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The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail: A Play Paperback – July 10, 2001

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Editorial Reviews


“A superior play, a literary work as well as a theatrical experience. Thoreau would illuminate any season.” ―George Oppenheimer, Newsday

“Absolutely fascinating.” ―Richard L. Coe, The Washington Post

“There is a great deal to enjoy in this play.” ―Clive Barnes, The New York Times

From the Publisher

"If the law is of such nature that it requires you to be an agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law." In 1849, the young Henry David Thoreau, philosopher, poet, naturalist, penned these timeless words in his Civil Disobedience. Three years earlier Thoreau had refused to pay taxes to the government, which was engaged in the Mexican War. He condemned the war as unjust--a war never formally declared, begun without Congressional authorization, a savage and bloody war fought to assuage the United States' territorial ambitions. For his courageous and unprecedented act of protest, he was thrown in jail. Thoreau was a man of the future. Over the past century, his action has had worldwide repercussions. Tolstoy was influenced by his stand, and Gandhi based his passive resistance campaign on the words of the philosopher of Walden Pond. Now, Thoreau's action take on a new relevance. The Night Thoreau Spent In Jail is an essential work for today's world.

"The play must rank among the most brilliant intellectual stimulants of a decade, perhaps even of the century."--Columbus Dispatch. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 103 pages
  • Publisher: Hill and Wang; 2nd edition (July 10, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0809012235
  • ISBN-13: 978-0809012237
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 0.3 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #27,135 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Michael J. Mazza HALL OF FAME on October 21, 2001
Format: Paperback
"The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail" is a play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, who also coauthored the classic "Inherit the Wind." "Night" is inspired by the life and writings of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), naturalist, political radical, and seminal American intellectual figure. The play was first performed in 1970.
"Night" takes place during a night when Thoreau was jailed for an act of civil disobedience: he refused to pay a tax in defiance of the Polk administration's Mexican War. The action of the play consists of a series of interconnected, dreamlike scenes that explore Thoreau's life, ideals, and relationships. We see his theory of education, his strong opposition to slavery, his family ties, and, quite strikingly, his problematic yet enduring relationship with fellow American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. Particularly moving is Thoreau's encounter with an escaped slave.
"Night" is a moving, even inspiring, play. Thoreau is celebrated as not merely a crucial thinker and a great man, but as a truly transcendent figure: a prophet whose voice continues to resound. Highly recommended for literature classes, reading groups, and individual readers.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By ...misz caramel on November 13, 2004
Format: Paperback
THE NIGHT THOREAU SPENT IN JAIL describes thinker Henry David Thoreau short experience in jail after not paying his taxes. Employing flashbacks within flashbacks, playwrights Lawrence and Lee take on the task of describing Thoreau's life so far. Filled with witty remarks and humorous dialogue, this book transcends what I can say about it.

After having been assigned to read this book for my AP 11 English class, I started out first assignment: Read to page 50. To my surprise, once I got to page 50, I couldn't put it down. My teacher had warned us about this scenario. She said the book was cleverly hilarious and enjoyable. Naturally--it being an ASSIGNED book--I doubted her words.

When I got into the play, within the first few words of dialogue, I was laughing out loud. The writers, whose research was obviously accurate and concise, tickled me when Ralph Waldo Emerson asked "who" his umbrella was, making a reference to his supposed contraction of Alzheimer's disease. Thoreau's teachings of God and fields and notetaking were pleasing and enriching.

Not only was I thrilled by his paradoxical dialogue,

[In a nutshell...

Thoreau to a student: Why are you taking notes?

Student: So I can remember what you say.

Thoreau: But then it's the notebook that does the remembering, not you.

(She puts away her notebook)

Thoreau: Why have you stopped taking notes?

Student: Because you said to.

Thoreau: Why would you do what I say?]

but I also took away something from it, which is a common moral you would see in books and movies today: Do things for yourself, and pay no attention to what others say or think.
Read more ›
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By James Hiller VINE VOICE on February 21, 2005
Format: Paperback
Henry David Thoreau may be experiencing a sort of revival as of late. His treatise on civil disobidience is a hallmark of progressive action today. Upset that his government declared an unjust war, Thoreau refuses to pay taxes to show his digust, which lands him one lauded night in jail. Thus is the basis for this extremely inventive, timely play "The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail".

Not just a night in jail, but a brave overview Thoreau's life ensues, showing snippets of his events, meetings, and philosophies that were so critical to the development of his transcendentalism. This isn't a dry biography, however. The authors weave a Thoreau that is a rich tapestry of thought and action. He is both endearing and complex, wise and unaware.

We enter the play with Henry in his cell, and begins to relive some important moments in his life. We meet Emerson and his wife, Henry's mother, and favorite brother John, as they inact with his memories and become alive themselves. The ebullience of John is obvious, which makes his passing much more severe. This play helps to maginify the brilliance of a brilliant man, while making him more human, more real.

The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail is a great read, and will springboard your interests to study this amazing thinker.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By gac1003 on March 9, 2005
Format: Paperback
While Thoreau was living at Walden, then President James K. Polk declared war on Mexico without Congressional approval. To protest this and the government, Thoreau refused to pay his taxes and was sent to jail. This play fantasizes on what might have been going through Thoreau's mind as he spent the night in jail: reflecting on his childhood, the life and death of his brother, his idol Ralph Waldo Emerson, what lead him to his solitary life at Walden and the impetus for his refusal to pay the taxes. I enjoyed reading this very much as it gave some insight into the great thinker who influenced the likes of Gandhi with his non-violent form of protesting the government.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Erin Henry on April 4, 2003
Format: Paperback
I read this book a year ago in philosophy class when we were studying Thoreau. I must say, of all philosophers, Thoreau is one of my favorites. This play examines feilds such as family life, relationships, government, policy, and my favorite - education. After I read this play I had marvelous thoughts about how wonderful the education system would be if only Thoreau's ideas could be played upon! I strongly recomend this book to anyone who is sometimes accused of being an "idealist" or a "dreamer" - but also to those who hold a strict perspective on government and education. Keep an open mind and enjoy the thoughts that flow through Thoreau's mind!
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