I’ll Explain Later…
Happy Halloween (eve). It is October 30, 1938. In the past month, Germany has annexed the Sudetenland. The ballet Billy the Kid opened in Chicago. The Yankees win their third consecutive World Series. The Munich Agreement was signed, assuring, as British Prime Minister Neville Chaimberlain announced, “Peace for our time.” Pygmalion opens in movie theaters, based on the George Bernard Shaw stageplay. The film’s screenplay will later be the basis of the musical My Fair Lady. Christopher Lloyd has just been born. Buddy Ebsen has to give up his role in The Wizard of Oz a week into filming when he narrowly survives a severe allergic reaction to the aluminum powder in his Tin Man makeup. It is otherwise a quiet month for movies; most of the year’s big releases were back in August, though Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes opens in two days. In the past week, Chester Carlson has demonstrated the first xerographic copier — the Xerox machine to you and me. DuPont has officially dubbed their new synthetic polymer “nylon”. Jews with Polish citizenship have been evicted from Germany. The US has outlawed child factory labor and created the first official nationwide minimum wage.
Billboard Magazine exists, but it won’t start producing actual charts until 1940, so the most specific I can tell you is that the most popular songs at the moment are probably “Begin the Beguine” by Artie Shaw and “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” by the Andrews Sisters. Or maybe the Sammy Kaye version of “Rosalie”, which I think debuted this week. Presumably, swing is really popular since everybody who’s anybody is denouncing it, including, and I swear I am not making this up, an article dated November 2, titled “Swing Viewed as ‘Musical Hitlerism’; Professor Sees Fans Ripe for Dictator.” Yes. In 1938, literally a week before Kristallnacht, stodgy old people were already comparing things they didn’t like to Hitler. The Nazis go ahead and ban swing by the end of the month anyway, just in case.
In the coming week or so, Seabiscuit will outrun War Admiral at Pimlico, Crystal Bird Faucet will become the representative for the 18th district of Philadelphia to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, the first African American Woman to serve as a state legislator. Perl Buck will win the Nobel Prize in literature. LSD will be synthesized for the first time. Freak weather conditions will cause TVs in New York to briefly receive BBC broadcasts. This is novel enough that someone is going to film it, making it the only known surviving footage of pre-war BBC television. Also Kristallnacht is going to happen, because, y’know, Nazis.
Phantom BBC broadcasts aside, television does not really exist per se in any form we’d recognize it, but its specter is already haunting us: last week, the BBC televised its first hockey match, and in New York, John Warde became the second person — the second person in 1938 and also the second person in the history of ever — to have his suicide televised, though lighting conditions, poor reception, and the fact that it was 1938 and Television hadn’t finished being invented yet keep more than a handful of people from seeing it. CRTs are being produced in the tens of thousands despite the fact that there won’t be any proper commercial TV for another year or two in the US. In the US right now, radio is still where it’s at, and will be for a few more years yet. This month marks the premier of The Wonder Show, featuring Lucille Ball. Jack Benny does a send-up of one of those big August movies, Algiers on his show (Algiers, by the way, is the reason that the 1942 film Casablanca didn’t use its maiden name, Everybody Comes to Rick’s). Madeline Carroll guest stars on the Bergen and McCarthy segment of The Chase and Sanborn Hour. Doctor Christian‘s October episodes are “Baby on Doorstep” and “Boy loves Girl”, adapted, in accordance with the gimmick of the show, from listener submissions. Jungle Jim has been facing off against “Karnak the Killer” since the beginning of August in a serial that ends next week.
But look, the fact that you’ve stuck with me this long suggests that you’ve got at least a little background in geek-relevant media, so you probably already know what the deal is with radio and October 30, 1938. A young auteur named Orson Welles was still early in his career. Citizen Kane is still three years away. The Third Man is a decade away. The frozen pea commercial and Caesar’s Palace promotional video are thirty years away. Transformers The Movie is almost half a century away. Right now, he’s seventeen episodes in on a series of radio plays CBS commissioned him to direct, performed by Welles and the members of the Mercury Theater. In December, it would be picked up for sponsorship by Campbell’s Soup and would run as The Campbell Playhouse until Welles tired of having to deal with network censorship and decided not to renew his contract in 1940. But here, in October 1938, The Mercury Theater On The Air does the one and only thing you are liable to remember it for if you aren’t an Old Time Radio fan.
No one would have believed, said a different guy named “Wells”, that in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own. But apparently people forty years on were more credulous, because when The Mercury Theater on the Air performed the radioplay “Invaders from Mars”, so the story goes, it brought on mass hysteria. Panic in the streets. A man in Washington falls dead from a heart attack as he imagines black smoke and heat rays drawing near. Radio stations across the country besieged by angry mobs demanding answers. Future Tonight Show host Jack Paar shouted down by callers as he attempts to reassure listeners. The FCC threatened to require all broadcasts be pre-approved from now on. Dogs and cats living together.
Or not. Practically everyone who actually researches these things nowadays has conceded that, yes, some people panicked, but no, it wasn’t rioting in the streets or anything. It may be impossible to believe in this day and age of modern journalistic integrity, but it’s just possible that the news media of 1938 may have embellished the extent of the panic. I know, unpossible, right? To actually get as far as a panic over The Mercury Theater on the Air‘s “War of the Worlds”, you’d have to be paying close enough attention to know you should panic, but not enough that you pick up on things like the fact that about five minutes into a broadcast that started at 8 PM, they announce the arrival of the first Martian cylinder at a quarter past nine. Or that Orson Welles’s character walks from Princeton to Times Square in the last third of the broadcast.
Well yeah, you might well say, but isn’t that how panic works? You hear a little bit and your critical reasoning turns off and you run off half-cocked? Besides, it was the thirties and people were really naive back then and assumed that anything you heard on the radio must be true!
Which makes a good narrative, but does it track with your experience of life? Yes, of course things were different in the 1930s, but you know and I know exactly what happens when you see something huge and unexpected and horrible and unprecedented appear on the news one morning. You don’t take to the streets in panic. You do literally nothing else for hours other than watch with rapt attention, silently demanding the world start making sense again. And as to the claim that people in the past would have assumed anything the heard on the radio was true, it was 1938. It’s not like fiction hadn’t been invented yet. I mean, the most popular show of this era starred a ventriloquist’s dummy. I don’t think anyone listening at home thought Charlie McCarthy was actually able to speak all on his own (I have no idea what particular appeal a ventriloquist act would have on the radio over any other kind of entertainment, but there you have it). And before you qualify it by saying that War of the Worlds was framed as a news broadcast — this wasn’t the first time that had happened either. In fact, Orson Welles himself had starred alongside future Bat-Villain Burgess Meredith in The Fall of the City the previous year. Like War of the Worlds, it was framed as a news broadcast, and like War of the Worlds, it told of a civilization quickly being taken over by a mysterious invading force, the major difference being that The Fall of the City is an experimental piece, its dialogue in blank verse, and kind of surreal (The approaching conqueror turns out to be a manifestation of the people’s desire to be subjugated). The actual documented evidence suggests that the reaction of the public consisted mostly of high call-volumes at radio stations and newspapers. That suggests concern, sure, but not panic. Calling the news media and asking them what’s going on is a very rational response to hearing something bizarre and alarming — if it’d happened today, I imagine the reports would be that “#Martians” was trending on Twitter.
Besides, The Mercury Theater on the Air was a minor little cultural-interest program on CBS. At eight O’clock on a Sunday, most everyone was listening to Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy over on the NBC Red Network. Though astute listeners probably find it suspicious that the point in War of the Worlds where the Martians first appear occurs at almost exactly the moment that The Chase and Sandborn Hour took its first commercial break.
On the other hand, there are antecedents. In 1926, Father Ronald Knox did a satirical report of the outbreak of a communist revolution in England as part of his weekly BBC Radio show. The panic was slower-burning though; a big part of what spooked the public was that snowy weather prevented newspaper deliveries the next day, prompting fears that The Times had fallen in battle. The following year, Australian listeners were spooked when Station 5CL opened a season of Thursday night “stunts” one July night with a radio play in the style of a news report about an invasion by an unspecified foreign power. In a kind of beautifully 1920s Austrialian sort of way, the news reports kind of backhandedly impugned the manliness of anyone who fell for it. 5CL continued its stunts that winter (Austrialia, remember? Winter’s in the middle of the year), including, ironically enough, a purported live report of an expedition to Mars, actually launching a small rocket from their station to help sell the illusion to nearby listeners who happened to be looking skyward.
But look, even if there wasn’t actual rioting in the street, some people did get scared, and it behooves us to look into that a bit. The first thing to remember is that radio doesn’t work by the same rules as television. Although the narrative style of TV grew very directly out of radio, at a very fundamental level, they work in almost completely opposite ways. In fact, while I was researching this article, I found an excerpt from a 1940s book on writing for radio which outright says that the techniques of radio writing are utterly inapplicable to TV. But what do I mean when I say that TV and Radio work in opposite ways? The most obvious thing is the lack of visuals, of course. Vision is incredibly central to the human experience. A huge amount of our brains are devoted to processing images. Even people who can’t see are constantly surrounded by a world that demands they interpret — or “view” — it in visual terms. It infiltrates our language (You see it all the time): to miss a key detail is to overlook it. A general sense of a situation is an overview, and to get one, you take a look at the big picture. To be caught unaware is to be blindsided, which you can avoid if you look out. When you part company with someone, you promise to see you later. You investigate something by looking into it, and when you finally figure out what it’s all about, you might well exclaim, “Oh! I see!” And then you can process that information and use it to draw a conclusion. Heck, I started this paragraph by inviting you to look, and I’m going to end it with another visual allusion. See?
This seems counterintuitive to our purpose, though, doesn’t it? I mean: seeing is believing, right? So why should a radio play be so convincing? The most cliche answer is that, robbed of what is for most of us the chiefest amongst the senses, our desperate brain starts inventing some extra reality all on its own to make up the difference. Which is true, I suppose, but it doesn’t, irm, paint the whole picture. There’s another element of how radio differs from TV that I think is key here, and it’s not one we talk about a lot.
I’ve got one of those surround-sound setup dealies at home. Five small speakers, strategically arranged around the room. This is bizarrely cumbersome: if you don’t have everything adjusted just right, the sound is weird and tinny and sounds like it’s coming from the wrong place. In principle, of course, when you’ve got it all set up properly, you can do neat things with all that 5.1 digital nonsense. But ultimately, this is a very small part of the TV-watching experience, because no matter how you spacialize it, what you really want is for almost all of the sound to seem like it’s coming from the forty-inch rectangle at the front of the room.
Television, especially in the old days before we all got comfortable and complacent about it, is often touted for its ability to bring anything in the world right there into your living room. But that’s not quite true, is it? What television does is not to bring the world into the room, but to shrink it down and put it right outside your room. What we experience on TV is the world as viewed through a window. In the 1930s, a very small window. High definition and big screens and curved screens and 3-D glasses all purport to make the images we see as though they are “really there”, but other than when I’ve stuck my smartphone into a Google Cardboard rig, all those advances haven’t changed the fact that I never have to do more than turn my head about 45 degrees to escape the illusion.
Of all the senses, vision is uniquely spacial: to see something places it in the world in a way none of the other senses do. Vision is the one sense that directly links us to other things out away in the world. Touch and taste require that the thing we wish to sense comes to us, or we go to it. Smell can give us a notion of proximity, but only sometimes, it quickly dulls as it gets bored with each stimulus, and it often lies — the acrid chemical smell of a burnt-out bluetooth transmitter issues more strongly from the second floor vent registers than from the transmitter itself. And sound is very strange: it’s spacial, but only in one dimension. While our binocular vision generates a model of a three dimensional space by stitching together a pair of two-dimensional images, our ears pick up frequency and volume from two directions, and the most you can get out of that is roughly how far to the left or right something is. You can’t tell by sound alone whether something is in front of you, behind you, above, or below without moving your head (Your eyes cheat a little bit, because they also vibrate slightly, allowing them to pick up more information from tiny little perspective shifts. Weirdly, a recent study suggested that the extent to which your brain relies on that extra information is inversely proportional to testosterone levels. Since things like 3D glasses can’t yet accurately model this effect, one strange result is that 3D graphics are more convincing to men than to women, and that difference applies to cis and trans people alike). And even then, sound isn’t directional the way vision is. I can look away from something I don’t want to see. I can’t listen away from something.
I’m getting ahead of myself, but we can stop a moment and reflect that radio has at least the potential to be quite scary just because you can’t close your ears if you get too scared. The actual point I was trying to get to is this: Television shrinks the world down and puts it in a box for you. It lets you see amazing things from all over the world, but it maintains a strict subject/object separation: no matter how fantastic the world is on the screen, it has to stay in that box(And how effective is it when you have something like Ringu, or Poltergeist or the “It’s a Good Life” segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie, where things can cross the TV boundary to get you? Or for that matter, the Doctor talking to Sally Sparrow via DVD). Radio is almost the exact diametric opposite. Radio comes out of the box. The box is the least interesting thing about radio (Still pretty cool though, if you’ve ever poked around inside an old tube radio). What you see on TV is by definition not in the room with you. What you hear on the radio is. The sounds come out into your space, invade it. Heck, those sounds do not even exist as sound until they leave the radio. Inside they radio, they’re just a pattern of electromagnetism, a vibrating membrane. They’re only turned into sound when the speaker beats on the air outside. Sound surrounds you.
Since this is the first time we’ve talked about adaptations of War of the Worlds, maybe a quick precis is in order. Most everyone knows the general outline of the story, but considerably fewer have actually read it, not least of all because HG Wells’s writing style is pretty dry and impersonal. He’s one of those golden-age Science Fiction writers for whom big ideas are more important than storytelling, and I think that makes his works better in adaptation than in the original (Though there is a touching chapter at the end detailing the protagonist’s search for and ultimate reunion with his wife that for some reason hardly ever makes it into adaptations).
Most people are familiar with 1953 George Pal film, or the 2005 Spielberg film. They, like most adaptations, keep most of the major plot beats, but contort them a lot to give the story stronger characters and pacing. There are basically seven major scenes in the story: the first Martian ship lands and is initially mistaken for a meteorite; the Martians emerge, erect a war machine, and slaughter the first responders; the military responds and is routed by “heat ray” weapons; a suicide attack by Earth’s most formidable weapons of war destroys one war machine; the martians release poisonous black smoke, pretty much terminating the military response; the protagonist holes up in a farmhouse, where he gets a good look at the Martian modus operandi, usually by watching another survivor get eaten during a panic attack; the protagonist meets an artilleryman with delusions about setting himself up as leader of a new society; the Martians all die suddenly from disease. Different adaptations give different emphasis to these parts or introduce a twist — the George Pal movie has the war machine survive unscathed in their equivalent of the Thunderchild scene; Spielberg has the Martian warcraft buried underground ahead of time rather than arriving from Mars with their operators — but they’re usually all there. The basic beats are even pretty much all there in Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day; Randy Quaid basically plays the role of the Thunderchild, Area 51 takes the place of the farmhouse, and the invaders are ultimately brought down, after all of man’s devices had failed, by the humblest thing that God in His wisdom had put upon the Earth: Jeff Goldblum (I mean, yes, they used a computer virus, and that’s interesting (if nonsensical) in that it is such an obvious “clever twist” on the end of War of the Worlds that it’s hard to imagine it wasn’t a deliberate homage, but my answer is funnier).
War of the Worlds begins with an opening narration that frames the story in the most awkward of tenses, the present-as-past-in-future-perfect: “In the thirty-ninth year (Of course, technically, 1938 is the Thirty-eighth year of the twentieth century, as 1900 is part of the nineteenth century. But clearly even in 1938 everyone knew that was pointlessly pedantic) of the twentieth century came the great disillusionment. It was near the end of October. Business was better. The war scare was over. More men were back at work. Sales were picking up. On this particular evening, October 30, the Crosley service estimated that thirty-two million people were listening in on radios.” We catch the tail-end of a weather report before the announcer hands over to a musical program, which in turn is interrupted by an announcement that an eruption of blue flame on Mars has been sighted by an observatory.
After a bit more back and forth between the announcer and the soothing sounds of Ramon Raquello and his Orchestra, we get to meet the man who will eventually become the protagonist of the story, Professor Richard Pierson, an astronomer at Princeton. Howard Koch’s radioplay stays fairly close to the major beats of the original novel, even more than the many later adaptations, but here we get one of the earliest and most influential changes. Wells, of course, rarely bothered with proper names for his characters. The protagonist of the book is described as an essayist, but doesn’t have a name. He seems most closely analogous to Carl Phillips, the reporter who interviews Pierson. In the ’30s, the Intrepid Reporter Hero would have already been a familiar trope. Instead, this version of the story will follow Pierson in its second half. There’s an analogous character to him in the original, the “famous astronomer” Ogilvy, but he’s killed off-screen at the beginning of the invasion. I can’t help but wonder if Professor Pierson is named for Pearson’s, the magazine that originally published War of the Worlds in serial form back in 1897.
Pierson exposits a bit, echoing Ogilvy’s sentiment that the chances of anything coming from Mars are “A thousand to one.” (Admittedly, a thousand times more likely than Ogilvy’s estimate), until they’re interrupted by a telegram, asking Pierson to investigate a suspected meteorite impact in nearby Grover’s Mills. Though Pierson doesn’t plan to investigate until the next morning, Intrepid reporter Carl Philips is summoned to the scene, and presumably gives him a lift. We’ve now pulled out fully an hour ahead of real time in our story; our announcer tells us that the meteor struck at 8:50, and refers to events as late as 9:20. About thirty seconds have passed for the listening audience when Carl and Pierson arrive in Grover’s Mill ten minutes later. Carl kills time by interviewing a yokel. I can’t stress this enough: the first fifteen minutes of this radioplay are really dry. Deliberately dry. This is really the key to selling the whole thing, because that dry, matter-of-fact style is really what sells us on this being a legitimate news report, and whether or not it actually “fools” you, it’s still what makes it effective when the world stops making sense in a few more minutes when Chase and Sanborn goes to commercial.
There is one bit I really like here, though: while describing the crowd around the fallen cylinder, Carl Phillips reports, “One man wants to touch the thing. He’s having an argument with a policeman. The policeman wins.” It’s just a beautiful bit of understatement that very efficiently evokes the idea of what happens and also gives us a real sense of Carl Phillips as a reporter. Frank Readick performs the lines with this really hard-core “detached disinterest” tone that shouts, “We all knew exactly how this was going to end.” Gates McFadden was a bit more fun with it in a 1994 production, conveying a building excitement that she suddenly suppresses on, “The policeman wins,” in a way that you know means, “The policeman just punched that guy in the face, but this is the ’30s, so reporters don’t talk about police brutality.”The detached disinterest continues even when the Martians actually show up a minute or so later. Listening to it now, with my upbringing on '80s media, it produces a feeling of whiplash and disbelief: the words and the delivery are at odd angles to each other. I don't really have the literacy in 1930s newscasting to say what it would have been like for the original audience. Readick prepared for the part by listening to Herbert Morrison's reports of the Hindenberg disaster (The "Oh the humanity!" bit), but I can't hear the influence personally. I actually think Gates McFadden comes closer to emulating Morrison's "I am suppressing my shock and alarm as best I can because I am a professional," though she cites not Morrison, but Lauren Bacall as the major influence for her performance. The only real hint that Carl Phillips cares about what's going on in Readick's performance comes at how he speeds up and slows down slightly, rushing over bits like the physical description of the Martians, which seems to disgust him, and slowing down as he tries to delay reporting his own inevitable death.
PHILLIPS: Now the whole field's caught fire. The woods, the barns, the gas tanks of automobiles. It's spreading everywhere. It's coming this way. About twenty yards to my right.Where McFadden finally breaks down at the end in a panic, it's not fear but only sadness I pick up from Readick as he says his last words.
And then we go back to the studio, where an announcer who doesn’t seem to have been listening guesses that there might be a technical problem with their field unit, reads an announcement that the explosions on Mars are probably just volcanoes, then cuts over to a piano interlude. Dwight Schultz does this part in the 1994 production, and I really like that he adds a little “um” at the beginning, like he doesn’t quite believe what’s going on.
We’re treated to some announcements about military preparations, then we get an interview with Professor Pierson, who gives a weirdly technobabble-heavy speech about the heat ray. It’s probably the most Star Trek thing in this play, and I’m doubly impressed that when Leonard Nemoy played the role in ’94, he sounds nothing like Spock even as he’s reading lines that could easily have been written for him. One nice touch: his voice is heavily filtered for this bit to indicate that he’s talking to them via telephone from the farmhouse where he’s holed up.
The announcer receives confirmation of Carl Phillips’s death immediately after the interview, and finally lets the dispassionate newscaster facade drop. From here on, we’ll be listening to panicked people try to keep doing their jobs anyway. A captain in the state militia reports as the military mounts a counter-attack, only to be routed when the first tripod war machine emerges from the spacecraft. News starts coming faster as more tripods emerge across the country and refugees flee in terror. The big “action scene” of the radioplay happens when the station airs a “live” feed from the 22nd field artillery. The artillery is able to damage one tripod, but all they get for their efforts is a face-full of black smoke. Setting aside the framing device of the news broadcast for a while, we start cutting directly between military broadcasts: a bomber out of Bayonne reports in as his plane, along with seven others, is shot down by heat rays, then to air traffic control, who confirms the bomber’s demise but reveals that his suicide run had destroyed a single tripod. An operator in Newark cuts in to announce the city’s evacuation in the face of encroaching black smoke. The operators at stations 2X2L and 8X3R try to exchange information, but 8X3R falls ominously silent.We return to the radio announcer one last time. Resigned to his fate, he reports on attempts to evacuate New York City. It's a tired, broken man who gives his final report: "They're running towards the East River. Thousands of them. Dropping in like rats. Now the smoke's spreading faster. It's reached Times Square. People trying to run away from it, but it's no use. They're falling like flies. Now the smoke's crossing Sixth Avenue... Fifth Avenue... one hundred yards away... It's fifty feet," and then we actually hear his body slump over as he too is overcome.
2X2L calling CQ... 2X2L calling CQ... New York? Isn't there anyone on the air? Isn't there anyone on the air? Isn't there anyone...Which would be chilling enough on its own, but we return one last time to 2X2L.
One of the things my dad told me when I was younger and trying to understand the alleged panic was that back then — this was about a decade before my dad was born, but it’s about the right vintage for his siblings — radio was kind of hit-or-miss. I mentioned before how British TV got picked up in New York. Sometimes, when the weather did the right things or your tuner did the wrong things, or the vacuum tubes weren’t all screwed in tight, you’d sometimes pick up stray signals on your radio. It wouldn’t have been unbelievable in 1938 for a listener to imagine that, in the confusion of war, military or government broadcasts had drifted into the commercial frequencies.
I don’t know that such a thing would explain why, after they paused for station identification (and repeating that this was an original dramatization), the mode of the narrative shifts completely. The last act of The War of the Worlds is a traditional narrative, told in the first person and styled as the diary of Professor Pierson as he makes his way from a farmhouse in Grover’s Mill to Times Square. This first segment is a strange transition as the professor rambles philosophically: “My wife, my colleagues, my students, my books, my observatory, my–. my world… where are they? Did they ever exist? Am I Richard Pierson? What day is it? Do days exist without calendars? Does time pass when there are no human hands left to wind the clocks?” The farmhouse scene is greatly simplified here; there’s no equivalent character to the curate (A clergyman the protagonist holes up with and eventually kills or incapacitates when his bout of hysterics threaten to reveal their location), nor much detail about what the Martians have set themselves to doing now that humanity has fallen. There is no red weed in this version, and the most we learn of what use the Martians make of conquered humans is Pierson’s ominous warning that, “I have seen the Martians… Feed.”He makes his way to Newark, where he's accosted by my favorite character, the artilleryman. The artilleryman really prefigures the doomsday prepper in a lot of ways. He's presumably a survivor of the 22nd Artillery, and he initially orders Pierson out of "his country", but the two stop and exchange information for a bit. The artilleryman's got a grandiose plan for the survival of the human race. He means to go to ground, excavating an underground empire where humanity can be preserved until they've built up their forces enough to wage a covert insurrection against the Martians.
STRANGER: I've got it all figured out. We'll live underground. I've been thinking about the sewers. Under New York are miles and miles of 'em. The main ones are big enough for anybody. Then there's cellars, vaults, underground storerooms, railway tunnels, subways. You begin to see, eh? And we'll get a bunch of strong men together. No weak ones; that rubbish, out.Very romantic and all, but something sinister quickly peaks its head out underneath.
That’s the core of the character. He holds most of humanity in contempt, and what he sees in the destruction of civilization at the hands of the Martians is an opportunity — a chance to get rid of the great throng of mankind — the folks Ayn Rand would call “takers” or “parasites”. A modern internet libertarian might call them “sheeple”, and the artilleryman even likens them to cattle, suggesting that before long, the Martians will start herding the human survivors as livestock. Only “strong men” would survive in the new world order — and, of course, it goes without saying that he would be one one of those “strong men”.
We’re early in the history of this particular kind of dystopian fantasy, but this archetype is going to become so universal in this genre. The grizzled survivalist who despises the weakness of humanity and sees the zombie horde as purging the world of the unworthy: all those crass consumerist sheep he’s always despised are now zombies, so it’s FINALLY okay to do what he always secretly wanted to do and kill them. Or the protagonist in most Christian End Times stories, who maybe, yeah, acknowledges that the whole “seven years of plagues, four horsemen of the apocalypse, and a charismatic UN Secretary General with glowing eyes,” thing might well suck, but isn’t it just glorious that those sinners are finally going to get the hellfire and damnation they deserve? Or the local strong-man who’s given himself a title like “Governor” or “General” and set himself up as the fief of the local fortified town. Or scientist who wants to withhold the cure for the encroaching pandemic, because, really, the world could do with a few million fewer mouths to feed as long as we make sure the worthy all get inoculated.
My first metric for whether or not I’m going to enjoy a piece of dystopian literature is how it treats this archetype. A lot of times, they’re the hero. The one who Saw it Coming and is Strong Enough to Do What Must Be Done. Who aren’t blinded by silly notions like equality or helping other people. I don’t usually like those versions of the story. Or if I do, I tend to like it subversively.Welles passes the test, though. The artilleryman eventually muses on the possibility of his insurrectionists seizing control of a war machine.
STRANGER: Gee, imagine having one of them lovely things with its heat ray wide and free! We'd turn it on Martians! We'd turn it on men! We'd bring everybody down to their knees! You, and me, and a few more of us, we'd own the world!
And Pierson walks away. He’s not willing to live in the artilleryman’s world. Welles’s Pierson delivers his goodbye with understated contempt. Nemoy does it with tired disappointment.
Strangely, Welles handles this a lot better than Wells: in the original book, the artilleryman elaborates on his plans at greater length and is more forthright about it, “No singers or mashers,” he says, and “Life is real again, and the useless and cumbersome and mischievous have to die. They ought to die. They ought to be willing to die. It’s a sort of disloyalty, after all, to live and taint the race.” And the nameless protagonist is swayed, “dominated”, he says, by the “tone of assurance and courage he assumed.” Okay. That’s fair. I don’t object to the artilleryman archetype being persuasive. But what troubles me is how they part. The narrator spends a day working with the artilleryman, and comes to see, “the gulf between his dreams and his powers,” quickly growing to despise the would-be dictator for his laziness, even feeling like a “traitor” for playing cards and smoking a cigar when the artilleryman insists on a break from work. He quits the artilleryman’s company not because he disagrees with the idea of his plan, but because the artilleryman has revealed himself to be one of those “useless and cumbersome” sorts who “ought to die”.
My distaste for that rendering of the scene is compounded by the fact that the society the artilleryman proposes isn’t too far afield from the “Air Dictatorship” Wells proposes as a future world government in The Shape of Things to Come. His “Air Dictatorship” is a benevolent one — you can tell because when they decide to execute you, you can opt to take a painless poison pill rather than being shot — that isn’t per se the perfect system of governance, but which he sees as a necessary transitional phase to a proper utopia before the dictators are bloodlessly deposed and sent off to live in honorable retirement. (By a weird and wacky coincidence, Wells predicts his Air Dictatorship to rule from around 1980 to 2059, which is a reasonable estimate of the years in which I am liable to be alive.)
So yeah. Wells didn’t object to the artilleryman’s plan. He objected to the useless parasite fancying himself one of the chosen elite. It’s ironic in a way that Wells seems to have stumbled onto a fundamental truth that undermines the Artilleryman’s Fantasy (as I like to call it) without noticing it: the very fact that one views the world in those terms, where the great bulk of mankind are parasites fit only for slaughter or slavery at the hands of the benevolent Randian Super-Men is in and of itself strong evidence against being fit for that hypothetical elite class.
But Richard Pierson passes the test even if H.G. Wells didn’t, and quickly moves on to New York City, where the story ends as we all knew it would, when he finds dormant tripods in Central Park, their pilots dead on the ground, being pecked apart by birds. “Later,” he explains, framing the narration as his final diary entry, made the following April, “When their bodies were examined in the laboratories, it was found that they were killed by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared. Slain, after all man’s defenses had failed, by the humblest thing that God in His wisdom put upon this Earth.” He strays back into the philosophical, musing on the question of whether humanity will now spread out into the universe, or be vanquished by some future invasion.
So were people fooled? Does this sound like a narrative that would fool people? I’m going to say, unhelpfully, both “no” and “yes”. The War of the Worlds panic is something of an urban legend. I don’t just mean that the stories of people panicking are false or exaggerated; The Mercury Theater on the Air‘s “War of the Worlds” has aspects of an urban legend inside itself. Almost any urban legend falls apart on a factual level when you examine it. Someone would notice if thousands of children each year were kidnapped for ritual sacrifice. She couldn’t possibly have written a poem about the car crash if she died in it. The UN can pass non-binding resolutions that do not have any real force of law, and can only do that much if none of the big powerful countries object; they can not exercise sovereignty over and against the will of the US government. As a publicly traded corporation, how Proctor and Gamble uses its profits are a matter of public record; if they were tithing to the church of Satan, it would be in their shareholders’ statement. And Ernie is permanently five years old; he is not in a sexual relationship with Bert.
It’s less than true and more than false to say that people believe these things. It’s closer to true to say that they choose to accept them as though they were true. One idea I’ve found myself returning to a lot is this: not all lies are intended to deceive. Some are intended as an invitation. That is how urban legends work. That is how political muckraking works. That is how professional wrestling works. That is how War of the Worlds worked. No one is “fooled” into believing that the UN is coming for your guns or the president of the United States was able to conceal the fact that he wasn’t eligible, or that Wrestlemania isn’t scripted, or that the Church of Satan is using your pharmaceutical money to fund child sacrifice. No, people are being invited to go live in a world where that’s true. But there has to be something in it for them. Usually, it’s the monsters. I mean, if I live in a world full of child-murdering satanists, then the fact that I am not a child-murdering satanist puts me ahead of the game — in fact, I’m downright heroic because I am bold enough to stand up and decry satanic child-murder. If I lived in a world free of such monsters, I might start worrying that the fact that I live more comfortably than 90% of the human race, thanks in no small part to my lifestyle being subsidized by sweatshop labor overseas makes me a bad person.
That’s awfully venial, but there’s less venial reasons to want there to be monsters. If Satanic Child-Murderers or Kitten-Burners or Sasquatch or Slenderman are real, and they’re out there, I can be vigilant about them. And if they’re not out there, but I choose to act as though they are anyway, then I can still be vigilant about them but there’s no actual risk to me. And being able to worry about Satanic Child-Murderers, Kitten Burners, Proctor and Gamble, and the President’s Birth Certificate — mysterious otherworldly forces I can’t do anything about and am never going to encounter anyway — means I don’t have time to worry about global warming and income inequality and the collapse of the power grid because SERIOUSLY BGE, this is getting to be a twice-a-month thing now — things I’m not sure I can do anything about but I am liable to encounter anyway.
So what was “in it” for the audience that they might choose to “be fooled” by War of the Worlds? Well, first and most simply, it’s Halloween. In a 1940 interview, Orson Welles called it, “The same kind of excitement we extract from a practical joke in which someone puts a sheet over their head and says “boo!” I don’t think that anybody believes that individual is a ghost, but we do scream and yell and rush down the hall. And that’s just about what happened.” People were looking to be scared; that’s the fun of it, it’s how Halloween works. But I think there’s something more than that — some specific reason that this play was so effective.
The past is haunted by the future. A constant litany of little specters of the future trying to happen until they finally do happen and thereby cease to be the future. Halloween’s a better time than most for these little specters to pop up, and that’s what happened here. What ghost haunted that 1938 broadcast? Orson Welles hinted at it right at the beginning:
It was near the end of October. Business was better. The war scare was over. More men were back at work. Sales were picking up.
The war scare was over. It was October 30, 1938, and people were feeling optimistic, because a month ago, it sure did look like Europe was going to get itself into another world war, but now, the scare was over.
Ten days later, Kristallnacht happens, because Nazis.
The past is haunted by the future. We are less than one year from the formal beginning of World War II. We’re not out of the Great Depression yet. At this time and in this place, being scared of invaders from Mars is better than being scared by invaders from Nazi Germany. A faceless horde that sweeps in and there’s nothing we can do about it, where we are only be saved by divine intervention is preferable to this wretched indeterminate state where we actually could take action: intervene for the Nazis, intervene against the Nazis; keep the hell out of it. And we can all agree which side we’re on against the Martians: in 1938, you had a surprisingly even split among Americans over which side we should throw our lot in with should it come to war (Not even really, but sitting here in 2014, it is pretty shocking and pretty scandalous that the percentage of Americans who reckoned that if it came to blows, we should side with that short fellow with the Charlie Chaplain moustache was nonzero).
That Orson Welles quote above? The one about ghosts and Halloween? That’s from a little historical curiosity: an interview in San Antonio when a local radio host lucked into finding out that Orson Welles and H.G. Wells were in town at the same time. Wells, though disparaging the younger man for his superfluous second ‘E’, was magnanimous enough to plug the then-upcoming Citizen Kane, and they had this little exchange:
WELLS: You aren’t serious in America yet. You haven’t the war right under your chins, and the consequence is that you can still play with ideas of terror and conflict.
HOST: Do you think that’s good or bad?
WELLS: It’s the natural thing to do until you’re right up against it.
WELLES: Until it ceases to be a game.
WELLS: When it ceases to be a game.
In 1938, we could still play with ideas of terror and conflict. We could make it a game. Let’s all pretend the Sunday night cultural program on the Columbia Service is real. Because in 1938, we really did know — perhaps not on a conscious level, but on some level — that there really were monsters out there poised to invade. It was easier to live with if they’d been actual Martians.
So goodbye everybody, and remember the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian; it’s Halloween.
(For further reading, check out the links below the fold…)
- When Orson Welles met HG Wells
- The Script of The Mercury Theater‘s War of the Worlds
- The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
- The Mercury Theater on the Air (Includes mp3 of The War of the Worlds)
- In 1994, LA Theater Works performed War of the Worlds staring an assortment of Star Trek actors, including Leonard Nemoy as Pierson, Gates McFadden as Carla Phillips, Dwight Schultz as the announcer, and Brent Spiner as the artilleryman. It’s the version I listen to most often — not that it’s better than the original, but it’s very good, and the recording quality is a lot less 1930s radio. It’s available from the LATW store.
- Swing Viewed as ‘Musical Hitlerism’: Professor Sees Fans Ripe for Dictator The New York Times, November 2, 1938. (Paywalled)