The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail: A Play
The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail: A Play
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Annotation: Henry David Thoreau refuses to pay taxes, protests Mexican War. A drama relevant as tomorrow's headlines.
Catalog Number: #215201
Format: Perma-Bound Edition
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Copyright Date: 2000
Edition Date: 2001
Pages: viii, 103 p.
Availability: Available
ISBN: Publisher: 0-8090-1223-5 Perma-Bound: 0-8479-6221-0
ISBN 13: Publisher: 978-0-8090-1223-7 Perma-Bound: 978-0-8479-6221-1
Dewey: 812
LCCN: 2001278024
Dimensions: 21 cm.
Language: English
Reviewing Agencies: - Find Other Reviewed Titles
New York Times Book Review
NCTE Books For You
Word Count: 19,975
Reading Level: 3.9
Interest Level: 9+
Accelerated Reader: reading level: 3.9 / points: 3.0 / quiz: 10041 / grade: Upper Grades
Reading Counts!: reading level:8.1 / points:5.0 / quiz:Q08382
Lexile: NP


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.


    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


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:

















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?


Whose 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.



    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 .)


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 .)


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 .)

Henry David.


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. )

Who's this?


It's your umbrella.


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. )


(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?


Henry David.


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. )


Oh, dear---!


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 .)


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




He keeps casting conformity behind him!

    JOHN ( Shrugging .)

What the hell, he's been to Harvard.

    MOTHER ( Offended .)

Never say---


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 JOHN-- the 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 species--BROTHER!!!

( 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.


Why not?


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


But think how Mama would love it--your 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 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. )


(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, 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.


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?


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. )


Huh? Whys---?


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. )


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?


What you do to get yourself locked up?


What do you think?


Well-l-l--a man who talks educated like you--he 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.

( Change. )

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


Who they want you to kill?




Who's that?


That's where the war is.


What war?

    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.


Neither'm I.


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.


First I heered of it.

( Warily. )

Which side you on?

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


"Them" ...?


Or are you one of them?

    HENRY ( Thinks .)

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 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. )


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.

( 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---


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.


It's outrageous!

( Calling. )

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. Mister--what's your name ?



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


Mr. Bailey, listen! What do you hear?


Nothing--'cept footsteps.


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.

( He paces. )


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.

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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