Night Thoreau Spent in Jail

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Overview

A reissue of a now classic American drama.

If the law is of such a nature that it requires you to be an agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law." So wrote the young Henry David Thoreau in 1849. Three years earlier, Thoreau had put his belief into action and refused to pay taxes because of the United States government's involvement in the Mexican War, which Thoreau firmly believed was unjust. For his daring and unprecedented act of protest, he was thrown in jail....

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Overview

A reissue of a now classic American drama.

If the law is of such a nature that it requires you to be an agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law." So wrote the young Henry David Thoreau in 1849. Three years earlier, Thoreau had put his belief into action and refused to pay taxes because of the United States government's involvement in the Mexican War, which Thoreau firmly believed was unjust. For his daring and unprecedented act of protest, he was thrown in jail. The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail is a celebrated dramatic presentation of this famous act of civil disobedience and its consequences. Its poignant, lively, and accessible scenes offer a compelling exploration of Thoreau's philosophy and life.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A superior play, a literary work as well as a theatrical experience. Thoreau would illuminate any season." —George Oppenheimer, Newsday

"Absolutely fascinating." Richard L. Coe, The Washington Post

"There is a great deal to enjoy in this play."—Clive Barnes, The New York Times

The Washington Post Richard L. Coe

Absolutely fascinating.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780809012237
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 7/28/2001
  • Series: Mermaid Dramabook Series
  • Edition description: Second Edition
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 112
  • Sales rank: 264,193
  • Product dimensions: 5.97 (w) x 8.33 (h) x 0.34 (d)

Meet the Author

Jerome Lawrence, formerly master playwright at New York University, and Robert E. Lee (1918-1984), who was a professor of playwriting at UCLA, collaborated on thirteen plays, including Inherit the Wind and Auntie Mame.

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Read an Excerpt


Introduction


The Now Thoreau


The man imprisoned in our play belongs more to the moment than to the age in which he lived.

    For more than a century, Henry David Thoreau was dismissed as a gifted weirdo. Only a rebel like Emerson's handyman would dare to question the benefits of technology! Why, it is obvious to any educated mind that technological advancement and progress are synonymous. To create a better world, all we have to do is make things bigger, faster, stronger, or cheaper.

    But materialism is not the way.

    THOREAU KNEW THAT.

    He smelled the smog before we saw it.

    It smarted his soul before it smarted our eyes.

    He spoke out; but in those television-less days men were slow to listen. He sang out in nonviolent defiance, but how few men since could carry the tune: Gandhi, Count Tolstoi, Martin Luther King.

    It was the material-mindedness of his government which drove the mystic Thoreau to the shores of Walden. His outrage is closely akin to the anger of many young people today. Young Thoreau was disgusted by the lies and confusion which clouded the bloody conflict with a smaller nation, Mexico.

    The President of the United States (James Polk) had made a pretense of trying to settle differences at the conference table. Then, without a declaration of war or Congressional approval, U.S. forces plunged into Mexico. An inaccurate and incomplete report from the President (which has been lamely explained by the lack of electrical communication) brought authorization from Congress.

    Hawks and white supremacists of the day cheered. But the intellectual community gasped in horror.

    The text of the play contains a denunciation of the war actually made by a young Whig Congressman from Illinois—who was not re-elected because of his stand, but who later became the first Republican President of the United States.

    American secret agents smuggled in a puppet president from Havana. Overwhelmed by U.S. armor, the Mexicans resisted all the way to the gates of their capital, which fell only when their ammunition ran out. On the side of the invaders, there was hot friction between secret envoys from the White House, an alarmed Congress, and the ambitious military leaders—two of whom became Presidents of the United States and one of the Confederacy.

    A captain in the army of General Winfield Scott reported that the American troops acted like savages. They shot noncombatants on trivial pretexts. "Their conduct toward the poor inhabitants has been horrible and their coming is dreaded like death in every village."

    Another eyewitness, Ulysses S. Grant, wrote in his memoirs: "I do not think there was ever a more wicked war than that waged by the United States on Mexico. I thought so at the time, when I was a youngster, only I had not the moral courage to resign." Grant had the option of resignation, which has not been granted to youngsters of later wars.

    According to Santayana, "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it." Perhaps this play will jog our memories as we relive the poetic protest of one of America's freest men.

    Time is awash in this jail cell. We are not trapped in happenings past. The explosive spirit of Thoreau leaps across the years, addressing with power and clarity the perils of his own time and, prophetically, of ours as well.

    Thoreau is a fascinating paradox:

    A man who was—and is.

    A self-effacing giant.

    A wit who rarely laughed.

    A man who loved so deeply and completely that he seemed, sometimes, not to have loved at all.

Jerome Lawrence
Robert E. Lee


Excerpt


The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail was presented first in 154 different productions by resident, community, and university theatres throughout the United States, through The American Playwrights Theatre. The pilot production was presented at the Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, as the university's centennial play, on April 21, 1970. Dr. Roy Bowen directed. The cast was as follows:


WALDO
LYDIAN
MOTHER
HENRY
JOHN
BAILEY
BALL
ELLEN
SAM
EDWARD
WILLIAMS
PASSER-BY
DRUNK
FARMER
WOMAN
TOWNSPEOPLE  
Donald Mauck
Dorothy Laming
Irene Martin
David Ayers
Anthony B. Schmitt
Burton Russell
John W. Toth
Bronwynn Hopton
Al Converse
Michael David Ayers
Gary Easterling
Donald Shandler
Corwin Georges
Bruce Vilanch
Jerri Aberman
Floyd E. Hughes III
Richard Pierce
Evy Steffens
Ann Goldman
Sandra Kalenik
Dorothy Konrad
Robert Segall  


Scene Design by Russell T. Hastings
Costume Design by David L. Chappell
Lighting Design by W. Alan Kirk
Original Music by J. A. Huff
Percussion Music by Charles Spohn
War Scene staged by Lynn Dally


The initial production mating professional and academic theatre took place at UCLA during summer and fall of 1970. Guy Stockwell starred as Henry, with True Boardman as Waldo. Robert E. Lee directed.


Act One


If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured, or far away.
Henry David Thoreau


(Center is the skeletal suggestion of a prison cell: two crude cots, a chair, a wooden box which serves as a clothes locker. An imaginary window downstage looks out on Concord Square.

    A Thrust extends forward, not part of the cell—nor are the playing areas at either side. The cell itself is raked. The cell door, imaginary, is upstage center.

    Surrounding the cell is the sky over Concord. There are night bird sounds, distant. Two men lie on the cots, motionless. Striped moonlight through the prison bars falls across HENRY, but the man on the other cot is in shadow.

    Time and space are awash here.

    Into a weak winter light, unrelated to the cell, an old man enters on the arm of his wile. He walks with studied erectness, using an umbrella as a cane. The wile is handsomely patrician. The old man has a shawl over his shoulders, a muffler around his neck. He stops.)


    WALDO (Suddenly, as if somebody had stolen his wallet.) What was his name?

    LYDIAN
Whose name?

    WALDO
I've forgotten the name of my best friend!

    LYDIAN
Did you ever have a best friend ?

    WALDO
The boy. Who put the gloves on the chickens.

    LYDIAN
Henry?

    WALDO) (Vaguely.)
I keep thinking his name was David.

(Light strikes HENRY's MOTHER as she comes into another area, also apart from the cell. She is distressed, piling disheveled hair onto the top of her head.)

    MOTHER
David Henry! What have you gone and done?

(HENRY rises on the cot. He is 29, clean-shaven, with liquid eyes. His clothes are simple, the colors of the forest. This is a young man—with a knife-like humor, fierce conviction and devastating individuality.)

    HENRY
I have not gone and done anything, Mother. I have gone and not done something. Which very much needed the not doing.

    MOTHER
Oh, good heavens!

(Calling off stage.)

Louisa! David Henry's gone and not done something again.

    HENRY (Correcting her.)

Henry David.

    MOTHER
David Henry, you're being strange again.

    WALDO (Distantly.) He was strange. I almost understood him.

    LYDIAN
Sometimes.

    MOTHER
Sometimes I don't know who you are.

    HENRY
I'm myself, Mother.

(He lifts himself and sits on the edge of the cot.)

If I'm not, who will be?

    MOTHER
When you're baptized, they tell you who you are.

    HENRY
I wasn't listening.

    MOTHER
At the christening you didn't cry once, not once. Reverend Ripley said how remarkable it was for a baby not to cry at a christening.

    HENRY
You think I knew what they were doing to me?

    MOTHER
I suppose not.

    HENRY
That's why I didn't cry.

    WALDO
He was the saddest happy man I ever knew.

    LYDIAN
The happiest sad man, I think.

    WALDO
He worked on Sundays, and took the rest of the week off.

(Staring at his umbrella, puzzled.)

Who's this?

    LYDIAN
It's your umbrella.

    WALDO

Oh, yes.

(He studies the umbrella affectionately, as if it were a lost old friend.)

Yes, my ... uh ... my ...

(But again he's lost the name.)

Yes.

(LYDIAN helps the vague WALDO off, as the lights fall away on them.)

    MOTHER
I wouldn't mind your being peculiar. But do you have to work at it so hard, David Henry?

    HENRY
Henry David.

    MOTHER
Getting everything backward. How did you learn your letters?

    HENRY
Must the alphabet begin with A? (He stands.) Why not with Z? Z is a very sociable letter. Like the path of a man wandering in the woods. A is braced and solid. A is a house. I prefer Z. Z-Y-X-W-V-U-T-S—-

(He makes a zig-zag course out of the cell into the thrust area.)

    MOTHER
Oh, dear—-!

    HENRY
Or mix them up. Start with H. Start with Q.

(WALDO, younger and straighter, has moved to a lectern where the light makes his face glow with an inner radiance. He is at the climax of an address.)

    WALDO (Projecting.)
Cast Conformity behind you.

(HENRY sees WALDO, and sinks to the floor, sitting squat-legged as a youthful admirer at the feet of an idol.)

    HENRY (As if memorizing a Commandment.)
"Cast.... Conformity ... Behind You ...!"

(JOHN enters, stands beside his disturbed MOTHER. Both look at HENRY, as he sits in a Yoga-esque fixation, staring up into empty air. JOHN is taller than his brother—affable, more extroverted. JOHN moves smoothly, easily, in contrast to the explosively erratic movements of his younger brother.)

    MOTHER
You know what David Henry's trouble is, John?

    JOHN
What?

    MOTHER
He keeps casting conformity behind him!

    JOHN (Shrugging.)
What the hell, he's been to Harvard.

    MOTHER (Offended.)
Never say—-

    JOHN
Harvard? I'm sorry, Mother, I'll never say it again.

(MOTHER goes off, and JOHN saunters toward his brother, who still sits transfixed. He looks at HENRY with some amusement.)

Now here's a rare specimen—-

    WALDO
(The vital glow still upon his face.)

There is an infinitude in the private man! If a single man plants himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him ...

(The light falls away on WALDO as he goes off. The light intensifies on HENRY and JOHN—the amber of sunny fields.)

    HENRY (Still squatting; to himself.)
... and there abide!

(JOHN circles HENRY playfully, as if examining a specimen.)

    JOHN
Hm! Is this one wild or tame? Wild, I think. Known to haunt the woods and ponds. Dull plumage. But a wise bird. Americanus something-or-other. I have it! It is the species—BROTHER!!!

(This joshing has broken HENRY'S near-trance. He leaps up.)

    HENRY (Embracing him.)
John!

    JOHN
Welcome home. How's your overstuffed brain?

    HENRY
I've forgotten everything already.

    JOHN
At least you've got a diploma!

    HENRY
No, I don't.

    JOHN
Why not?

    HENRY
They charge you a dollar. And I wouldn't pay it.

    JOHN
But think how Mama would love it—your diploma from Harvard, framed on the wall!

    HENRY
Let every sheep keep his own skin.

(JOHN gives him a disparaging shove on the shoulder, and they tussle like boys. Breathless, they sit side by side.)

John, I got more from one man—not even a professor—than I learned in four years of academic droning and snorting at Cambridge. And the strangest thing—he wasn't a stranger. I knew him, I'd seen him. You know him. You walk by him on the street, you say hello; he's just a man, just a neighbor. But this man speaks and a hush falls over all of Harvard. And there's a light about him—that comes out of his face. But it's not the light of one man. I swear to you, John, it's the light of all Mankind!

    JOHN (Askance.)
Idolator!

(HENRY slaps the ground with the palm of his hand.)

    HENRY
Is this the Earth?

    JOHN
I hope so.

    HENRY (Coming slowly to his feet.) No. It's you. And I. And God. And Mr. Emerson. And the Universal Mind!

    JOHN
And Aunt Louisa?

    HENRY
Yes, Aunt Louisa, too—false teeth and all.

(Scratching his head.)

It isn't easy to think of Aunt Louisa, swimming in the Milky Way. But that's the way of things, I'm sure of it.

    JOHN
And if she can't keep afloat, you can dive in and save her!

(They laugh. JOHN gets up, speaks more seriously.)

Now that you've turned your backside on Harvard, what do you plan to do?

    HENRY (Pacing about.)
Well, I think I'll think for a while. That'll be a change from college!

    JOHN
But what do you want to be? Do you have any idea?

    HENRY
Yes, I know exactly. I want to be as much as possible like Ralph Waldo Emerson.

(The two brothers look at each other gravely. Light falls away from them. The light rises on WALDO and LYDIAN. He has the stature of a younger man, but he seems confused as he leafs through a manuscript.)

    LYDIAN
Your lecture was splendid, dear.

    WALDO
I think I read one paragraph twice. I lost my place.

    LYDIAN
Nobody noticed, dear.

    WALDO
If nobody noticed, then nobody was listening!

    LYDIAN
They thought you did it for emphasis.

(WALDO looks at his wife uncertainly. There is snoring from the other cell-cot. HENRY, during the WALDO-LYDIAN action, has returned to his own cot in the cell.)

    WALDO
(Starts off, then turns to his wife again.)

Did you see that one fellow? In the third row? With his eyes' closed. You don't think he was sleeping, do you?

    LYDIAN
Concentrating, dear.

(Almost reassured, WALDO moves off with his wife. The snoring grows to a crescendo as the key of moonlight rises in the prison cell. HENRY rises to a sitting position on his cot, looks at his sleeping cell-partner.)

    HENRY (Gently.)
My friend—-

(His fellow prisoner snorts, comes groggily awake.)

    OTHER COT
Huh? Whys—-?

    HENRY
Every human being has an inalienable right to snore. Provided it does not interfere with the inalienable right of other men to snore.

(The man on the other cot stares at him.)

I couldn't hear what's going on.

    OTHER COT
Nothin' goes on in here. Night half the time. Then day. Then night again. Don't make much difference.

    HENRY
Sshh!

(HENRY hears with every pore. There is the distant sound of a night-bird.)

Did you hear that?

(He comes to the imaginary downstage window.)

    OTHER COT (BAILEY)
I didn't hear nothin'. Just a bird.

    HENRY (Indignantly.)
"Just a bird"! Can you make a cry like that? Or feed on flowers? Or carry the sky on your wings? Friend, you and I can't even fly.

(There is a pause. BAILEY rubs his eyes.)

    BAILEY (Foggily.)
I missed part of that. Guess I'm not full awake.

    HENRY (Studying him.)
Nobody is. If I ever met a man who was completely awake, how could I look him in the face?

    BAILEY
What you do to get yourself locked up?

    HENRY
What do you think?

    BAILEY
Well-l-l—a man who talks educated like you—he can't `a' done something small. Must be murder or worse.

    HENRY
That's what I've done, by their lights, out there in the dark: murder or worse.

(Change.)

No. I refuse to commit murder. That's why I'm here.

    BAILEY
Who they want you to kill?

    HENRY
Mexico.

    BAILEY
Who's that?

    HENRY
That's where the war is.

    BAILEY
What war?

    HENRY (Amazed, pacing.)
Friend, this cell may be the only place in the United States that's at peace.

    BAILEY
Who's fighting who?

    HENRY
I'm not fighting anybody.

    BAILEY
Neither'm I.

    HENRY
But we've got a President who went out and boomed up a war all by himself—with no help from Congress and less help from me.

    BAILEY
First I heered of it.

(Warily.)

Which side you on?

(Pointing emphatically downstage, toward Concord.) Are you agin' them?

    HENRY
"Them" ...?

    BAILEY
Or are you one of them?

    HENRY (Thinks.)
I'm one of Me.

    BAILEY
That don't make no sense.

(Far off, there is another bird-cry, forlornly wise. Again HENRY comes to the downstage imagined window.)

    HENRY
Hear that? Old friend of mine. He's a night flyer. Doesn't have to see where he's going—or maybe he can see what we can't. Or hear ...

(The bird cries again. BAILEY looks at HENRY as if he were a bit daft.) He's headed for the pond. Did you ever make friends with a loon?

(There is a pause.)

    BAILEY
Not till tonight.

    HENRY
Any time you hear a man called "loony," just remember that's a great compliment to the man and a great disrespect to the loon. A loon doesn't wage war, his government is perfect, being nonexistent. He is the world's best fisherman and completely in control of his senses, thank you.

(BAILEY still is not sure about his new cellmate.)

What are you here for, friend?

    BAILEY
I'm waitin' trial.

    HENRY
What did you do?

    BAILEY
Nothin'.

    HENRY
What do they say you did?

    BAILEY (Grudgingly.) Burned down a barn.

(Defiantly.)

But I didn't do it. All I did was snuck in to get some sleep and I guess the sparks from my pipe fell in the hay and—-

    HENRY
Tell 'em that!

    BAILEY
The tellin' time is the trial. That's what I've been waitin' here for for three months.

    HENRY (Rising in a fury.)

You've been locked up here for three entire months, waiting for a chance to say you're innocent?

    BAILEY
That's about it.

    HENRY
It's outrageous!

(Calling.)

Staples! Sam Staples!

(BAILEY stops him.)

    BAILEY
Now don't make a ruckus. I'm not a troublemaker. I just want to earn my keep, make a little tobakky money, and get along.

    HENRY
"Get along"! Those words turn my stomach. Mister—what's your name ?

    BAILEY
Bailey.

(A figure crosses the Village Square pompously. HENRY hears with animal keenness.)

    HENRY
Mr. Bailey, listen! What do you hear?

    BAILEY
Nothing—'cept footsteps.

    HENRY
Footsteps of what?

    BAILEY
A man, I guess.

    HENRY
Where's he walking?

    BAILEY
How would I know ?

    HENRY
I know where he's going. He's going where he's supposed to go. So he can be where he's supposed to be, at the time he's supposed to be there. Why? So he'll be liked. My God, a whole country of us who only want to be liked.

(Jutting his face squarely at BAILEY.)

But to be liked, you must never disagree. And if you never disagree, it's like only breathing in and never breathing out! A man can suffocate on courtesy.

(He paces.)

(Continues...)


Excerpted from The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. Copyright © 2000 by Jerome Lawrence and Janet Waldo Lee, Trustee of the Robert E. Lee and Janet Waldo Lee Living Trust. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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Reading Group Guide

Following and Understanding the Play

1. Why do playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee refer to the hero of this play as "The Now Thoreau?" (p. v) Having read the play, which aspects of Thoreau seem especially contemporary or "now" to you? Provide specific dialogue, actions, or scenes to illustrate your point of view.

2. The playwrights conclude their introduction by calling Henry David Thoreau "a fascinating paradox." (p. vi) Where in the course of this drama did the character of Henry strike you as paradoxical--and why did he strike you this way?

3. The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail is a dramatic representation of a crucial event in American history. But where exactly is the play set, and when? Explain what is meant by this stage direction, from p. 3: "Time and space are awash here."

4. "He keeps casting conformity behind him." Such is the complaint Mrs. Thoreau makes about her son, Henry, at the outset of the play. (p. 6) What does she mean by this? Why is Henry so taken by the notion and practice of non-conformity?

5. As Henry and his brother John discuss Henry's recent graduation from Harvard, one name in particular comes up. Henry says, "John, I got more from one man-- not even a professor--than I learned in four years of academic droning and snorting." (p. 7) Who is this man? Explain why Henry was (and is) so impressed by him.

6. What has Henry done to end up in prison? What has Bailey, his cellmate, done? If Henry's self-incarceration is an act of protest, what is he protesting against? Does his protest prove successful, in the end? Explain. And how does Bailey regard it?

7. Throughout the drama, it is clear that Henry is rarely at a loss for words. Indeed, he skillfully arranges his words into not only sound and meaningful sentences but witty maxims and quotable declarations. Why do you think this is the case? Assuming playwrights Lawrence and Lee have in many instances deliberately enhanced Henry's speech, how and why would they do this?

8. What is "huckleberrying," and how does it relate to Henry's admittedly unorthodox method of teaching? And why is Deacon Ball so upset by this method?

9. During the classroom scene on pp. 17-23, the idea of transcendentalism first enters the drama. Define this idea. Also during this scene, Henry's speech and behavior as a teacher are occasionally mirrored by Waldo's speech and behavior as a preacher. Comment on the reasons for--and results of--this symmetry. What does Henry mean by telling young Potter that "an Intelligence" is behind all of Creation? Explain the term "Universal Mind."

10. While teaching a group of children in Heywood's Meadow, Henry meets Ellen, the older sister of one of his pupils. Look again at their initial meeting on pp. 27-9. First Henry tells Ellen not to take notes on his lecture, then he says she should take notes. What is Henry trying to say to Ellen? Does she understand him? Also, what broader problem in Henry's philosophical outlook, if any, is alluded to by his confused or arbitrary guidance in this matter? Also, comment on the lack of practicality that now and again plagues Henry's philosophical dictums. Did this impracticality bother you, as a reader? Explain why or why not. And does it bother any of the characters in this drama? Who, if so, and how?

11. In a subsequent scene, Henry takes Ellen for a boat ride. He tries to explain transcendentalism to her, falls in love with her, and is unsuccessful in both respects. But Henry also has much to say on the subject of nature--and humanity's responsibility to nature. Explain the dramatic irony of the following claim, made by Henry on p. 34: "Thank God men haven't learned to fly: they'd lay waste the sky as well as the earth." Also, explain how and why Henry's chat with Ellen closely links what we now call environmentalism to the key ideas of transcendentalism.

12. In the wake of John's death, Henry is devastated. How does Ellen placate Henry's pain and anger? What does she say? What important realization does she make, and what realization does she help Henry make?

13. What is the "experiment" that Henry imagines for himself while being hired as a handyman by Waldo and Lydian? Explain how this experiment--or the idea behind it, at least--reflects Henry's personality and philosophy.

14. Shortly before he is arrested, Henry--always the educator and agitator-- addresses the townspeople gathered around him: "What law ever made men free? Men have got to make the law free." (p. 61) What is Henry trying to say here? Do you agree with his sentiments? Why or why not?

15. Act One ends with an exchange between Thoreau and Emerson, one that actually took place when Emerson visited his young friend after Thoreau's arrest. What do they say to each other? What are the wider contexts of their respective remarks?

16. Look again at the prayer Henry says on behalf of Bailey's upcoming trial (see p. 80). Does it seem sincere to you, or mocking in tone? Given Henry's beliefs about religion, is the prayer blasphemous or celebratory? Or both? Explain.

17. Shortly thereafter, a visitor appears in Henry's beanfield at Walden. Who is he? Where has he come from? Where is he going? Why does Henry warn him that "there's slavery in the North, too"--and what is meant by this warning? (p. 83)

18. Who is the unseen Congressman who cries out "Stop the war, Mr. President!" (p. 95-6) during Henry's nightmare? Explain why "everything on stage freezes" (as we read in the stage directions) when this individual is speaking. Why is it significant that this character appears in this particular scene? What great issues and events are foreshadowed by this character's appearance?

19. At the end of the drama, Henry says of his beloved Walden (p. 101): "It is not necessary to be there in order to be there." Explain what he means, especially in light of his earlier conversation with Ellen in Act One (see p. 35), and in light of your own understanding of transcendentalism.

20. In the "Production Notes" following the play, we read (p.103): "Thoreau's decision to return to the human race is the shape, the parabola, of the play." Looking back, why do you think Henry ultimately comes to this decision? Were you surprised by it, or pleased, disappointed, otherwise? Explain how you view the play's ending--happy, sad, comic, tragic--and why you view it this way.

Exercises for the Class

1. On at least three separate occasions (see pp. 13, 72, and 94), Henry expresses disgust for the idea of "getting along" or "going along" with everyone else. Look again at these three instances. What is Henry really disgusted with? Discuss the whole of this play--both the past and present journeys Henry makes during his night in prison--as a reaction to this everyday concept of "getting along" in life.

2. Talk about the history of this play, the events and personalities of nineteenthcentury America that playwrights Lawrence and Lee aim to resurrect. What did you know of the life and thought of Thoreau--and, for that matter, of Emerson-- before reading the play? What did you learn from the play in this regard?

3. Explore the close and complex relationship between Thoreau and Emerson as it is depicted here. Where and how do they inspire one another? Where and how do they disappoint one another? Which is the student and which is the master, or do these roles somehow alternate throughout the play? Explain.

4. At the end of the scene where Waldo and Lydian agree to hire Henry as a handyman, the two of them--husband and wife, conversing in an aside--are typically learned and cogent. Lydian says: "Not many people will understand that young man. He doesn't want anything." Waldo replies: "Perhaps he wants too much." (p.55) Discuss the two distinct viewpoints presented in this exchange--then state which view of Henry you yourself are inclined to agree with, and why.

5. Consider the difficulties Henry has with his personal relationships throughout The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. His love for Ellen is rejected, his feelings for Lydian are too complicated (and only hinted at), and he seems unable to connect with his mother and his Aunt Louisa. To what extent are these troubled personal ties the by-products of Henry's radical, highly unusual ways of thinking and behaving? Also, go back to the question Lydian asks Henry on p. 77: "If love is all around you, like huckleberries--why do you pick loneliness?" Because this scene is suddenly interrupted, Lydian's question is never answered--but how do you think Henry would have answered it? Write a short essay explaining your view.

6. As the play makes plainly clear, Henry David Thoreau is a kind of "founding father" of the modern environmental movement. As an independent project, read several passages from Thoreau's writings on nature--such as might be found in Walden, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, the Journal, Walking, The Maine Woods, or Cape Cod--and then write a short essay explaining the central role that the natural world played in this author's life, work, and thought.

7. Halfway through Act Two, Henry and Waldo quarrel bitterly about politics. Waldo rhetorically asks Henry: "Could your woodchucks, with all their wisdom, have saved [the murdered fugitive slave] Henry Williams? Are your fish going to build roads, teach school, put out fires?" (p. 88) Discuss these pointed questions as critiques of Henry's way of thinking about life--and living it.

8. Reread the nightmare scene near the end of The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, and describe the main characters and primary events in Henry's nightmare. (pp. 92-6) Also, discuss this scene in particular, and this play in general, as a work of protest against war itself. Do you recognize parallels or discrepancies between the war depicted in this drama and any other war(s) in American history? If so, identify these similarities or differences, and then explore them in the classroom.

9. In the "Production Notes" following the play, the playwrights call for a spare and uncomplicated staging of their work. Why? Comment on the relationship between the play's subject matter and its conceptual and theatrical design. Plays are meant to be seen and heard, not just read. In light of this, how would you --if given the task-- go about directing, casting, and staging The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail? What choices would you make? Why would you make them? Be specific.

10. As an independent project, seek out poems by Henry David Thoreau (he wrote poetry throughout his life). Next, copy down a few poems and memorize them. Finally, recite them before your class--and then compare and contrast the "voice" behind these poems with the title character in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail.

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Sort by: Showing all of 13 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 11, 2012

    Very good book, certainly recommend it!

    So if you're into Thoreau and enjoy reading his books, then go for it! It's good!

    The copy was perfect, great condition, love it and love barnes&noble :)

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 14, 2005

    Simplify!

    This was amazing. Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee are geniuses of theatre. Henry David Thoreau was portrayed here magnificently, and they captured his spirit and his philosophy. If you love to think, then this is the book for you. If you love to open your eyes, this is the book for you. Read this, and be inspired, because this book will change you, if only by the way you think.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 14, 2004

    Be Who You Are

    'The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail¿ gives the reader reason to evaluate his/her own life-- specifically pertaining to personal obedience to the bounds of society. Thoreau felt very strongly about the war waged against Mexico during his lifetime. He did not want to warrant this act. He refused to pay the tax to support the war and was thrown in jail for his disobedience. Thoreau knew that his act would cause him to end up in jail, but he so strongly opposed the war that to him, it was worth it. This particular form of action is known as civil disobedience. It occurs when someone is passionate about an issue and is willing to accept the consequences for not adhering to the bounds of society. It most often takes place in a peaceful manner. While reading this play, the audience will find themselves questioning whether the rules that they follow in their daily life go along with their own personal beliefs. If they find that the rules contradict what their individual stands for, then they must question if disobeying the particular bound is worth the consequences that will ensue. In Thoreau's case, he saw jail as a negative consequence, but he would rather be there than living in society knowing that he was supporting an 'unfair' war. He also makes the claim that although he is locked up, his mind is always free. To him, that is all the freedom he needed to live a fulfilled life. That is the sort of mental toughness that a civil disobeyer must possess in order to be successful in his/her act. An important theme in this play is expressing one's individuality. This is an issue that people all over the globe can relate to. Even if someone felt the war in Mexico was right, he/she can apply the issue of individuality to his/her life regardless. Some may find it difficult to see past Thoreau's issue, but in truth, civil disobedience can be applied to much larger or much smaller issues. Although, Thoreau¿s time in jail may seem unappealing to the reader, he should be commended for his strength and emphasis on individuality. If you feel passionate about being who you are, then read this play and you will discover that you are not alone- one of the greatest thinkers of all time felt the same way and was not afraid to do something about it. Stand up for what you believe in!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 22, 2002

    Great Book for School

    This book is a great school book for students learning about Transcendentalists. It offers a humorous and entertaining look at the topic that is sure to hook students of all types.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 8, 2001

    Excellent

    This play is a witty and creative look into the life of Henry David Thoreau, specifically what motivated him to leave and re-enter society (Walden). A previous background on Thoreau and Transcendentalism is helpful, but it is not necessary to still enjoy the play and understand its messages. Also, recent reviews that call this play out of date need recognize that the play was written during the Vietnam War and uses the war with Mexico during Thoreau's time as a parable to what was occurring in the country. While our country is not going through the same specific upheaval as it was in 1971, Thoreau's ideas will always be contemporary, and this play is an excellent introduction to his life and how he lived it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 24, 2000

    Awsome book

    My class recieved this book for an assignment in English class. Most the time I read the first couple pages of a book and put it down. This book is great if you read it you'll never forget it. The book makes you look at things in a whole new perspective. It's short and sweet a great book all around.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 3, 2000

    Good Book

    I read this book in my English Honors sophomore class and I really enjoyed it. While a lot of the class found it hard to understand and boring, I thought it was a great peice of work; full of metaphors and philosophy. It gives a lot of veiws and a better understanding of Transendentalism. I would recommend this to people who like to read plays and who are open to different philosophies.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 12, 2000

    Zzzzz

    This book was hard to follow and BORING! Also, plays are meant to be seen not read...in my opinion so I didn't like READING it. I can't believe schools are making students read this.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 22, 2000

    BORING

    This book was okay, but isn't the best. If it wasn't for the fact that this book was a play, i would never have read it because it was so boring. If you like plays, I'm sure you probably will like it. (You need to know a smidgen about Thoreau to completely understand the book)

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 30, 1999

    My favorite book

    We don't always have friends in the taste matter.I loved this book. The teacher warned us that this book may be hard to follow. I don't know what helped me( maybe that after few pages I said to myself, that time: past, present, future didn't matter)but I was not confused at all. I liked to rush from one idea to another. Some ideas were similar to mine, others were new, and therefor even more interessting. I'm thanksful, that we read this book in the school.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 22, 2008

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 23, 2010

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 10, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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