Welles & the Martians

October 30: Onthis day in 1938, the Orson Welles-Howard Koch-John Houseman radio adaptationof the H. G. Wells novel, The War of theWorlds aired—the famous hoax eye-witness account of Martians landing onearth. The following passage is from near the beginning, reporter Phillipsdescribing his first sight of…

…they look like tentacles to me. There, I can see the thing’sbody. It’s large, large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather. But thatface, it…. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s indescribable. I can hardly force myselfto keep looking at it. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouthis V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver andpulsate. The monster or whatever it is can hardly move. It seems weighed downby . . . possibly gravity or something. The thing’s raising up. The crowd fallsback now. They’ve seen plenty. This is the most extraordinary experience. I can’tfind words . . . I’ll pull this microphone with me as I talk. I’ll have to stopthe description until I can take a new position. Hold on, will you please, I’llbe right back in a minute….

The broadcast was prefaced by material which should havealerted any listener to the joke, and immediately afterwards Welles offeredthis Halloween disclaimer:

This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character,to assure you that The War of the Worldshas no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be;The Mercury Theatre‘s own radioversion of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying”Boo!” Starting now, we couldn’t soap all your windows and steal allyour garden gates by tomorrow night, so we did the next best thing. Weannihilated the world before your very ears and utterly destroyed the CBS. Youwill be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn’t mean it, and that bothinstitutions are still open for business.

The hour-long Mercury Theatre radio show returned to itsregular diet of literary classics the following week, offering its listenersthe more terrestrial horror of Conrad’s Heartof Darkness.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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