The Record American
Elliot Norton

Thoreau in ‘Jail’ In Concord Again

From some of his words and some of his works, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee have created a chronicle drama about Henry David Thoreau which is often spirited and stirring but ultimately a little weak, less forceful than it might be.

To give it a universal hearing away from Broadway, the authors of “Maine” and “Auntie Maine” and “Inherit the Wind” have turned over their drama about “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail” to regional and community theaters across the continent. Since Thoreau lived and wrote and spent that historic night in Concord, Mass., they have entrusted the New England premiere not to professionals but to the Concord Players, who have taken the honor to heart.

In a rude theater a mile or two away from the rude bridge that arched the flood and close to the site of the jail where Thoreau languished because he refused to pay a poll tax while the United States was at war with Mexico, the Players give Lawrence and Lee’s “Thoreau” a good dramatic test. If they are sometimes more earnest than artful, they are never less than appealing as they celebrate a townsman some of their ancestors considered a wicked radical.

What Thoreau - wrote in his “Essay on Civil Disobedience” was to prove, long after he put down the words, truly revolutionary, as he meant it to be. That treatise, composed in Concord before the Civil War, inspired the civil disobedience of Mahatina Ghandi, which changed the history of India.

In Thoreau’s own time, nobody paid much atten- tion. And when he protested the poll tax and went to jail rather than pay it, that didn’t create a big fuss either, because somebody — it could have been his Aunt Louise, though no one is sure — paid it for him; he emerged in the sun of Concord to collect his shoes, which he had left the day before at the cobbler’s, and went back to Walden Pond.

That night in jail wasn’t really spectacular. But playwrights Lawrence and Lee have made it a focus for other actions which reveal the mind and heart of Thoreau in a way that makes what he did timely and provocative in 1970, when others, like the Berrigan brothers, have gone to jail in much the same way and for much the same reasons.The Concord Players, under the direction of Virginia Kirshner, wit han assist from Jerome Lawrence who visited Concord to help, use the center of their stage as an open jail cell, leaving room around it to present such other places as the streets of Concord, Hayward’s Meadow, and Walden Pond itself.

The play begins with Thoreau in jail, then goes back and forth in time to demonstrate some of his actions in the town, at the home of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and in the battlefield of his mind.

Because there is little dramatic conflict in the actual story, the playwrights have enlarged the differences between Thoreau and Emerson. This gives their play a spinal column, but no final resolution. It is likely to give Emersonians cause for indignation.

Thoreau admired Emerson but they disagreed about how to protest slavery and the Mexican War, which both deplored. According to tradition, when Emerson asked his former pupil what he had been doing in jail, Thoreau demanded, “What were you doing OUT of jail?”- The new play makes that a melodramatic curtain line for act one, and builds up a personal battle between the two which stacks the cards against the Sage of Concord.

The principal Concord performance, that of Terry Beasor as Thoreau, is admirable. Mr. Beasor makes his man tough and truculent, noisily contentious, yet sensitive to beauty. The production will be open to the public at the Veterans’ Building Theater in Concord, Nov. 19-20-21 and Nov. 27-28.