Thursday, December 22, 2016

No Way Out

The Major (William Windom): Hey, wait a minute. Wait a minute. Who are you? What are you doing here? Is there a circus around here somewhere?

The Clown (Murray Matheson): A circus? (laughs) Yeah. Yeah, there must be a circus. A clown, a circus. An officer, a war. That's logic, isn't it? But it doesn't figure at all. Not at all.

The Major: Why not?

The Clown: Because there is no circus, and there is no war.

When I was about 15, my brother (who must have been about 12 at the time) was in a play at the college where my father was a religion professor.

It was called "Six Characters in Search of an Author," and it had a couple of children's parts — which the director filled with faculty children. My brother was one of those children. It wasn't a demanding role. He had no lines and only limited action. Mostly he was required to sit on stage — come to think of it, I suppose asking a 12–year–old to sit quietly on stage for a couple of hours is pretty demanding. I don't remember if the girl had any lines.

I saw the play several times, mostly on the campus but once when the play was chosen as a finalist in a national collegiate competition, and I accompanied my mother and brother to Fort Worth, Texas, which was where the competition was being held. My grandmother lived in Dallas, and she went with us to the competition.

The episode of the Twilight Zone that first aired on this night in 1961 drew the inspiration for its title — "Five Characters in Search of an Exit" — from the title of that play, but it bore no other similarity.

Nevertheless I always think of that play when I see that episode, and I remember that competition well. Each college brought its costumes and sets and performed the plays at the competition. I had seen my brother's play several times, as I say, and I almost knew the script by heart. The cast did a good job at the competition, but I found it more interesting to see the plays I hadn't seen before. There was a play each morning, a play each afternoon and a play each evening.

I remember the feeling of seeing people in the audience whom I had watched perform on stage earlier that day or perhaps the day before. Everyone who wasn't performing was in the audience. I guess they all wanted to check out their competition.

My memory is that the competition went on for about three or four days. Then a winner was announced. My brother's play didn't win, but my mother and grandmother sure kicked up a fuss over how good the play had been (it was) and how proud they were of my brother. I was, too.

But I digress.

The Twilight Zone episode starred William Windom. He had no name in the episode. He was only known as The Major.

(Actually, that was something else the Twilight Zone episode borrowed from the play. The characters in the play had no names, either. They were known by what they were, not who they were.)

The Major awoke from a kind of sleep to find himself in some kind of cylindrical room with four companions — a clown, a hobo, a ballerina and a bagpipe player. He did not know who he was or how he got there, but he was determined to escape his confinement; the others, having been there longer, were more resigned to the fact that there was no way out. At least, they had not found one.

The fact that none could remember a time before they found themselves in the cylindrical room bothered them very much. So did the fact that they did not know who they were. Most of us would probably find that troubling as well.

"Perhaps we're the unloved," the Ballerina (Susan Harrison) mused.

They had also grown accustomed to an occasional loud clanging sound that tended to knock them from their feet.

Nevertheless the Major kept trying to find a way out, but he was finally forced to conclude that there was no way out.

And that led him to the conclusion that the five were in hell.

That didn't prevent him from continuing his quest for a way out. He hit upon the idea that they should form a human tower with the person at the top trying to climb over and out of the cylinder. That sounded plausible to the others so they formed such a tower — and it seemed they were about to succeed when that loud clanging sound was heard, and the human tower collapsed.

But they had been so close, and the major was more determined than ever. He fashioned a hook out of pieces of clothing and his sword, then the group re–formed the tower with the major at the top. His plan seemed to work. With the hook, he got to the rim of the cylinder and then tumbled off.

At that point, the viewer could see what had been happening outside the cylinder. A young girl picked up a doll dressed like a major. It was in a snow bank next to a barrel, part of a Christmas toy collection drive for a girls' orphanage.

That clanging sound had been the sound of a bell used by the woman who was overseeing the collection barrel. The girl told her a doll had fallen in the snow. The woman told the girl to put it in the barrel with the rest of the dolls.

Then they lamented how slow the drive had been.

Twilight Zone always did things its way.

And its Christmas episode from this night 55 years ago is a prime example.

By the time I saw it, Twilight Zone was in syndication, and I guess I had seen enough episodes to figure out the ending before I saw it.

But that didn't change the fact that I thought — and still do — that it was one of the most creative Christmas TV episodes I have ever seen. The viewer didn't even know it was a Christmas episode until the final minutes.