The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail

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Ralph Waldo Emerson Character Analysis

Henry’s mentor, whom Henry met while at Harvard. “Waldo” is a deeply respected and famous scholar and lecturer. Though he is intellectually deft and very insightful with respect to abstract concepts, Henry argues that Waldo is too concerned about public opinion to speak out, as Henry does, against segregation and the war. Waldo is modeled on the real historical figure Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom the real Henry David Thoreau knew well and was a leading thinker in the Transcendentalist movement.

Ralph Waldo Emerson Quotes in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail

The The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail quotes below are all either spoken by Ralph Waldo Emerson or refer to Ralph Waldo Emerson. 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.

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. 

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Ralph Waldo Emerson Character Timeline in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail

The timeline below shows where the character Ralph Waldo Emerson appears in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 1
History and the Importance of Learning from the Past Theme Icon
Complacency, Conformity, and Responsibility Theme Icon
The old man, Waldo, stops suddenly and asks his wife, “What was his name?” Lydian is confused, and Waldo... (full context)
History and the Importance of Learning from the Past Theme Icon
Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action Theme Icon
...and “not done” something. This conversation bleeds into the conversation being held between Lydian and Waldo, where they struggle to remember Henry. Lydian recalls that he was strange, but that she... (full context)
Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action Theme Icon
Education, Thought, Information, and Learning Theme Icon
Complacency, Conformity, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Waldo stands up and appears younger. He takes his place at a podium. Upon seeing him... (full context)
Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action Theme Icon
Education, Thought, Information, and Learning Theme Icon
Complacency, Conformity, and Responsibility Theme Icon
...backside on Harvard.” Henry says that he will strive to be as much like Ralph Waldo Emerson as possible. (full context)
Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action Theme Icon
Education, Thought, Information, and Learning Theme Icon
Complacency, Conformity, and Responsibility Theme Icon
The light fades on the brothers and rises on Waldo and Lydian again. Lydian tells Waldo that he gave a splendid lecture. Waldo worries aloud... (full context)
Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action Theme Icon
Meanwhile, on a different part of the stage, Waldo takes his pulpit and begins to speak about “the wonder of the Universal Mind.” Henry... (full context)
Education, Thought, Information, and Learning Theme Icon
Complacency, Conformity, and Responsibility Theme Icon
...that he is resigning. Ball recedes into the shadows and the lights come up on Waldo, who announces that he is resigning as pastor of the Unitarian Church in Boston. Henry... (full context)
Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action Theme Icon
Complacency, Conformity, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Waldo steps in with some good-natured jokes, and explains that for Henry, the American Declaration of... (full context)
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Education, Thought, Information, and Learning Theme Icon
Complacency, Conformity, and Responsibility Theme Icon
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 do manual... (full context)
Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action Theme Icon
War Theme Icon
Complacency, Conformity, and Responsibility Theme Icon
...questions Sam asks him. Then lights come up on Lydian reading a letter. She tells Waldo that Henry has been sent to jail. As Waldo takes the note, the lights rise... (full context)
Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action Theme Icon
War Theme Icon
Education, Thought, Information, and Learning Theme Icon
Complacency, Conformity, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Waldo says he must go help Henry, and rushes out. Meanwhile, Henry is telling Sam that... (full context)
Act 2
Education, Thought, Information, and Learning Theme Icon
Complacency, Conformity, and Responsibility Theme Icon
...be his father. Lydian lightly asks Edward, what about his real father? Edward complains that Waldo is never around because he is always traveling and making speeches. He also asks his... (full context)
Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action Theme Icon
...between Lydian and Henry. She says perhaps he should not work around the house while Waldo is away. Henry tells her not to be afraid of him, then remarks that he... (full context)
History and the Importance of Learning from the Past Theme Icon
Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action Theme Icon
War Theme Icon
Education, Thought, Information, and Learning Theme Icon
Complacency, Conformity, and Responsibility Theme Icon
The lights come up on Henry and Waldo in the midst of an argument. Waldo is insisting that he’s “cast his vote” and... (full context)
Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action Theme Icon
War Theme Icon
Education, Thought, Information, and Learning Theme Icon
Complacency, Conformity, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Henry pleads with Waldo—he is an Emerson, and he can make a difference if he would only use his... (full context)
Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action Theme Icon
War Theme Icon
Education, Thought, Information, and Learning Theme Icon
Complacency, Conformity, and Responsibility Theme Icon
...center of the stage, where Henry is rallying a crowd of people, telling them that Waldo will be making an important announcement. The crowd grows restless as time passes and there... (full context)
History and the Importance of Learning from the Past Theme Icon
Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action Theme Icon
War Theme Icon
Education, Thought, Information, and Learning Theme Icon
Complacency, Conformity, and Responsibility Theme Icon
...to “always do the right thing, even if it’s wrong.” Then the President appears: it’s Waldo. Everyone begins to chant “go along” with “demonic glee.” They begin to attack a Mexican... (full context)