Explanation: I have for a while now been working on a series of short plays based loosely on historical events and/or famous historical figures. I call the collection “This Sort of Happened.” In this one, I imagine a scenario in which someone uses the famous/infamous “War of the Worlds” broadcast in 1938 as an opportunity to tell someone their true feelings. What if one person knew the broadcast was fake and one didn’t? That was my thought, and I just ran with it. Plays are better performed than read, so grab a friend and read it together 🙂 Also, I plan to eventually post an audio version of me and another actor reading it. Enjoy!
Fake Martians, Real Love, and Murder/Suicide
Bruce – Early 40s, divorced
Danny – Early 40s, single
Orson Welles Imitator (can be a recording)
Radio Announcer (can be a recording)
Herbert – Early 40s
Setting: The action takes place in the basement of a New York house in the suburbs just outside New York City, 1938.
Bruce and Danny, best friends since childhood, are sitting on card-table chairs in Bruce’s basement. Aside from normal basement things, there is a radio on a shelf behind them. It is plugged in but the power is off. The two men are looking down, in deep thought, as the curtain rises, but they soon look up at each other at the same time.
Bruce: So who goes first?
Danny: What do you mean?
Bruce: What do you mean, “What do you mean”? Who goes first?
Danny: Well. I suppose one of us needs to… and then…
(Both look down.)
Bruce: How long will it take them to get from Jersey to us?
Danny: I don’t know, pal. It takes me 45 minutes. But I go by train; I’ve never done it in a rocket machine.
(Silence. Both look at the radio, then at their watches.)
Bruce: Well, I really think we should check again. Just in case.
Danny: Just in case what?
Bruce: In case something has changed. I mean, what if—
Danny: What if what?
Bruce: Ya know. What if they were…defeated.
Danny: (Snort.) Defeated? Right. By who?
Bruce: By WHOM. It’s the object of “by.”
Danny: (Pause. Incredulous stare.) Why are you teaching me grammar at a time like this?
Bruce: I don’t know. Because if you don’t have rules, society breaks down.
Danny: What society? It’s just us. (Looks around.) And that’s all. (Looks at Bruce.) You know, I coulda done worse for my final-moments partner. (Laughs nervously and shadow boxes playfully to reassert his manhood, but lets the statement stand.)
Bruce: (Embarrassed.) Yeah, me too. (Awkward pause.) But see, just look at what’s happening out there! The structure breaks down, and—
Danny: No. No. No. You are totally off. There was no breakdown of structure. This isn’t about people breaking rules. This isn’t about PEOPLE doing anything. (Humorless laugh.)
Bruce: (Makes as if to disagree, decides not to.) Good point. But still, we should check to see if. Ya know. They are…gone. I don’t know. Defeated. Bested. Etcetera.
Danny: Defeated, bested, etcetera, huh. By WHOM?
Bruce: (Nothing.) Can we just check? I’m not anxious to do this.
Danny: (Sigh.) All right. But I want to go on record as saying we should just go ahead and get this over with. Hearing the radio reports just scares me.
Bruce: Me too. But what’s so bad about fear? Isn’t the bad thing about fear that we remember being afraid?
Bruce: “The worst thing about fear is remembering that we were afraid.” I read that somewhere. (Assesses Danny’s face for a reaction.) And we won’t have very long to remember our fear, right? So what’s the big deal about another listen?
(Silence from Danny.)
Danny: As usual, I have no idea what in the hell you are talking about. Where did you read that? Who said that? God, what imbecile wrote such dreck? What does it even MEAN?
Bruce: I don’t know. (Looks down, pouty. Mumbles.) I thought it made sense.
Danny: Well, it sounds like bullshit to me. But if it makes you happy, here. (Turns on radio. Flinches as he does so. Relaxes when he hears what’s on, but keeps his hand on the power switch.)
Orson Welles Imitator [Can be just generic 50s-sounding voice]: …can figure out more about this strange technology that experts are telling us is of Martian origin. Scientists are scrambling to solve the mysteries of these machines, so we may better arm ourselves against them–
This just in. New Jersey governor Harry Moore has imposed a strict curfew, ordering all citizens to stay indoors until further notified. I repeat: Stay indoors until further notified. Also, the New Jersey state militia, under the command of Captain Robert T. McNash, has declared martial law and has begun planning an assault on the foreign cylinder and whatever remaining inhabitants it may carry. In the meantime, Captain McNash is assuring everyone that these… Martians – if that is indeed what they are – will soon be rendered powerless by the earth’s atmosphere. However, many imminent scientists are disputing his conclusions, and Dr. Clarence Paulson of Harvard University is warning citizens that the creatures may actually—
Danny turns radio off. Both look at their feet. Danny brings out a gun, a 1911 military issue Colt [The actual model does not matter, since audience won’t be able to ascertain details; but it should look like a gun that might have been used in WWI if possible.] He doesn’t seem used to holding it.
Danny: So I guess I’ll go first. I’ll (indicates gun in Bruce’s direction; Bruce flinches), then (puts gun to his own head, does cartoonish gunshot sound). So. Be still. I’ll just (stands)—
Bruce: (Rushed.) I wrote it.
Danny: (Lets gun drop back to his side.) What?
Bruce: I wrote it.
Danny: You wrote what?
Bruce: That line. About fear. I wrote it in a novel I was…about to send it off to an agent until…ya know. (Makes flying saucer sound.)
Danny: Oh. (Awkward.) An agent, huh? Well. You can’t now anyway. Soooo… (Raises gun.)
Bruce: (Quickly.) I know that. (Seeing Danny has lowered the gun, he allows himself to be pouty about his unpublished novel.) But based on your reaction, it wouldn’t have been published anyway. The rest of the story was kind of like that line.
Danny: What does THAT mean?
Bruce: It means it was all, you know… The whole thing. It was, IS, all kind of, ya know. Deep.
Danny: (Stares.) Deep, was it? Like that line? Wow. (Nods, maybe trying to play it off.)
Bruce: Jesus. Just shoot me already.
Danny: No. No, it’s fine. It’s a good line. Maybe I’m just, I don’t know, too practical.
Bruce: Well, you are the one who thought of the gun.
Danny: It was my father’s, from the war. I’m not even sure if it works.
Bruce: Do you really think it’s a good line? Because I kind of built the whole story around it.
Danny: (Takes a deep breath, blows it out noisily, as he tries to play along.) I mean, yeah, it’s, yeah. Hoo-boy. Really good. I mean, my first reaction was negative, true, but that’s before I thought about it. And of course now is a perfect time to think about it, because, well, fear. Fear is. You know.
Bruce: You hate it.
Danny: Yeah. I really, really do. What was it exactly again? “Fear is something we can’t remember because.” Wait, what? Something.
Bruce: Go ahead and laugh. Laugh while you’re pulling the trigger. At the very least I inspire mockery.
Danny: No, come on. I’m not mocking. Seriously. But that’s just one line. Come on, give me another. Maybe that one just didn’t connect with this very limited audience. Give me another. Huh?
(Silence for a period. Danny shrugs and maybe is going to lift the gun.)
Bruce: (Looking at his hands, bashful.) “For Dr. Grady Fortunato Boxfeltner, the days were like errant moisture tracking down faded wallpaper in a seedy hotel room. But he would triumph, this he knew.”
Danny: (Expressionless.) What is that now?
Bruce: The first line.
Danny: Of that same story?
Danny: Okay. Well, that one is…interesting. What’s the guy’s name again?
Bruce: Forget it. Just shoot me before the Martians can add to my indignities.
Danny: No! I mean, I just. What’s his name again? Please? THEN I’ll shoot you.
Bruce: Well, now I don’t want to tell you.
Danny: Because then I’ll shoot you? Or because you think I don’t like it?
Bruce: I can’t decide which is worse.
Danny: Okay, I won’t shoot you yet. Tell me the name again, and I promise not to shoot you at least until we move on to another subject.
Bruce: Or until we hear the Martians at the door.
Danny: Huh? Oh yeah. If we hear the Martians, I promise to shoot you before they get to you. God knows what those jerks will do. One bullet for you, one for me. Although I think there are actually three in here. (Looks down barrel of gun.)
Bruce: What the hell are you doing? Haven’t you ever heard of The Three Stooges?! Give me that! (Grabs the gun before Danny can stop him.)
Bruce: Maybe I should just hold on to this. Jesus. Didn’t your father teach you how to use a gun?
Danny: My father died when I was three. You know this.
Bruce: Well, it shows. Hell, my father hardly taught me anything about them either, but we at least covered Don’t Point it At Your Face. What if you shoot yourself with this thing and it turns out the Martians were defeated. Huh? Then I’m out a best friend and you’re dead for nothing. I mean, I know we’re going to do it anyway, but we should at least be orderly and deliberate about it.
(Silence. Both look at the gun.)
Danny: (Smiling, putting his arm around Bruce.) We ARE best friends, huh?
Bruce: Yeah, you know. I mean, me and Bernie are pretty tight. But (embarrassed) I can’t think of anyone I’d rather be stranded with at the end of time.
Danny: Do you think it would be wrong for two best friends to…hold each other at the end?
Bruce: (Shrugs off his arm. Looks him up and down.) At the end of what?
Danny: Time! At the end of everything. Would that be so weird? We’re all we have left, after all.
Bruce: Are you putting me on? Seems a little fruity to me. Guess your dad never taught you about that, either.
Danny: (Deadpan.) No. But he didn’t need to. (Looks frankly at Bruce.)
Bruce: (Wary. Is he being messed with?) Whattaya mean?
Danny: You know. (Steady gaze.)
Bruce: I know WHAT?
Danny: You know… Me. (Makes a ta-da! motion.)
Bruce: Whattaya mean “you”?
(Silence. Danny does not drop his gaze.)
Bruce: Wait. Are you telling me you’re… (Makes limp wrist gesture.)
Danny: ‘Fruity,’ yes. And that wrist thing never gets old.
Bruce: Come on, pal. This is no time for jokes. (Tries to laugh it off, but Danny remains steady.)
(Long pause. Bruce picks lint off his pants.)
Danny: Do you hate me now? You want to just go ahead and… (puts finger to his head.)
Bruce: And you’re just now telling me this? How long have we known each other?
Danny: How could I tell you? I knew I had to wait until a time when…
Bruce: A time when what?
Danny: (Pause.) So you don’t hate me?
Bruce: Hate you? What for? I mean, I don’t approve, if that’s what you mean. (Seems nonplussed as he considers the idea of approving or not approving of his best friend.) But how could I hate you? Our mothers went to school together kindergarten on up. You were the best man for my disaster of a marriage. My only good memory from all that mess. Annoyed by you? About all the time. Wanna punch you in the face? Every single day. Hate? No way. I won’t even tell anyone about it if we…get out of this pickle. (Looks at him.) Just, uh, you know, keep your paws to yourself, huh? (Adopts a half-assed boxing stance. Laughs. Danny does not.)
Danny: Well, now that you mention it. (He shrugs. Bruce snaps his head around, wide-eyed.) I was thinking that maybe…since we’re stuck here…and it’s the end of time and all…well…
Bruce: (Not ready for this at all, but not unkind.) What? Hey, are you pulling my leg?
Danny: (Sweetly.) No, but I’d like to. (Grin.) Truth? I’ve wanted to for a long time.
Bruce: All right, now hold on a second. I… I can’t… Look, you know I love you. And I’m saying that completely aware of the conversation we’re having. I love you, I do. But you’ve got the wrong equipment for me, pal. No offense.
Danny: None taken. I’m proud of my equipment.
Bruce: Well, THAT’s weird. But what I mean is, I’m not interested in… THAT… with any man. It’s not you. I just… (Shrugs, uncomfortable.)
Danny: I get it. I can’t say I’m happy about it, but I get it. I feel the same way about women, so I get it.
Bruce: Yeah, now that you mention it, I’ve always wondered why you couldn’t keep a girlfriend.
Danny: They have all that… woman stuff. But hold on a second before we move on from this. Just hear me out. Don’t you think—
(There is a loud-ish noise off stage. Both heads snap around: Bruce’s face is afraid, while Danny’s is confused. Bruce raises the gun but seems unsure what to do with it.)
Bruce: Ack! They’re here!
Danny: Impossible! I mean, they can’t be here yet. It must be the wind, or—
Bruce: (In a panic, gun at the ready but swinging wildly, jumping at every shadow.) How can you possibly know it’s not THEM?! Here, turn on the radio and see what the announcer says!
Danny: (Lunges to stop him.) No! No. It’ll just scare us more. Look, I don’t think they could possibly be done destroying Jersey yet. And then they have to travel here, and even with a rocket machine it’ll take some time. So let’s just– (Reaches for him. Bruce snaps around and raises the gun. The two freeze.)
Danny: Bruce. Hey Bruce. Think about what you’re doing for a second.
Bruce: Why? You said this was the only way out, so what’s the difference which one of us is the Murder and which is the Suicide? (Eyes narrow with suspicion.) And something just occurred to me: what if you’re one of them?
Danny: What? One of who? Whom? Wait, the Martians? No no, buddy, they’re in New Jersey. The announcer said so. (Bruce does not lower the gun.) And they have tentacles and shit! I don’t have tentacles, Brucey. See?
Bruce: Yeah, but I’ve seen Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars. (Danny starts to speak.) I know it was just a movie, but what if you’re a clay humanoid? Can we afford to take chances at a time like this? What if—
(Another noise off stage. Bruce turns toward the door with the gun. Then back to Danny. Then to the door. He doesn’t know what to do.)
Danny: What if… What if they’re not even real? What if it’s all a prank? (Fake casual laugh.)
Bruce: Right. You heard the announcer. The man was scared to death. Who would pull such an elaborate prank?
Danny: (Starts to laugh, tries not to.) Buddy, listen. Calm down for a second, okay? Why don’t I go upstairs and see what that noise is? Huh? Let me see the gun and I’ll –
Bruce: No, I’ll go. I want to hold the gun.
Danny: Bruce, come on! I’m not a Martian! (Makes tentacle motions with his arms and Martian noises with his mouth.)
Bruce: I know that! I panicked for a second, but I know it’s you. Just plain old… fruity you. Sorry. That wasn’t nice. And it wasn’t nice to point this at you either; I’m sorry. (Lowers the gun. Danny is visibly relieved.)
Danny: Thank you. Now can I have it back so I can go check upstairs? I don’t want to go unarmed. It might just be Herbert. He was going to come over and show us his Halloween getup. Maybe he hasn’t heard about the attacks. He can join us down here. After all, there are three bullets.
Bruce: Yeah, but we don’t let him be the Murder part. I don’t trust him to kill himself once we’re dead. One time he told me he was going to borrow my hacksaw out of my garage, and when I went in there later I couldn’t find my pipe wrench or my shovel. You know how neat I like to keep my garage, so I know I didn’t lose them. He’s likely to shoot the two of us and go up and clear out the rest of my things.
Danny: (Laughs.) Here. (Reaches for the gun.) Seriously. Let me go check. If it’s Herbert, I’ll bring him down and you can ask about your shovel and your wrench.
Bruce: And my hacksaw. I never got it back. Although I guess it doesn’t matter now. (Looks sad.) It’s so weird to think it’s all done. I wonder if Victoria is alive.
Danny: What do you care? After what she did to you? Please. Any alien with an ounce of Martian sense will rip her head off as soon as she starts yapping. I never understood your big thing for her anyway. She’s a nudge. (Sarcastically) You and I make a better couple.
Bruce: What did I tell you about that? (Laughs in spite of himself.) I guess if I was going to… ya know… with a guy at the end of time, you’d be the one. But lay off, would you? You’ll give me a complex.
Danny: A complex about another human being finding you attractive?
Bruce: (Laughs.) Okay, true. So it’s flattering. But. Look, I’m feeling a bit calmer now. I’m gonna run upstairs and see what the ruckus is. I guess it’s not Martians, or they’d have found their way down here by now. But if it’s Herbert or somedamnbody, I should probably drag his ass down here, or at least warn him. You stay here and listen to the latest on the radio.
Danny: (Doesn’t see a way out of this development.) You sure?
Bruce: Yeah. I’ll only be a second.
Danny: Shit shit shit shit. (Paces.) This is stupid. This is stupid. I should just tell him. Shit. (Stops pacing, notices radio. Looks back at door to see if Bruce is coming back. Crosses to radio and turns it on. Keeps checking door as he listens.)
Orson Welles Imitator: …and sources tell me that the president is going to be addressing the nation right here on this station moments from now. But first, we here at the station are going to take a break so we can shore ourselves up for…whatever is next. Stay safe, folks. (Click of the mic powering off, followed by same as another announcer takes the air.)
Radio Announcer: It is the top of the hour. You are listening to The Mercury Theatre on the Air, with your host, Orson Welles. If you are just tuning in, we are halfway through our dramatic adaptation of HG Wells’ imaginative science fiction adventure, The War of the Worlds. Thus far in our story, our heroes—
(Danny snaps off radio, looks anxiously toward the door. No Bruce yet. Danny paces again, running his hands through his hair, worried.)
Danny: It’ll never happen now. My only chance? Shit, I never had a chance. End of the world or not. I’ll just tell him. “Hey buddy. I grasped at a fluke opportunity to…” To what? Ah, Jesus, this is not good. I’ll just pretend. (Rehearsing mock surprise.) “That wasn’t real??” (Shakes his head.) Oh, this will not end well.
(Bruce returns, quietly closes door behind him. Obviously disturbed.)
Bruce: I didn’t see anything. It’s so quiet on the street outside. I guess everyone’s in hiding like we are. God! It was scary up there. I didn’t dare turn on any lights, and I almost broke my neck falling over the coffee table. I used the coat rack to stabilize myself, and the coats shifted around. It looked like tentacles, I swear! I tried to shoot them (angry eyes at Danny) and your stupid gun…! It’s a good thing it was coats instead of a Martian, because this thing is worthless. (Thrusts it at Danny.) I pulled the trigger and nothing. How old is that thing?
Danny: Twenty-four, twenty-five years. I told you it was my father’s, from the war. (Looks down the barrel again.) I don’t know how to work it, really. (Turns gun over and over as he speaks, examining it.) Just point and shoot? Maybe it’s rusted or something. (Ends up looking down the barrel again.)
Bruce: Jeez, you’re making me nervous. (Pushes gun away from Danny’s face.) “Rusted or something?” You really don’t know anything about guns, huh? Less than me, even. But that was our only way out of this mess! Now we’ll just have to wait here for impending doom and fight off as many of those slimy jerks as we can before—
Danny: (Looking down the barrel again.) Ooh! I remember now! The safety! You have to— (Thumbs safety switch, gun discharges. Bruce screams in tandem with it. Danny falls down, dead [he can fall with his face away from the audience, so that no special effects (beyond a gunshot noise) or makeup are necessary]. The silence is eerie for a few seconds before Bruce reacts.)
Bruce: What the–?! Danny! (Drops next to his friend, not sure what to do. Can he really be dead that fast?) No! This can’t. I don’t. (He is in shock, confused. He sees the gun, makes a decision.) Well, buddy. I guess it was suicide/suicide instead of murder/suicide. Somehow it doesn’t have the same ring. (Smiles and makes a spontaneous tribute to his fallen friend.) If I weren’t going to be suction-cupped to ribbons by pulsating monsters, I would write a story called “Suicide/Suicide.” (Salutes, raises the gun to his head.) One of the characters would be named Danny, and he would be a fruity-but-okay guy. And—
(There is a big bump followed by a smaller bump off stage. Bruce jumps.)
Bruce: (Turns to face the door, adrenaline pumping, gun leveled at the door. He adopts a stance he has seen in the movies and poorly imitates an Edward G. Robinson type.) All right, jerks. Come on. I got two bullets left. One for the first Martian scum through the door, one for me. Let’s do this, see. Come on, ya big—
(The door opens and in walks Herbert in his Halloween getup: A clearly fake, rubber alien mask. He starts to say, “What are you guys doing down here?” but Bruce screams at the same time and fires the gun. Herbert drops to the floor and Bruce immediately sees it is not a Martian, but his friendly neighbor.)
Bruce: Dammit, Herbert! What were you doing running around in a mask at a time like this? (Looks from Danny to Herbert.) I can’t believe this. Ah well. (Nods, pulls himself together bravely. Salutes them both.) Gentlemen, this was for the best. Better to go out like this than… (Shudders. Puts gun in mouth. Squeezes his eyes shut. Pulls trigger. The bullet is a dud. When he realizes he is still alive, he pulls the gun out and looks at it.) You have got to be kidding me. Come on! (Puts it to his head and pulls the trigger. Still nothing. Pulls it five or six more times. Nothing. Begins to cry slightly, more frustrated than anything. He throws the gun in the corner and crosses to the radio and turns it on.)
Orson Welles Imitator: Ladies and gentlemen, it brings me great sadness to inform you that we have just learned that four immense apparatuses are wading across our dear Hudson. Poisonous vapors are drifting over our fair city! Some are running and diving into the East River like rodents, others dropping like insects. I will remain at my station as long as possible, but I don’t know… Aaaaaagh! (Sounds of panic as the lights fade to black.)
Note: The radio drama excerpts in this play are obviously reminiscent of the War of the Worlds broadcast Orson Welles did in 1938, without using the exact script or any other copyrighted material. HG Wells’s original book is in the public domain.