The Forgotten Art of Listening

Written by Grant Mills on . Posted in Art, Books, Media, Society

Last night I experienced something that had a more profound effect on me than I would have expected.

For over an hour last night I sat in relative silence, in the middle of a park, surrounded by the silhouettes and quiet shadows of people who, on the most part I assume, were also doing this for the first time.

Last night marked the 75th (and a day) anniversary of the broadcast of Orson Welles’ radio dramatisation of The War of the Worlds, what has been called by many ‘the most infamous piece of radio ever played’.

War of the WorldsArriving last night at the special Halloween event put on by Splash Adelaide and the South Australian Radio Collective (SARC), I wasn’t quite sue what to expect. The crowd was out in force, many having heeded the call to dress in 1930s gear; I spotted a pin-stripe suit or two, topped with a dapper trilby, and there were several spotfires of women breaking out into their best approximation of the Charleston.

Yet even so, this was a thoroughly modern crowd; and for some reason I felt a little ridiculous when I considered that they might just be re-playing the original radio-play.

Surely there was going to be more to it than that; some sort of cross-media integration, lights or vision, perhaps some comic acting to underscore the fact that we modern folk would never have been so gullible as to believe that the program documented a real alien invasion.

At the very least I expected there to be the inevitable call to tweet along with the program…

But we were rewarded with none of that. Our briefly spoken MC put the piece in rough context and then melted off again into the darkness – unlit we never even saw his face. Someone pushed a button behind an anachronistically luminescent apple logo and the crackle of the original 75 year old recording rose around us.

And there was a beauty in leaving the thing untouched, leaving the audience in the nighttime shadows to just experience the moment – as the MC eloquently put it, to ‘relearn the forgotten art of listening’.

For I, and I hope many others, it was a startling first. I have never sat and listened to a radio-play (with the exception of a car trip during which battlelines were drawn over The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). The thought of going out to listen to a recording seemed almost bizarre, old-fashioned somehow, but it was surprisingly moving.

It wasn’t like the similar sensation of chilling out at a festival, staring at the sky as the music of the band washes over you. The people around me were not here for the pleasure of something being made in the moment; they were here to, essentially, listen back in time.

Given the busy lives that we voluntarily lead, we say that there is pleasure in simple things, but how often do we actually take the time. Sitting there in the dark I truly began to appreciate my ears, and their function that I take so much for granted.

As visual creatures we lose something when our eyes are in play.

War of the Worlds-2And so we sat, staring at the stars, listening to a Martian invasion listlessly floating between our own thoughts and our concept of how people would have felt listening to this broadcast for the first time. What part of our selves might have been tricked had we been there? Why were so many keen to believe the world was under attack? Were we more trusting then, were we less cynical? (Hard to believe of a people who had lived through the Great War and were clawing their way out of The Depression)

Originally published as a book in 1898 by science fiction writer H.G Wells, the War of the Worlds was a novel fuelled by themes of evolutionary theory, British Imperialism and prejudice.

In 1938, when Orson Welles took his radio adaption to the air, the evil of Nazi Germany was rising in Europe and invasion-terror still lingered in the dark recesses of humanity’s consciousness.

To heighten the broadcast’s thrumming sense of reality, Welles had the broadcast play without advertisements, portraying a series of worsening news bulletins and reportage, which related in ‘real’ time the discovery of a Martian invasion. Tens of thousands of people – some report many more – failed to realise it was a dramatisation and were drawn into mass-hysteria, instantly cementing the young Orson Welles’ fame as a dramatist.

Reports say that people began to flee their homes, hid in cellars, grabbed their guns and even wrapped their heads in wet towels as protection from poisonous Martian gas.

Listening today, it is reasonably easy to imagine why so many people were duped. In an age where your only source of instant information was your radio, the trust they placed in it made people susceptible to Welles’ hijacking. Though the scales may be different, there is little difference today; we are all guilty of believing (and perpetuating) what pops up on our Facebook or Twitter without a second thought.

The hoax might seem a little transparent these days – there were several occasions when the group shared a laugh – gifted as we were with the elegance of hindsight, the broadcast’s black humour becomes more obvious.

Yet as with all such things one wonders whether Welles suspected that his interpretation of the science fiction classic would continue to be relevant 75 years later, even if not for the reasons he might have expected.

In a world where bigger is better and we feel lost if we have to wait for a bus without a book or our iPhone, last night was an interesting look backwards as well as inwards.

Though the themes of War of the Worlds are still keen today, the medium – just as much as the content – offers an important reminder. We could do worst than to occasionally give time to the forgotten art of listening…just in case the world does end.


With thanks to the South Australian Radio Collective. See their FB page to see what they are doing next.


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