The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail

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Henry David Thoreau Character Analysis

Henry is the defiant, young, Harvard-educated protagonist and the play’s imaginative interpretation of the historical Henry David Thoreau, who was a leading thinker in the Transcendentalist tradition and wrote the book Walden. Henry is deeply passionate about resisting both the United States government’s war in Mexico and its segregationist policies in the North. He is imprisoned for refusing to pay his taxes because he does not want to contribute funds that will end up furthering what he sees as the slaughter in Mexico. The play dramatizes his thoughts and conversations regarding his ideas during the night he spends in jail.

Henry David Thoreau Quotes in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail

The The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail quotes below are all either spoken by Henry David Thoreau or refer to Henry David Thoreau. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
History and the Importance of Learning from the Past Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Hill and Wang edition of The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail published in 2001.
Act 1 Quotes

“I’ve forgotten the name of my best friend!”

Related Characters: Ralph Waldo Emerson (speaker), Henry David Thoreau
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

In this opening scene, we're greeted by the sight of Henry David Thoreau in his (invisible) prison cell--and, on the other side of the stage, Ralph Waldo Emerson (or a literary version of Emerson called "Waldo," anyway), who is claiming that he's forgotten the name of his best friend. The mechanics of the scene couldn't be clearer--without an ounce of explanation, we understand that Waldo's best friend was Henry, the man who's in prison now.

In real life, Emerson and Thoreau were good friends who differed in their interpretations of social activism. At the end of his life, Emerson's memory began to fail him--an event that the playwrights take as a symbol for his ideological distancing from Thoreau's "radical" methods of political engagement.

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“Cast conformity behind you!”
“Cast…Conformity…Behind You…!”

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker), Ralph Waldo Emerson (speaker)
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, we see Henry learning from his great teacher, Waldo, during his time as a student at Harvard. Waldo is an important role model for Henry because Waldo celebrates the value of free-thinking and counterculture. And yet even in this early scene, the limits of Henry's collaboration with Waldo are clear. Waldo tells Henry to ignore conformity and all its forms--but, paradoxically, Henry is literally conforming in the act of learning from Waldo and repeating his words exactly.

The passage highlights the paradoxes of education itself: is it ever possible, the playwrights seem to ask, to learn how to rebel from another person? Henry thinks that Waldo can teach him how to be free, but by the end of the play, the limits of such a model of education are clear. Only Henry can teach himself how to fight conformity.

I want to be as much as possible like Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker), Ralph Waldo Emerson (speaker)
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Henry is still a young, idealistic man--flirting with the doctrine of transcendentalism as pioneered by Ralph Waldo Emerson. And yet it's also clear that Henry doesn't really understand such a doctrine fully. Although transcendentalism and free thinking are all about individuality, Henry chooses to mimic a transcendentalist perfectly--he aims to be exactly like his teacher.

Henry, at this early point in the story, is something of an armchair adventurer. He likes Waldo's ideas about liberty and freedom, but only because he hasn't really thought them through--he's more interested in having a role model (Waldo) than he is in truly embodying the ideas that Waldo stood for. By the end of the play, however, their roles will seem to have reversed--Henry will have learned how to stand for his own beliefs, eschewing the empty comforts of role models, heroes, and self-described sages.

I refuse to commit murder. That’s why I’m here.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker), Bailey (speaker)
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Henry explains his political ideals to his cellmate, Bailey. Henry explains that he's been sent to jail because of his refusal to pay taxes: as he knows very well, his taxes will be used to subsidize a bloody American war in the Southwest, which will result in the deaths of thousands of American and Mexican citizens. In short, Henry is in jail because he refuses to play along with such a murderous policy.

Henry's refusal has a lot of relevance for modern-day people (and the playwrights clearly are referring to protests against the Vietnam War, going on at the time of their writing.) Henry's great insight is that his passive acceptance of the order of society has concrete, real-world ramifications. Although the average human might want to believe that he or she is generally a "good person," whose actions cause no one harm, such a person may actually be enabling murder, genocide, or other atrocities by doing something as ordinary as paying taxes. In a time of growing bureaucracy and government control, Thoreau refuses to play along: he accepts responsibility for his own actions--as a mature adult, he refuses to allow his own money and manpower to be used for a cause he considers unjust.

For you and me, deacon, the declaration of Independence has already been written. Young Thoreau has to declare it every day.

Related Characters: Ralph Waldo Emerson (speaker), Henry David Thoreau, Deacon Ball
Page Number: 42
Explanation and Analysis:

In this revealing passage, Waldo, Henry's former teacher, arrives at the school where Henry teaches and makes some polite jokes with Deacon Ball, the head of the school. Waldo believes in freedom and independence, but he's more likely to accept the established social order. Henry, by contrast, needs to assert his freedom and independence every day, and isn't afraid to speak out against conformity even when it gets him into trouble.

The passage is important because it suggests the strengths and weaknesses of radicalism in America. America was built by radicals, who asserted their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And yet the very existence of a country founded on the principles of freedom has been enough to convince many people--including, it would seem, Emerson--that more rebellion and radicalism is pointless. 

Act 2 Quotes

You might try getting yourself born in a more just and generous age.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker), Bailey
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:

Bailey, a fellow prisoner sitting with Henry in jail, asks Henry for his help. First, Bailey asks Henry to serve as his lawyer; then, when Henry refuses, Bailey asks him for any advice--Henry's only advice is for Bailey to be born in a better time, when justice and freedom are strong in society.

The passage is important for a number of reasons. First, the passage draws out attention to the similarities and differences between our own era, whatever it might be (during the Vietnam War for the playwrights), and Thoreau's. Are we really any juster or more honest with ourselves than were the people of Thoreau's society? It's a premise of the play that we have something to learn from Thoreau's courage--and therefore, our society isn't perfectly just, as no society is (there's no ideal "age" Bailey could really choose to be born in). Moreover, the passage emphasizes the importance of Thoreau's heroism. It's precisely because we can't just be born in a juster age--and that age that might not exist at all--that people like Thoreau, who fight for what's right here and now, are so valuable to our society.

I gotta git to Cañada!

Related Characters: Henry Williams (speaker), Henry David Thoreau
Page Number: 81
Explanation and Analysis:

In this "flashback" passage, Thoreau gives aid and comfort to a runaway slave who's trying to get far away from his slave masters and move to Canada. Thoreau, a proponent of civil disobedience, believed that "an unjust law is not a law at all." Thus, Thoreau had no problem breaking the law to help runaway slaves--slaves who were, on paper, violating law and order. Thoreau exercised his own moral code, respecting the slaves' right to freedom and happiness. By 19th century standards, he was a criminal--by 21st century standards, he did the right thing.

The passage subtly underscores the similarities between the injustices of slavery and the injustices in Mexico that Thoreau is protesting in the play's present. With the Spanish tilde over the "n" in the word "Canada," the playwrights suggest that the American government's oppression of blacks is intimately tied to it's other bloody activities in South and Central America.

Always do the right thing, even if it’s wrong.

Related Characters: Mrs. Thoreau (speaker), Henry David Thoreau
Page Number: 94
Explanation and Analysis:

In this nightmare sequence, Thoreau is forced to take up arms as a soldier in the Mexican-American War; the very war he's in jail for refusing to support in any form. As Thoreau is handed a gun, he sees his own mother, urging him to conform with the rest of society. Thoreau's mother sums up her take on right and wrong by telling her son to "do the right thing, even if it's wrong."

Thoreau's mother (in her hallucinatory form here, at least) makes an interesting distinction between socially-determined morality--the morality of obedience, respect, and conformity--and individually-determined morality--the morality of individual responsibility, free will, and choice. She seems to be saying that Thoreau--and all people--should obey their laws and orders, even if they personally believe such laws to be immoral. In short, Thoreau's mother symbolizes the exact opposite of what Thoreau himself stood for all his life.

Seems to me I’ve got several more lives to live.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker), Bailey
Page Number: 100
Explanation and Analysis:
The play ends with a bold call to the audience: translate Thoreau's political aims into the present day. Thoreau tells us that he believes he'll live several more lives--and the quote is interesting for a couple reasons. It seems to make Thoreau into something of a Christ figure, a martyr who's continually celebrated ("resurrected?") by later generations for living a "just life." By the same token, the passage hints at the influence Thoreau has had on modern political methods--the civil disobedience of luminaries like Martin Luther King, Jr., Harvey Milk, and Malcolm X might be said to continue Thoreau's legacy. In all, the playwrights urge us to follow Thoreau's example and stand up for what we know to be right, even if that means going against all of society.
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Henry David Thoreau Character Timeline in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail

The timeline below shows where the character Henry David Thoreau appears in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 1
Education, Thought, Information, and Learning Theme Icon
...center stage, with imaginary walls and windows. “Time and space are awash here.” A man (Henry) sleeps on a cot, and another man, in shadow, sleeps on a cot next to... (full context)
History and the Importance of Learning from the Past Theme Icon
Complacency, Conformity, and Responsibility Theme Icon
...has forgotten the name of his best friend. Lydian wonders if he is thinking of “Henry” and Waldo says he keeps wanting to say “David.” (full context)
History and the Importance of Learning from the Past Theme Icon
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Henry’s mother appears on another part of the stage, asking her son, whom she calls “David... (full context)
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...appears younger. He takes his place at a podium. Upon seeing him at the podium, Henry sinks cross-legged to the floor to listen. Waldo orates: “Cast conformity behind you.” Henry repeats... (full context)
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Henry stands and sees John, as if breaking out of a trance, and embraces him. John... (full context)
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In the jail cell area, snoring begins. It crescendos, and Henry gently wakes up his groggy cellmate. The man, whose name is Bailey, stops snoring but... (full context)
War Theme Icon
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Bailey asks how a man as educated and well-spoken as Henry ended up in jail. Henry says he has refused to commit murder. Bailey asks who... (full context)
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Henry listens at the imaginary window and hears footsteps through the square. Henry asks Bailey where... (full context)
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Bailey once again marvels at Henry’s intelligence. He remarks that he’d love to learn to write his own name. Henry teaches... (full context)
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Bailey sinks back into the shadows, and the light comes up on Henry, who is teaching a classroom full of students (who are not actually present as actors,... (full context)
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Henry goes on to explain that he was in the middle of answering a question of... (full context)
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...Waldo takes his pulpit and begins to speak about “the wonder of the Universal Mind.” Henry speaks quietly to Potter, asking him if he understands. Ball says he does not understand.... (full context)
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Henry apologizes, but Ball is not satisfied. He orders Henry to flog his students. Henry obliges,... (full context)
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...the stage. John says a school doesn’t need books or a classroom—only minds. He approaches Henry and the two plan to open a new kind of school, one where class takes... (full context)
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A strikingly beautiful young woman appears on the side of the stage, listening to Henry. Henry tells her that she seems too old to take this class. The woman, Ellen... (full context)
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The lights fade on the “meadow” and Henry is back in the cell with Bailey, who is delighted that he has learned to... (full context)
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John enters and helps Henry pull an imaginary boat from an imaginary pond (they are back in the meadow). Henry... (full context)
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Henry, since he has no class to teach, asks Ellen if she would like to go... (full context)
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Henry starts getting intense, and demands that Ellen stand up to her father and be more... (full context)
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The lights come up on the cell again. Henry asks a sleeping Bailey what he thinks of marriage, and Bailey only snores in response.... (full context)
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The lights come up on Henry’s family in church. Ellen sits beside John. Suddenly, Henry’s mother sees with horror that Henry... (full context)
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Waldo steps in with some good-natured jokes, and explains that for Henry, the American Declaration of Independence is not enough—he must declare his independence every day. The... (full context)
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Lights fade and rise on Henry and John, laughing in the meadow. Henry assumes John’s laughter means that Ellen said yes... (full context)
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...there is the sound of church bells. A ministerial voice announces the death of John Thoreau. The lights come up on Mrs. Thoreau and Henry. Henry refuses to pray—he believes his... (full context)
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Ellen hurries onstage and asks Henry what happened. Henry, with bitter wit, that his brother died a heroic, glamorous death. He... (full context)
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The lights fade and then come back up on Henry and Waldo talking. They are making arrangements for Henry to work for Waldo—he wants to... (full context)
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The lights fade and come back up on Henry and Bailey back in their cell. Henry is telling Bailey about Walden, and Baily is... (full context)
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Lights fade and come back up on Henry walking down an imaginary street. Sam, the constable, approaches Henry deferentially and nervously about Henry... (full context)
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Sam begrudgingly takes Henry into jail, where he collects his information. Henry makes a joke out of the simple... (full context)
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Waldo says he must go help Henry, and rushes out. Meanwhile, Henry is telling Sam that to ask him to pay for... (full context)
Act 2
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Lights rise on Henry in the jail cell. Bailey is asleep. Henry is pacing and thinking aloud. He laughs... (full context)
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Lydian enters, and tells Henry he should “go along.” Henry erupts angrily, shouting “GO ALONG” at her. Then Lydian asks... (full context)
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Edward is comforted, and tells Henry he wishes he were his father. The light fades on them and rises on Lydian,... (full context)
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Things become awkward between Lydian and Henry. She says perhaps he should not work around the house while Waldo is away. Henry... (full context)
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...this can’t be possible, but upon inspection realizes the chicken is in fact wearing gloves. Henry explains that he’d heard her complaining about the chickens scratching at her rose plants, and... (full context)
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Lydian, pleading now, tells Henry to get married—to find someone to love. She doesn’t want him to be lonely. Henry... (full context)
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Lights fade and come back up on the cell, where Henry and Bailey once again sit. Bailey asks Henry to be his lawyer, but Henry says... (full context)
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As Bailey sinks back onto his cot, the lights come up on Henry and he moves out of the cell into the sunny meadow once again. A man,... (full context)
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Henry tells Williams that he is glad he has escaped. Williams asks Henry why he lives... (full context)
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Williams says he wants to stay here with Henry, where he feels free. But Henry says that in Massachusetts, his blackness is a red... (full context)
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The lights come up on Henry and Waldo in the midst of an argument. Waldo is insisting that he’s “cast his... (full context)
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Henry pleads with Waldo—he is an Emerson, and he can make a difference if he would... (full context)
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Lights come up in the center of the stage, where Henry is rallying a crowd of people, telling them that Waldo will be making an important... (full context)
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Henry shouts to the citizens of Concord, trying to get their attention, but there is no... (full context)
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The sergeant forces a musket into Henry’s hands. Henry resists, but his mother appears and tells him to “always do the right... (full context)
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Henry notices his brother John in the ranks, but just as he does, a volley of... (full context)
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Sam is waking Henry up from a bad dream. He tells Henry his taxes have been paid by his... (full context)