Katelyn Buxton/ The Mainstream
Andrew Laniohan as Professor Richard Pierson, and Jesika Barnes as reporter Carl Phillips in The War of the Worlds.

Historic radio play “War of the Worlds” captivates audience in Wayne Crooch classroom

American radio listeners were shocked on Oct. 30, 1938 to learn that aliens had supposedly landed in New Jersey. On October 31, 2019, an audience at UCC was captivated by the same historic radio production of “The War of the Worlds” that had caused a mass panic over 80 years earlier.

While people may no longer bat an eye at stories of aliens invading the earth, “The War of the Worlds” was considered to be a remarkable piece of fiction in its time that still entertains audiences today.

The original novel was published at the end of the nineteenth century by British author H.G. Wells in a time when science fiction was nearly unheard of. However, it was when ambitious American actor Orson Welles adapted “The War of the Worlds” for the radio in 1938 that the story became forever immortalized.

After the introduction to UCC’s production of the drama, Orson Welles (played by UCC student Andrew Laniohan) opens with these ominous words: “We know now that in the early years of the twentieth century this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man’s, and yet as mortal as his own.”

This paves the way for what follows and intrigues the audience enough to keep them listening even before the Martians emerge from their cylindrical spaceship and begin their brief reign of terror. Soon it becomes obvious that even the army cannot stop them as what is termed a “heat ray” destroys any opposition.

The hour-long radio drama is broken up by a series of weather forecasts, instrumental music and live news anchor reports. As the play unfolds, the audience can easily imagine what a household listener in the ‘30s might have felt as they turned the knob a little louder and crowded around the family radio to find out what happens next.

However, it was these “live” news reports that helped create panic in listeners who had tuned in too late to hear Welles’s assurance that what followed was fictional. While Welles was surprised that many of his listeners believed that Martians were really invading the earth, the Federal Communications Commision has since adopted rules against hoaxes that might tie up the resources of first responders.

The play at UCC also showcased what it must have been like to be a part of putting on the original production. “The War of the Worlds” as a visual element was quite simple. The cast was arranged along the back of the stage in a line of chairs in front of which stood two microphones made to look like antiques. The actors were dressed in costumes that matched the period and only came forward when it was time to speak into the microphone.

As a mostly audio production, the quality of voice acting was especially important, and each actor played their parts well. Since most cast members played more than one role, they distinguished each character from one another by slipping on a new accent or slowing down or speeding up their speech pattern to fit both the character and the scenario. The audience heard from a farmer with a distinct southern twang, a breathless reporter who offered the first glimpse of alien life and a disillusioned soldier ready to do whatever it took to survive, just to name a few.

Throughout the play, rising tensions and eerie music keep the audience’s attention until all hope seems lost. It then follows a man named Richard Pierson as he wanders through the wasteland created by the aliens and wonders how it could be that the life he remembers ever existed at all.

“Do days exist without calendars? Does time pass when there are no human hands left to wind the clocks?” he asks. The recognizably thoughtful tone to much of the play shines through the brightest here.

Just when it seems that the Martians have won and that society has no hope of ever recovering, Pierson comes across Martian dead bodies. It is then revealed that the aliens died of earth diseases against which they had no immunity, a clever turn of events that adds some realism to the imaginative tale. “The War of the Worlds” was over.

Christina Allaback, the new assistant professor for performing and visual arts, was excited to be able to bring the classic story to life at UCC. She founded a science fiction theater company in Eugene and knows that there is a lot of room for creativity in “The War of the Worlds.”

“It’s just fun throwing sound effects into this thing,” said Allaback. “It gives a sound designer a chance to be really creative.”

The eerie alien noises were produced with a device called the theremin, an electronic instrument played without physical contact. Usually, the device consists of two metal antennas that are able to sense the positions of the musician’s hands. One antenna adjusts the volume of the noise produced, and the other controls the frequency.

Spooky music aside, “The War of the Worlds” is a story that has entertained audiences for decades. “I can’t help but wonder,” said Allaback, “if Orson Welles ever stopped to think that 80 years later people would still be doing his script on Halloween?”

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