From Horsell Common to Grover’s Mill: a Second Life for a famous broadcast

I think everyone expected to see a man emerge–possibly something a little unlike us terrestrial men, but in all essentials a man. I know I did. But, looking, I presently saw something stirring within the shadow: greyish billowy movements, one above another, and then two luminous disks–like eyes. Then something resembling a little grey snake, about the thickness of a walking stick, coiled up out of the writhing middle, and wriggled in the air towards me–and then another.

“The Cylinder Opens”, Chapter 4 of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds

October 30th 1938, and across the airwaves originating from New York City, comes the familiar announcement  to thousands of radios within receiving range: Mercury Theatre on the Air is once more live and broadcasting. But this was to be no ordinary presentation by the company co-founded and led by the rising young genius, Orson Welles.

Orson Welles
Orson Welles

War of the Worlds has gone down in history as one of the most famous radio broadcasts ever made. Transplanting the story of a Martian invasion from 19th century rural England to the east coast of America in the 1930s, the Mercury Theatre on the Air gave a dramatisation that was – by some at least – taken all too literally as it reached out across the airwaves (although it appears much of the upset linked to the show actually occurred in the days after the broadcast, rather than at the time).

The confusion that did occur during the broadcast was most likely the result of Welles’ own clever structuring of the show, which was presented as a series of eye-witness accounts being reported-on “live” from a number of locations in upstate New York and in the city itself, and which saw the first “breaking news” announcement timed to coincide to the period when many listeners would re-tune their radios to CBS after listening to a popular show on a rival station.

On Friday November 1st, and with special permission of the estate of Howard Koch, one of the two co-writers of the original script, the Avatar Repertory Theatre (ART) staged a performance of Welles’ War of Worlds to mark the 75th anniversary of the original broadcast.

The production, which had first been performed in Second Life in 2011 by Seanchai Library and friends, brought several of that production’s cast back to the stage, together with new faces and voices from the ARTs team, all of whom once again filled the original stage set.

War of the Worlds, Avatar Repertory Theatre
War of the Worlds, Avatar Repertory Theatre

The set for the production was simplicity itself; eight members of the cast standing in the windows of what appears to be a broken and shattered building, perhaps a shop-front in one of the towns the Martians passed through en route to New York or which might even be the ruined remnants of one of that city’s towering skyscrapers. The wall behind the actors changed as the production progressed, displaying various backgrounds which helped enhance the story and offer visua cues as the settings for the unfolding tale changed.

Kayden Oconnell as Professor Richard Pierson
Kayden Oconnell as Professor Richard Pierson

Reprising the role of Professor Pierson, Kayden Oconnell stood a little forward of the main set, framed by an empty doorway.

Given Pierson, the pivotal character in the piece, had been played by Welles himself back in 1938 and already regarded as an actor, director and producer of some considerable renown, any adaption of the radio play needs a lead who can fill Welles’ shoes with confidence. Kayden Oconnell is just such an actor. In reprising the role, he brought with him the same gravitas, tone and authority he presented to audiences in 2011.

Alongside of him, the rest of the cast, often performing more than one role, also presented the material with authority and skill, so much so that if you closed your eyes, it was easy to imagine yourself back in a war-jittery America, listening to the most chilling “news” being broadcast on a dark, early winter’s night.

But the production wasn’t all words; great care had been taken to add both aural and visual effects, as with the original broadcast. Thundergas Menges provided the sound effects and music, the latter of which did much to recreated the feel of the original broadcast through the inclusion of pieces Welles had used to  represent the various bands playing during the “regular broadcasts” from CBS which his “news bulletins” would periodically interrupt at the start of the piece.

The visuals with the piece were once again a treat, and added another famous ingredient to the mix. As the Martians started on their attempted conquest of the Earth, a huge fighting machine taken from Jeff Wayne’s more recent but equally famous adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel, reared up over the audience, heat-ray menacing and ready to fire.

"They were inside the hoods of machines they'd made. Massive metal things on legs ... giant machines that walked..."
“They were inside the hoods of machines they’d made. Massive metal things on legs … giant machines that walked…”

I thoroughly enjoyed War of the Worlds when first presented in-world in this format back in 2011, and found myself equally enthralled this time around. In both cases, the cast presented a piece that offered us a window into the past and those chilly October nights when the fear of war was once again on the minds of many people, while at the same time presenting us with an aural and visual treat we could enjoy simply as a re-telling of one of science-fiction’s all-time great stories.

My only regret is really that this was only a single performance; it’s a piece I’d happily sit through again, and would, were it possible, encourage everyone to go see and enjoy.

Bravo to all involved!

The heat-ray strikes!
The heat-ray strikes!

War of the Worlds was staged at the Avatar Repertory Theatre’s New Theatre. It was directed by Caledonia Skytower and featured the voice talents of Corwyn Allen, MadameThespian Underhill, Ada Radius, Avajean Westland, Sodovan Torak, Em Jannings, Thundergass Menges, and Caledonia Skytower, with Kayden Oconnell as Professor Richard Pierson.

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