The Boston Globe
Emerson is no hero in new Concord-based play

Henry David Thoreau Dissents Again

By Nathan Cobb
Globe Staff

More than 100 years have passed since Henry David Thoreau walked the shores of Walden Pond or trudged across the square at Concord. But the small town that sits by the river of the same name is preparing to welcome Henry Thoreau home, not as an historical personage but as something of an emerging national folk hero to the young.

The vehicle that has suddenly thrust Thoreau into the limelight of dissent once again is a play entitled “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail,” written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. It has already been presented in more than 100 college and community theaters across the country, and will open a three weekend run in its authentic locale when the Concord Players raise their curtain on Nov. 12.

TNT (the authors’ abbreviation for the title) is the 13th produced play from Lawrence and Lee, who have been collaborating since 1943 and are best-known for “Inherit the Wind,” “Auntie Maine” and “Maine.”

Both have deeply emerged them-selves in various productions of their newest work, and it was Jerome Lawrence who arrived in Concord last weekend to take part in rehearsals there.

“We wanted to write a play about dissent, but about peaceful dissent” Lawrence explained in his colonially-furnished hotel room overlooking the town he had visited several times while writing the play. His hair curled fashonably over his ears, and his double-breasted tweed jacket showed respect for the foul New England weather he had run across.

“You see, Thoreau was the man who was really the best spokesman for peaceful dissent,” he went on. “He said it was all right to speak out, but not to throw rocks or burn down buildings.

“In other words, there is a way of having civil disobedience without being violent. We believe that very strongly. And it seems to be the lifestyle of the majority of students today.”

TNT focuses on archindividualist Thoreau’s one-day jail term of 1846, serving for refusing to pay taxes or, as he puts it in the play, to “pay one copper penny to an unjust government.” The transcendentalist philosopher and poet was 29 years old at the time, and the parallels to today’s youthful unrest and outrage are obvious.

For example, there is Thoreau’s opposition to the Mexican War: “We’ve got a President who went out and boomed up a war all by himself—with no help from Congress and less help from me.”

Or his concern about environment: “Thank God men haven’t learned to fly. They’d lay waste to the sky as well as the earth chop down the clouds!”

Or mass conformity: “Every man shackled to a ten-hour-a-day job is a work slave. Every man who has to worry about next month’s rent is a money-slave.”

And dissent: “It’s very simple. What the government of this country is doing turns my stomach. And if I keep my mouth shut, I’m a criminal.”

Such statements, of course, sound very similar to those coming from campus rallies of 1970. "A lot of young people seem to think the protest movement began with them,” Lawrence said, smiling. “It’s quite a revelation for them to find that theirs is not a new life-style. Thoreau was saying ‘do your own thing’ long before there was a do- your-own-thing today.”

Terry Beasor and Bob Peters rehearsing for “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail”

How far would Lawrence and Lee carry dissent? In TNT, Thoreau theorizes that if a law is wrong it is the duty of a man to stand up and say so. Would the playwrights go further to, say, the point of breaking the law? “Yes, under certain conditions,” Lawrence answered. “Absolutely. If there is an unjust law, it must be challenged. But you’ve got to take the consequences, too.” And violence?

“Violence only breeds violence. Throwing rocks and eggs at the President is only breeds backlash. If you’re going to be a political activist, you should use your head. As Thoreau says in the play, ‘A man’s conviction is stronger than a rock, a flame or a bullet. The fire inside burns hotter than the fire outside.’ But Thoreau—and Thoreau’s way—didn’t end the Mexican War. “Yes, and that’s often a criticism,” the playwright admitted.

“Yet, at the same time, Thoreau did stand up to be counted. Naturally, some young people are saying that passive resistance or civil disobedience is no longer the answer, but I don’t agree with that. And I think the majority of stu- dents don’t agree, either.”

TNT is actually the fifth play of the American Playwrights Theatre (APT) in New York, a collection of theaters and playwrights which Lawrence and Lee helped start six years ago as an alternaive to the succeed-or-fail syndrome of Broadway.

Thus “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail” pre- miered last spring at Ohio State University in Columbus, and is expected to see some 125 separate productions within a year of its opening. The two writers have recently completed a screenplay for producer Hal Wallis, and Lawrence hopes much of the shooting will be done in Concord.

The antagonist in the play is none other than Ralph Waldo Emerson, a dramatic situation in which some Concordians may take little pleasure. An aging Emerson stumbles and bumbles his way about the stage, claiming that social change takes time and that such things as war or racism are really none of his business anyway.

“What we’re trying to say is that Emerson was getting a little soft, you know?” Lawrence ex- plained. “He had become comfortable, which is what happens to the liberal thinker. He becomes drowned in his own success.”

The playwright sees TNT not as merely a political play, however, but as a statement about the dignity of the individual and the rebellion against the “mass man.”

These are also the concerns he finds reflected in the life-style of America’~ young — peaceful dissent coupled with the search for humanity.

And, of course, this is how he views young Henry Thoreau, as the man front Concord made his long journey from remote hermitage back to the human race.