WAR OF THE WORLDS By Sarah Montague
On October 30, 1938, widespread panic gripped the country as thousands of radio listeners, tuned into a dramatization of HG Wells? War of the Worlds by Orson Welles? Mercury Theatre on the Air, became convinced that the United States had been invaded by Martians. This momentous event in broadcast history has given us a rich cultural legacy, which includes a new work on Welles? life at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
SFX: WoW broadcasts, Welles, Ossman, Siti Co, fade into one another and out (? We know now, in the early years of the 20th century??)
NARR: we know now, in the early years of the 21st century, that none of this is true. But Welles? radio production, and Howard Koch?s script, remain landmarks in American cultural history, contributing to changes in civil defense, broadcast regulations, and social psychology. This mythic broadcast has virtually eclipsed its source material, HG Wells? story of alien invasion, and influenced generations of artists:
VOX WATERFALL: Darron West: If you know anything about the media?WoW was a prerequisite? Anne Bogart: The invasion of Mars is not very interesting?is that people believed it? David Ossman: The alien invasion is simply what carries the story, which has to do with the power of the medium. Anne Bogart: It is where we lost our virginity, in terms of the confusion between entertainment and news.?
SFX: WoW segment under
NARR: Although War of the Worlds was clearly identified as a presentation of the Columbia Broadcasting System at the top of the show, many listeners tuned in late, and heard instead-increasingly hysterical bogus?field? reports about the landing, in Grover?s Mill, New Jersey, of a hostile Martian spacecraft and its hideous inhabitants. A number of factors contributed to the public?s hysterical response:
NARR: David Ossman, whose many modern radio productions, and work with the Firesign Theatre, are part of Welles? artistic legacy:
VOX ?What we have with the War of the Worlds broadcast is a moment in time when people had been listening to the radio for news from Europe of violence, and killing, listeining for--impending doom?SFX: WoW segment under
NARR: But the jittery mood of the country was only partly to blame. A masterly production concept reinforced both radio?s authority and the listeners? sense of dread, turning the Victorian Wells? stately fantasy into an invasive, dynamic piece of radio verite:
OSSMAN: ?Welles said, ?base it on news reports?Howard stumbled on a great device, which was exactly that, news reports. In 45 minutes, the world has been conquered.?
SFX: WoW segment under (reporter at Grover?s Mill describes saucer)
NARR: As the Martians continued to wreak havoc with lethal gas and deadly rays, a drama of equal proportions was unfolding all across the country, as people fled their homes, rushed to churches to await the end of the world, and flooded the police, and the CBS studios, with calls.
SFX: SITI Co. reenactment of crowd panic
NARR: For director Anne Bogart, the radio play was not a museum piece, but part of the journey towards her current stage production, with the SITI Company, of a different War of the Worlds. This original play, exploring Welles? life, opened the Brooklyn Academy of Music?s Next Wave season on Wednesday.
BOGART: He?s somebody I wanted to spend two years with, to learn from. We kept the title?War of the Worlds, because although the structure of the piece is based on Citizen Kane, the piece is not about Citizen Kane, it?s about Orson Welles, and War of the Worlds was a pivotal moment in his life?Through him, I wanted to talk in this piece about how truth is relative, depending on how you edit the facts.
NARR: As part of their preparation for the BAM show, SITI wound up creating its own version of the original radio play:
SFX: SITI radio WoW segment under
BOGART: I feel like we channeled him, in a way. What might it have been like, performing in that studio and finding out they were actually affecting the entire world around them.?
NARR: David Ossman, who directed the 50th anniversary production of War of the Worlds in 1988, faced the challenge of making the piece work for a contemporary audience.
SFX Ossman WoW segment under
OSSMAN: ?What we did?was, transfer it to public radio?
NARR: Working from Koch?s original scripts, Ossman was able to exactly replicate Welles? then-experimental audio techniques.
OSSMAN: He altered the dramatic rhythms?more news-like, jagged and interrupted?That?s a great idea, and everybody since 1938 has used it to one extent or another.
NARR: And Darron West, sound designer for the SITI Company?s BAM production, was one of those influenced by Welles.
SFX: SITI BAM WoW under
WEST: I was really going for repeating sounds under the play?To me it?s an homage to Orson?s work, because I?ve always thought of sound in the theatre as needing to be visceral, to be able to go from a whisper to a scream.?
TRANSITION SOUND FROM SITI PRODUCTION
NARR: Like one of those cuddly monsters in a Maurice Sendak drawing, we have domesticated The War of the Worlds. It has become a friendly ?old-time radio? play, performed countless times all over the country by amateurs and professionals, including versions by Leonard Nimoy for his Alien Voices series and the SciFi Channel?s Internet-based Seeing Ear Theatre. And aliens, too, are daily fare, in video games, mass market paperbacks, and on TV, where they appear as angst-ridden teens on the WB network?s Roswell, or elusive co-conspirators on The X-Files.
But familiarity and the warm glow of nostalgia may have blinded us to Welles? real message. As he observed in a television interview years after the famous broadcast:
WELLES SIMULATION: ?Radio in those days, before the tube and the transistor, wasn?t just a noise in somebody?s pocket-it was a voice of authority. Too much so. At least, I thought so.?
WoW MUSIC UNDER
NARR: And today, the noise isn?t just in our pockets, it?s all around us. Anne Bogart:
BOGART: I think we?ve become more sophisticated, but at the same time I think we?ve become completely numbed to the effect of media on our lives?on how we live our lives.
SFX: Speech from SITI BAM WoW: ?It?s my duty, Taylor, to see to it that decent hardworking Americans aren?t taken in by the powers-that-be?I scared the American public tonight, Taylor, and they should be scared. Not of Martians, but of people like yourself?and what you represent. They should be very scared.?
NARR: Today, it is not just the manipulative network executive, or even the media mogul, who threatens from within. There are those who fear that it is media itself, so pervasive, we are scarcely aware of its influence. And this saturation, the potential blurring of truth and fiction, the actual and the created, may be the real war of the worlds.
SFX Welles at end of orig. broadcast: ?So goodbye everybody, and remember, please, the terrible lesson you learned tonight??
The Siti Company?s War of the Worlds continues at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through Saturday, October 7th. In a related program, BAMcinematek, the BAM Rose Cinemas? repertory film program, will be showing for films featuring or crafted by Orson Welles: Casino Royale (Welles as Bond villain Le Chiffre); A Man for All Seasons (Welles as Cardinal Woolsey); and two of Welles? own films, The Magnificent Ambersons, which functions as a major trope in the SITI company production, and The Trial.