Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Martians Invade American Homes! The Radio Version 1938

The novel (serialized in magazines, printed in inexpensive books) was the most popular storytelling medium of the 1890s, as it had been for more than a century. Everyone from those in the upper classes, the educated middle class, to shop clerks in the increasingly literate lower middle class, read novels. Novelists like Charles Dickens were the 19th century equivalent of rock stars.

But by the 1930s, especially in America, radio was fast supplanting print as the most popular storytelling medium.

Radio stories were somewhat like stories in print, because the listener, like the reader, had to imagine the faces and the sights of the action. However, they heard the voices, and some of the sounds.

Radio stories had another special quality: millions of people heard them, all at the same time.

Radio was also becoming an important medium of news, especially breaking news. Elaborate conventions helped identify entertainment, often taken from the theatre (if not a live audience, then the sound of crowds applauding, for instance), and also borrowed from the movies (music in the background of the dialogue and action). Certain sounds and tones of voice identified the news.

The dramatic possibilities inherent in adopting the conventions of news reporting to tell a fictional story may have occurred to others before Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre on the Air, but nobody had done it quite so effectively as they did on '>Halloween night of 1938.

People tuned into their favorite program, which might be Mercury Theatre on the Air, or they turned the dial until they found something they liked (music, for instance, which was interspersed with the fake news in the first part of the Welles broadcast.)

Those who caught the first minute of the Mercury broadcast were told they were going to be listening to a dramatization. Those who listened carefully to Orson Welles intoning the introduction, replete with phrases from HG's novel, may also have noted that he referred to the story beginning on October 30, 1939 (not what it was, 1938), and also described this fictional reality: " Business was better. The war scare was over..."

Business wasn't particularly better in 1938; though FDR's New Deal had engendered hope and was establishing a social safety net, it was still the ninth year of the Great Depression. And "the war scare" was not over. Hitler had appointed himself War Minister, and marched German armies into Austria. Japan invaded and occupied areas of China. The appeasement policy of Chamberlain in England led to a government crisis. By the end of the year, the U.S. and Germany had cut off diplomatic relations.

And a year and a half earlier, the Germans in support of Franco in Spain bombed and devastated the Spanish city of Guernica, the first such bombing of civilian populations in Europe, quickly made famous worldwide by Pablo Picasso's mural painting, exhibited at the Paris World Exhibition.

The war scare was definitely not over.

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