It was 70 years ago today—October 30, 1938—that Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre traumatised American radio listeners with their brilliant adaptation of The War of the Worlds. I wrote about that recording last year so rather than repeat myself, here’s the final words from Howard Koch’s 1970 book about the play, The Panic Broadcast. (That’s the cover of my cheap paperback edition.) Koch was charged by Welles and producer John Houseman with the task of condensing and updating HG Wells’ novel and he ends his book with an examination of the lessons to be learned from the resulting hysteria. America’s current crop of demagogues on TV and radio—and the audiences prepared to take everything they say at face value—render his words as apposite now as they were forty years ago.
Meanwhile, how can we protect ourselves from politically biased information coming to us through the mass media? It isn’t as simple as dialing another station as in the case of the Martian scare. In my opinion, the only safeguard we have is the cultivation of a skeptical attitude toward all authority, to regard no person or office sacrosanct, to accept nothing that doesn’t accord with our experience and our knowledge acquired from other sources.
Most of my generation were brought up to give unquestioned obedience to authority, whether parental, religious or political. The result has been a compliant and conformist society that has tolerated a war every decade, all sorts of racial and economic inequities and a progressive spoliation of our planet. The management, shall we say, has been less than perfect.
But for the first time there are signs of a change and we have good reason to hope that the world won’t be lost by default. Today all authority is being questioned and challenged, especially by the young. The American people have become more concerned with public affairs on every level. They are taking less on faith; the individual intelligence is beginning to assert itself in self-protection and therein lies the promise of a society with the attributes for survival.
If the nonexistent Martians in the broadcast had anything important to teach us, I believe it is the virtue of doubting and testing everything that comes to us over the airwaves and on the printed pages – including those written by the author of this book.
• The Mercury Theatre on the Air | An archive of the radio shows