“The War of the Worlds, the Sound and the Fury” by Ilana Milch

Orson Welles performing at CBS Studios during the live recording and broadcast of  War of the Worlds in 1938.

 

I’m in bed, happily dozing. With the first stirrings of wakefulness, around six in the morning, I reach for the small transistor radio next to my pillow and press the button. An early-morning news program comes on, but I am hardly able to make out the individual words, and once again I fall asleep, so that the announcer’s sentences merge into my dreams. It is the most beautiful part of sleep, the most delightful moment of the day: thanks to the radio I can savor drowsing and waking, that marvelous swinging between wakefulness and sleep which in itself is enough to keep us from regretting our birth. ~Milan Kundera, Immortality, 1991

 

            This elegant passage opens the second chapter of Milan Kundera’s 1991 novel Immortality, in which Kundera expounds on the “marvelous swinging” between fantasy and reality.[1] To say that this blur is enough to keep us from regretting our very existence is a bold statement. It is said that waking up is traumatic for the human body; upon disturbance of sleep, cortisol, the stress hormone, is released. Tempering this, we float through dreamland to the reality of our bodies held down by gravity to our beds. Radio is a medium that has found the way to be a portal between the realms of imagination and reportage. And so we oscillate between delineations of reality and fictions as constructed and sustained by voices. We choose to cross this threshold every time we turn the dial, inviting voices to guide our imaginations into concrete visions.

           The history of radio is, however, a burdensome one. Radio was conceived in order to narrate a violent reality; since its invention in the late 1800s, it has been instrumental in war as a transmitter of ally communication, a method of passing along orders, a means of broadcasting national and local information and instructions, and a channel for locating and aiding sinking ships. Radio also was installed on aircraft to keep track of routes and to glean private intel. When it was popularized in the 1920s as a way to hear music and comedy, audiences implicitly understood that at anytime the casual program might be interrupted with important information about national security or instructions for general safety. Radio was the mouthpiece of officials—the government, the military—and was regarded with the appropriate gravitas. This casual attitude toward the medium provided the perfect setup for the Orson Welles’s famous auditory maneuver.

            On Halloween Eve of 1938, Welles directed and narrated a radio adaptation of H. G. Wells’s 1898 science-fiction novel The War of the Worlds for the radio drama anthology series Mercury Theatre on the Air. The Mercury Theatre had started as a New York City repertory theater company in 1937.[2] Through the formidable envisioning of Welles, the troupe moved beyond the confines of the physical stage to on-the-air performances. This meant that the reach and impact of a radio performance could far surpass that of the theater in terms of audience size and demographics. Radio waves extended their long fingers into the ether of space, unfurling programming into homes, cars, offices, and restaurants. Nothing proved the significance of this wide reach better than Welles’s harrowing Halloween broadcast.

           In an effort to disguise the fiction, the first two thirds of the sixty-minute broadcast were presented as a series of “bulletins,” then a common mode for the dissemination of breaking news. This familiar form bolstered the realism of the broadcast. As the invasion was described through a series of fragmented news reports, how could a trusting audience not believe that aliens from Mars were attacking planet Earth? Fearing for their lives, listeners were hooked to their radios, listening to the unspooling of mankind as told through sound effects and cunning narration.           

           The repercussions of Welles’s The War of the Worlds broadcast are infamous. Panic and chaos ensued as hordes of listeners packed up their precious belongings and fled their homes. Reports of gas leaks and flashing lights popped up across the nation, clear indications that chaos was ensuing.  The aliens were clearly landing on planet Earth with aims to wipe out the human race. Within one month, newspapers had published a staggering 12,500 articles about the broadcast and its aftermath.  Fiction bled into reality as radio space began to occupy real space. The degree of public panic evidences a willingness to believe in that which we cannot see but hear. However, this willingness is contingent on events seeming catastrophic: had Welles narrated a jaunty tale about aliens enjoying tea and sandwiches with affable Americans, the story would have been unconvincing. If The War of the Worlds had a happy ending, the world would have known it was a fake.  We doubt the veracity of happiness, but succumb easily to tales of horror and disaster.

 

          From News Reel discussing Orson Welles’s response to the mass hysteria caused by his radio dramatization.                   

           If the panicked responses of the masses do not substantiate truth, what does? Were the frightened phone calls to the CBS Studios any less earnest than the anxious inquiries, three years later, that would verify that Pearl Harbor had been bombed? The suspension of disbelief is absolute in radio; with only voices to negotiate, space and time fold into each other. We as an audience can be totally displaced by the news we are receiving. Our ears become the end points for radio waves transmitting information that is yet to be measured by us, the receivers.

           Let’s hold on to this notion of suspension for a moment. Let’s imagine that the English transmission The War of the Worlds produced by Welles crossed the equator and was translated into Spanish. In the Ecuadorian city of Quito, in February 1949, Radio Quito produced a Spanish-language version of Welles’s script. In a frightening parallel, the broadcast set off panic in the city so immense that police and fire brigades were deployed to ensure the safety of the population against the alien attack. When it was revealed that the radio play was merely that, a fiction, the frenzied public rioted. Hundreds attacked the radio station as well as the local newspaper that shared the same building, as it had taken part in the hoax by publishing fabricated stories about unidentified objects hovering in the skies above the city. The riot actually resulted in at least six deaths, including the girlfriend and nephew of a Radio Quinto producer who had fled to Venezuela for safe haven.[3]

           Is the folding of fact into fiction and the engendering of real responses outof a faked event so threatening as to compel us to riot? To burn down buildings? To kill? Are these actions not the very manifestation of The War of the Worlds? Faced with our susceptibility to fiction, we become the perpetrators and act out the parts to actualize our imagination. For those that fled their homes in 1938, the aliens were a threat. Through sound without sight, radio conjures the wildest and most frantic threats in our imagination.  Kundera says that thanks to the radio that marvelous swinging swinging between wakefulness and sleep is enough to keep us from regretting our birth.  What a charge, to credit the sound box by the bed with the existential means of justifying why the day is worth living.  But if radio can give us instant access to the imagination, then Kundera’s bold statement is sound.   

 



[1] Milan Kudera, Immortality (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991), 5.
[2] “The Mercury Theatre on the Air,” available at http://www.mercurytheatre.info/.
[3] “Could It Happen Again? (And Again?),” Radiolab, March 2008, available at http://www.radiolab.org/2008/mar/24/could-it-happen-again-and-again/