What Influenced “The Twilight Zone” Episode “Five Characters in Search of an Exit”?


Originally airing on December 22, 1961, The Twilight Zone (1959) episode “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” places an Army major (William Windom), a clown (Murray Matheson), a hobo (Paul Wexler), a ballet dancer (Susan Harrison), and a bagpiper (Clark Allen) inside a large metal cylinder. With no memory of who they are or how they got there, these five strangers ponder the meaning of their existence and attempt to escape their barrel-like confinement.

With a teleplay by series creator Rod Serling, based on the short story “The Depository” by Marvin Petal, this episode’s title is a variation on two separate plays: Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921) and Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit (1944).

Six Characters in Search of an Author premiered in 1921 at the Teatro Valle theatre in Rome and later made its Broadway debut in 1922 at the former Princess Theatre, where it ran for a total of 136 performances. Pirandello’s absurdist play begins with an acting troupe that is interrupted by a family (including The Father, The Stepdaughter, The Mother, The Son, The Boy and The Child) who are in search of an author to finish their story. Although he is not a writer, the Director eventually agrees to stage the family’s dysfunctional lives, and there ensues the chaos that, whether real or not, leads to a wasted day.

No Exit premiered in 1944 at the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier theatre in Paris, and later made its Broadway debut in 1946 at the Biltmore Theatre, now known as the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, but only ran for 31 performances. Sartre’s existentialist play is a depiction of the afterlife wherein three deceased characters, Garcin, Inès, and Estelle, are all locked in a room, furnished in the style of the Second French Empire, for eternity. Since Inès is a lesbian and Estelle’s only attracted to “manly men,” which Garcin wishes to be but isn’t, none of the characters are capable of carrying on a sexual relationship with each other. More crucially, their personalities seem hand-picked in order to make them each other’s torturers, prompting the famous line, “Hell is other people.”

Unlike in Pirandello and Sartre’s plays, the characters in “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” do not have backstories that are ever revealed to us or to them. Their consciousness only begins once they are inside the metal cylinder, while the actors/characters in Six Characters in Search of an Author and the damned souls in No Exit are aware of their lives before the work’s narrative.

Like other episodes of The Twilight Zone, this one includes a typical Serling twist: the unique individuals are actually toys in a drop box. There is no real relationship between any of the strangers either. However, tension does build between the toys as they debate the themes of apathy versus personal responsibility.

While Pirandello and Sartre’s plays influenced “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” this episode of The Twilight Zone would then go on to influence director Vincenzo Natali’s psychological horror film Cube (1997).