The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail

by Jerome Lawrence, Robert E. Lee

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Historical Context

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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.

Mexican War 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 the dispute over the Mexico border territory had not been settled—and Congress authorized a war. Support for the war was largely divided. Although Polk and many southerners were ecstatic, many in the northern states viewed the war as an attempt to acquire more lands, which some believed were only for the purpose of creating more slave-holding southern states.

The war was one-sided, as United States's technologically advanced forces won consecutive battles on two fronts. Under Colonel Stephen Kearny, New Mexico and California were easily occupied, with the native populations putting up little fight. Meanwhile, in Mexico, General Taylor's forces conquered the Mexican forces in a couple of key battles but neglected to follow the defeated forces farther into Mexico. When President Polk learned of this, he deployed a different force, under the direction of General Winfield Scott, to land at Veracruz and march inland to overtake Mexico's capital, Mexico City. On September 14, 1847, after a series of victories, Scott's forces conquered the capital. As a result of the treaty between the two nations, Mexico sold the United States much of the land in current Southwestern states such as New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, California, Texas, and western Colorado, for $15 million.

Vietnam Antiwar Protests When Lawrence and Lee wrote The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail , they used Thoreau's historical protest against the Mexican War as a form of current protest against the Vietnam War. This method of protest was more subtle than many other antiwar protests used during Vietnam. Common methods of protest during Vietnam included men...

(This entire section contains 960 words.)

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burning their draft cards, which legally obligated them to report for duty in the military. Because skipping this duty was a punishable offense, some were not content with destroying their cards and fled the country—in many cases to Canada—to avoid military service or prosecution. Some chose to ignore their draft notices and stay inside the country, actively voicing their protest. Among the more famous protesters was world-champion heavyweight boxer, Mohammed Ali, who in 1967 refused to be drafted as a result of his religious beliefs. Ali's case went to court later that year, and he was sentenced to five years prison and a $10,000 fine, although he eventually appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court, which decided three years later to reverse the decision and let Ali go free. However, Ali was not so lucky in his boxing career. When he refused to be drafted, the World Boxing Association and the New York State Athletic Commission stripped Ali of his championship boxing title and revoked his boxing license, a decision that remained in effect until the Supreme Court's decision, at which point Ali was able to box again.

Besides protesting the draft, others protested the war itself in demonstrations, many of which were meant to be nonviolent. One of the most famous, and tragic, of these protests took place on Kent State University's campus in May 1970. Following the April 30 announcement by President Richard Nixon that the United States' military forces were invading Cambodia, students at Kent State staged the first of many demonstrations that week. As the demonstrations spawned rioting and arson, Ohio's governor called in the state's National Guard to try to maintain order. During the demonstrations on May 4, the National Guardsmen fired a number of bullets into the crowd, killing four students and injuring many others. Although many of the students on campus were protesting the war, some were merely gathering in the protest area to eat their lunch or watch what was going on. In the end, the four students that were killed were never confirmed as protesters. This tragic event ignited college campuses around the country in protest, and many campuses were temporarily closed as a result.

Literary Style

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Expressionism 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 dialogue. In some cases, Lawrence and Lee indicate the time and space change by having Henry or another character move to a different part of the stage, or by having Henry use a stage prop such as a chair or storage locker.

However, depending upon how subtle these clues are, the audience is sometimes called upon to work harder to recognize these setting shifts. For example, at the beginning of the second act, after Henry erupts at Lydian for telling him that he has to "go along," the stage directions indicate that "Lydian has reached for a little straw berry-basket." With this small act, the setting shifts smoothly to an earlier time, using Lydian's words of "go along" as a transition from the argument to a time right before Henry takes Edward huckleberry hunting. Says Lydian in the next line, "Edward? (The little boy comes running to her.) Go along with Mr. Thoreau." This more subtle technique makes it harder for the audience to follow but once again underscores the expressionistic and uncomfortable quality of the play. Although the entire play is dreamlike, the play achieves its ultimate expression in the actual dream at the end of the play, Henry's nightmare, which convinces Henry to take action.

Foil In the play, the characters are all juxtaposed with Henry and in the process become foils for him. A foil is a character who, when placed next to another character, makes the other character seem better in some way. In this case, Henry is the obvious activist, and his status as an activist is raised when Henry is compared to the other characters, who all experience a relative lack of activism. As described above, the most overt foil is Waldo, whose intellectualism prevents him from acting. However, other characters in the story also exhibit various degrees of activism, such as Henry's brother, John, who agrees with Henry's ideas of unconventional schooling, saying that: "All a school needs is a mind that sends, and minds that receive." John even partners with Henry to start their own school. However, after they lose most of their students, John loses heart and leaves to go "back to the pencil factory," a conforming job that compromises the ideals that he and Henry share. Henry, on the other hand, decides to trade his intellectual pursuits for natural pursuits, eventually hiring on as Waldo's handyman, although, even then, he refuses to be paid in money, instead preferring a gift of nature: "Perhaps, some day, if my work has been useful to you, and if we remain friends, I may ask you for a bit of your woods."

Ellen Sewell is also a foil for Henry. When Ellen first comes to sit in on classes at Henry's and John's school, she is intrigued by everything Henry is saying and takes down notes. Henry tells her: "Don't just remember what I said. Remember what I'm talking about." Although Ellen eventually stops taking notes, showing that she can follow this concept of nonconformity, she nevertheless does not fully adopt the transcendentalist ideas that Henry tries to explain to her. Says Henry: "When you transcend the limits of yourself, you can cease merely living—and begin to BE!" However, Ellen is "a little bit afraid—just—to 'be!'" and as a result soon goes back to her normal life of conformity, as most of the characters do. Because of this contrast between the other characters and Henry, the only one who persists in trying to achieve the ideal that Waldo has set forth, Henry appears as the ultimate activist.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 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 Pentagon in Washington, D.C. are attacked by terrorists, who crash fueled commercial jetliners into the two structures. Much of this is captured on live television, and Americans widely support the moves by President Bush and Congress to begin and escalate a war on terrorism.

  • Mid-1840s: During the U.S.-Mexican War, many Americans in the northern states do not support the war. Thoreau is one of the notable cases of people who protest, in his case by refusing to pay taxes that help to support the fighting.

    Late 1960s-Early 1970s: Many young American men protest against the Vietnam war by refusing to fight. Common methods of protest include burning draft cards and fleeing to other countries, although demonstrations—peaceful and violent—also increase.

    Today: The American military experiences a surge in its ranks as patriotic men and women willingly join the fight against terrorism.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources 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.

_____. "Production Notes from the Playwrights." In The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. Bantam Books, 1971, p. 113.

Rawson, Christopher. Review of The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. In Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 5, 1998.

Wagenknecht, Edward. "Wider Circles." In Henry David Thoreau. University of Massachusetts Press Amherst, 1981, p. 109.

Woods, Alan. "General Introduction." In The Selected Plays of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, edited by Alan Woods. Ohio State University Press, 1995, p. ix.

_____. Introduction 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. 449, 452.

_____. "Jerome Lawrence." In Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 228: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, Second Series, edited by Christopher J. Wheatley. The Gale Group, 2000, p. 161-70.

Further Reading Burkett, B. G. Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and Its History. Verity Press, 1998. Burkett, a Vietnam veteran and reporter, was featured on the newsmagazine show "20/20" for this unflinching look at the ways in which Vietnam veterans have been misunderstood, in part due to the actions of some who have tarnished the image of this generation. Exhaustively researched, the book helps to set the record straight about a very painful time in American history.

Eisenhower, John S. D. So Far from God: The U.S. War with Mexico 1846-1848. University of Oklahoma Press, 2000. Eisenhower's in-depth history of the Mexican War offers depictions of the major military leaders from the United States, some of whom featured prominently in the Civil War two decades later. The book also views the war in its historical context, addressing the different American viewpoints of those in the North and those in the South.

Field, Ron. Mexican-American War 1846-48. Brasseys, Inc., 1997. This book offers a thoroughly illustrated history of the uniforms, equipment, and weapons of both the Mexican and American armies. From the American forces, the book covers United States Regulars, Texas Rangers, and Militia members. Although information on Mexican forces is rare, this book makes good use of the available resources.

Johannsen, Robert Walter. To the Halls of the Montezumas: The Mexican War in the American Imagination. Oxford University Press on Demand, 1988. Johannsen analyzes the Mexican War in view of the fact that it was the first foreign war that was heavily reported in the press. As such, it greatly affected the imagination of an America that was trying to find its identity. The book draws on a number of firsthand accounts and other original sources.

Kent, Stephen A. From Slogans to Mantras: Social Protest and Religious Conversion in the Late Vietnam Era. Syracuse University Press, 2001. At the same time that young Americans were engaging in the antiwar counterculture movement, many also chose to join alternative, and sometimes radical, spiritual groups and cults. Kent, a sociologist, presents the unique view that this often overlooked trend was motivated mainly by politics, not spirituality.

Leckie, Robert. From Sea to Shining Sea: From the War of 1812 to the Mexican War, the Saga of America's Expansion. HarperPerennial, 1994. Leckie examines this rich period in America's early history as an independent nation. The shape of the modern continental United States was largely determined by the end of the Mexican War, and the book offers many anecdotes that illustrate the major events during America's territorial growth, including the major people involved in the expansion.

Martin, Susan, ed. Decade of Protest: Political Posters from the United States, Viet Nam, Cuba, 1965-1975. Distributed Art Publishers, 1996. The United States was not the only nation that experienced massive antiwar protests among its citizens during the Vietnam War; many people in Vietnam and Cuba also protested the war. This unique book collects samples of the various protest posters that were produced in the three countries. The images are combined with essays that give background on the posters and the historical and cultural contexts in which they were created.


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