From left, Weston Gaylord, Courtney Walsh and Tom Freeland appear in Stanford Repertory Theater’s “War of the Worlds,” based on works by Orson Welles and H.G. Wells.
Orson Welles’ infamous “War of the Worlds” radio play is getting a new twist from the Stanford Repertory Theater: a revised ending that is shrouded in secrecy.
The original 1938 broadcast, which panicked listeners who didn’t realize its breaking news reports about an alien invasion were fictional, had a third act even diehard fans dislike.
Stanford Rep director Rush Rehm says the show’s original ending felt tacked on and incongruous because it contained rambling diary entries from a lone survivor of the Martian invasion, and was unlike the beginning’s news broadcasts that seemed so real.
Opening today at the Nitery Theater on campus, the show, based on Welles’ radio dramatization of H. G. Wells' 1898 novel of the same name, places the audience in the sound booth as voice actors, musicians and Foley artist perform the legendary live broadcast.
“It’s as if you’re a fly on the wall in the 1938 CBS studio,” Rehm says.
In a new prologue, the voice actors argue with each other before going on the air, discussing current events that put listeners on edge, such as Hitler’s rise to power, Germany’s annexation of Western Czechoslovakia and Spain’s ongoing civil war.
“One of the reasons the broadcast took hold was that war talk and aggression were in the air,” says Rehm.
The meat of the original broadcast is faithfully reproduced with chilling descriptions of three-legged Martian war machines turning American cities into burned ruins. The new ending, meanwhile, is crafted to instill in modern audiences some of the uncertainty that 1938 listeners would have experienced.
Rehm is tight-lipped about exactly how that’s accomplished, but comments, “We’re clever about introducing a reasonable doubt about what might really be going on.”
From H.G. Wells’ grim warnings about militarism to Orson Welles’ deft use of the media to fool listeners, “War of the Worlds” is as relevant today as it was when it debuted, Rehm says: “Imagine a scenario in which you’re being fed lies and you don’t know they’re lies. Sadly, the belief in military power, and the other things H.G. Wells was interested in, are still very timely.”
IF YOU GO
War of the Worlds
Presented by Stanford Repertory Theater
Where: Nitery Theater, Old Union (514 Lasuen Mall), Stanford University, Stanford
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays, 8 and 9:30 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Aug. 24
Tickets: $15 to $25