The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail

The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail

The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail is a two-act play by Robert Edwin Lee and Jerome Lawrence. The play is based on the early life of the titular character, Henry David Thoreau, leading up to his night spent in a jail in Concord, Massachusetts.


The play does not present events in chronological order; rather, the play features Thoreau remembering earlier parts of his life, not necessarily in the order they occurred. The play opens with Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his old age, recalling the memories of his friend, Henry. The play quickly shifts to Henry's current time in jail because he refused to pay the tax to support the war, where he meets Bailey, a homeless man falsely accused of arson. After meeting Bailey, Thoreau reflects on his recent past.

Henry, who would have graduated from Harvard, but refused to pay the fee to receive his diploma, becomes a schoolmaster and attempts to teach a class against the school's curriculum, but Deacon Ball, a logical, respected teacher, makes him whip the children, after which he quits. After leaving the school, Henry and John (Henry's brother) start an outdoor school, but soon all of the children are pulled out of classes by concerned parents. Ellen, the sibling of one of the former classmates, went to the school to find out more about Transcendentalism, which her father claimed the school was based on. After the school is disbanded and the children leave, Henry takes her on a boat ride. He tells her about Transcendentalism, and about how he loves her, but it becomes very awkward and he tells her to go to church with John. John is in love with Ellen, and proposes to her, but Ellen tells him that her father wouldn't allow her to marry either Thoreau.

Soon after, John dies from blood poisoning caused by a shaving cut, and Henry tries to cope with the loss. The scene switches back to the jail... He teaches Bailey how to spell his name. B..A..beanpole turn the corner....


;Henry David Thoreau:Henry is the titular character of the play. The play is based on his early life. He is a somewhat radical Transcendentalist and refuses to pay a tax due to his opposition of the Mexican-American war. His unorthodox beliefs are not very well accepted by the city of Concord.;Ralph Waldo Emerson:Emerson (referred to in the script as Waldo) appears, for most of the play, middle-aged. At this time, Emerson has already become famous and is a very recognizable feature. He and Henry become good friends, despite a few differences of opinion.;Lydian Emerson:Lydian is the wife of Waldo. There is some attraction between her and Henry, but nothing results of it because of her respect for her husband. ;Deacon Ball:Deacon Ball is a respected, logical teacher, who believes strongly in corporal punishment and believes Thoreau should do so, which Thoreau refuses.;John Thoreau:John is Henry's older brother, who shares many of the beliefs of Henry. He falls in love with Ellen, but then dies soon after Ellen admits she does not love him.;Ellen Sewell:Ellen is the brief object of affection of both John and Henry, but is unable to marry John because of her father's disapproval of Transcendentalism.;Bailey:Thoreau's cellmate when he is locked up in the Concord jail. Thoreau teaches Bailey how to write his name and inspires Bailey to live a full life after he is released from prison.;Edward Emerson:Ralph Waldo Emerson's son, who becomes friends with Thoreau when the Emerson's hire Thoreau as a handyman.;Mother Thoreau:Thoreau's mother, who has to deal with Thoreau and his backward-thinking mind. Throughout the novel, she is displeased with Thoreau's insistence on nonconformity.

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