Weekend Radio Show Recommendation

You read that arightly, I am recommending a radio drama rather than a film this week: 1938’s War of the Worlds (click here to listen). To the extent people have heard of it at all, they know it as the show that allegedly drove America into a national panic about invading Martians (in truth, very few people actually listened to the broadcast). What it ought to be remembered for is its high level of artistic achievement.

The radio play was performed by the Mercury Theater troupe founded by two wildly talented people: Orson Welles and John Houseman.
Howard Koch, who later became justly famous as the co-scripter of Casablanca, gets the credit for brilliantly adapting H.G. Wells’ novel to radio in a fashion that took advantage of everything the medium and the Mercury Theater company could do. The novel’s rather lengthy set-up chapters and some of its clunky plot development (i.e., having the narrator run into someone who provides crucial information) were a function of the book being told through the eyes of a single narrator. In contrast, staged as a fake news broadcast with scattered, breathless, reports coming in as the Martians wreak havoc, the radio play grips you by the throat immediately and gives the listener a range of details from different geographic locations in an utterly realistic fashion.

Radio also of course opens up opportunities to add sounds — the screams and footfalls of panicked crowds, the horrible, metallic, unscrewing of the Martian cylinders, and the terrifying zzzaaapppp of those heat rays! It’s high craftmanship that still leaves us the fun of imagining how it all looked.

Last, but not least, what an explosion of talent this troupe of actors represented! Not just the big names, but also people like Ray Collins, Dan Seymour, Kenny Delmar, and Frank Readick. They are all perfect at creating characters with voice alone, each of whom seems like a real human being responding to out of this world events. Some New York theater fans were disappointed when talented, stage-trained actors they admired began transferring to new, middle brow, media like radio and film, but the upside was that the whole country and indeed the whole world got to enjoy the dramatic gifts and skills of companies like the Mercury Theater.

I loved listening to radio play as a kid (the image above is of the record album of it my parents had) and it’s just as suspenseful and exciting for me today. War of the Worlds is in the public domain so you can give it a listen anytime. You won’t regret it.

p.s. If you want to see a film version of the same story, Walt Disney’s 1953 version provides way more entertainment value that Spielberg’s grim and weirdly lifeless, gazillion-dollar version.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

2 thoughts on “Weekend Radio Show Recommendation”

  1. Wells ends his novel by invoking God … we owe our survival to the microbes God created, so ultimately we owe our survival to him. The films also invoke God in their endings.

    Wells (like Einstein) did not believe in a personal God who intervenes in the Universe, so this is a bit dubious. I think there is another reading.

    The Martians in WOTW really are smarter than us. The book tells us the humans have failed to reproduce Martian technology, and that attempts to do have ended in disaster. Also, there are signs that the Martians have invaded Venus, so their defeat on Earth has not hindered their advance.

    Wells compares the Martians gazing on us from space with humans looking at creatures through a microscope, swarming and multiplying. But they were killed by our microbes, the smallest creatures on the Earth, possessing no intelligence at all.

    So we survived because we evolved in a niche in which the Martians could not compete. They could not exterminate humans in the same way as we cannot rid ourselves of the common cold or the cockroach. Intelligence is not everything. It is not God we owed survival to, but Evolution.

  2. I enthusiastically second this recommendation. Back in undergraduate school, I took a course in old radio shows. It was a one-time course, created by a student hobbyist under the supervision of a professor. We spent a good chunk of each class session sitting in a darkened room listening to a variety of old radio shows, each illustrative of a particular practice or moment in the history of radio. It was one of the most memorable courses I took.

    Of course, one of the sessions was listening to this broadcast. It is truly a magnificent performance.

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