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.”
Teaching undergraduate English in the Bronx while researching my dissertation on old-time radio, I found it difficult if necessary to relate nightly study to daytime work in the classroom. I did not want to be one of those educators who think of their ‘job’ as an educator as being at odds with—or in the way of—an academic careers, success in which is largely dependent on self-promotional efforts rather than years of service. Reluctant instructors tend to become resentful of their charge, a feeling that is hardly conducive to the far from mutually exclusive activities of teaching and learning. Writing this journal has been a way of vindicating my approach, of coming to terms with my inability to squeeze the most out of the degree I earned. broadcastellan is not a series of unheard lectures, but a record of my enthusiasms.
Now, where was I going with this? Ah, yes. “The War of the Worlds,” the infamous “Panic Broadcast” that was first heard on this day, 30 October, in 1938. The Mercury Theater’s iconic dramatization of Wells’s futuristic parable and the resulting Hullabaloo (also the title of a 1940 musical comedy inspired by the event) provided me with a rare opportunity to forge a connection between classroom and study. “The War” was the first recording of a radio play I shared with my students, whose listening experience was followed by the inevitable question whether such a performance could still hornswoggle us today.
Not surprisingly, most of my students argued that we are too sophisticated nowadays to fall for such claptrap. There is more access to alternative media, more awareness of what is going on around the world. However comforting it might be to think so, I have never permitted myself to share this view. I do not conceive of the past as being inferior to the present by virtue of some supposedly natural progression.
Sure, you might snicker at preposterous styles and passing fads. You might say, in hindsight, that certain political decisions were wrong and that those living in the past should have seen things coming. In short, there are any number of ways to demonstrate your ostensible superiority to folks back then. Doing so, however, you should have the honesty to admit that your argument is designed to make yourself feel better about the uncertainties and anxieties of the present.
I do not hold with those who look at past generations as an older, hence inferior, model of themselves. I reject the notion that there has ever been what is frequently referred to as “innocent” times. Retrospection breeds contempt. Too often, it is an act of distancing yourself from events that the present, if properly inspected, proves to be not altogether beyond the possibility of recurrence.
So, could something akin to the headlines-making broadcast be restaged tonight and elicit a similar response, a response frequently attributed to the threat of war that was about to shatter hopes of stability, peace, and prosperity? Are we not on edge enough now to have reached the point of sustainable gullibility? Or are cynicism and apathy an adequate shield against deception? Have not many of us lived a myth constructed by those who benefit from our desire to believe in something, be it a falsehood about terror and the war on it, be it the promise of economic progress to which every aspect of our existence is made subordinate? The times, it seems, are ripe for a shake-up.
One reader of the so-called panic broadcast, Peter Lowentrout, suggests that listener belief in an attack from Mars was rooted in a “loss of spirit,” the 1920s and 1930s having been “decades in which the influence of secularization peaked in our general and elite cultures.” Are we more eager to believe in a hoax if we are incapable of or reluctant to believe in anything else? Or is a return to faith a prerequisite for a susceptibility to apocalyptic visions?
In a way, the “panic” is itself an historical construct; its extent has been exaggerated to permit us that look of superiority we tend to cast on the past. Yet what about the present fear change and its mongers, those who look upon of the presidential candidates as a false Messiah and claim him to be alien to the economic needs of an ailing nation, if not downright hostile to those intent on clinging to a status quo that hardly seems worth maintaining? What about those who think of ecological crises as a matter of fate or charlatanry rather than challenge and opportunity; and who, by claiming it to be either inevitable or false, go on living as if their individual conduct had no influence on the future of this planet? What about those who are disillusioned by the stock market, yet feel threatened by concepts of alternative living that involve something other than the amassing of greenbacks?
Orson Welles’s introductory remarks, at least, are readily applied to our present condition:
With infinite complacence people went to and fro over the earth about there little affairs, serene in the assurance of their dominion over this small spinning fragment of solar driftwood which by chance or design man has inherited out of the dark mystery of Time and Space.
At present, I find it difficult to think of anything other than the US election, which is what reminded me of the challenge I faced in the classroom, the challenge I am facing when keeping a journal that attempts to keep up with the out-of-date? To find relevance in the past and to relate it to the uncertainties that constitute my present, that is the challenge. While I have no official say in the matter, I shall have certainty next Wednesday. On that day, I may even have renewed confidence in the democratic West; but certain and confident is not who I am tonight . . .