The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail

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History and the Importance of Learning from the Past Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
History and the Importance of Learning from the Past Theme Icon

The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail draws a parallel between the U.S. war against Mexico in the 1840s and the Vietnam War of the 1960s, which was being waged at the time when the play was written and first performed. One of the most prominent overarching suggestions made by the play is that violence, war, evil, and corruption will repeat themselves over and over if we do not take it upon ourselves to examine our history and learn from the past. Early in the play, for example, Emerson has trouble remembering Henry David Thoreau’s name. This opening gesture suggests that it is all too easy to forget Thoreau and the historical moment that produced him.

In Henry’s closing speech, he notes that he has “several more lives to live”—and cannot afford to spend too much more time at Walden Pond, where he has been living in relative isolation and writing his book Walden. The suggestion is that Thoreau, or a version of him, is also needed in the present moment. The Vietnam War (like the Mexican War) needs vocal, active people to resist it.

There is another parallel drawn between these wars and the treatment of African-Americans. Henry, when talking about escaped slave Henry Williams’s flight to Canada, pronounces the word “Cañada” with a Spanish tilde. This gesture links the enslavement and persecution of Black Americans with the violence and barbarity of the unjust Mexican War. Vietnam, the contemporary war of this play, is then implicitly added to this lineage. The suggestion is that Vietnam—a mid-20th century foreign war—is a product of America’s failure to learn from its worst mistakes of the past. Each new historical atrocity is a version of an old one.

History and the Importance of Learning from the Past ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of History and the Importance of Learning from the Past appears in each act of The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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History and the Importance of Learning from the Past Quotes in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail

Below you will find the important quotes in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail related to the theme of History and the Importance of Learning from the Past.
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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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.

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.