Interview With A. Brad Schwartz, author of “Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’ ‘War of the Worlds’”
A. Brad Schwartz discovered a treasure trove of letters from audience members who heard the original broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” on October 1938.
How did you become passionate about audio drama, and the “theatre of the mind”?
I’ve been a night owl for my entire life, and when I was very young my parents always struggled to get me to go to sleep at night. They eventually discovered that letting me listen to spoken word programs on cassette was a great way of quieting me down at bedtime. Around this time, in the early 1990s, a lot of golden age radio was being reissued on tape, and so my parents would pick up recordings of shows like The Shadow, The Lone Ranger, and Superman at bookstores and from catalogs. I was fortunate to get introduced to radio drama at that age, because kids have limitless imaginations that are perfectly suited to the “theater of the mind.” The biggest special effects budget in the world can never compete with what a good imagination can dream up listening to old time radio.
What made you want to write about Orson Welles and “War of the Worlds” specifically?
Back in 2010, when I was in my junior year at the University of Michigan, I learned from a librarian that the U-M had recently acquired two large collections of Orson Welles’s personal papers. Those collections included about 1,400 letters from people who heard the War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938, which had lain virtually untouched for seventy years. Since I’d grown up listening to golden age radio, I knew all about the story of the War of the Worlds panic, and as soon as I heard about these letters I couldn’t wait to dig in and discover the stories they contained. As luck would have it, that same week I got accepted to the U-M History Honors program, and I needed a topic for my senior thesis. Naturally, I chose War of the Worlds, and my thesis eventually morphed into my first book.
Was the impact of the story entirely due to Orson Welles’ choices as a director, or did John Houseman or Howard Koch influence the turnout, too?
Like any dramatic production, War of the Worlds was a very collaborative endeavor, and the special power of that show really comes from the unique combination of talent behind it. Orson Welles came up with the initial idea to do a fake news broadcast, but his producer John Houseman and associate director Paul Stewart suggested they apply that idea to The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. Howard Koch, who later went on to co-write Casablanca, penned the script for the broadcast, and he worked out on the page most (but not all) of the fake news techniques that later left such an impression on audiences. Great credit, too, goes to the actors – especially Frank Readick, who based his performance as the hapless reporter Carl Phillips on the famous recording of the Hindenburg explosion – and sound effects technician Ora Nichols. Welles wasn’t really involved until the day of the show, but everyone involved agrees that his last minute influence was absolutely essential to making the show sound so real. He played a major role at the very beginning and the very end, but he had a great team helping him out in the middle.
In later years, Welles would talk about the “panic broadcast” very slyly, as if he had planned a lesson for the public on critical appraisal of the news. Did he have any idea of the impact this work would have?
Despite Welles’s later claims to the contrary, there’s really no reason to believe he expected anything approaching the result that he got. Just about everyone who worked on the show later agreed that they were shocked at what happened, Welles as much as any of them. The dress rehearsal, done without Welles, was apparently absolutely dreadful, and no one in the Mercury thought the show would be any good. They couldn’t imagine that anyone would take this forty-year-old sci-fi story at all seriously. Welles, with his career more or less on the line, made several last-minute changes meant to inject some realism into what he and his team considered a pretty silly script. These revisions wound up being some of the elements that most convinced listeners that the broadcast was real – an effect he achieved largely by accident.
The letters you found in the University of Michigan archives were a treasure trove – almost like a time machine, giving you insight into the audiences and everyday people of the 1930s. Was there any sentiment in these letters that you found especially unusual?
What surprised me initially was how positive the response to the broadcast was. Having grown up with the story of the War of the Worlds panic, I expected a lot of letters from outraged listeners who’d fled their homes or tried to defend themselves against the Martians. But I discovered that the vast majority of letters showed no evidence of fright or panic caused by the broadcast. Instead, most people wrote to defend Welles against the prospect of censorship, and to vent their frustrations against people who had believed. They had read newspaper reports of panic caused by the broadcast, which were wildly exaggerated, and assumed that many more listeners had freaked out than was actually the case. The news media still have a tendency to try and grab our attention with exaggerated or alarming stories, and the real lesson of War of the Worlds is to always take what you hear with a grain of salt. The broadcast itself was fake news, but so were the stories about it in the next day’s newspapers, and the mistakes those journalists made live on to this day.
Why do you think the outcome of “The War of the Worlds” hoax in Ecuador, where at least six people died, was so much worse?
One behavior that occurs every time these fake news events occur – whether Welles’s broadcast in 1938, or the one in Quito, Ecuador, in 1949, or Twitter hoaxes today – is that people try to verify what they’ve heard by going to a trusted source of information. This is why phone switchboards lit up like crazy during the first War of the Worlds; people were calling police, newspapers, and radio stations to ask if the invasion was real. At a talk I gave awhile back, I met a gentleman who remembered hearing the 1938 broadcast as a child and going with his mother to the office of his local newspaper, where a bunch of people had gathered in search of more information. In Quito, the radio station airing a remake of War of the Worlds happened to be located in the same building with the city’s primary newspaper. It appears that many people went there for the same purpose: to figure out if the broadcast was real news. By the time they got word it was fake, a very large crowd had gathered, and it essentially took on a mind of its own. The radio station, the source of their deception, was right in front of them, and the mob attacked it, quickly burning it down. I’m not sure, if the radio station had been on the other side of town, that there would’ve been the same result; it was the absolute worst-case scenario.
What, besides “War of the Worlds”, would you suggest to a new listener who wants to hear some of the very best in classic radio drama?
I firmly believe, and Orson Welles would agree with me, that Lucille Fletcher wrote the greatest radio plays of all time. Welles preferred her “Sorry, Wrong Number,” which was produced several times in the 1940s starring Agnes Moorehead. My personal favorite is “The Hitch-Hiker,” where Welles plays a driver who gradually becomes unhinged as he sees the same hitchhiker over and over again on a cross-country road trip. That’s the one I always recommend to people who’ve never heard a radio play before.
Of the modern interpretations of “War of the Worlds”, do you think any in particular, capture the excitement that the Mercury adaptation did?
I consider Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film version of War of the Worlds the most effective adaptation since the radio show. Spielberg understood that the power of Welles’s broadcast was the way it keyed into the anxieties of the moment, and he did much the same thing by evoking our post-9/11 paranoia. That said, I don’t think it’s possible for any film – or really any visual medium – to recapture the magic of a radio broadcast like War of the Worlds. The audience can’t be an active participant in a film the way they are in a radio drama, where they have to imagine what’s happening. Most people frightened by Welles’s broadcast didn’t know that the invaders were aliens; they imagined that the invaders were Nazis, or thought that they were hearing reports of a natural disaster. A film like Spielberg’s War of the Worlds can evoke our current fears, but it can’t lead its audience to believe that those fears are coming true the way Welles did.
You’ve talked about how “War of the Worlds” is a precursor of viral news – and hoaxes – across social media. Is there a major difference now that viral stories spread across the web?
It’s clear from the letters and other sources that the first impulse of many frightened listeners was to spread the “news” to other people. Instead of trying to flee from the Martians or otherwise panicking, they called friends and relatives or ran next door to tell their neighbors to tune in. It’s likely that the people who panicked most severely either never heard the broadcast themselves or only heard a fragment of it, having been told about it by someone they trusted. Hadley Cantril, the Princeton social psychologist who published a study of the broadcast in 1940, wrote that this fear acted like a “contagion”; today, we’d say the show went viral. The only difference, really, between then and now is that we can spread misinformation so much more quickly and easily. People in 1938 had telephones and the word of mouth; their “social media” were very limited. Nowadays, with Twitter and Facebook, you can reach hundreds of thousands of people around the world almost instantaneously, and they’ll spread the word even further.
Voice actor Arthur Anderson, who began working with the Mercury Theatre after “The War of the Worlds”, described the jealousy Welles aroused in some artists, because he “never played by the rules”. He was known for his audacious choices – whether he was making a film noir, a controversial Broadway play, or an audio drama. So, what do you think Welles would be doing, if he’d come of age in the 21st century?
He’d be on YouTube, certainly. Welles’s trouble, after Citizen Kane, was that he worked in an age when the means of film production were very expensive and rather difficult to acquire. Because he never had a major box office success, he always struggled to get the money to do what he did best. That’s partly why radio was such a great medium for him; the production costs are very low. Today, when every cell phone can double as a film studio and you don’t need a mass audience to be a success, there would really be no limit to what he could do.
A. Brad Schwartz’s book, Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” and the Art of Fake News is available from Amazon.com and other booksellers, and as an Audible download. Purchasing through our link supports the World Audio Drama Day clearinghouse.