The play opens on a jail cell, 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 him. Unrelated to the cell, on one side of the stage, an old man walks hand in hand with his wife.
The way the stage is set up immediately emphasizes the importance of thought and imagination. The audience cannot see the walls around Henry, which is an early indication that these walls don’t truly contain him.
The old man, Waldo, stops suddenly and asks his wife, “What was his name?” Lydian is confused, and Waldo tells her he 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.”
Henry’s mother appears on another part of the stage, asking her son, whom she calls “David Henry,” what he’s done. He says he’s gone 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 “almost understood him.” Waldo recalls that he rested all week and worked on Sundays.
Henry’s character is fleshed out further. He is in jail for “not doing” something, Meaning that his activism takes the form of resistance. Lydian and Waldo, continuing to illustrate the ease with which we forget the past, recall that Henry was “strange” and that he often disobeyed and even directly inverted societal norms. These are also forms of resistance—Henry works “outside the system.”
Waldo stands up and 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 these words “as if memorizing a commandment.” Henry’s brother John enters and approaches Henry with amusement. Henry, still in a trance, says to John that Waldo is the most captivating professor at Harvard—that the “light of all mankind” is within him.
The play transitions seamlessly into a flashback. Note the irony in Henry memorizing and chanting a phrase about abandoning conformity. The complexity of the educational relationship between these two activists begins to make itself more clear. Henry must learn from an authority figure the value of challenging authority. It appears that Henry has not yet recognized Waldo’s authority for what it is.
Henry stands and sees John, as if breaking out of a trance, and embraces him. John asks if Henry has his diploma, and Henry explains that they wanted to be paid a dollar for it and he had refused. John laughs and asks his brother what he is going to do now that he has “turned his backside on Harvard.” Henry says that he will strive to be as much like Ralph Waldo Emerson as possible.
Again the paradox of Henry’s education makes itself apparent. In the same moment that Henry “turns his backside on Harvard” he professes his desire to live a life imitating a Harvard professor. The audience can see how Henry will need to overcome this dependence on Waldo in order to truly be anti-conformist.
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 that he’d lost his place a couple of times, and he says he thought he saw one boy asleep in the audience, sitting with his eyes closed. Lydian reassures him the boy was just concentrating. Waldo seems almost comforted.
Here we see the events from Waldo’s perspective, and one of his most important attributes becomes clear: Waldo is deeply concerned with how the public thinks of him. The irony should not be lost on us that Waldo expresses anxiety about public opinion of his lecture—a lecture whose subject is rejecting conformity.
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 is still groggy. Henry tells him to be quiet so they can hear. The faint sound of a night bird comes into the cell, and Henry is rapturous. Bailey wonders at him, saying it’s “just a bird.” Henry demands to know if Bailey can make a sound like that, or feed on flowers, or fly.
This is an example of the power of thought to transcend confinement. Henry’s nature-inspired rapture cannot be contained by the cell walls (themselves imaginary), and this intellectual freedom allows him to see things others miss (i.e. the beauty in a bird song).
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 Henry was meant to kill, and Henry says “Mexico.” Bailey has not heard about the war with Mexico and does not understand. Henry asks Bailey why he is in jail, and Bailey explains he has been in jail for months, awaiting trial. He has been accused of burning down a barn, but he is innocent. Henry is outraged that his companion is still in jail awaiting his verdict.
Henry listens at the imaginary window and hears footsteps through the square. Henry asks Bailey where the footsteps are going, but Bailey cannot answer. Henry explains that they are going where they are supposed to be going – that the man is walking the direction he feels he should be walking, so that he may be liked by others. Henry then calls America “a whole country of us who only want to be liked.”
Henry expounds further on his philosophy. This is a moment where the play is taking the historical beliefs of Thoreau and redirecting them at the present audience. The accusation that Henry makes concerning Americans is one meant to encourage the audience to not simply do what they’re told.
Bailey once again marvels at Henry’s intelligence. He remarks that he’d love to learn to write his own name. Henry teaches him write in the dust on the floor of the cell. Henry makes the letters seem simple, and his teaching style is entertaining. Bailey says he has never heard someone make it so easy, and remarks that Henry must be a teacher.
Henry’s educational lineage is here brought back into the foreground of the play. Henry did, we discover, become somewhat like Waldo, for he also is a teacher. Bailey’s reverence for Henry’s intelligence mirrors, in its unquestioning acceptance, Henry’s reverence for Waldo.
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, but only imaginary). He is explaining how even the seemingly empty air around them is full of particles moving and flying around. Deacon Ball enters, and Henry is irritated at the interruption. Ball wonders why the students have no books. Henry explains that they are “huckleberrying’—that is, gathering up knowledge from the world around them, as if collecting huckleberries.
Henry clearly abhors conformity, and refuses to teach from books because they represent institutional control of learning. “Huckleberrying” is significant in that it encourages the students to look carefully and inquisitively at the world around them, while the play is asking its audience to do the same with respect to the Vietnam War. Huckleberrying is a kind of safeguard against conformity.
Henry goes on to explain that he was in the middle of answering a question of a student, named “Potter,” who wondered how to be sure of God’s existence. Ball is appalled, calling the question blasphemy. Henry explains that the sunrise is no accident—it cannot be. It is the result of an “intelligence” that governs the universe. Ball calls this “atheism” and Henry says he sometimes wonders if atheism is popular with God himself. Ball calls this “transcendental Blasphemy.”
Henry approaches religion from an anti-authoritarian perspective. By suggesting that God Himself is an atheist, Henry implies that the only thing we ought to collectively agree to do, the only idea we ought to “conform to,” is the idea that authority should always be questioned.
Meanwhile, on a different part of the stage, 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. Henry begins to ridicule Ball and his proscribed textbook, sarcastically insisting to his students that they must not listen to a cricket or smell a flower unless it has been approved by the school board. John appears, and tells Henry to have an ounce of humility, or he will be fired, and then who will answer Potter’s questions?
Henry’s worldview is complicated. John’s request that Henry have some humility for the sake of his students raises the important point that activism cannot be merely idealistic. There is a real world within which the activist must act and sometimes compromises must be made in order to actually effect change.
Henry apologizes, but Ball is not satisfied. He orders Henry to flog his students. Henry obliges, flogging each imaginary student with his belt and becoming increasingly repulsed by the violence. After the deed is done, Henry flings the belt offstage. He announces 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 sits back down on his cot and says “I shall never teach again.” Waldo says “I shall never preach again.”
The compromises Henry is asked to make prove to be too much for him. He decides to resign, and the parallel action of Waldo resigning from the Unitarian Church suggests that Henry is still on his way to becoming like Waldo (his professed desire). Though Henry is walking away from conforming to a cruel and institutionalized school system, he is still imitating his mentor, and the play reminds us of that.
John and his mother stand on the edge of 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 place in the countryside. Henry is re-energized, and turns to speak to a group of imaginary students, presumably gathered all around him. He talks about the varied flora of the meadow.
Henry decides he can continue to effect change—to teach and nurture young minds in his community—by working outside of the system. In opening his own school outdoors, he is also “outside” in a another significant way.
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 Sewell, says she just wants to listen. Henry is skeptical, and tells her she must be herself, and not anyone else’s idea of herself. He tells the students to listen to the sounds, touch the grass, smell the air, and to pursue their own way.
Henry is doubtful of Ellen’s presence because it is passive. When she says she just wants to listen, Henry emphasizes that his class is not a place for listening, but for acting. But in “telling” her to be herself, Henry ironically undermines his own message.
The lights fade on the “meadow” and Henry is back in the cell with Bailey, who is delighted that he has learned to write his name. Henry, dejected, tells him not to learn to write, or else he might write a book and get himself into trouble—the way Henry has.
Another conflict regarding Henry’s activism is brought up here. Henry feels guilty about the prospect of putting others in the same danger he has put himself in. Perhaps this is why he becomes such a loner.
John enters and helps Henry pull an imaginary boat from an imaginary pond (they are back in the meadow). Henry is planning to take the children out in the boat for class, but John tells Henry that they have lost all but one student. Ellen enters and explains that her little brother, the last remaining student, will not be attending because their father believes Transcendentalism is an “affliction” and doesn’t want his children exposed to it.
This scene reveals the failure of Henry and John’s attempt to work outside the system. Their distancing themselves from the school board has ultimately deprived them of students to teach. This is the risk, the play informs its audience, of retreating from the society you want to change.
Henry, since he has no class to teach, asks Ellen if she would like to go out on the boat. She agrees, and out on the water, Henry tries to explain Transcendentalism to her. He explains to Ellen that she loves her father, and always will, even if he is not beautiful or talented, and cannot fly like a bird or swim like a fish. She loves something about him that transcends what he actually is. This does not make sense to Ellen. He tells her that Transcendentalism can allow her to “BE,” rather than simply to “live.” She responds that she likes living.
Henry’s inability to reach Ellen reveals another difficulty of activism—proper communication. Henry cannot speak in a way that Ellen understands, and so he struggles to reach her. Because he is so far removed from Ellen’s world—where unquestioning obedience is a virtue—he cannot so quickly convince her to see his way of thinking.
Henry starts getting intense, and demands that Ellen stand up to her father and be more open-minded about her ideas. Ellen doesn’t like Henry rocking the boat (literally, for he is standing up in the boat) and wishes he would row her back to shore. She says she is not one of his fish or his birds and must simply wait for him to bring her back to dry land. Henry realizes that he has missed his chance and is frustrated. He agrees to take her back to shore on the condition that she attend church with his brother John, whom he believes is in love with her. She agrees. When they arrive back to shore, she asks Henry what will happen to his school. He answers by launching into a short rant about how men do too much talking anyway. His intensity frightens her and she runs away.
This scene offers us more of Ellen’s perspective. Henry, incapable of reasoning with her in terms she understands, resorts to demanding of her that she become less amenable to authority. But his “rocking the boat”—a pun very deliberately employed by the writers—is scary to Ellen, and Henry loses her attention. Henry, seeming to accept his own loneliness and isolation, suggests that Ellen try to have a relationship with John instead. This is a moment where Henry’s activism and his personal isolation are deeply connected.
The lights come up on the cell again. Henry asks a sleeping Bailey what he thinks of marriage, and Bailey only snores in response. Henry then looks out the window and reflects aloud that behind these bars, alone with his thoughts, he can see the world for what it really is. Jail has made him freer than anyone else in Concord.
Henry’s question about marriage perhaps reveals that he regrets his own isolation to a certain extent—but this is tempered by the fact that from his removed position he can better see the world for what it is. Removal from the world offers a certain clarity of perspective.
The lights come up on Henry’s family in church. Ellen sits beside John. Suddenly, Henry’s mother sees with horror that Henry has come into church pushing a wheelbarrow full of dirt. She begs him, “not on a Sunday.” Henry asks what they think they are doing in church. Deacon Ball responds, “feeding our souls!” Henry calls him selfish, and explains that he has been feeding the flora of Concord.
Henry’s oppositional relationship with the community is intensified. His decision to work on Sundays seems more grounded in deliberate obstinacy than in a kind of productive activism (the way his teaching was).
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 group disperses, Henry with his wheelbarrow and John with Ellen, leaving Mrs. Thoreau alone. She prays to God that he will not make Henry too strange, and then asks the Lord to “slip the word ‘yes’ into that young lady’s mouth.”
Lights fade and rise on Henry and John, laughing in the meadow. Henry assumes John’s laughter means that Ellen said yes to a proposal of marriage, and he congratulates him. John cannot stop laughing, and finally wheezes out that Ellen said no. Her father had forbid her to be with a Thoreau. John says he is laughing because he realizes that he and Henry are “a couple of monks.” John worries that his life will be lonely, but Henry grabs his hand and assures him that they will have each other until they are both old and grey.
The “monkhood” of Henry and John affirms their total self- inflicted isolation from the society they criticize. Their tender affection for each other does gesture towards a kind of insular community between outcasts and activists, but the play will also show us that this community is ultimately fragile.
The lights black out and 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 brother’s death is an indication that God has stopped listening.
Immediately after Henry establishes a kind of community with his brother, he is deprived of that human connection. Now Henry is truly alone, and his activism is truly isolated.
Ellen hurries onstage and asks Henry what happened. Henry, with bitter wit, that his brother died a heroic, glamorous death. He had thought of something funny while shaving, and nicked his finger—and then he died of blood poisoning. Henry is appalled most of all by the meaninglessness of the death. Ellen slowly suggests that perhaps God makes us feel pain so we can learn to transcend it. She says she has just come to understand Transcendentalism. She wonders if—even though John is no longer living—he continues to “be.”
John’s death does have one positive outcome—it is shared ground over which Henry and Ellen can actually communicate. That Ellen finally understands Transcendentalism in this moment demonstrates the powerful advantage that shared ground gives us in communication and conversation.
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 labor. Henry will help with tasks around the house and gardens and look after Waldo’s son, Edward. As payment, Henry will be allowed to live out by the pond on Waldo’s property—the pond called “Walden.” When Henry, satisfied with the arrangement, departs, Lydian remarks that he is a strange man, for he seems to want nothing. Waldo says it may be the case that Henry wants too much.
Henry retreats even further, returning to his mentor to work under him, no longer able to stand being a part of the larger community. Lydian says it is as though Henry wants nothing, while Waldo remarks that he wants too much. Henry wants nothing to do with his community, but he also wants comprehensive change. He is torn between wanting nothing and wanting everything.
The lights fade and come back up on Henry and Bailey back in their cell. Henry is telling Bailey about Walden, and Baily is thrilled and made envious by Henry’s description. He can’t imagine having such independence. Henry admits that sometimes he did have to go into town.
The power of thought to both liberate and confine us is highlighted again in this scene, as Bailey remarks that he can’t imagine freedom and independence—while sitting in a jail cell whose walls are imaginary.
Lights fade and come back up on Henry walking down an imaginary street. Sam, the constable, approaches Henry deferentially and nervously about Henry not having paid his taxes. Henry defiantly says that he refuses to pay them. When Sam offers to pay them himself to keep Henry out of trouble, Henry commands him not to. A small crowd gathers, and Henry rhapsodizes about the unjust burden of taxes, saying he will not pay the salaries of the men in Washington so long as they do not serve him or his ideals. He says, “If I keep my mouth shut, I’m a criminal.” The townspeople lament that Henry will break his mother’s heart, but Henry insists that Sam take him away and lock him up.
Once again the play unequivocally makes the point that complacency equals guilt. If the government is engaged in an unjust war, and citizens mindlessly obey that government, giving them the money, labor, and human lives it asks for, then those citizens are just as guilty as the government itself. This is a direct message to the audience about their obligation to protest the Vietnam War if they believe the government was wrong to wage war in the first place.
Sam begrudgingly takes Henry into jail, where he collects his information. Henry makes a joke out of the simple 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 on Mrs. Thoreau, who says that Henry being in jail is her worst nightmare come true.
Henry’s mother’s remark that Henry’s arrest is her worst nightmare is significant—for the play will climax with Henry’s own nightmare, which involves war, death, and bloodshed—a nightmare that makes Mrs. Thoreau’s fears look trivial in comparison.
Waldo says he must go help Henry, and rushes out. Meanwhile, Henry is telling Sam that to ask him to pay for a rifle is the same as asking him to fire it. He says he will not let his government make him into a killer. Sam, dejectedly, leaves Henry in the cell. Waldo rushes in and asks Henry what he is doing in jail. Henry says, “Waldo! What are you doing out of jail?”
Henry’s question to Waldo closes out the first act because it is deeply important to the overall message of the play. For the first time, Henry is questioning his mentor. In doing so, he is also realizing himself as a fully independent thinker.