Welles & Wells


On November 8th 1938, Adolf Hitler made reference to the mass hysteria caused by Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre radio production of War of the Worlds, as evidence of “the corrupt condition and decadent state of affairs in democracy”.

“He hadn’t much else to say,” Welles wryly commented during a meeting with the original author HG Wells in 1940 after war had erupted in Europe. An actor playing Hitler makes a brief appearance in Welles’ 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane, and Welles uses subliminal footage from Hitler’s favourite movie King Kong near the end of the film which may or may not have been an attempt at pro-allied mind games given the context: an old and impossibly rich Kane sits in his half finished Xanadu pleasure dome unable to find pleasure in anything.

The original radio play of Welles War of the Worlds was broadcast on October 30th 1938 and written by Mercury Theatre newbie Howard Koch who found the book trite and dated. This is true, a book deeply stilted in its Victorian style, I would wager the subtext is the upper-class apocalyptic vision of a rising proletariat in the wake of the ageing queen’s death.

Desperately searching for a different title to use, he was informed the only other choice was Lorna Doone. Resigned, Koch set to work, his first move to change locations from Victorian England to the New Jersey town of Grover’s Mill, immediately lending the production some semblance of reality.

The Mercury  Theatre and Orson Welles were heavily involved in a production of Danton’s Death. They had little chance to review the script until close to recording time, by which time they had little choice but to go through with it, despite Welles and his producers hating it. One secretary called it “silly”.

Technician Paul Stewart carefully designed the sound effects until they were state of the art for a 30s radio play, a way to cover up the weak writing.

In 1938, more people had a radio than had a phone or television, so used to get most of their daily information from the typically ornate box sat in the corner. There was recent worry that the USA didn’t have a working air-force to protect it, susceptible to invasion from numerous, better prepared European countries.

By the time the Mercury Theatre sat down to record the fake newscast, none of the principal members had any intention of causing a hoax.  The show even began with an introduction that this was “A Mercury Theatre production” but used the device of an interrupted programme. The breakdowns in transmission, interruptions of dance music, the piano playing sadly to indicate the station was currently dead, were kept longer than had ever been dared before.

The performances were deliberately realistic, one actor (who falls down ‘dead’ at his mike) practised by listening repeatedly to the Hindenburg disaster, and the jovial way the reporter begins to the sheer horror by the time of the mass death.

Many listeners were used to flicking between stations, so missed the introduction. Panic in New Jersey was most potent, people stormed out of their houses with wet towels on their faces as makeshift gas masks and – over in New York – a black congregation in Harlem fell to their knees in terror. In Staten Island a wedding in progress was interrupted by “the invasion”.

As soon as the production was over, terrified listeners threatened violent attacks against Welles and CBS, somebody even threatened to blow up the CBS building, finding Welles in the Mercury Theatre hiding upstairs in the women’s toilets.

Times Square’s Moving News sign read: ORSON WELLES FRIGHTENS THE NATION. It was a media phenomenon, but the reality is fewer people were listening than has been reported in modern mythology.

Being so close to war, New York Tribune columnist Dorothy Thompson wrote:

Far from blaming Mr Orson Welles, he ought to be given a Congressional medal and a national prize for having made the most important of contributions to the social sciences… he made the scare to end all scares…the perfect demonstration that the menace is not from Mars but from the theatrical demagogues…”

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