“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 strength of the show; it was the structural device that made the whole illusion possible. … In order to take advantage of the accepted convention, we had to slide swiftly and imperceptibly out of the ‘real’ time of a news report into the ‘dramatic’ time of a fictional broadcast. Once that was achieved — without losing the audience’s attention or arousing their skepticism — once they were sufficiently absorbed and bewitched not to notice the transitions any more, there was no extreme of fantasy through which they would not follow us.
To create the role of reporter Carl Phillips, actor Frank Readick went to the record library and played the recording of Herbert Morrison’s radio report of the Hindenburg disaster over and over. Working with Bernard Herrmann and the orchestra that had to sound like a dance band fell to Paul Stewart, the person Welles would later credit as being largely responsible for the quality of “The War of the Worlds” broadcast:
To get Benny to conduct the dance songs I had suggested (including “Stardust” and “La Cumparsita”) was almost an impossibility. He didn’t understand the rhythms at all. I said, “Benny, it’s gotta be like this” and snapped my fingers — and he got very upset. He handed me the baton and said, “You conduct it!” I got up on the podium. All the musicians understood Benny’s personality, so when I gave the downbeat they played it just the way I wanted it. I said, “Now that’s how to do it!” I handed the baton back to Benny, who was crestfallen. The moment in the broadcast when Herrmann conducts “Stardust” with the symphony orchestra is one of the most hysterical moments in radio.
Welles wanted the music to play for unbearably long stretches of time. The studio’s emergency fill-in, a solo piano playing Debussy and Chopin, was heard several times. “As it played on and on,” Houseman wrote, “its effect became increasingly sinister — a thin band of suspense stretched almost beyond endurance. That piano was the neatest trick of the show.”
The program seamlessly transitions into a slightly ominous bulletin from the Government Weather Bureau, and then to a musical interlude from the Meridian Room of the Hotel Park Plaza. A symphonic rendition of “La Cumparsita” performed by Ramon Raquello and His Orchestra (actually the CBS orchestra under the direction of Bernard Herrmann) is interrupted by news flashes about strange explosions on Mars. Welles is heard for the first time as world-famous astronomer and Princeton professor Richard Pierson, who dismisses speculation about life on Mars in an interview with reporter Carl Phillips (Frank Readick).
The news grows more frequent and increasingly ominous as a cylindrical meteorite lands in a farm field in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. A crowd gathers at the site. Reporter Carl Phillips relates the events. The cylinder unscrews, and onlookers catch a glimpse of a tentacled, pulsating, barely mobile Martian inside before it incinerates the crowd with Heat-Rays. Phillips’s shouts about incoming flames are cut off in mid-sentence.
Regular programming breaks down as the network struggles with casualty updates, firefighting developments, and the like. A shaken Pierson speculates about Martian technology. The New Jersey state militia declares martial law and attacks the cylinder; a message from their field headquarters lectures about the overwhelming force of properly equipped infantry and the helplessness of the Martians in Earth’s gravity until a Tripod rises from the pit.
The Martians obliterate the militia, and the network returns, now describing the Martians as an invading army. Emergency response bulletins give way to damage reports and evacuation instructions as millions of refugees clog the roads. Three Martian tripods from the cylinder destroy power stations and uproot bridges and railroads, reinforced by three others from a second cylinder as gas explosions continue. An unnamed Secretary of the Interior advises the nation; actor Kenny Delmar’s voice is reminiscent of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
A live connection is established to a field artillery battery. Its gun crew reports damaging one machine and a release of black smoke — poison gas — before fading into the sound of coughing. The lead plane of a wing of bombers from Langham Field (sounding much like Langley Field, where the Army Air Corps stationed the 2d Bombardment Group) broadcasts its approach and remains on the air as its engines are burned by the Heat-Ray. The pilot (Howard Smith) chooses to make a suicide dive on the invaders. Radio operators go active and fall silent, most immediately after reporting the approach of the black smoke. Bombers have destroyed one machine, but the network receives reports that cylinders are falling all across the country.
This section ends famously. A news reporter (Ray Collins), broadcasting from atop Broadcasting Building, describes the Martian invasion of New York City – “five great machines” wading across the Hudson River, poison smoke drifting over the city, people running and diving into the East River “like rats”, others “falling like flies” – until he, too, succumbs to the poison gas. After a period of silence, a ham radio operator is heard:
2X2L calling CQ
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?
After a period of silence comes the voice of announcer Dan Seymour:
You are listening to the CBS presentation of Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre of the Air in an original dramatization of The War of the Worlds, by H. G. Wells. The performance will continue after a brief intermission.
The last third of the program is a monologue and dialogue. Welles returns as Professor Pierson, describing the aftermath of the attacks. The story ends, as does the novel, with the Martians falling victim to earthly pathogenic germs, to which they have no immunity.
After the play, Welles assumes his role as host and tells listeners that the broadcast was a Halloween concoction: the equivalent, he says, “of dressing up in a sheet, jumping out of a bush and saying, ‘Boo!'” Popular mythology holds this disclaimer was hastily added to the broadcast at the insistence of CBS executives as they became aware of panic inspired by the program; in fact, it had appeared in Koch’s working script for the play.
Producer John Houseman noticed that at about 8:32 p.m. ET, CBS supervisor Davidson Taylor received a telephone call in the control room. Creasing his lips, Taylor left the studio and returned four minutes later, “pale as death.” During the sign-off theme the phone began ringing. Houseman picked it up and the furious caller announced he was mayor of a Midwestern town where mobs were in the streets. Houseman hung up quickly: “For we were off the air now and the studio door had burst open.”
The following hours were a nightmare. The building was suddenly full of people and dark-blue uniforms. Hustled out of the studio, we were locked into a small back office on another floor. Here we sat incommunicado while network employees were busily collecting, destroying or locking up all scripts and records of the broadcast. Finally the Press was let loose upon us, ravening for horror. How many deaths had we heard of? (Implying they knew of thousands.) What did we know of the fatal stampede in a Jersey hall? (Implying it was one of many.) What traffic deaths? (The ditches must be choked with corpses.) The suicides? (Haven’t you heard about the one on Riverside Drive?) It is all quite vague in my memory and quite terrible.
Paul White, head of CBS News, was quickly summoned to the office — “and there bedlam reigned”, he wrote:
The telephone switchboard, a vast sea of light, could handle only a fraction of incoming calls. The haggard Welles sat alone and despondent. “I’m through,” he lamented, “washed up.” I didn’t bother to reply to this highly inaccurate self-appraisal. I was too busy writing explanations to put on the air, reassuring the audience that it was safe. I also answered my share of incessant telephone calls, many of them from as far away as the Pacific Coast.
Because of the crowd of newspaper reporters, photographers and police, the cast left the CBS building by the rear entrance. Aware of the sensation the broadcast had made but not its extent, Welles went to the Mercury Theatre where an all-night rehearsal of Danton’s Death was in progress. Shortly after midnight one of the cast, a late arrival, told Welles that news about “The War of the Worlds” was being flashed in Times Square. They immediately left the theatre and, standing on the corner of Broadway and 42nd Street, they read the lighted bulletin that circled the New York Times building: ORSON WELLES CAUSES PANIC.
Historical research has strongly suggested the panic was less widespread than newspapers had indicated at the time. “[T]he panic and mass hysteria so readily associated with ‘The War of the Worlds’ did not occur on anything approaching a nationwide dimension”, American University media historian W. Joseph Campbell wrote in 2003. He quotes Robert E. Bartholomew, an authority on mass panic outbreaks, as having said that “there is a growing consensus among sociologists that the extent of the panic … was greatly exaggerated.”
This position is supported by contemporary accounts. “In the first place, most people didn’t hear [the show]”, said Frank Stanton, later president of CBS. According to the C. E. Hooper company, the main radio ratings service at the time, only 2% of the people it called up while the program aired said they were listening to it. Many more people were listening to The Chase and Sanborn Hour, long the most popular program in that timeslot. Further shrinking the potential audience, some CBS network affiliates, including some in large markets like Boston’s WEEI, had pre-empted the broadcast in favor of local commercial programming.
Ben Gross, radio editor for the New York Daily News, wrote in his 1954 memoir that the streets were nearly deserted as he made his way to the studio for the end of the program. Producer John Houseman reported that the Mercury Theatre staff was surprised when they were finally released from the CBS studios to find life going on as usual in the streets of New York. The writer of a letter the Washington Post published later likewise recalled no panicked mobs in the capital’s downtown streets at the time. “The supposed panic was so tiny as to be practically immeasurable on the night of the broadcast”, media historians Jefferson Pooley and Michael Socolow wrote in Slate on its 75th anniversary in 2013; “Almost nobody was fooled.”
Many listeners sued the network for “mental anguish” and “personal injury”. All suits were dismissed, except for a claim for a pair of black men’s shoes by a Massachusetts man, who spent his shoe money to escape the Martians. Welles insisted the man be paid.
You can download the original broadcast here:
Welles was legendary in Hollywood for his gargantuan appetite (and size). At one point he had to go on a diet to play Shakespeare’s portly Sir John Falstaff !! I’ve read numerous accounts of his eating habits, however, and do not find much to suggest that he was a particularly discerning or adventurous eater. Admittedly he could be fussy about the quality of the food he was served, but it was mostly of the “U.S. meat and potatoes” variety. One favorite of his, for example, was 2 large steaks, 2 baked potatoes, a whole pineapple, and a giant dish of pistachio ice cream. Sheer quantity of a meal does not amuse me. Reminds me of various sickeningly large food challenges found in restaurants across the U.S. where the one who succeeds gets the meal free and a picture on the wall (and probably a bucket 5 minutes later – shades of Monty Python).
However, my old favorite cookbook author, Robert Carrier in Great Dishes of the World, has a wonderful recipe for choucroute garnie which he claims is fit for “hearty trenchermen.” The name itself – garnished sauerkraut – is a joke in that the “garnish” is a boatload of meat. In principle, there is no fixed recipe for this dish – any preparation of hot sauerkraut with meat and potatoes could qualify – but in practice there are certain traditions, favorite recipes, and stereotypical garnishes that are more easily called choucroute garnie than others. Traditional recipes call for three types of sausage: Frankfurt sausages, Strasbourg sausages, and Montbéliard sausages. Fatty, inexpensive or salted cuts of pork also often form a part of choucroute garnie, including ham hocks, pork knuckles and shoulders, back bacon and slices of salt pork. Other recipes call for pieces of fish or goose meat, but this is far less typical.
The sauerkraut itself is usually heated with a glass of Riesling or other dry white wines or stock, and goose or pork fat. In some recipes, it may also be cooked with chopped onion and sliced apples. Food writer Jeffrey Steingarten attempted to catalogue the composition of an authentic recipe in 1989. He writes that every traditional recipe includes black peppercorns, cloves, garlic, juniper berries, onions, and potatoes; most include bay leaves and wine.
Like cassoulet, pot au feu, and so many other examples of France’s regional cuisine, its origin is in a traditional, inexpensive dish, but grand versions (such as Choucroute Royale, made with Champagne instead of Riesling), and grand ingredients (such as foie gras and wild game) are mentioned both in traditional sources and in recipes from contemporary chefs and restaurants.
I heartily recommend this dish for a winter dinner party when big eaters are your main guests.