The War of the Worlds

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Overview | Significance | Background | Plot | Cast | Reactions | Inspiration | Players | Analysis | Remediation | Resources | Notes

Overview

The War of the Worlds, an OTR drama adapted from the H. G. Wells novel by Howard E. Koch, produced by and starring Orson Welles, created havoc on 30 October 1938 when many listeners thought Earth was invaded by Martians. Considered the most (in)famous radio broadcast of all times, "The War of the Worlds" continues to provoke interest and inspiration.

Significance

Use of break in news reports to create a sense of immediacy
Alleged creation of mass hysteria
Catapulted Orson Welles to international fame, at age twenty three

Background

One of the earliest aural narratives to examine conflict between human and extraterrestrials and one of the earliest to confuse an audience en masse, The War of the Worlds utilized a series of "break in" news announcements to report about Martian metal cylinders falling to Earth and a group of tripod-like fighting machines wrecking havoc in New Jersey and New York City. Directed by and starring Orson Welles [1], written by Howard E. Koch [2], and produced by a twenty seven-piece orchestra and ten actors of The Mercury Theatre on the Air. [3]

The War of the Worlds radio script
Written by Howard E. Koch

An edited, three-minute version

Plot

Martians invade Earth, complete with realistic sound effects and drop in news reports. Professor Pearson (Welles) follows the havoc they wreak.

Cast

Orson Welles (Professor Pearson)

Reactions / Responses

The next day, 31 October 1938, many newspapers ran stories about "The War of the Worlds" radio broadcast. The front page story of the New York Times ran under the headline Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact. Transcripts of this and other newspaper articles available here. Over the next two weeks, 12,500 articles and editorials appeared in newspapers across the country, most blaming listeners for misunderstanding the radio drama broadcast. [4]

A lot of this attention may have been prompted by the debut of The Crimson Wizard just a month earlier, 30 September 1938. The Crimson Wizard was an adventure series broadcast on WGN radio in Chicago. The title character was a hunchback scientist named Peter Quill. He was pursued by a Communist spy ring called The Red Circle.

The first episode was set in the WGN broadcasting studio. Ivan Molokoff, a Red Circle spy worked there undercover as an engineer. Listeners heard a report about a new battleship which was interrupted by a police shortwave transmission about a fire in a naval building. Then, in what sounded like a regular music program, a woman began to sing. She was quickly cut off by more shortwave police transmissions, including a request for more fire engines. In between these interruptions, a voice repeated "Peter Quill" again and again. The voice was supposedly that of Molokoff, who intended to use the radio to create chaos in Chicago.

Apparently, his efforts were successful. The Chicago Tribune reported the next day that hundreds of people contacted their offices, and those of city, county, and state police, asking if the radio reports were true. Since the Tribune owned WGN radio, reporting on the effects of the radio program can, of course, be seen as efforts to promote its radio station. The immediate commercial results were good, but in the long term, led to disrespect for the rules of journalism. [5]

The War of the Worlds had, through the CBS network, a much broader listening audience. As with the first episode of the The Crimson Wizard a month earlier, many listeners tuned in late, and did not realize the program was fictional. So, it is easy to see how confusion, even chaos, would have been more widespread, and why newspapers might have, without restraint, reported panic created by the new, and competing, radio medium. Grilled by the press the next morning, Welles apologized for the unintended effects of the previous night radio broadcast, saying

I am terribly shocked by the effect it has had. I don't believe the method is original with me or peculiar to the Mercury Theatre's presentation. . . . Radio is new and we're learning about the effect it has on people.

Welles was twenty three years old at the time. Listen to how effectively he portrays himself as surprised with the outcomes of his radio broadcast the night before. Video available here.

In truth, Welles' morning performance before reporters was just like his radio performance the previous night: fictional. In a recorded audio interview with director Peter Bogdanovich, published in 1992, Welles agreed with Bogdanovich's statement, "But you claimed to be innocent afterwards."

"Of course I did," answered Welles, "they were suing me for twenty million dollars, you know. The only thing was that they didn't have records of it at the time and I came on at the end and said this was Halloween eve and this was our little way of soaping your window and saying boo. In other words, admitting malice. But luckily they didn't catch that" (Welles and Bogdanovich 1992).

When asked by Bogdanovich whether he knew the radio broadcast would have the effect it did, Welles replied, "Only the size was a surprise. My idea was to send a lot of the lunatic fringe out. I just didn't know how widespread the fringe was" (Welles and Bogdanovich 1992).

In the years prior to these recorded conversations with Bogdanovich, Welles was not as forthcoming, but he did admit to not being as innocent as he protrayed himself to be in the morning after press meeting.

For example, during the 19 June 1955 episode of Orson Welles' Sketch Book, a series of six short television commentaries by Welles for the BBC, Welles reflected on "our little experiment with radio." Video here. Listen to Welles say, at 2:13,

I suppose we had it coming to us because in fact we were not as innocent as we meant to be. When we did the Martian broadcast we were fed up with the way in which everything that came over this new magic box, the radio, became swallowed . . . believed. . . . So in a way our broadcast was an assault on the credibility of that machine. We wanted people to understand that they shouldn't take an opinion predigested and they shouldn't swallow everything that came through the tap, whether it was radio or not.

In the same commentary, Welles tells stories of his continued amazement with the outcome of his War of the Worlds broadcast. Video available here.

Six episodes of Orson Welles' Sketch Book were broadcast on BBC television, 24 April-3 July 1955. Written, directed, and starring Welles, each episode was a 15-minute reflection on some aspect of his career. This episode, the fifth in the series, was entitled "The War of the Worlds." Video available here.

On 28 October 1940, both Orson Welles and H. G. Wells were in San Antonio, Texas. (What are the chances: two days before Halloween and the two-year anniversary of the original radio broadcast?). Neither had ever met the other. An enterprising interview show host, Charles C. Shaw, from KTSA radio, got them together to talk about the famous radio play. For seven-and-a-half minutes they discussed The War of the Worlds radio broadcast and Welles' new film Citizen Kane, as well as a recent Russian production of Hamlet. They discussed the effect of war on the arts, totalitarianism vs. freedom, and the recent changes in Russia. The talk ended with Wells mentioning his new book, Babes in the Darkling Wood. This article by David Haglund, Orson Welles meets H.G. Wells, from Slate provides background, context, and a chance to listen to a portion of the Welles and Wells conversation.

Inspiration

The War of the Worlds is often considered the first radio hoax. But, in addition to The Crimson Wizard noted earlier, three other radio programs, each utilizing fictional news accounts, preceded The War of the Worlds broadcast.

Twelve years prior, on 16 January 1926, at 7:40 PM, the audience of the the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) was treated to Broadcasting the Barricades, written and performed by Father Ronald Arbuthnott Knox (1888-1957), an English theologian, Catholic priest, and crime writer. "Broadcasting the Barricades" is perhaps more correctly cited as the first radio hoax.

The program begins with reports of cricket scores, segues into a banal news report, and is then interrupted by a report of an unruly crowd of anti-unemployment demonstrators gathering in Trafalger Square, led by Mr. Poppleberry, Secretary for the National Movement For The Abolishment of Theatre Queues. The program shifts to music by the Savoy Hotel band, then a weather forecast, and more cricket scores before returning to the demonstration, pouring through Admiralty Arch in "a threatening manner." Knox continues in a deadpan style, describing rioters attacking waterfowl in St. James's Park with bottles, and "roasting alive" Sir Theophilus Gooch on his way to deliver at talk at the radio station. More interludes and more descriptions of the rioters, now preparing to destroy the Houses of Parliament with trench mortars. Knox describes the Big Ben clock tower crashing to the ground, the Savoy Hotel destroyed, and Mr. Wotherspoon, the Minister of Traffic, "hung from a lamppost in the Vauxhall Bridge Road." At the end of the eleven-minute program, rioters enter the BBC building.

At the time, BBC was the only radio station in the United Kingdom and bad weather delayed the delivery of the next day's newspapers, making it easier for people to think the reports were real. The original program is lost. Listen to this recreation voiced by BBC announcer Bob Sinfield.

"Holy Terror: The First Great Radio Hoax" is an excellent article explaining the radio hoax in detail. It also provides background information regarding Father Ronald Knox, and explores the question of whether Orson Welles used techniques pioneered by Knox in his adaptation of The War of the Worlds.

"A Priest and a Panic" is an article about the radio broadcast maintained by BBC.

Broadcasting the Barricades by Ronald Knox provides details and the author's assessment of whether or not this broadcast influenced Welles' later "The War of the Worlds."

The Deceptology website provides basic information and links to resources.

Welles, in a recorded interview with film director Peter Bogdanovich, says Broadcasting the Barricades gave him the idea for and influenced his production of The War of the Worlds in 1938 with The Mercury Theatre on the Air.

I got the idea from a BBC show that had gone on the year before [sic], when a Catholic priest told how some Communists had seized London and a lot of people in London believed it. And I thought that'd be fun to do on a big scale, let's have it from outer space—that's how I got the idea (Welles and Bogdanovich 1992).

Eight years prior to the War of the Words broadcast, on 25 September 1930, a Berlin radio station broadcast "Der Minister ist ermordet! (The Minister Is Murdered!)," a two-hour radio play by Erich Ebermeyer. The broadcast began with music but was quickly interrupted by news of the assassination of the German foreign minister. This is the radio broadcast mentioned by one of the reporters questioning Welles following "The War of the Worlds" broadcast. The reporter mentioned hearing Ebermeyer's drama while in Germany and suggested Welles should have better anticipated the confusion his broadcast might produce.

More direct inspiration would have come from "Air Raid," a follow up to "The Fall of the City" by Archibald MacLeish, broadcast just one week prior to "The War of the Worlds" on 27 October 1938, as an episode of The Columbia Workshop.

Inspired by the airplane bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, MacLeish worked on "Air Raid" seven months prior to its debut. Welles certainly knew of the radio drama and its use of a news announcer to provide vivid updates. A photograph shows him talking with MacLeish, actor Ray Collins, and director William N. Robson during a rehearsal. This knowledge may have inspired him to try something similar with "The War of the Worlds."

The Players

Orson Welles
wellesnet: the orson welles online resource
Self-proclaimed "leading online source of information about the life, career and work of Orson Welles." See also the Wikipedia entry.

Howard E. Koch
Scriptwriter for some of the most famous and influential radio (including The War of the Worlds) and film productions of the mid-twentieth century. This archival article from Voices of Bard provides a great deal of information about Koch's career. See also the Wikipedia entry.

The Mercury Theatre on the Air
A radio show featuring the talents of a New York drama company founded by Orson Welles and John Houseman. Generally acknowledged as producing the finest radio drama of the 1930s, even though most of its work is, today, relatively unknown, save for the broadcast of War of the Worlds which is considered the most notorious, and famous, radio broadcast ever. The official website provides a brief history, a complete show list, and the chance to listen to many of the shows.

Analysis

The ability to confuse audiences may have been first and best revealed by The War of the Worlds radio broadcast. This article, War of the Worlds, Orson Welles, and the Invasion from Mars tells why many listeners thought they were reacting to something genuine.

The book The Invasion from Mars: A Story of the Psychology of Panic (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1940) by Hadley Cantril provides an exhaustive study of the broadcast and the days following, and attempts to place the events of that night into the context of then current political and social upheavals. Cantril, a Princeton University professor, looks at a wide variety of subjects, including the conditions that might have inhibited critical ability, the way the play was perceived, and its historical setting.

Another interesting analysis, by Stefan Lovgen, is "War of the Worlds": Behind the 1938 Radio Show Panic. As the title suggests, Lovgen explores some of the circumstances that may have contributed to people knowing or not that the radio broadcast was a hoax.

From Mercury to Mars: A Hard Act to Follow: "War of the Worlds" and the Challenges of Literary Adaptation, by Shawn VanCour, focuses on the broadcast's often overlooked second act to make several interesting connections between radio writing, monologues, and radio narration.

RadioLab: War of the Worlds is an hour-long deep dive into the original broadcast. Scroll down the page and listen to "The Annotated Guide" as well. Both provide great insights into how and why "The War of the Worlds" was so effective, or controversial. By the way, this is the first ever episode of RadioLab recorded in front of a live audience.

Film critic Leonard Maltin's Theatre of the Imagination explores the life of Orson Welles and the history of the Mercury Theatre on the Air. Included are interviews with John Houseman and others who worked with Welles on the original broadcast. NOTE: once on this website, scroll to the bottom of the "Miscellaneous / Related" section where you will find this program. Listen or download as you please.

See also "War of the Worlds": Behind the 1938 Radio Show Panic

Remediation / Remakes

12 November 1944
Santiago, Chile
The first remake, written by William Steele (who had written for Welles's The Shadow) and Raul Zento. They rewrote Koch's script for the Cooperativa Vitalicia radio network.

12 February 1949
Quito, Ecuador
A crowd gathered outside the building housing Radio Quito and El Commercio, the newspaper, angry at being deceived. Eventually the crowd burned the building, looted equipment, and smashed the presses.

9 September 1957
New York
Studio One
Edward R. Murrow adds perspective to the original radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds in the television docudrama The Night America Trembled. The show was broadcast live from Studio One. There was no mention of Welles.

1968
The original broadcast of The War of the Worlds released on vinyl record. Welles receive no royalties.

31 October 1968
Buffalo, New York
Radio station WKBW, under program director Jefferson Kaye, modernized the radio drama, mixing reports of Martian attacks with popular songs. Kaye interrupted the show with a disclaimer. The show was repeated in 1971 and 1975.

30 October 1974
Providence, Rhode Island
Radio station WPRO aired a modernized version of The War of the Worlds. Following complaints from listeners, the Federal Communications Commission open an inquiry, and officially reprimanded the station for airing the program. This was the first time a program like this ever received an official reprimand.

31 October 1975
American Broadcasting Company
The Night that Panicked America, a made-for-television movie dramatizing events around the original "The War of the Worlds" broadcast. Of note are the scenes recreating the original radio broadcast as a live interplay between actors, Foley artists, producers, and network executives.

1978
Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds produced by composer Jeff Wayne. This musical retelling of the novel by H. G. Wells features Academy Award nominated actor Richard Burton, Justin Hayward (of The Moody Blues), Chris Thompson (of Manfred Mann), Phil Lynott (of Thin Lizzy), Julie Covington (of Evita and Rock Follies), and David Essex (of Evita, The China Plates). Most of the lyrics on the album were written by former Elton John lyricist Gary Osborne. The official album comes with several paintings by Peter Goodfellow, Geoff Taylor and Michael Trim that help to illustrate the story from beginning to end. To promote the album's release, a special "radio edit" version was produced and distributed to radio stations in an attempt to make the concept album more accessible to radio listeners.

1981
Based on this success, Highlights from Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds, including the radio edits, was released by CBS.

9 November 2007
War of the Servers, a film by machinima group Lit Fuse Films; based on Wayne's musical. Strange beings called Mingebags invade the servers of the popular game Garry's Mod. One player must try to survive while searching for his friends amid the chaos and war.

2008
Tom Roe, a founder and program director of WGXC Radio (90.7 FM), a program division of Wave Farm, for a number of years, performed The War of the Worlds as a radio broadcast, but each year the original story foregrounded current international wars and conflicts. Listen to Roe's 2008 performance, The War of the War of the Worlds.

30 November 2012
A re-recorded version, Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds: The New Generation was released with narration from Liam Neeson and new versions of the original songs sung by Gary Barlow, Joss Stone, and Maverick Sabre. Listen / download the tracks from both albums.

29 October 2013
Public Broadcasting Service
Part of the American Experience history series. An account of the original radio broadcast. [4]

Resources

Download a copy of The War of the Worlds from the archive.org website.

Schwartz, A. Brad. Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles's War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News. New York: Hill and Wang, 2015.

War of the Worlds Invasion: The Historical Perspective is a website maintained by freelance writer John Gosling as a focal point for his interest in the 1938 radio broadcast. Gosling attempts to provide an overview of every book, film, television series, radio show, comic and musical ever inspired by the original novel, and to place these into an historical context. Subscribe to the newsletter and get the latest updates.

War of the Worlds.org claims to be the official website.

The War of the Worlds Online website provides references to all things WOW.

Notes

[1] Before broadcast of "The War of the Worlds" Orson Welles was already well known for his radio drama work. Comprehensive list of radio programs created by Orson Welles available here.

The "War of the Worlds," however, provided Welles an international reputation, and promoted many opportunities. Based on the success of "The War of the Worlds," Campbell Soups signed on as series sponsor and changed the name to The Campbell Playhouse. Welles directed and starred in fifty five episodes (9 December 1938-31 March 1940). A bigger budget meant Welles could include stage and screen stars in his productions. An exemplary episode was "Our Town" (episode 23, 12 May 1939), the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Thornton Wilder, starring Patricia Newton, John Craven, Parker Fennelly, and Agnes Moorehead.

Welles also starred in The Shadow, 1937-1938. These episodes are part of the Radio Nouspace curated program collection.

More information about Welles is available at wellesnet: the orson welles online resource, the self-proclaimed "leading online source of information about the life, career and work of Orson Welles." See also the Wikipedia entry.

[2] Koch is noted for writing the radio adaptation of "The War of the Worlds" (script available here) and co-authoring the screenplay for Casablanca for which he won an Academy Award in 1944. This archival article from Bard College Archives & Special Collections provides a great deal of information about Koch's career. See also the Wikipedia entry.

[3] The Mercury Theatre on the Air was radio show featuring the talents of a New York drama company founded by Orson Welles and John Houseman. Generally acknowledged as producing the finest radio drama of the 1930s, even though most of its work is, today, relatively unknown, save for the broadcast of "The War of the Worlds" which is considered the most notorious, and famous, radio broadcast ever. The Mercury Theatre on the Air website provides a brief history, a complete show list, and the chance to listen to the shows.

[4] Transcript: The War of the Worlds. War of the Worlds. American Experience. PBS 29 October 2013. Portions of the video available at this website.

[5] The Crimson Wizard was announced 25 September 1938 in the Color Graphic Section of the Chicago Sunday Tribune. Readers were encouraged to tune in WGN radio, the following Friday, 30 September for the first episode in which Peter Quill used his scientific ingenuity to defend America against a Communist spy ring, The Red Circle. Listeners could listen to the episode live over their radios Friday evening, and then read about it in the paper where it would be permanently recorded the following Sunday. The series was created by Robert M. Lee, Chicago Tribune Managing Editor, and Blair Walliser, WGN Program Director. The Chicago Tribune owned WGN ("Worlds Greatest Radio") radio, so this effort was clearly designed to increase traffic for both media.

The first season ran twelve weeks, ending 16 December 1938. The second season, twenty weeks, with a name change to Peter Quill began 24 February 1939 and ran until 7 July 1939. The third, and final, season, still called Peter Quill, ran from 6 October 1949 until 30 March 1941. Episodes for all three seasons originated at WGN, in Chicago, and were carried on the Mutual Broadcasting Network nationwide. No scripts or recordings have been found. Information about individual episodes has been gleaned from radio columns of The Chicago Tribune. Learn more about The Crimson Wizard.

Works Cited

Welles, Orson and Peter Bogdanovich. 1992. This is Orson Welles. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-016616-9 Audio book version: HarperAudio, 30 September 1992. ISBN 1559946806 Audiotape 4A 6:25—6:42. See also "Interviews with Orson Welles." Internet Archive. Available: https://archive.org/details/InterviewsWithOrsonWelles/OrsonWellesInterview01.mp3