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The War of the Worlds
by Rich See
Thus, what might be pushed off as a cute retelling places you in a fly-on-the-wall position that's interesting and raises your curiosity about how the mass hysteria happening outside the studio walls developed. With the gleeful humor of the broadcasters inside the radio station strangely offsetting the fear and pandemonium filling those tuned into the show, the actual Wells story takes a backseat to the psychological unnerving of the listeners.
Written by Howard Koch, the radio drama was performed as a Halloween prank on October 30, 1938 when it spawned its first panic. As the program began, it was announced as an adaptation of H. G. Wells' story set in 1939. The introduction also described the aliens' violent intentions for Earth and then the action of the story subtly moved to a big band performance already taking place. Thus, any listeners tuning in thought they had turned their dial to a scheduled music program. After the early disclaimers, there were no announcements that the performance was a fictional bit of theatre between the 12-minute and 40-minute marks -- which were when the bulk of the "eye-witness" accounts and fictional news broadcasts occurred. After the 40-minute mark, Wells broke with the real time manner of the performance to give a futuristic eyewitness account of humanity being saved by Earth's simple bacteria. Once the drama ended, he then announced that the entire thing had been a Halloween spoof to gently scare listeners before they answered their doorbells to trick-or-treaters the following night on Allhallows Eve.
Koch's story follows Wells' general plot outline. Starting with scientific observations of explosions on Mars, an apparent meteor falls from the Red Planet and, when it reaches Earth, is revealed to be a hostile Martian invasion. Pandemonium breaks loose as the aliens set up fighting machines and begin to annihilate the Earth's population. Situating it as an actual broadcast, that interrupts previously scheduled music (Ramone Racalla and his Orchestra appearing at the Meridian Room), Welles hoped to show how this new "magic box" (radio) could not be trusted completely. That, unless each of us thought for ourselves, media could be used to distort, magnify and motivate a population.
Putting the show in DCAC's small blackbox space, you feel like a radio audience as soon as you enter the "recording studio." The actors are wandering around, arguing, rehearsing, doing vocal exercises. None notice you as you walk across parts of the stage to find your seat and they simply ignore your presence throughout the broadcast. David Crandall's sound design incorporates some wonderful big band tunes and radio sound effects, while Zoe Cowan's costumes recreate the Thirties era in suits and dresses.
The ensemble cast is large and the actors play several roles, so I'll just mention a few standouts. Dan Brick has Orson Welles' vocalizations and mannerisms down pat. When he reveals this has all been a Halloween prank, you get the sense that he's not sincere. John Tweel plays doomed correspondent Carl Phillips with a bit of tongue-in-cheek charisma that adds comedy to the dramatic reading. Michael McDonnell's Stranger (aka The Artilleryman) is a wonderfully deranged oddball, traumatized by watching the Martians feed on humans. And the chorus (the actors sitting beside you) add a dimension of realism to the whole thing as they share how and why they got so caught up in the broadcast and the panic that ensued.
It's interesting to place the performance in historical context. Hitler was on the rise in Europe, the Japanese were on the rise in Asia, and the U.S. was trying to stay isolationist in a quickly shrinking world. A world war was on the horizon, the country was still shaking off the depression, radio had become a source of comfort and information that brought whole new sounds and voices to a country that was not entirely hooked up to an electric grid or telephone line. The Hindenburg and the abdication of Britain's King Edward had brought real-life horror and melodrama into America's homes. It was a very trusting population plugged into a culturally changing technology. When later interviewed, many of the listeners who thought the broadcast authentic revealed that they had assumed that the United States had been invaded not by Martians but by the Germans. However, the power of the imagination, mass hysteria and the media can't be underestimated -- Koch's radio play was mounted in the mid and late 1940's with similar results of panic in Chile and Ecuador. In fact, in Ecuador, angry listeners set fire to the radio station.
Director Robert McNamara is using Welles'The War of the Worlds as a cautionary tale -- putting 1938's magic box along side TV (our current magic box) and the laptop/Internet (the emerging magic box). Director McNamara states it plainly in his program notes -- "Hijack the media and you control what people say, think -- and do."
With CNN headlines of "weapons of mass destruction," U.S. government planted "news reports," hate spewing moral "leaders" who shouldn't be looking to throw stones -- media can be used by the loudest voice to distort the truth or simply lie to the undiscerning masses. Anyone with malevolent agendas or simply wanting to make a profit may happily be willing to misrepresent reality to further their own hidden motivations. Which means any celebrity selling something, government entity, religious leader, talking head or business with a website could be simply selling you a load of martian invasion. Something to think about the next time you're watching Katie Couric on the CBS Evening News...