The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail Summary


Act 1
The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail takes place in Concord, Massachusetts, and the surrounding area. As the stage directions note, "time and space are awash here." The play starts in one time period and then abruptly shifts around to many other times and places. At all times throughout the play, Henry David Thoreau's jail cell can be seen in the background. The play starts at its latest point in time, during a Concord winter when Ralph Waldo Emerson is an old man, walking with his wife, Lydian. With his wife's help, Waldo remembers the name of Henry (Thoreau), who was his best friend. With this realization, the action shifts to Henry's jail cell, when the writer is a young man.

Henry's mother asks Henry why he is in jail, and he gives vague answers, a tactic that he uses throughout the play. Henry shows what his mother calls his strangeness by questioning the order of the alphabet. Henry's brother, John, comes into the jail cell, and their mother leaves. The location shifts to a sunny field at an earlier time, when Henry has just returned from Harvard. Henry and John talk about Henry's education, which Henry counts as worthless except for hearing the lectures of Waldo, whom he says he wants to emulate. Back in the jail cell, Henry talks with his cellmate, Bailey, who has been accused of burning down a barn; Bailey has been waiting for his trial for three months, a fact that outrages Henry.

Henry tries to talk to Bailey about conformity, but Bailey is not an educated man. Henry teaches Bailey how to spell his name, then grabs a chair from the jail cell and moves to the front of the stage, shifting back in time to when he was a teacher. He is interrupted by Deacon Nehemiah Ball, the Chairman of the Concord School Committee, who criticizes Henry's deviations from the approved school textbooks. Henry gets into a theological argument with Ball, who is outraged at Henry's transcendentalist beliefs, and Henry provokes the class to laugh at Ball. John later tells Henry he should apologize to save his job, which Henry does. However, although Ball excuses him, he forces Henry to whip six of his students for laughing. Henry reluctantly does this, then quits teaching, just as Waldo quits his position as Unitarian pastor, in another time-space shift.

Henry proposes to John that they start their own unconventional school, which they do. Henry and John stand in a meadow teaching a number of students, including Ellen, a beautiful young woman who is much older than the class. Henry criticizes Ellen for trying to take notes, a method used in conventional schooling. The action shifts back to the jail cell, where Bailey has successfully learned how to write his own name. Henry encourages Bailey to unlearn it and remain uneducated. Henry pushes the jail cell's locker box to the front of the stage, where it becomes a boat by a pond. John tells Henry their school is losing all of its students. John leaves, and Ellen enters. Henry uses the opportunity to invite her for a boat ride, during which he tries to explain his transcendentalist views to her and profess his love to her; both attempts are unsuccessful, and Henry suggests that Ellen go to church with John.

Back in the jail...

(The entire section is 1319 words.)