At 8 o'clock on the night of 30 October 1938, listeners to Orson Welles's Mercury Theater on the Air might have noticed a short announcement: the show that evening was going to be an adaptation of H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds. A lead-in paragraph followed: 'We know now that in the early years of the 20th century, this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own.' The station cut away to a weather report, and then to a swing band in the Meridian Room of the Park Plaza Hotel, playing, with numbing tediousness, a tango, 'La Cumparsita', sodden at half-tempo, followed by a sleepwalk through that 'perennial favourite, "Stardust"'. The music was interrupted once for a bulletin, something about an atmospheric event on Mars, a series of pulses each 'like a jet of blue flame shot from a gun'. At intervals in the music, further bulletins announced that the Mars event was being tracked, but nothing was out of the ordinary. 'We continue now with our piano interlude' - the slow swing replaced by a nocturne. The station cut in again with a learned authority, 'Professor Richard Pierson, famous astronomer', direct from the Princeton observatory to explain the discharge and point out that Mars could not support intelligent life. Pierson, however, confessed that he could not explain the regularity of the emissions. More music. Another bulletin. 'A huge, flaming object, believed to be a meteorite,' had crashed to earth at Grovers Mill, New Jersey. Professor Pierson and his interviewer, Carl Phillips, were speeding to the scene.
LRB 3 June 2004 | PDF Download