In 1938 The Mercury Theatre on the Air, headed by the “boy wonder”, Orson Welles, broadcast what has become the most infamous radio drama ever made — The War of the Worlds.
Orson Welles meets reporters to explain
that no one connected with his War
of the Worlds broadcast had any idea
it would cause panic among the
American public (October 31, 1938)
This is the adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic science-fiction novel that led listeners to believe there was a Martian invasion, through its clever and innovative use of cross-cutting and its docudrama style. For folk who tuned in halfway, the show was apparently so realistic that police got called and a national panic ensued.
This is the power of the Theatre of the Imagination, the power of audio drama. It has a way of projecting itself through our ears into the depths of our mind, to a place where our reasoning and imaginative faculties take the sounds and fill in the details building an incredibly vivid world — and all for a fraction of the cost of a single episode of scripted television.
I’ve been an enthusiast of audio drama for many years, ever since I read about Orson Welles’ exploits. His dramas retain their thrilling power, as do most from the Golden Age of radio drama of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, where this way of telling tales was the main form of mass entertainment.
Families would sit down around the wireless, listening to the latest serials, getting caught up in the dark adventures of The Shadow or the comedy stylings of The Goons. Audio drama was cheap to produce and, before the widespread introduction of television, the most common way to catch up on news and commentary and fiction.
Nowadays, audio drama has mostly disappeared. The ABC closed down its audio drama department a few years, and the commercial stations stopped making them decades ago. It is still popular in Great Britain, where hit shows such as Absolute Power, Dead Ringers and Little Britain began on the radio. Even Doctor Who was on the radio for a while when the TV series went on an extended break from 1996 to 2005.
The lack of audio drama production has a significant ripple effect on the performing arts. It provides a space for writers, actors, directors and producers to master the art of storytelling and performing within a constrained environment. Because it is so much cheaper to produce, it is easier to produce more of it, and so it provides many opportunities for yarn-spinners to hone their craft.
Orson Welles went on to make Citizen Kane, widely considered as the best film of all time, a few years after The War of the Worlds broadcast. He credited his experience in radio as key to making the movie. He was comfortable with actors, and comfortable working with the technical professionals without whom any decent recording is impossible. Part of the impact of Kane came about because Welles was able to take things he had learnt from radio and use them in a visual medium.
I have the privilege of knowing one of Australia’s great audio drama producers, one of the last to work at the ABC when it had a functional department — Tony Evans. Tony Evans, who was a founder of The Australian Chesterton Society and. up till recently, the editor of the society’s journal, The Defendant, produced adaptations of Shakespeare, and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, of Dickens, and dimestore thrillers and countless others. He even produced an adaptation of G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. Interestingly, so did Welles back in the Thirties, and it’s a thrilling piece of theatre.
Tony laments the decline of audio drama in this country. The ABC’s radio drama department was the place where many new playwrights got their first chance to see, or rather hear, their work in production. It provided them with a valuable laboratory to hone their skills and get to grips with the challenges involved in spinning ripping good yarns.
Not all is lost when it comes to audio drama. The iPod in this case has been something of a blessing. iPods, and other mp3 players, encourage folk to listen to things while they’re out and about. As a result, podcasting, where audio recordings are put onto the internet at certain times, and then downloaded by specific software so that they can be played, is the new medium of choice for audio drama. Best of all, most podcasts are free.
iTunes even has a section dedicated to modern radio drama. There are the adventures of Decoder Ring Theatre, anthology programs like The Sonic Society or massive “audio cinema” shows like The Leviathan Chronicles. Plus, there are the countless websites and groups dedicated to Old-Time
Radio where one can hear re-runs of The Shadow and Your Truly, Johnny Dollar.
Go and have an explore — you are likely to find something remarkable for the whole family, something that really sparks their imaginations. At the very least, there’s always The War of the Worlds.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).