. It would have been interesting to have that issue addressed in this program. It wasn’t. Which makes this seventy-fifth anniversary program just another rehash.
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That’s not just in the Old West. You can see it on WGBH, too.