Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Martians have landed! Oh, wait...

I was listening to "The War of the Worlds" earlier tonight. Notice I said listening. I'm not talking about that Tom Cruise crapfest that's currently playing in theaters and will be out on DVD in approximately three hours, nor am I referring to the 1953 version starring a bunch of people no one's ever heard of and featuring Martians so stiff and awkward they make the Muppets look like the Bolshoi Ballet in comparison. No, I'm talking about the Mercury Theatre's radio adaptation of H.G. Wells's "War of the Worlds", starring Orson Welles, first broadcast on October 30th, 1938. The broadcast that caused mass panic across the countryside, because the people who had tuned in late didn't realize they were listening to a play. Well, not really mass panic. But a fair amount of panic.

I, like just about everyone else who has ever heard the story, laughed at the dooferosity of people who would mistake a radio play for the real deal. (I just made dooferosity up. It's a good word.) "Jeez, Grandpa," I said. "Were people really that gullible back then?" All he could say was, "It was a simpler time." There was no way he could tell me that would make me understand, no way to explain to this child of the 80s about a time when people spoke the truth because their word was all they had, and the Voice from the Radio was Authority, and people believed in their Government; no more than I can explain to my child of the 90s what it was like before the Berlin Wall fell down, and our enemies were Russians instead of Islamic Fundamentalists. You had to be there.

But I've been gifted with a little more than my fair share of imagination, so I brought home the CD ($5.99 at Wally-world, and it came with a free pop-up picture), popped it into my disk drive, and let'er rip. It started out a little cheesy at first, with the announcer, well, announcing, and the music playing in the background; it had been digitally remastered but you could still hear some popping and hissing. As the announcer made the first interruption of the dance music to tell the audience that several explosions had been witnessed on the surface of Mars, I began to picture myself as a housewife of the thirties, listening to this broadcast for the very first time.

It's about 8 o'clock at night, probably the first chance I've had to sit down all day. I've been cleaning and cooking and doing laundry all day (no microwave or clothes dryer for me; I've got to cook the food the long way around and run the wet clothes through a mangler and hang them on the line to dry), the kids have been underfoot. The husband got home from the factory about 6; we had supper, then I washed the dishes, got the kids cleaned up and put into bed, finished straightening up the house, brought in the clothes from the line, and now I'm going to sit here and listen to some nice relaxing music while I do some sewing. But what's this? Explosions on Mars? A strange metal cylinder landing in a field? This must be important or they wouldn't interrupt the sewing is forgotten as I and my husband concentrate on the glowing dial of the radio, listening hard, hearing a tale of flames and fog and death...

There would be one radio in the house. In 2005 I have a radio in almost every room, along with cable television that gives me 24 hour news and an internet connection that does likewise. If there's something I want to know, I can go searching for it, and find it fairly quickly. People in 1938 did not have that luxury. They relied on that one radio to give them their news, and they did not learn anything that the broadcasters did not want them to hear. We can be skeptics these days, because we can compare sources easily; people back then had to trust what they heard coming from that radio. What they heard on the night of October 30th, 1938, was that Martians had landed in Grover's Mill, NJ.

People who had turned in from the very beginning of the broadcast knew, of course, that they were listening to a dramatization. People who came in a few minutes later only heard what sounded like genuine news interruptions of a music program. And they did sound genuine; even I got the shivers, almost 70 years after the fact. Halfway through the program there was a station identification break, and then the tale morphs into a monologue by Orson Welles; by then it's clear that this is a play. That first half of the program, though, is...just wow. I could sympathize with all the people who thought it was real, and understand why they did; those were some talented actors who, with the power of only their voices, convinced a million people that they were doomed. Proof once again that there's nothing so frightening to people as what their imaginations can conjure up. Modern horror movie makers would do well to make note of that.

Orson Welles was later heard to remark that he presented this program in this way because he was concerned at how much faith people put in anything that came over the radio, and he wanted to demonstrate how dangerous that could be. Of course, he also said that the whole thing was just supposed to be a play and he had no idea people would take it so seriously. Whichever is true, the bottom line is that he pulled off a stunt that had people outside shooting at the Grover's Mill water tower, thinking it was a Martian machine. That's an accomplishment anyone should be proud of.

Grandpa was right; those were simpler times. My mistake lay in confusing "simple" with "stupid". I no longer think the people of the 30s were doofernuts for being taken in by this marvelously presented program. I envy them their faith in the Powers that Be.


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