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Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre Broadcast of H.G. Wells'

The War of the Worlds

Listen to the original "The War of the Worlds" broadcast in RealAudio
from earthstation1.simplenet.com

Author H.G. Wells with Orson Welles


In the fall of 1938, genius extraordinaire Orson Welles, then master of broadcast theatre production for the Columbia Broadcasting System, produced and starred in an exciting on-air dramatization by Howard Koch, based on author H.G. Wells' classic science-fiction "The War of the Worlds" as part of the Mercury Theatre's Halloween offering.

The play was aired on the 30th, the day before Halloween.

Big mistake.


Read the original New York Times Article regarding the broadcast

Welles had no idea of the consequences of this seemingly innocuous choice of entertainment. The play used the names of actual places well known to most, especially those on the east cost, and was set in current time with its use of apparent live and remote announcers in the field,; tales of fiery meteors falling to the earth... of strange metallic cylinders embedded in the ground emitting unearthly noises and the subsequent uprising of monstrous, mechanized Martian war machines bent on world conquest. The play became all too real for hundreds of thousands of Americans who were apparently glued to their radios aghast. Whether they missed the introduction and the intermission, both of which stated plainly that what was being broadcast was merely a radio-play, or whether holiday spirits enhanced the naturally alarming elements of something dreadful and terrifying coming from another world... we'll never really know. But it became known as the night that panicked America.

It seems the greater part of an entire nation was fully convinced that, as it was stated by believable authorities on the air, "both the observations of science and the evidence of our eyes lead to the inescapable assumption that those strange beings who landed in the Jersey farmlands tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from the planet Mars."

The end of the world was upon them, and the play-by-play, blow-by-blow was coming to them live, via radio. The modern age had brought Armageddon into the living room.

Welles had made a tragic error. The press and the nation was considerably unforgiving for a very long time to come. What was intended as a pre-Halloween spook-story became a nightmare resulting in several actual deaths by suicide (though to this day many claim such never took place) and countless other repercussions which Mr. Welles could never have foreseen. One of the more oft-told accounts was of a particular farmer who, when hearing about the menacing Martian war machines with their tenticular arms and great stilt-like metallic legs bounding across the countryside, went out into his field armed to the teeth, ready to do battle with the coming metal-monster. In the darkness the poor man mistook his neighbors watertower for one of the towering martian invaders, blowing several large holes in it with his shotgun. Other stories circulated that people had taken poison rather than to endure the coming Martian holocaust brought by the mysterious black, toxic smoke given off by the relentless, trodding war machines. One fact is certain, many people near and about the real-life geographical locations mentioned in the play packed bags in a panic and hit the highways trying to flee the cosmic cataclysm.

Orson Welles' career was severely effected for many years to come. It was not until the broadcast was well underway that reports began to float into Columbia center according to some accounts; the speculation being that Welles knew what was happening in the streets and continued with the broadcast nonetheless. Takes of panic in the streets might have easily been met with absolute skepticism on the part of Welles and company. Others contend to this day that Welles was oblivious to such information being fully involved in the radio play itself, and was deeply sorry for the outcome. Either way, Orson Welles ended much of his broadcasting career and Mercury Theatre's rendition of "The War of the Worlds" with these now famous words:

"This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that The War of The Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be. The Mercury Theatre's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying Boo! Starting now, we couldn't soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night. . . so we did the best next thing. We annihilated the world before your very ears, and utterly destroyed the C. B. S. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn't mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business. So goodbye everybody, and remember the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody's there, that was no Martian.... it's Hallowe'en."

From the Broadcast....

"Now wait a minute! I see something on top of the cylinder. No, it's nothing but a shadow. Now the troops are on the edge of the Wilmuth farm. Seven thousand armed men closing in on an old metal tube. Wait, that wasn't a shadow! It's something moving . . . solid metal . . . kind of shieldlike affair rising up out of the cylinder . . . It's going higher and higher. Why, it's standing on legs . . . actually rearing up on a sort of metal framework. Now it's reaching above the trees and the searchlights are on it. Hold on!"
"Good heavens, something's wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now it's another one, and another. They look like tentacles to me. There, I can see the thing's body. It's large, large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather. But that face, it . . . Ladies and gentlemen, it's indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate. The monster or whatever it is can hardly move. It seems weighed down by . . . possibly gravity or something. The thing's raising up. The crowd falls back now. They've seen plenty. This is the most extraordinary experience. I can't find words . . . I'll pull this microphone with me as I talk. I'll have to stop the description until I can take a new position. Hold on, will you please, I'll be right back in a minute."

Listen to WAV file of this moment from "War of the Worlds" (450k)
from earthstation1.simplenet.com
"Streets are all jammed. Noise in crowds like New Year's Eve in city. Wait a minute . . . Enemy now in sight above the Palisades. Five -- five great machines. First one is crossing river. I can see it from here, wading the Hudson like a man wading through a brook . . . A bulletin's handed me . . . Martian cylinders are falling all over the country. One outside Buffalo, one in Chicago, St. Louis . . . seem to be timed and spaced . . . Now the first machine reaches the shore. He stands watching, looking over the city. His steel, cowlish head is even with the skyscrapers. He waits for the others. They rise like a line of new towers on the city's west side . . . Now they're lifting their metal hands. This is the end now. Smoke comes out . . . black smoke, drifting over the city. People in the streets see it now. They're running towards the East River . . . thousands of them, dropping in like rats. Now the smoke's spreading faster. It's reached Times Square. People trying to run away from it, but it's no use. They're falling like flies. Now the smoke's crossing Sixth Avenue . . . Fifth Avenue . . . one hundred yards away . . . it's fifty feet . . ."

All Artwork Copyright © 2000, James Neff. Reproduction prohibited. All Rights Reserved.

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