War of the Worlds is a novel I’ve always enjoyed for both its allegorical nature and for being a chilling tale first encountered at school. I also very much enjoy Jeff Wayne’s musical version (thanks to both Dad & my own discovery of Wayne’s brilliant Spartacus back in the 1990s). I’m also more that a little familiar with the tale of Welles’ 1938 Mercury Theatre Hour broadcast – but then, who isn’t?
Given all this, attending a special presentation of War of the Worlds in Second Life by the Seanchai Library is something I’ve been looking forward to ever since Bear Silvershade passed me details of the production, together with an invitation to attend.
I did actually try to make the opening night, on Saturday 22nd, but issues with Voice and Media put paid to that for me, with the result that I felt most frustrated. Sunday’s performance proved to be a lot better – although it did prompt a hasty re-install of a Viewer to allow me to hear things clearly. So it was that I settled down into a beanbag in a packed audience at Haunted Fruit Islands to await the unfolding of events at Grover’s Mill.
Yes, Grover’s Mill, New York, not Horsell Common, Surrey. Given this is a Halloween presentation, this is not just any adaptation of War of the Worlds, it is a presentation of the original script use by Welles and his company in 1938. What’s more, it is being staged with the full approval of the estate of the late Howard Koch, who wrote the script for the infamous 1938 broadcast.
So it is that the story is relocated from rural England and bustling London’s at the end of the 19th Century to rural New Jersey and the towering metropolis of New York. Thus, we open with a scene-changing voice-over that condenses Wells’ original prose and aids with the change in setting from the late 1890s to the latter years of the Depression in the United States.
Of course, Second Life is a visual medium – so how do people go about trying to recreate an audio broadcast? Acting the piece is clearly impossible, not with all that goes on; but having a group of actors standing listlessly on stage isn’t the answer either.
Seanchai Library deal with the issue very cleverly, using a simple but effective set. This has the members of the cast standing in the windows of what appears to be the ruins of a building somewhere – perhaps the remnants of a New York high-rise, so hauntingly described as being cut down as if by the hand of a giant in the broadcast. Kaydon O’Connell – who takes over the central role of Professor Richard Pierson from Orson Welles – takes up the centre of the set, standing in the “doorway” of the building.
It’s an exceptionally good arrangement; the cast are posed without the risk of AOs distracting the audience, helping to focus attention on what is being said. It also allows those in the cast who have several roles within the piece (i.e. everyone but Kaydon O’Connell as the lead), free to adapt to their various roles quickly and smoothly.
As Professor Richard Pierson, Kaydon O’Connell has a considerable pair of shoes to fill. While only 22 when he produced War of the Worlds, Orson Welles was already a director and producer of renown. In 1934 he had directed what became known as Voodoo Macbeth in rapturous reviews that lead to it touring the United States. By the time he co-founded the Mercury Theatre Company, he’d built a considerable reputation as an actor in a number of CBS productions, perhaps the most notable of which was Hamlet, in which he took the lead role as well as serving as Director.
In War of the Worlds, Welles’ authoritative tones do much to establish the character and credibility of both the play and of Professor Pierson, and his closing monologue is particularly chilling. Taking on the role, Kaydon O’Connell brings the same authority and, as we reach the end of the tale, achieves the same mix of confusion, despair and bewilderment Welles evidenced in his portrayal. In this he is an ideal choice for the role; his tone is natural, the emotions behind his words clear – and he carries the core of the play superbly.
Alongside the main stage set, there were some additional visual effects planned for the production. Unfortunately, this being a Sunday night, the players had to deal with something Wells nor Welles could never have conceived: an attack of SL Weekend Gremlins. These put a stop to some of the effects, and caused a short pause in the proceedings – although they failed to dampen the audience’s enthusiasm!
The visuals we did see were a treat – as I said at the start of this review, I’ve always enjoyed Jeff Wayne’s musical interpretation of War of the Worlds, and so was delighted when, in a very nice nod to that work, a familiar Martian Fighting Machine appeared above the audience, heat ray extended, and which then spewed forth a black, cloying “smoke” in time to the unfolding events of the play.
Some of the readings are at times a little rushed or stilted – hardly surprising, given the cast here don’t have the luxury of being in the same studio with one another and so lack the benefit of having visual or directorial cues to follow. But that said, the cast as a whole handle the material exceptionally well.
Indeed, it’s fair to say it is a brave group that takes on a piece as infamous as Welles’ War of the Worlds, but the Seanchai Library and friends do so with verve, gusto and success. Given we all know the book and the story of the original radio broadcast, attempting to recreate the atmosphere the audience of 73 years ago must have felt is nigh-on impossible. However, the cast are to be congratulated in the way that, despite our foreknowledge, they nevertheless provide us with a window into the past through which we can gain a sense of what it must have been like on that dark night of October 30th 1938, as people huddled around their one link to the world at large only to hear what seemed to be news of a fearsome invasion unfolding as they listened.
Of course, Welles’ intention was never to panic anyone – and today there is still much debate as to whether the original show actually caused the degree of panic claimed to be the case during the broadcast, or whether it was in fact the press reports in the days after the broadcast that created the major frenzy. Welles’ intention was simply to entertain people on a chilly Halloween evening – a point he later discussed with H.G. Wells himself in a 1940 radio broadcast.
So, if you do enjoy a good tale for Halloween, you might like to pop along for the final presentation of The War of the Worlds, which takes place at 19:00 SLT this Wednesday, the 26th October, at Seanchai Library. All things being equal, I’ll see you there, as I hope to be back as well to soak up even more!
In the meantime, courtesy of the Vancouver Film School, and to whet your appetite, here’s a short film of how Welles might have been inspired to adapt Wells’ novel, had the two men met before the events of October 30th, 1938.
- BigRed Coyote – Harry McDonald / Gunner
- Marian Dragovar – “Announcer Three” / Mrs. Wilmuth / Observer / Operator 4
- Derry McMahon – “Announcer” / “Operator 1”
- Shandon Loring – General Montgomery Smith / The Artilleryman
- Kaydon O’Connell – Prof Richard Pierson
- Elder Priestman – Captain Lansing / Officer
- Bear Silvershade – interviewer Carl Phillips / Lieutenant Voght
- Caledonia Skytower “Announcer Two” / Secretary of the Interior / “Operator 2” / “Operator 3”
- Koward Koch (original adaptation of the novel)
- Anne Froelich
- Caledonia Skytower – Director
- Shandon Loring – SFx
All proceeds from performances of War of the Worlds will be donated to the Susan G. Komen Foundation as a part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.