The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail


Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee

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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.

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…

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The play repeatedly wonders about civil disobedience, political action (and inaction), and protest. It asks: which forms of resistance are effective? What is the best way for a citizen to stand up against corruption? Must we work within the existing system to effect change or separate ourselves from the system and work outside of it? Early in the play, we see Henry struggle with how best to effect meaningful action. He is a teacher, and…

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The play is decidedly anti-war, and promotes a generally pacifist message throughout. The play emphasizes what it sees as the senselessness of soldiers’ deaths. When Henry’s brother John dies from an infection after nicking his finger with a rusty blade, Henry is disgusted by the absurdity of such a death, and wonders how God could possibly let a good man die for such a silly reason. Later, Henry dreams in jail of fighting in…

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The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail focuses on the importance of teaching, learning, and education, especially because both Waldo and Henry are teachers of sorts. But the play also wonders what constitutes a “real” education. The school board controls the learning that students do in school, and Henry (when he is still employed by the board) laments that their learning is limited and controlled by administrative interests. At the same time, however, Henry notes that…

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This play is a resounding warning against complacency and conformity. Though it wonders about how best to resist authority, effect change, and educate, it is always steadfast in its stand against complacency, declaring that to obey your government without question is to be complicit in the crimes your government may commit. Henry is adamant that Waldo, by refusing to speak out against the war, is effectively endorsing it. This image is confirmed and underscored…

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