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
History and the Importance of Learning from the Past Quotes in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail
“I’ve forgotten the name of my best friend!”
I refuse to commit murder. That’s why I’m here.
You might try getting yourself born in a more just and generous age.
I gotta git to Cañada!
Always do the right thing, even if it’s wrong.
Seems to me I’ve got several more lives to live.