30 November 2013


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 80

There's something about the closing post of a readalong/listenalong which makes me feel like a speech is in order, and I'm not that great at public speaking, as it is. But I'm not going to let that stop me from thanking everyone who contributed his thoughts to this short series: Angie, Brandon, Bob, Darwin and Mrs. Darwin, LTG, Sheila, and the mysterious Star Crunch, who stumbled into lurkerville as suddenly as he (or she?) stumbled out of it. My first foray into Old Time Radio wouldn't have been half as wonderful without you!

Our last play isn't going to be a Horror story, although its fitness for the Horror genre remains open to debate. I chose it because I've been curious about it for years, and I figured there was no better time to enjoy it at last. If you haven't heard it yet, here is your last chance before our discussion . . .

The first time I learned about this broadcast, I was in uni, studying H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds for a paper called "Literature and Visual Media". I still recall the incredulous sounds my classmates made when our lecturer (also known on this blog as The Good Professor) explained that a significant number of the first listeners truly thought that Martians were attacking--and they echoed in my memory while I listened to the first half of the play with a rather critical ear.

If I had been alive in 1938 and had "station surfed" into the first forty minutes of the broadcast, would I have been as easily convinced that an alien invasion were really happening? People who have known me for a while would say that the answer is yes . . . but they'd chalk it all up to my gullibility without givingOrson Welles any credit at all. And I think that Welles deserves a lot of credit: there is something about the first half of the play which is so ordinary that it's also convincing.

We've heard radio-within-radio before in this haphazard blog series, but the other plays always made it clear that we were listening to other characters listening to the radio. Mercury Theatre on the Air doesn't give us a similar sense of distance from its broadcasts-within-the-broadcast. So those who know that it's a play essentially become the first characters, while those who don't know it's a play can be excused for believing it isn't. I can imagine a television programme with good production values being able to achieve the same effect--though it might be harder now that we expect to recognise the news anchors and reporters who interrupt our shows with urgent special reports. (Imagine what a good cameo could do . . .)

But the story isn't told entirely through news bulletins and interviews. Eventually, Professor Pierson takes over as a narrator and we lose the sense of immediacy built up by the first half of the play. At first, I wasn't too happy about that, and I doubted that I'd enjoy the "straight" drama after all the action-packed scenes that had come before. But then the artilleryman started rambling and I couldn't believe what I was hearing . . .

I might as well confess now that I sometimes read conspiracy theory blogs for kicks. No, not the Catholic conspiracy theory blogs (though Bl. Anne Katherine Emmerich's locutions are right up my alley), and not the "prepper" conspiracy theory blogs (though I find their hobby very interesting), but those by bloggers who see a worldwide catastrophe as both inevitable and one of the best possible things that could happen in their lifetimes. And frankly, the way they talk about people who are not on the same page as they, whom they anticipate having to kill in order to protect their own family members, is exactly like the way the artilleryman talks about people whom he imagines would be happy to live as pets to the Martians in exchange for being regularly fed. He, too, relishes the idea that he and other "strong men" will one day get to turn the tables on the Martians and their weaker Earthling brothers alike. Because there are only the elect and the reprobates, you know, and the former should act accordingly. I shouldn't have been so surprised when I learned that the two most dedicated among the aforementioned conspiracy theory bloggers were also Calvinists.

We never do learn the artilleryman's reaction to the news that the Martians have died, brought low not by the strength and ingenuity of mankind, but by "the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared . . . the humblest thing that God in His wisdom put upon this earth." I'd be more interested to the aforementioned bloggers' reactions to this play, but I guess I should just be grateful that they don't read my blog.

What are your thoughts on the War of the Worlds broadcast?

1) On a scale of 1 to 10, how believable do the news bulletins seem?
2) Do you think that the play should have stuck to a single format instead of having the second half be so strikingly different from the first?
3) If you've read H.G. Wells's novel, do you think Orson Welles was right to give the artilleryman such a big role in the script?


mrsdarwin said...

Look. I'm going to be first to comment!

I'm working off memories of listening to this several months ago on a long drive, but what I recall is that the most convincing part of the early broadcasts was the program of dance music that were interrupted by the news bulletins. I liked the contrast of the bizarre happenings intruding into something so mundane and comforting as So-and-So's orchestra playing the latest tunes.

The news bulletins themselves didn't strike me as being so overwhelmingly authentic that they could be mistaken for real news, but then in these days we're not used to the plummy tones of the trained speakers of Welles's day. The flatter delivery of modern news anchors makes the news sound more convincing, if much less of an aural treat.

I was glad for the shift in format. I don't think that the news format could have sustained the whole story. And the artilleryman section is stronger, I think, for being told as part of a narrative and not as a news interview. As I remember, he starts off sounding normal, and the listener is glad to meet someone -- anyone! -- alive. But as he goes on, he gets more and more inhuman, as creepy as the aliens. I haven't read the original novel, so I can't comment on the adaptation, but I think Welles was right to give him a large role. The story at that point becomes more than just a diversion -- it becomes a commentary on the difference between human behavior and humane behavior.

Enbrethiliel said...


Yay! Nice to see you! =D

I agree that the interrupted music broadcasts were a very nice touch. What I found most striking, though, were the sudden silences when the heat ray or some other weapon would take out the reporter and his equipment. These details make me admire Welles's technique even more.

While I was listening, I thought that the story was dragging its feet toward the action, but now that I think it over, I realise that everything happens too quickly to be in real time. In my opinion, Welles strikes a pretty good balance here!

I think that the news format could have sustained the whole story if Welles had not also wanted to insert interpersonal drama and a moral into the play. I'm ultimately glad he did, of course, because he showed me something I had missed despite two readings of the novel; but I think the alternative would have been very interesting to study!

Brandon said...

I think the news format starts sounding more authentic when events pick up. But, as you say, the silence is what really makes it -- and I suspect it was quite shocking, too. Radio programs didn't just go dead.

I think it was important to have something indicating the desolation afterward; the worst part of an alien invasion would be less the invasion itself than whatever's left afterward.

I'm not really sure what to make of the artilleryman. I suppose he was a safer character to keep than the curate. But he does seem to maintain an important link to the original idea, namely: we do the same things to each other that the Martians are doing to us.

Enbrethiliel said...


I'm sure that even those who knew it was a play and who were familiar with the plot of The War of the Worlds would have been affected by the sudden silences. It's really chilling to think that someone who was talking and describing a scene to you (!!!) a mere second ago has just been reduced to ashes.

Having thought about the second half some more, I realised that the curate (even if replaced by a more neutral stereotype) would make the story too gruesome and that Miss Elphinstone (my personal favourite!) would have required a crowd scene rather than all that eerie desolation. On the other hand, letting the artilleryman be the only other significant character still strikes me as an odd choice . . . something which unbalances the story a bit.

If I recall correctly, the original artilleryman manages to sell his vision to the narrator for a few days. The narrator becomes disillusioned only after realising how completely unfeasible the plan to achieve that vision is. In this adaptation, however, the artilleryman is rejected for being inhuman but not also exposed as incompetent. The Martians are defeated at the end, but he is still among us . . .

Or maybe that was Welles's whole point. =P

love the girls said...

The radio show was a let down from what I had heard of it from my childhood, I had expected a very convincing radio show, but what it proves is that I am very different from the original audience.

I would not have been fooled for even a moment, but yet we know that so many people were fooled that Orwell had to formally apologize.

I very much like the book, even if the red plants covering everything is a bit tedious, and as a child I very much liked the movie, but the best is the movie that came out a few years ago, it kept up the pace from the beginning not only as action but as very nice drama where I was constantly in fear for the safety of the daughter.

Enbrethiliel said...


I think it would be impossible for anyone for whom radio is not the primary medium to react the way the original audience did. The original air date was a perfect moment in time.

When I reread the book last April, I was a little disappointed. The level of emotion that had moved me in The Time Machine seemed completely missing from the later text.

love the girls said...

The Time Machine is better drama, although, once again, the recent movies are far better.

Orwell's book characters don't draw me in the way Dickens does. The movies in a shortened medium offer better character development and catharsis.

Enbrethiliel said...


I think that the most recent movie adaptations The Time Machine and War of the Worlds change so much that they are practically different stories. They're just recognisable as adaptations inasmuch as they follow Wells's basic premises and unique twists. (Note that I haven't seen the latest War of the Worlds, so I'm referring to Independence Day and Mars Attacks.)

Star Crunch said...

A he, yes. I didn't stumble back into town as much as get lost in the woods, so to speak. Still catching up!

The hysterical reactions seem strange apart from somebody only giving a passing listen. The scenes obviously do continue to transition one to another, after all. The silences aren't that long. Also, to me anyway, they felt a little too silent, like there should have been some background noise.

I've previously heard bits of Pierson's soliloquy sampled in a song (which one, I can't recall, and that's going to drive me nuts...). I suppose it's after the intermission anyway, but had I been running around in terror—"We're all going to die!"—I probably would have calmed down at that point. :) Anyhow, it sort of took me out of the story for a minute.

It never occurred to me while listening, but reading the comments about conspiracy-themed blogs did bring several fitting personalities immediately to mind. Hooray?

Enbrethiliel said...


And did they also happen to be Calvinists?! =P

On Twitter, one friend sent me a link to an article which claimed that the panic was actually very isolated and limited, and then another friend said that his great-uncle found the broadcast convincing enough to run for the shotgun.