The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail

by Jerome Lawrence, Robert E. Lee

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Who are the main characters and what are the primary events in Henry's nightmare from "The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail" (pp. 92-96)?

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The nightmare scene in the play The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail is a surrealistic manifestation of Henry David Thoreau's frustrations, thwarted idealism, and yearning for men to act upon their principles.

In the beginning of his dream sequence, Henry shouts to the crowd that Emerson is coming to impart...

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his words on the dignity of the soul and individualism and the evil of slavery and the taxes to support the American-Mexican War, exciting them:

"He's promised to make a statement now. Right here. Can't wait."

But, soon, Lydia Emerson approaches Thoreau and tells him that her husband is not coming. This disappointing news causes Henry to come undone. He declares that he has wasted his time, "almost my identity" by having associated with Waldo. In response to this declamation, Lydian accuses him of having created an ideal out of her husband, rather than having recognized him as a man.

In this hellish dreamscape, the instruments of war are forced upon men. The sky turns red as though with the blood of men; "psychedelic splatterings of shrapnel" fill the air. There is the shouting and general mayhem of battle. A sergeant calls the cadence to which the soldiers march: "Hate-two-three-four!" This sergeant assumes the appearance of Sam Staples, the arresting officer who put Henry in jail. A general shouts "Learn to kill" repeatedly; then, in the absurdity of war and hatred, as a rifle is shoved at a protesting Henry, General Ball shouts,

"The purpose of this action is to stop the enemy from protecting themselves from the enemy."

This absurd statement contributes further to the surrealism of this nightmare. Henry protests again: "I won't go." Then he hears his mother's voice: "That's a good boy, Henry. Always do the right thing. Even if it's wrong." This paradoxical counsel seems to be in concert with the madness occurring around Henry. Further, he lashes out at Abraham Lincoln—"Mr. Congressman"—for "sweeping" the war on and on "in showers of blood." All is chaos, a chaos caused by evil generated from falseness and animosity.

This surrealistic dream reflects the turmoil of Thoreau's thoughts and his conflicts of conscience with the conventional thinking of his time, as well as his disappointment with Ralph Waldo Emerson. He awakens from this spiritual nightmare after his deceased brother John, who represents innocent men, is symbolically killed a second time.

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I think that the nightmare scene at the end of the drama speaks to the idea that war is something that demands moral and active opposition, should one feel it.  Thoreau feels that the war is unjust.  Yet, his nightmare is the result of inaction.  The nightmare scene is one in which Thoreau's objection to war is evident, but the lack of action has enabled the machine of war to take over.  It renders Thoreau's own voice as ineffective.  This is why the ending of the drama has him leaving Walden in the hopes of taking a more active and visible role against the nature of war.  It is here where the drama speaks about the idea of how one must actively resist war, if they feel compelled to do so.  If individuals authentically believe that war is wrong, they simply cannot be passive if they wish to change things.  Thoreau's ending is one in which he speaks to the idea of bridging theory and reality.  The theoretical principles of opposition to war must be matched to a reality in which individuals actively resist war.  This becomes vitally important in both Thoreau's characterization in the drama and the statement being made about the condition of war.

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