The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail

The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee

Lee and Lawrence both grew up in Ohio, and became writing partners early in their career. Together they wrote almost 40 works, most with social and political messages. They got started writing for radio, and quickly became one of the most prolific radio duos of the decade. They then turned to live theater, where they continued to have success. The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail is their most celebrated work, and was a wildly popular production in both 1969 and 1970.
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Historical Context of The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail

The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail is a direct criticism of the United States government’s decision to invade Vietnam in 1955. At the time of the play’s first performance, a military draft for the Vietnam War was in effect and among some Americans the sense that the objectives of the war were both unclear and not obviously moral. Virulent protests broke out, especially on college campuses (this play was first performed at Ohio State.) The play is a kind of protest literature that likens Vietnam to other atrocities committed by the American government (like Slavery and other unjust wars, such as the 19th century war against Mexico) over the course of American history.

Other Books Related to The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail

Lee and Lawrence numbered among a variety of writers, musicians, and artists who in the 1960s and 1970s used their work to contribute to a growing protest movement against the American war in Vietnam. In The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, Lee and Lawrence also place themselves in a kind of dialogue with Transcendentalist author Henry David Thoreau, whose literary political protest (Walden) is used by this play to ask questions about Vietnam.
Key Facts about The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail
  • Full Title: The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail
  • When Written: 1969
  • Where Written: United States
  • When Published: 1969
  • Literary Period: Midcentury; Protest literature
  • Genre: Play
  • Setting: Concord, Massachusetts / Walden Pond
  • Climax: In a dream sequence, all the characters in the play become leaders and soldiers in the Mexican war.

Extra Credit for The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail

The Nation’s Capitol. The first professional performance of The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail took place at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. on October 23, 1970—a fitting location given the play’s political significance.