The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail


Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee

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The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail Summary

The play takes place over the course of a night that Henry spends in jail. In jail, Henry talks with his simple but earnest cellmate Baily, who is awaiting trial. The play incorporates various flashbacks tracking the series of events that led to Henry’s arrest. The play’s first flashback shows Henry sitting in on one of Waldo’s lectures at Harvard, then shows Henry’s brief career as a teacher, which ends when Henry is made to whip his students with a belt for asking too many questions and his subsequent decision to quit rather than having to perform such punishment again.

We learn that Henry and his brother John tried to start an alternative school, where instead of a classroom students met in a meadow to talk about nature and life—but Henry and John lose all their students, whose parents don’t approve of their transcendentalist teaching. During one of these classes Ellen Sewell is introduced—Henry and John both find her lovely. Henry tries to teach her about transcendentalism but cannot make her understand. Later, John proposes to Ellen but she says no. Henry and John celebrate their own brotherhood in response.

This scene fades into the scene of John’s funeral—a small cut from a rusty blade killed him, and Henry is disgusted at the meaninglessness of the death. After this tragedy, Henry begins working for Waldo on his property and builds his cabin by Walden, a secluded pond on Waldo’s estate. He mentors Waldo’s young son Edward, and forms a close relationship with Waldo’s wife, Lydian.

The scene explaining why Henry is in jail closes out the first act. He refuses to pay his taxes because he will not give money to a government using its power to wage what he considers to be the unjust Mexican War. When Waldo hears of Henry’s imprisonment he arrives at the jailhouse and asks Henry why he is in jail. In response, Henry asks Waldo why he isn’t in jail.

In another flashback we see that one day an escaped slave called Williams stops by Henry’s cabin at Walden Pond. Williams is trying to reach Canada to attain freedom. The two men talk about the nature of freedom and the depravity of laws that victimize blacks. This scene gives way to one in which Henry and Waldo are having a heated argument. Williams was killed during his escape to Canada, and Henry wishes Waldo would wield his influence to speak out against slavery and the unjust war happening in Mexico. Waldo and Henry each criticize the other’s view of activism, and both leave the conversation hurt. Waldo does promise, however, to speak in the town square against segregation and the war.

However, Waldo does not appear in the town square, and Henry becomes despondent. The action of the play takes on a dream-like quality, and though Henry screams he cannot make himself heard. The play’s characters come onstage as soldiers and generals. Waldo becomes the US president. Everyone is carrying a gun and being made to shoot. Henry sees his brother John has been shot, and begs God not to let John die again.

Henry wakes up to the constable Sam telling him his taxes have been paid by his aunt. Henry does not want to go, but agrees on the condition that Baily be granted a speedy trial. In his closing speech, Henry says he cannot go back to Walden, because he is needed elsewhere.