This is just the night for a return—a return to that old, beloved yet woefully neglected hobbyhorse of mine. You know, the Pegasus of hobbyhorses: the radio. After all, it is the anniversary of the Mercury Theatre’s 1938 “War of the Worlds” broadcast, a date that lives in infamy for giving those who say that “seeing is believing” an ear-opening poke in the eye. These days, the old Pegasus doesn’t get much of an airing. It may have sprung from the blood of Medusa—but that old Gorgon, television, still has a petrifying grip on our imagination.
What made “The War of the Worlds” so convincing was that it treated fantasy to the trickery of realism, by turning an old sci-fi yarn into what, too many, sounded like a documentary. As the program’s general editor, John Houseman—who gave up the ghost on Halloween in 1988—recalled about the Mercury’s holiday offering, not even the script girl had much faith in the material: “It’s all too silly! We’re going to make fools of ourselves. Absolute idiots.” Instead, the broadcast made fools of thousands by exploiting their pre-war invasion anxieties.
As I put it in Etherized Victorians, broadcast fictions could
tap into what McLuhan argued to be “inherent in the very nature” of radio—the power to turn “psyche and society into a single echo chamber.”
The more urgent concern for broadcasters had always been whether it was proper for radio dramatists to exploit this power at all, especially after the codes of radio’s surface realism had been so forcefully violated by Howard Koch’s dramatization [. . .]. In one of the most disturbing scenes of the play, a speaker identified as a CBS announcer addresses the public to document the end of civilization—“This may be the last broadcast”—until succumbing to the noxious fumes that spread across Manhattan and extinguish all human life below. His body having collapsed at the microphone, a lone voice—rendered distant and faint by a filter—attempts to establish communication.
It is the voice of a radio operator: “2X2L calling CQ. . . . 2X2L calling CQ . . . . 2X2L calling CQ . . . New York. Isn’t there anyone on the air? [Isn’t there anyone on the air?] Isn’t there anyone. . . .” The Mercury Players’ “holiday offering” had not only “destroyed the Columbia Broadcasting System,” as Welles jested at the conclusion of his infamous Halloween prank, but had pronounced the death of its receivers—the listening public. Considering the near panic that ensued, was it advisable to open the realm Esslin called a “region akin to the world of the dream” without clearly demarcating it as fantasy by resorting to the spells of Trilby, Chandu, or The Shadow?
After that night, the aural medium as governed by those in charge of the realties of commerce and convenience seemed destined to perpetuate what Trilling referred to as the “chronic American belief” in the “incompatibility of mind and reality.”