The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, adapted by Orson Welles

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Download The War of the Worlds from the Mercury Theatre website

Mercury Theatre on the Air, 30 October 1938
This version of H. G. Wells' classic is perhaps one of the most famous radio adaptations to have been broadcast over the airwaves in any culture. The first two-thirds of it were presented as a series of mock-news bulletins, which suggested to many listeners that the United States was actually being invaded by Martians. In the days following its original broadcast on Hallowe'en night, many newspapers described Welles' adaptation as cruelly deceptive, almost as if he had deliberately tried to hoodwink the listeners. The War of the Worlds secured his fame: within a monthm 12,500 articles had appeared in the print media about the programme.
What does it sound like today, some seventy-two years after its first broadcast? Compared to contemporary adaptations, its pace is slow, often stately, with the actors speaking in portentous tones in an attempt to convey the seriousness of the material. Although caught in the middle of the invasion, intrepid reporter Carl Phillips (Frank Readick) still sustains his sang-froid, right up to the time when his voice suddenly cuts off, signalling the end of his live feed to the studio. We subsequently learn that his body has been charred into a cinder by the Martians.  Welles himself plays Princeton professor Richard Pierson (Frank Readick), who first appears as the resident expert, explaining the Martian phenomenon to listeners, and subsequently takes over the narration in the second half of the adaptation, as he describes the consequences of the invasion and how the Martians are eventually destroyed.  True to form, Welles gives himself a nice fat part, designed to show off his vocal dexterity.  His performance is convincing, but characteristically larger-than-life.
And yet the production still packs a punch.  Perhaps this is due to its slick structure - especially in the first half, where the action shifts from the (fictional) radio studio to a performance (ostensibly taking place in a New York hotel of dance-music by "Ramon Raquello and his Orchestra" - actually Bernard Herrmann and the CBS Radio Orchestra. The repeated snatches of dance-music show how the radio station controllers are desperate to sustain a facade of normality, even though the world they know is collapsing around them. Eventually the task proves too great; the broadcasts stop; and there is silence.  After a few moments - that seem like an age in sonic terms - the action resumes with a description of the carnage wrought by the invaders. This kind of boldness - using silence in a radio drama - is seldom found in radio drama today, and shows the extent to which Welles had mastered the medium. Any aspiring director would do well to follow his example.