The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, was first published in New York in 1971 during the Vietnam War. The play, which was a clear protest against the war, used a related incident from America's history to comment on the current war. In 1846, the writer, Henry David Thoreau, spent a night in jail for not paying his taxes. Thoreau refused to pay money that would support the war that was currently being waged against Mexico. This incident later provided the basis for Thoreau's popular essay, "Civil Disobedience." Lawrence and Lee's immensely popular play, which was deliberately produced in regional theaters as opposed to on or off Broadway, struck a chord with Vietnam-era audiences. In fact, the play was so relevant to the times that it was temporarily shut down shortly after its first performances in 1970, when another anti-Vietnam protest—at Kent State University—resulted in the death of several students.
Despite the lack of critical commentary, the play continues to be one of the most popular works by Lawrence and Lee, a writing team who enjoyed a fifty-two-year collaboration and who also wrote the immensely popular play, Inherit the Wind. In The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, time and setting are shifted between each episodic scene without indication or explanation, forcing the audience or reader to pay close attention. These dream-like effects serve to highlight the main themes of the play—rebelling against authority and expressing one's individuality—universal themes that have appealed to many audiences, both nationally and internationally, since the play's first production.
The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail was published in a reissue edition in 1992, which is available from Bantam Books.