The American Renaissance
During the time the play takes place, America was experiencing a renaissance, or rebirth, in the arts, particularly literature. This renaissance was sparked mainly by Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose famous Harvard addresses in the 1830s inspired other contemporary New England writers, like Thoreau, to produce many great literary works. At the center of Emerson's teachings and the American Renaissance was the idea of Transcendentalism, a literary and philosophical movement that idealized self-sufficiency and freedom of individual thought and opposition to conformity, even to the point of neglecting to form a concrete definition of Transcendentalism itself. Transcendentalists were opposed to rationalism and, ultimately, believed in the potential of the human mind to transcend the physical reality and thus find the meaning in life. Along with Emerson and Thoreau, other writers of the American Renaissance formed a group that was eventually called the Transcendental Club. Members included Nathaniel Hawthorne and Bronson Alcott, both residents of Concord. Bronson was the father of Louisa May Alcott another writer who would later incorporate the Transcendentalist beliefs she learned as a child into her own writings later in the century.
As Henry notes in the play, he refuses to pay taxes that will go to support the Mexican War, which was taking place at the time Thoreau was arrested. The Mexican War, also known as the Mexican-American War, took place between the United States and Mexico from April 1846 to February 1848. The war began over a dispute between the two countries about where the dividing line was between Texas—which the United States had annexed in 1845—and Mexico. In 1845, directly following this annexation, President James Polk sent an emissary to negotiate both the border dispute and to try to buy additional lands—modern-day New Mexico and California. Mexico refused to negotiate, and Polk sent General Zachary Taylor and his troops into the disputed border area, which technically belonged to Mexico. This move, in turn, instigated an attack by Mexican forces. Polk cited this attack as taking place on American territory— even though...
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Expressionism was a movement that was popular in drama and other, mainly visual, arts, beginning in Germany in the 1910s. Expressionism has never been completely defined in concrete terms, which is oddly fitting, since the main characteristic of expressionistic works is their tendency to bend concrete reality—to express emotions and ideas. In the case of The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, Lawrence and Lee bend reality by staging their drama in a shifting landscape, where the main characters, especially Henry, move instantly and dream-like through time and space. The resulting dream-like episodes cause the audience to become somewhat disoriented. Ultimately, these feelings express the playwrights' message—activism is not always easy and can, in fact, be uncomfortable and unpredictable, just like the respective wars that were going on in Thoreau's time (the Mexican War) and in the 1970s (the Vietnam War).
Time and Space
As noted above, the characters in the play move through time frequently. These time and space jumps all take place either in or around Henry's jail cell. Although Henry's jail cell is constantly present on stage, he leaves it often—sometimes physically, sometimes not—to travel to other times and places. An example of Henry jumping through time and space without leaving his cell occurs when John visits Henry in his jail cell. Henry is in a trance, remembering a speech that he has heard Waldo say at Harvard. John looks at Henry, who is still stuck in his memory of Harvard, and says: "Now here's a rare specimen—."
At the end of this statement, Waldo makes a remark from another part of the stage, and then, as the stage directions indicate, "The light intensifies on Henry and John—the amber of sunny fields." At this point, John picks up his specimen conversation from the jail cell and continues talking until Henry notices him and comes out of his trance. With the lighting change, the time and place have shifted from the jail cell to a meadow, just after Henry has returned from Harvard. In addition to the lighting, this fact is revealed to the audience when John says, "Welcome home. How's your overstuffed brain?" Although Henry is still technically in the jail cell as far as the stage dynamics are concerned, the playwrights convey to the audience the time and place of the new location through lighting and...
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Compare and Contrast
Mid-1840s: The United States engages in a brutal war in Mexico in an attempt to gain more land for America.
Late 1960s-Early 1970s: The United States engages in a brutal war in Vietnam in an attempt to stop the spread of Communism in southeast Asia.
Today: The United States engages in a war in Afghanistan, in an attempt to locate hidden terrorist groups.
Mid-1840s: The U.S.-Mexican War is started by President Polk with authorization from Congress. Polk says that Mexico's attack on American soil justifies the war, but the area of the attack is a disputed borderland, not officially recognized American soil. In addition, it is Polk's placement of American forces in this disputed borderland that prompts the Mexican army to attack.
Late 1960s-Early 1970s: Congress gives President Johnson unlimited powers to wage war in Vietnam, as the result of two alleged attacks on American naval destroyers in the region. Although one attack is later confirmed, the other is not. In addition, the ships, which Johnson claims are on routine missions in neutral waters, are actually on covert missions within enemy waters, which provokes the first attack.
Today: The War on Terrorism starts after the World Trade Center in New York and the...
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Topics for Further Study
- Research the causes, conditions, and outcomes of the Mexican-American War, choosing one prominent military or political figure from both Mexico and the United States of America who took part in the conflict. Imagine that these two leaders have been invited to appear on a modern-day, televised debate show to defend their viewpoints about, and actions during, the war. Write a short script or scenario that depicts what might happen during this debate.
- Research the main beliefs of transcendentalists in the mid-nineteenth century and the beliefs of hippies in the 1960s and 1970s. Putting yourself in the place of Henry David Thoreau, imagine that he has traveled through time to the early 1970s. Incorporating your research from both major belief systems, write a journal entry that describes how he might have contributed to or been affected by the Vietnam antiwar movement.
- Freedom fighting is a common theme throughout human history. Pick a non-American, pre-1800s society that had to fight for its freedom, and research the history of the struggle, focusing especially on ways that this society fought against or protested its oppression. How do these compare to the methods used by Thoreau or the Vietnam antiwar movement? Discuss any significant figures who led the protest or fight.
- In the play, Thoreau says at the end that he cannot afford to just stay at Walden anymore and that he needs to be more active in his fight with...
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What Do I Read Next?
- Mother Courage and Her Children, an antiwar play by German playwright Bertolt Brecht was originally published in 1949 following World War II. Like The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, Brecht's tragic play is set in an earlier historical era, in this case seventeenth-century Europe, during the multi-national Thirty Years' War. Brecht's play depicts the tragic figure of Mother Courage, whose attempts to make money from the war inadvertently kill all of her children. Mother Courage and Her Children is available in a reprint edition from 1991, translated by Eric Bentley.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson and his transcendentalist ideas were a strong...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Eades, Ronald W. "Fiction Draws Students into Culture of Law." In Law Teacher. Spring 1997.
Lawrence, Jerome, and Robert E. Lee. Foreword to "The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail." In The Selected Plays of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, edited by Alan Woods. Ohio State University Press, 1995, p. 456.
_____. "The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail." In The Selected Plays of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, edited by Alan Woods. Ohio State University Press, 1995, pp. 459-64, 467-69, 471-72, 474-75, 480-81, 483, 486-87, 489-90, 494-502, 505-06.
_____. "The Now Thoreau." In The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. Bantam Books, 1971, p. vii....
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