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.
About 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.
Read an Excerpt
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 Illinoiswho 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 leaderstwo 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 wasand 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.
Robert E. Lee
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 |
| Donald Mauck |
Anthony B. Schmitt
John W. Toth
Michael David Ayers
Floyd E. Hughes III
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.
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 cellnor 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?
I've forgotten the name of my best friend!
Did you ever have a best friend ?
The boy. Who put the gloves on the chickens.
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.)
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 manwith a knife-like humor, fierce conviction and devastating individuality.)
I have not gone and done anything, Mother. I have gone and not done something. Which very much needed the not doing.
Oh, good heavens!
(Calling off stage.)
Louisa! David Henry's gone and not done something again.
HENRY (Correcting her.)
David Henry, you're being strange again.
WALDO (Distantly.) He was strange. I almost understood him.
Sometimes I don't know who you are.
I'm myself, Mother.
(He lifts himself and sits on the edge of the cot.)
If I'm not, who will be?
When you're baptized, they tell you who you are.
I wasn't listening.
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.
You think I knew what they were doing to me?
I suppose not.
That's why I didn't cry.
He was the saddest happy man I ever knew.
The happiest sad man, I think.
He worked on Sundays, and took the rest of the week off.
(Staring at his umbrella, puzzled.)
It's your umbrella.
(He studies the umbrella affectionately, as if it were a lost old friend.)
Yes, my ... uh ... my ...
(But again he's lost the name.)
(LYDIAN helps the vague WALDO off, as the lights fall away on them.)
I wouldn't mind your being peculiar. But do you have to work at it so hard, David Henry?
Getting everything backward. How did you learn your letters?
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.)
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.)
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 brotheraffable, more extroverted. JOHN moves smoothly, easily, in contrast to the explosively erratic movements of his younger brother.)
You know what David Henry's trouble is, John?
He keeps casting conformity behind him!
What the hell, he's been to Harvard.
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-
(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 JOHNthe amber of sunny fields.)
HENRY (Still squatting; to himself.)
... and there abide!
(JOHN circles HENRY playfully, as if examining a specimen.)
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 speciesBROTHER!!!
(This joshing has broken HENRY'S near-trance. He leaps up.)
HENRY (Embracing him.)
Welcome home. How's your overstuffed brain?
I've forgotten everything already.
At least you've got a diploma!
No, I don't.
They charge you a dollar. And I wouldn't pay it.
But think how Mama would love ityour diploma from Harvard, framed on the wall!
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 mannot even a professorthan I learned in four years of academic droning and snorting at Cambridge. And the strangest thinghe 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 himthat 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!
(HENRY slaps the ground with the palm of his hand.)
Is this the Earth?
I hope so.
HENRY (Coming slowly to his feet.) No. It's you. And I. And God. And Mr. Emerson. And the Universal Mind!
And Aunt Louisa?
Yes, Aunt Louisa, toofalse 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.
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!
But what do you want to be? Do you have any idea?
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.)
Your lecture was splendid, dear.
I think I read one paragraph twice. I lost my place.
Nobody noticed, dear.
If nobody noticed, then nobody was listening!
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.)
(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?
(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.)
(His fellow prisoner snorts, comes groggily awake.)
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.
Nothin' goes on in here. Night half the time. Then day. Then night again. Don't make much difference.
(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.
"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.)
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?
What you do to get yourself locked up?
What do you think?
Well-l-la man who talks educated like youhe can't 'a' done something small. Must be murder or worse.
That's what I've done, by their lights, out there in the dark: murder or worse.
No. I refuse to commit murder. That's why I'm here.
Who they want you to kill?
That's where the war is.
HENRY (Amazed, pacing.)
Friend, this cell may be the only place in the United States that's at peace.
Who's fighting who?
I'm not fighting anybody.
But we've got a President who went out and boomed up a war all by himselfwith no help from Congress and less help from me.
First I heered of it.
Which side you on?
(Pointing emphatically downstage, toward Concord.) Are you agin' them?
Or are you one of them?
I'm one of Me.
That don't make no sense.
(Far off, there is another bird-cry, forlornly wise. Again HENRY comes to the downstage imagined window.)
Hear that? Old friend of mine. He's a night flyer. Doesn't have to see where he's goingor 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.)
Not till tonight.
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?
I'm waitin' trial.
What did you do?
What do they say you did?
BAILEY (Grudgingly.) Burned down a barn.
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-
Tell 'em that!
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?
That's about it.
Staples! Sam Staples!
(BAILEY stops him.)
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.
"Get along"! Those words turn my stomach. Misterwhat's your name ?
(A figure crosses the Village Square pompously. HENRY hears with animal keenness.)
Mr. Bailey, listen! What do you hear?
Footsteps of what?
A man, I guess.
Where's he walking?
How would I know ?
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.
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.
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 paradoxicaland 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 professorthan 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 forand results ofthis 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 natureand 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 experimentor the idea behind it, at leastreflects Henry's personality and philosophy.
14. Shortly before he is arrested, Henryalways 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 endinghappy, sad, comic, tragicand 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 playboth the past and present journeys Henry makes during his night in prisonas 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 Thoreauand, 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 themhusband and wife, conversing in an asideare 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 exchangethen 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 huckleberrieswhy do you pick loneliness?" Because this scene is suddenly interrupted, Lydian's question is never answeredbut 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 naturesuch as might be found in Walden, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, the Journal, Walking, The Maine Woods, or Cape Codand 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 lifeand 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 classand then compare and contrast the "voice" behind these poems with the title character in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail.