The War of the Worlds is a Cheap Trick
Dear Americans – please stop talking about Orson Welles. At least in regards to radio drama. Don't get me wrong, I love the guy, there is no filmmaker I admire more, or have studied as deeply and obsessively as Orson Welles. But he was a filmmaker,not a radio dramatist. He called himself a filmmaker and wanted to be known as a filmmaker. He's certainly my favorite.
He seemed to recall his radio days with fondness, but it was not The War of the Worlds that he was most proud of, or The Shadow or The Mercury Theater of the Air. His radio career afforded him great success, and allowed him to launch a career in Hollywood. But radio was always a means to an end – a means to fund his experimental theater, a means to achieve a platform on which he could promote his political viewpoints, a means to achieve stardom and cache and the chance to make movies. He certainly saw the potential of the medium, and he certainly exploited its unique properties effectively. But listening to the Mercury Theater broadcasts today, in comparison to his British contemporaries, or even to Norman Corwin, the great American radio playwright, exposes the thinness of the Mercury productions. They just weren't that great.
The War of the Worlds is the single most well-known radio play in the entire world. That's according to Google. You can look up search rankings via Google, and the number one search related to radio drama is “War of the Worlds.” That's why I included the phrase in the masthead of my blog. It pings well in the search engines. That's one of the reasons I'm talking about it right now. And it's a good piece of radio drama, it's effective and simple and scary – the perfect halloween thrill. But it's not imbued with great artistic merit. It's a piece of decent craftsmanship.
The central conceit of the broadcast, the “trick” of imitating a real news broadcast and using it to tell the story of a martian invasion, is clever, and it works, even all these years later when everybody knows about it. I have no problem with people liking The War of the Worlds. I have a problem with people thinking it's the best example of what radio can be.
I realized the problem when I attended a symposium in New York City on the subject of the future of radio drama. When the panelists were asked to discuss other work they admired, several of them cited Welles exclusively. It was clear that they didn't really know much about the larger world of radio plays. Nobody mentioned Rhys Adrian or Pinter or Stoppard, for example. John Arden, Don Haworth, and Peter Tinniswood were clearly not on their radar. It's not their fault, it's just the way the cookie crumbles. But this vacuum of context is a major problem with developing sophisticated audio drama in the United States. Although it's very easy to access large quantities of BBC radio drama, through various methods, the first step for any potential fan is to know its out there. And when the discussion in the States always returns to Welles' 1938 broadcast, it takes the standards back to the same era. It takes the expectations of producer and audience back as well.
If you have come across this post, and are now wondering “well what shall I do, I thought War of the Worlds was the best thing ever,” here's what you do:
Pick up a copy of Sight Unseen by Elissa S. Guralnick, and read it and listen to the corresponding radio plays she talks about. Or, go to Diversity and poke around the lists of favorite radio plays, you'll find some good recommendations. Another great resource is the list of Giles Cooper Award winners. They're a great cross-section of interesting radio plays, and you can find quite a few of the audio versions in various places on the internet.
All I am asking is that we, the listeners of audio drama, crank up our standards a bit. We don't need to listen to scratchy old recordings of hammy performances that usually get lumped into the category of “OTR”. We can listen to expressive, challenging, dramatic, modern, gut-wrenching, hilarious, tragic, subtle, intimate, and sophisticated radio plays instead.