“The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail” is a play with unusual staging. Instead of advancing distinctly from one full scene to another – and from a single point in time toward a date in the future – the action moves from one vignette to another, covering various scenes from various times in Thoreau’s life, often out of chronological order, and sometimes even at the same time. The main scene, positioned in center stage, is the jail cell where Henry spends one night with fellow prisoner Bailey. Other scenes with other characters (Henry’s mother, his brother John, his friend Ellen Sewell, Ralph Waldo Emerson and his wife Lydian, etc.) are set on the sides and edges of the stage. Sometimes these characters interact with Henry, drawing him away from the jail cell.
The play’s opening directions outline this format and conclude, “Time and space are awash here.” This means that these dimensions are watery in a way, and that they float in and out of one another. It takes special close attention on the part of the reader or the live audience to grasp, follow, and understand this concept. Gradually you learn that you just have to go with the flow of the action to see where it leads.