What do you do when you think the world is ending? Not, like, metaphorically speaking here, but literally, aliens are invading, killing, taking over; human civilization is ending, as we know it. We've seen the movies, of course, read the books, but what would you do if it were really happening, to you, to your town, your city? 20 miles or so from your very house where you're sitting, listening to the radio and sipping tea at 8pm? Do you really know what you would do?
It happened in 1938 to those good Americans listening to Orson Welles' radio play adaptation of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds. And yeah, there was a real panic in the streets (so they say). No joke here. People thought Martians were invading New Jersey and New York City, and reporters and farmers were dropping like flies. But phew. Once this Halloween special was over, lesson learned. Listen carefully as the radio host explains this is only a show for entertainment during the Mercury Theatre hour, read your primitive version of a tv guide, and if you hear footsteps in the forest, don't assume zebras.
Then it happened again. And I don't mean, the same kind of thing happened again, where this time, maybe, an elaborate Halloween prank occurred in the new form of television with a new twist, a new story. I mean, the same story, the same radio play. It's still War of the Worlds. The same basic script. But this time, it was 6 years later, in 1944, Chile, resulting in a frightened electrician dying of a heart attack.
And then 5 years later, 1949, it happened again. In Ecuador. This time, seven people ended up being killed; there was rioting, a radio station was burned down. Same radio play.
Then it happened again. About two decades later. In 1968, back in the United States. War of the Worlds. Again. In Buffalo, NY. Same story. Different reporters and more modern reports. Same reminders that this is merely a radio play, and Martians are not really invading us. But thousands of people still thought this was real and panicked.
RadioLab does an excellent episode about this topic, the past stories involved, the why, the how, and...could it happen again?
Well, perhaps. Perhaps it could. But does the script, as it is, from 1938, hold up against a NYC audience?
Last week, I had the absolute pleasure of attending a staged reading of War of the Worlds, as part of Abingdon Theatre Company's 2016 benefit gala. If you know me at all, you know that Old Time Radio is super super close to my heart. I started listening every night, hard core, from the age of 14 on, when I discovered it played at night on my local npr station, wrvo. But my very first introduction was when I was probably six or so, sitting in my parents' green station wagon, on some summer trip to a campground somewhere on the East Coast. This is before tvs or dvd players in the car, or amazon prime downloads on your iphone, so hearing a radio show from decades earlier, on the dashboard cassette tape player, was definitely entertainment to me and my two older brothers, wedged together on that sticky plastic bench seat.
I loved it. How cool. How utterly cool to hear those old fashioned voices, the lilt of their tones, the excitement of a fake commercial, a fake musical show, and newscasters acting like Martians were invading the Earth. I loved being in on this little secret with the actors, while the rest of the world believed the hoax. And let's face it, it was also kind of scary.
So when I was sitting in a comfy cloth bucket seat in the 3rd row of a theatre in NYC in the year 2016, seeing actors with their scripts in hand, two sound effect masters with their set-ups ready to go, and musicians creating the atmosphere for us all--I was delighted.
But did this NYC audience of the 21st Century "get it?" Did they feel the drama, the impending doom, the fear, the suspense Mercury Theatre was known for?
Well, if the laughter coming from the audience throughout most of the show was any indication...I doubt it.
To be clear, I found humor in it too. If you take a show from almost 80 years ago (yikes!), stage it with modern actors trying to do "period" voices (and some, mind you, were really really good), and allow for the language and cadence of the time to do its work, then we're going to recognize the, well, resulting out-of-place nature, and it will be met with some laughter. If you were to re-stage a lot of the old sci-fi shows from Mercury Theatre, or Lights Out, X Minus One, Suspense, you're going to find that, as is, people will probably find it a bit humorous (dare I say "cheesy?").
But if you can immerse yourself into the world, really let yourself be swept up into the glory days of radio plays, the drama of it, imagine what it might have been like to hear those words coming across your living room, while you sit with your children, or your brother or sister, or parents, or friends--then maybe you can be momentarily transported to the time when people could have believed that aliens were invading that farm a few towns over.
Or...maybe they should have made it darker in the theatre...
In any case, jaded NYC 21st Century audience or not (of which I am, admittedly, often one), I think people enjoyed the show, really appreciated that Abingdon put together this well-done, non-traditional version of a gala, and offered us a unique experience at a modern theatre. I loved the simple effect of throwing script pages in the air for an explosion, the style of the singers, the musicians, I loved the spot-on sound effects, and loved hearing 20-something actors take on voices of others born 100 years earlier. And I loved the times when a dramatic moment did resonate with the audience--when it was quiet, still, and maybe people reflected on the precipice our own country rests on, shortly before an impending new era of our own...
And if you want to hear, for yourself, the 1938 radio broadcast, check it out below: