Before breaking into the big time with Sesame Street, Jim Henson was an aspiring art house weirdo who counted among his early work, Time Piece, a brilliant surrealist, Oscar-nominated short and Youth 68 a probing documentary on 60’s youth culture featuring such high profile names as The Mamas and the Papas and Jefferson Airplane. Perhaps most unexpectedly, Henson also took a crack at experimental theater (as director, co-writer and producer) with the psychologically intense teleplay The Cube, in 1969. The hour-long performance was featured on NBC Experiment in Television, and ran only a few months before Sesame Street took over his career.
The Cube centers on an unnamed man who is inexplicably trapped in a white room with a grid overlay, from which there is no obvious escape. Despite this, a nonsensical assortment of characters keep making entrances and exits, providing little to no information or sympathy for the man’s predicament, (perhaps most cynically, a holy man who bestows upon him a useless religious relic). After being subjected to a parade of increasingly surreal characters (at some point gorilla suits make an appearance—a trope also explored in Time Piece), our protagonist becomes desperate and attempts suicide.
Suddenly he is escorted from his maddening prison and in a heart-breaking attempt at solipsistic reasoning, he believes that even in this nightmare world, he knows he exists. An accidental cut with a knife however, produces only strawberry jam for blood (jam is a theme throughout the play), and the man is suddenly back in his psychological prison. Disheartened, he sits back down, apparently defeated by the Cube.
The Cube stars veteran character actor Dick Schaal, a face seen frequently on 70s television, especially shows produced by Mary Tyler Moore’s MTM production company (he was married to Rhoda‘s Valerie Harper for many years). Schaal played “Chuckles the Clown” in one of the most famous episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show—the one where she starts laughing at his funeral—and was a Second City alum. He died last month at the age of 86.