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Comments on ‘The American Experience: The War of the Worlds Broadcast (10-29-13)’

By Ron N. Butler

Tonight (2013-10-30) is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the night St. Orson scared the Ovaltine out of America using only his voice, the Columbia Broadcasting System, and a mayonnaise jar.

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!

WGBH - The War of the Worlds

 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.


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Writing “The War of the Worlds: The Untold Story”

The following was contributed by ARTC writer Ron N. Butler regarding his experience writing “The War of the Worlds: The Untold Story”. Beware: Here be spoilers.

Hear The War of the Worlds: The Untold Story for yourself LIVE on October 20 at the Marcus Jewish Community Center at 2:30pm and 7:30pm.

By Ron N. Butler

Somewhere in my library (I intend to alphabetize my books after I retire) I have a slim, fragile paperback titled Sherlock Holmes’s War of the Worlds, by Wade Wellman and Manley W. Wellman.  It is a briefer story even than the slenderness of the book indicates; halfway through, it becomes Professor Geo. E. Challenger vs. Mars, following the adventures of another of Conan Doyle’s creations through the Great Martian Invasion.

I’ve read it much more than once and enjoyed it every time. Still —  When you get down to it, neither Sherlock Holmes nor Professor Challenger actually does much to thwart the Martian invaders, to prevent humanity being pushed down a notch on the food chain.  That’s inherent, I think, in the approach the Wellmans took to the material, but still somewhat unsatisfying.

The Wellmans’ stories take their cue, too , from Wells’ original story.  Wells was making a point (something to do with the barbarous way “civilized” imperialists treated the “lesser breeds” in those days, I think), but to do it he made his countrymen rather, well — pushovers.  The British military forces are routed by one or two encounters with the Heat-Ray and the Black Smoke, and civilization disintegrates inside a week with the entire population fleeing pell-mall for Scotland or France.

Between that young writer and us however lies the Twentieth Century, the history of which  makes us skeptical of the simplicity of Wells’ narrative.  Less than twenty years after the serialization of The War of the Worlds, the armies of the First World War faced the Earthly version of “Black Smoke.” Contrary to the promises of its inventors, it did not sweep all before it and end the stalemate on the Western Front (though it did add to the slaughter).  The Second World War showed that almost nothing could drive a city’s inhabitants out of their digs, even if their “digs” were literally “dug” — basements and cellars under piles of rubble.  The web of civil society proved surprisingly tough, first in London and Coventry, eventually in Berlin and Tokyo.

Similarly, the Century of Technological Warfare abounds with Wonder-Weapons that did not live up to their billing: Poison gas (see above).  Bombing airplanes that did not “always get through,” and had a persistently hard time delivering explosive ordinance within miles of a target when they did.  “Land ironclads” that succumbed to a spiraling competition between the thickness (and weight) of their armor vs. the shaped-charge anti-tank weapon.  The seemingly simple process of moving troops from ships to shore took years and many millions of dollars to reduce to a routine.

These were the two notions in the back of my mind a couple of years ago when I considered writing a radio script along the lines of the Wellmans’ pastiche.  What with other projects, though, it just never happened.

After DragonCon 2012, however, Bill Ritch asked me if I would consider writing a War of the Worlds script for our 2013 show.  For one thing, 2013 would be the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Orson Welles Mercury Theatre panic broadcast.  We also had a possibility that one or more DragonCon guest-actors would like to perform with us.

“A new, straight-up adaptation of the Wells novel?” I asked.  (We don’t do re-creations, so a simple production of the Howard Koch script was not what Bill had in mind, I knew.)

“Whatever you want,” he answered.

Oh!  In that case, I have this idea…

Let’s get back to the “two notions.”

First, Earth is not Mars, even Wells-ian Mars.  England in June looks idyllic to us, but it would be an alien environment to a Martian.  All that water, for one thing.  Wells has his Martian fighting-machines wading confidently across rivers and into the sea.  But what do Martians know of muddy, boggy river bottoms vs. stony channels as footing for huge machine feet?  And what does saltwater do to the joints of a walking machine designed by engineers used to near-zero humidity and water confined to canals?  And I assure you that saltwater and aluminum (or “aluminium,” the principal structural material of the tripods, per Wells) do not play well together.

Ah, aluminum.  Wells describes at least one summer thunderstorm in the course of his tale.  Contemplate the surprises in store for the pilot of a hundred-foot-tall aluminum fighting machine standing taller than the trees in the middle of a thunderstorm…

Second, I wanted to write about someone who fought back.  By preference, someone from A. Conan Doyle’s universe.  It would have to be a man (or woman) of action.  Highly intelligent.  Broadly educated.  Possessed of accomplices, a support network and resources that would not run away at the approach of the Martians.  And, because the situation is truly desperate and the stakes are literally global, ruthless.

I think one name presents itself above all others.

I didn’t say he had to be a nice guy.