Original Air Date: May 5, 1961
Writer: Charles Beaumont
Director: John Brahm
“I’ll tell you what it’s like. You walk out of your cell, pass two gray doors. Seventy-eight steps to the final door, it’s painted green. There’s a guard that opens the door for you, and you go into a room. It’s tan, it’s all tan. There’s nothing in it except one chair. It’s like a chair you used to sit in when you were a kid. It’s hard and solid. They strap your arms and legs, then they attach the electrodes. It’s funny, they always feel cold to the touch at first. Then they drop the mask. It’s musty. It smells like an old sofa. And then you wait, every muscle tense, straining. Any second, any second then you can almost hear it. They pull the switch…”
This episode is based on a short story called “Träumerei” by Charles Beaumont (which roughly translates from the German as “daydream” or “reverie”). It originally appeared in the February 1956 issue of Infinity Science Fiction. Beaumont’s teleplay features passages taken wholly and unchanged from his story (the story is uncredited in the episode).
“Adam Grant, a nondescript kind of man, found guilty of murder and sentenced to the electric chair. Like every other criminal caught in the wheels of justice, he’s scared, right down to the marrow of his bones. But it isn’t prison that scares him, the long, silent nights of waiting, the slow walk to the little room, or even death itself. It’s something else that holds Adam Grant in the hot, sweaty grip of fear, something worse than any punishment this world has to offer, something found only in – The Twilight Zone.”
We encounter Adam Grant (played by Dennis Weaver known for his roles in Gunsmoke and McCloud), a man found guilty of murder and sentenced to the electric chair. However, he is overcome with hysterical laughter. He shouts: “Not again! I won’t die again!” He explains that his whole reality makes no sense, he trapped in a recurring scenario -it is merely a dream or a nightmare. Why would a death row inmate be sentenced and tried in one single day? Why would he be allowed to wear a watch? He tries desperately to persuade those around him that the dream is not real.
One reporter believes Grant’s story and he attempts to contact the Governor to commute Grant’s sentence but he is too late. Grant dies and everyone disappears only to reappear moments later as the dream begins anew (only this time all the players in the dream have switched roles and Grant is once again led away to the electric chair).
“We know that a dream can be real, but who ever thought that reality could be a dream? We exist, of course, but how, in what way? As we believe, as flesh-and-blood human beings, or are we simply parts of someone’s feverish, complicated nightmare? Think about it, and then ask yourself, do you live here, in this country, in this world, or do you live, instead, – in The Twilight Zone?”
“Shadow Play” is a strange episode that plays with certain psychoanalytic ideas of unending dreams and the subconscious. It is an otherworldly episode that remains eerie, unsettling, and unresolved. Unlike in other episodes the protagonist never wakes up in “Shadow Play.” though I cannot say it is my favorite episode in the series.
The Twilight Zone Trivia:
- The title refers to a type of stage puppetry which uses flat characters, a light source, and a translucent screen to create images and effects -perhaps an allusion to Plato’s allegory of the cave.
- The harmonica song played by Coley, a fellow inmate, is “Red River Valley.”
- Wright King (who briefly plays the lawyer Paul Carson) subsequently played the chimpanzee veterinarian Dr Galen in Planet of the Apes (1968), which was scripted by Rod Serling.