Oct 302014


“The War of the Worlds” is an episode of the American radio drama anthology series The Mercury Theatre on the Air. It was performed as a Halloween episode of the series on October 30, 1938, and aired over the Columbia Broadcasting System radio network. Directed and narrated by actor and future filmmaker Orson Welles, the episode was an adaptation of H. G. Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds (1898). It became famous for supposedly causing mass panic, although the extent of this panic is debated.The first two thirds of the 62-minute broadcast were presented as a series of simulated news bulletins, which suggested to some listeners that an actual alien invasion by Martians was currently in progress. Compounding the issue was the fact that the Mercury Theatre on the Air was a sustaining show (it ran without commercial breaks), adding to the program’s realism, and that others were primarily listening to Edgar Bergen and only tuned in to the show during a musical interlude, thereby missing the introduction that clearly stated that the show was a drama.

In the days following the adaptation, there was widespread outrage in the media. The program’s news-bulletin format was described as cruelly deceptive by some newspapers (which had lost advertising revenue to radio) and public figures, leading to an outcry against the directors of the broadcast and calls for regulation by the Federal Communications Commission. Despite these complaints—or perhaps in part because of them—the episode secured Welles’s fame as a dramatist.

H. G. Wells’s original novel relates the story of an alien invasion of Earth. The novel was adapted by Howard E. Koch for the 17th episode of the CBS Radio series The Mercury Theatre on the Air, broadcast at 8 p.m. EST on Sunday, October 30, 1938. The program’s format was a simulated live newscast of developing events. The setting was switched from 19th-century England to contemporary Grover’s Mill, an unincorporated village in West Windsor Township, New Jersey in the United States.

The first two-thirds of the hour-long play is a contemporary retelling of events of the novel, presented as news bulletins interrupting another program. This approach was similar to Ronald Knox’s satirical newscast of a riot overtaking London broadcast by the BBC in 1926, which Welles later said gave him the idea for “The War of the Worlds.” A 1927 drama aired by Adelaide station 5CL depicted an invasion of Australia via the same techniques and inspired reactions similar to those of the Welles broadcast.


Welles was also influenced by the Columbia Workshop presentations “The Fall of the City,” a 1937 radio play in which Welles played the role of omniscient announcer, and “Air Raid”, a vibrant as-it-happens drama starring Ray Collins that aired October 27, 1938. Presenting a drama in a news broadcast style was not new for The Mercury Theatre on the Air; Welles had chosen a newscast format for “Julius Caesar” (September 11, 1938), with H. V. Kaltenborn providing historical commentary throughout the story. “War of the Worlds” broadcast employed techniques similar to those of The March of Time, the CBS news documentary and dramatization radio series. Welles was a member of the program’s regular cast, having first performed on The March of Time in March 1935.3 The Mercury Theatre on the Air and The March of Time shared many cast members, as well as sound effects chief Ora D. Nichols.

The beginning of “The War of the Worlds” is credible but intentionally dull, with mundane bulletins and colorless interviews interspersed with unspectacular musical interludes. Over Houseman’s protests Welles restored lines that had been cut in rehearsal, to extend these slow movements to the point of tedium. When Houseman protested further, Welles extended them all the more. “He was right,” wrote Houseman:

Herein lay the great tensile str