I've just returned from an evening downtown having just seen the University Theatre's presentation of Orson Welles' 1938 radio version of The War of the Worlds adapted from Howard Koch's script. Most of you know that this is one of my favourite books, radio presentations & event in human history so it shouldn't surprise anyone how excited I was to attend.
The excitement however, didn't last long. When you have a story told in radio like the original broadcast the events unfold in the listener's mind. Presenting an original radio drama as a stage play about a radio program makes it as awkward & confusing as this sentence describing it. They began with a live broadcast of an adaptation of W.W. Jacob's classic story The Monkey's Paw, just as you might hear back in the '30s with audience & foley men & all. Several minutes into the story a stage manager comes in with an urgent bulletin, stopping the program & announcing strange phenomena of jets of gas visibly erupting from the planet Mars. The story resumes as normal until another bulletin comes in with more news. This continues until The Monkey's Paw is given up in favour of the more exciting news about Mars & the sudden impact of a "meteorite" near Black Earth, Wisconsin. From then on the play jumps back & forth from newsroom announcements to live portrayal of the havoc wrought upon Black Earth. So is it a radio broadcast? Is it a stage play? Is it really happening outside the theater? Why yes! All three apparently.
But still, this in itself wasn't so bad. They did well in switching back & forth between the three & I could have lived with it, but the performance itself was so laughable that I nearly found it difficult to remain to the end. The actors knew their lines that's for certain, for I know them all myself having studied the original broadcast for so long. However, one could say they knew them too well. A number of the actors spoke every line as if to say "Look at me! I remembered every line, I am so proud of myself." It was over rehearsed. Every shred of spontaneity in the dialogue was lost. The woman portraying Carl Phillips was so over the top I couldn't wait for her to die at the first flash of the heat ray. To contrast, Mercury Theater actor Frank Readick who played Phillips in '38 intently studied Herb Morrison's account of the Hindenburg disaster the year before. Playing the broadcast over & over again to get a sense of the urgency in Morrison's strained voice, Readick prepared to make his role as the doomed reporter Carl Phillips as realistic as possible.
Perhaps none of them had ever actually heard the original broadcast which they were aping. Except for Norman Gilliland all of the players were kids at the university. That at least would account for why everyone's lines were off or were spoken with a grinning cheesiness usually found in musicals. Or delivered with an air of "This is a fun play, I don't have to be serious." And also why all the lines were done at 2/3 the normal speed, dragging the production out to 90 minutes. It was irritating, like when you hear someone singing your favourite song except they're using all the wrong notes. This broadcast would never have been mistaken for an actual Martian invasion.
I do have to make an exception for Mr. Gilliland tho'. He was the most professional of the crew & had the best radio voice, which is expected since he's been working in the business for over 30 years. The rest however, need some work.
This being October I am on my annual War of the Worlds kick & this year is one of the biggest so far. It is the 70th anniversary of the original radio broadcast, the 110th anniversary of the novel's publication, Jeff Wayne is currently touring the UK for the third year running with his famous musical production of the story & here in Madison there are two live state presentations. Yes, two. The second being on October 21st at the Capitol Theater presented by L.A. Theater Works. I'll be there too. And if Jeff Wayne brings his tour to America, or if I can get to England sometime soon you can bet I'll be in the good seats. I already know that will be the best of the bunch.
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If you want to listen to the program I attended tonite, it was broadcast live on October 4th. You can download it from the NPR archives here & listenable on RealPlayer.