Welles’ War of the Worlds inspires a new play

Media manipulation and manufactured panic are seen in Radio Silence

With Halloween almost upon us, one Prague theater group is looking back to Orson Welles’ famous War of the Worlds broadcast that, according to perhaps exaggerated reports, put the US in a panic in 1938.

The new play Radio Silence, produced by The Prague Harman Street Players, will be at  Ortenovo náměstí 34 (Základní škola T. G. Masaryka) on Oct. 25, 26, 27, 29 and 30. The final show is the exact 80th anniversary of what is called the “panic broadcast.”

Author Brian J Callaghan, who also directed and appears in the play, describes the plot:

“When Princeton Professor Gerald Carthwright and his wife Dolores move in next door to the less than hospitable Harold Sharpe and his wife Gerdie, it feels as if two worlds have truly collided as the mill worker and the professor go to war over their class differences. But the comic hilarity that is the gorge that divides these twos’ worlds soon dissipates as famed theater and radio director Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater's now infamous 1938 War of the Worlds radio play sets America and the two families on a crash course into the abyss.”

Callaghan says that Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio play, staged as a Halloween horror prank, made Americans understand the panic and the threat of invasion. Radio Silence captures the history, the fear, and the lasting impact of the night when the power of American media was unleashed and how people learned exactly what media can do, he adds.

He was inspired by the 2016 election. “Not the results, but the way the media ended up portrayed after. There was some naivety in the way they reacted to Hillary Clinton’s loss: and not just on the part of [right wing] Fox News, but on the part of programs one would assume would be slyly supportive of the former Secretary of State: like CNN (who once filmed an empty podium for something like an hour waiting for Trump to speak to his supporters) and even Saturday Night Live,” he said, adding that social media also didn’t know how to handle media manipulation.

“It was if none of these platforms knew what they can do, or, perhaps they did know what they could do and maybe went all in for Trump — I mean, let's be honest, the guy was clickbait before and even after the election, and I wouldn't be surprised if that was what these platforms had been looking for while Hillary Clinton was fundraising with the past due 1990s great Justin Timberlake,” he said.

He was re-reading the HG Wells novel War of the Worlds and it led him to the Orson Welles' radio version and that then led him to formulate his play.

“I see that same naivety in what I uncovered in Orson Welles’ reaction to the end results of his radio play as I found in the American media reaction … that no matter how bad the result, you know it could and would be repeated by America again and again,” he said.

Welles’ radio show in 1938 was a one-hour production staged as an evening of musical programming interrupted by live news bulletins of a Martian invasion as it unfolded.

The media after the show expressed outrage at the panic it caused, and Welles apologized, saying it had not been his intention to fool people.

The amount of actual panic though has been disputed. The issue, though, of media manipulation and faked news shows came into a wide public discussion for the first time.

For more information and tickets go to www.facebook.com/events/334034323888677.

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